As Tunisia Welcomes Back Tourists, Here's What to See

by  Amanda Black | Sep 20, 2013
Tunisia / BTWImages/iStock

It wasn't long ago that the Arab Spring took hold of Tunisia. Now, the country is trying to put its unstable past behind it. With a 29 percent increase in visitors from the UK since 2012, Tunisia is looking forward the return of tourists to its beaches, classical ruins, and mosques. And while the country borders a region that's still isn't recommended for leisure travelers -- it shares an eastern border with Libya and a western border with Algeria -- Tunisia itself is safe for ambitious and seasoned travelers (more on that below).

Aside from the political state of its neighbors, there are lots reasons to make the journey to this part of North Africa: incredible white sand beaches along the Mediterranean, a rich Berber culture, and plenty of budget options. Now that the country is trying to lure visitors back to its hotels and resorts, here's how to see the best of Tunisia...

First, Things to Know: Though the Arab Spring has faded, protests and demonstrations still pop up occasionally, so you may see them while you travel.  And while it's acceptable for women to walk around solo during the day, it's not advisable to go out at night without a male companion. Also, it's not generally accepted for women to drink, and alcohol in general is difficult to come by outside of resort areas. Women may be denied access to bars and clubs altogether or be asked to show a passport – and if you get in, you'll probably find yourself surrounded by men. Bottom line: Don't plan on going to bars or clubs at night; if you're looking for something to do instead, head to a tea house or hookah bar. Women should also be aware of their choice of clothing. Western attire is fine, but should cover the arms and legs. In general, showing skin is not common in Tunisia – though if you wind up at a private resort, you won't have to worry about that.

While Arabic is the official language of Tunisia, French is also spoken. (Tunisia was once a French protectorate.) French is taught in schools, used in commerce, and even the media, so if you know a few words, it will help you get around. Though English isn't really spoken, you'll be able to use it in big cities and resorts.

Flights and Getting Around: U.S. citizens visiting Tunisia for less than three months won't need a visa. And flights to the capital, Tunis, are as low as $734 round-trip from New York's JFK (this winter on Turkish Airways). Considering that you can often find flights to Europe, Hawaii, and other closer destinations during the same time period for way more than that, Tunisia is actually pretty affordable for a Mediterranean getaway.

When you're in the country, if you're looking to get from city to city, there's an easy-to-use train system that operates daily between popular destinations including bigger cities like Tunis, Sousse, El Jem, Sfax, and Gabès. If you think you'll be using the train frequently in the country, consider buying a 7-day rail card which provides unlimited travel along with free entry to public museums and monuments; the pass is just about $24.

It's also easy to catch cabs in main resort towns and public buses are reliable and cover much of the country. Louages are shared cabs (usually minibuses or cars) that take passengers from town to town on a fixed route – one drawback is they'll generally only leave when most, if not all, seats are filled. You wait at designated louage stops like a bus. They're super cheap and the fare is fixed (check with locals before you go though, as drivers may try to overcharge tourists). If you're looking for a speedier way of travel (though, also more expensive), Tunisair Express, the country's airline, flies into major cities like Tunis, Sfax, Gafsa, and more.

Culture and History: Tunisia is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visit the Medina in Tunis where you can bargain with shopkeepers over everything from spices to local crafts and kitschy souvenirs. At the Archaeological Site of Carthage you'll get a chance to see the Roman ruins that were once the main commercial hub for Africa. Check out the museum, which is housed in a cathedral that was built in the 1800s (about $5.50 entry fee). Another UNESCO site to visit is the Amphitheater of El Jem, which is the largest colosseum in North Africa (and one of the largest in the world). Walk around where the gladiators and animals roamed. It once held up to 35,000 spectators.

Beaches and Other Activities: The best thing about Tunisia is that you get all the appeal of Mediterranean beaches without the expensive price tag and overcrowding you'll find in more popular locales like Italy, Spain, France, and Greece. About an hour north of Tunis is Raf Raf Beach, a favorite even among locals. Golden sand, clear water, and tall mountains flank the shoreline. Off the coast of the southern city of Sfax, the Kerkennah Islands are a great options for a day trip, where you'll find long stretches of untouched beaches and not a single kitschy souvenir shop in sight. Explore two of the main islands, which are connected by a causeway. Bonus: The ferry from Sfax costs less than a dollar. Further south, Djerba, which is located on the southern part of the Gulf of Gabés is best known for it's beaches (and chic resorts). But, the island also has a great deal of history: Legend has it that Djerba was the island of the lotus eaters where Odysseus was stranded on his trip through the Mediterranean.

If lounging on the beach doesn't appeal to you, venture inland to the Sahara Desert portion of Tunisia. Desert treks with companies vary from day-hikes to multiple overnight stays and excursions, including camel rides, hiking, and hot springs visits. If you're a big Star Wars fan, there's plenty to see here, too, as George Lucas shot multiple scenes in the desert with various constructed communities and real Berber villages.

Hotels: With a favorable exchange rate (1 Tunisian dinar to 61 cents), you're bound to get a good deal when it comes to hotels in the country. Compared to resorts on the Mediterranean in Europe, you'll find amazing rates in Tunisia, at equally-luxe accommodations. At the 4-star SENTIDO Aziza Beach Golf & Spa in Hammamet, you'll stay right on the beach and enjoy discounted access to the nearby Citrus Golf course (rates from $60 per night). Relax with a spa treatment at 5-star Royal Thalassa Monastir's spa, Royal Elyssa, or indulge yourself at one of the seven on-site restaurants and bars. The private white sand beach spotted with umbrellas is also a treat (rates from $60 per night). At the incredibly appointed 5-star Radisson Blu Resort & Thalasso in Djerba unwind at one of the pools, splurge on a treatment at the spa, or get out on the water with one of their arranged outings (rates from $75 per night).

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