Travelling in Tunisia is somehow not the most popular choice when visiting North Africa, specially with Morocco and Egypt nearby grabbing more headlines, but after spending almost a couple of weeks solo travelling in the northernmost country in Africa, I’m sharing the main tips and things to do in Tunisia for travelling on a budget and also a sample itinerary.
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The main languages in Tunisia are Arabic and French, although I found that many people of all ages also knew some English and Spanish. There are also lots of dialects around the country for a very rich cultural heritage.
Arriving to Tunis
Most likely you will fly to Tunis, Tunisia’s capital. For going to the city center from the airport you can take either a taxi or a public bus. For taxis, some travellers recommend going towards the departures area of the airport, I personally try to avoid taxis everywhere I go but if you get into one make sure to ask either the exact cost of the ride or at least an approximate as I met a fellow backpacker that was charged 140TD (about €40) for a ride from the airport to the city center (this was a huge scam!), in contrast, you pay only 0.5TD with the bus which takes about 15 minutes to get you there.
To find the bus to Tunis from the airport you have to walk outside of the airport to a stop that is some 300m away. It’s just a 5min walk for saving a ton of money!
If you download the maps.me app which is my favourite offline maps app, you will find exactly where the bus stop is.
At the end of your trip, you can get the same bus from Tunis to the airport at the Tunis Marine bus stop which is 10 min away walking from the Medina.
Moving around Tunisia
Of course, if you’re looking for many things to do in Tunisia you will have to leave Tunis at some point! Luckily there are a few options for this:
Fly: I didn’t fly internally, but I saw a few airports when I was travelling in Tunisia and if you book well in advance I’ve been told you can get flights for about €30
Louage: there are like shared taxis, normally in small Toyota vans or similar with 8-9 passengers, the prices are officially set which is great as you will not be scammed or have to negotiate for a “local rate”. You will find a louage station or stop in most towns across Tunisia and you don’t book in advance or expect an exact departure time, just show up and as soon as the van gets filled you will be on your way.
I recommend getting early (7:00-8:00am) to the louage station if you’re doing a long trip such as from Tunis to Djerba. But if you’re doing a shorter one such as Tunis-Sousse you can go even at midday or early afternoon, I’d not wait until after 15:00 though as you may have to wait a long time until there are enough passengers to fill up the louage.
Bus/Train: the cheapest options for travelling in Tunisia. The trains have a bad reputation for being cancelled or slow, I only took one train from Tunis to Sousse and it was a nice ride and super cheap, it only cost 8TD (about €2 in second class)
I took more louages than buses, normally the louage can be up to double the price of the bus but it’s still pretty cheap and faster. As an example, a louage ticket from Djerba Island to Tunis, which was almost 7 hours long was about €10
Prices I paid for travelling around Tunisia:
Tunis – Sousse by train 8TD in 2nd class
Djerba – Tunis louage 45TD
Sousse – El Jem louage 6.8TD
Sousse – Gabes louage 22.3TD
Tunis – Sidi Bou Said by metro and tram 1.2TD
Gabes – Matmata Nouvelle louage 2.5TD
Matmata Nouvelle – Matmata Ancienne louage 1.3TD
Buses around Djerba island 1-1.5TD
Gabes – Djerba louage 14.6TD
I found the capital really charming, with a mix of Arabic and French influences that can be seen in the architecture around town.
I loved wandering around the old Medina and finding all the colourful and ornamented doors was one of my favourite things to do in Tunisia as it was something quite distinctive that I’ve not seen in other countries.
From Tunis you can also do day trips to Carthage and to Sidi Bou Said. I’ll mention a little bit more on these two destinations later so keep reading a little bit more!
One of the things to be aware when wandering around the Medina and looking for somewhere to eat is to avoid scams. Most places I visited didn’t have a printed menu and if you don’t ask the price in advance you will definitely be scammed. If you’re travelling on a budget this can really set you back considerably as instead of paying €3-4 per meal you may get charged €15-30!
In several places I knew I was being overcharged a bit compared to the locals although as it was Ramadan when I travelled in Tunisia I couldn’t do much about it as most restaurants were closed so better to pay €1-2 extra than having no food at all.
In Tunis I stayed at the YHA which was quite nice as the country doesn’t have much of a hostel culture so it’s more common to find rooms than dorms. The building is really pretty and very affordable. On my first night in Tunis though I stayed at a house from the 18 century! It was quite an experience as the house was incredible, however, you’re staying at an old house so do not expect any luxuries.
Day trip to Sidi Bou Said and Carthage
The picturesque seaside town of Sidi Bou Said almost resembles the images from Mykonos as all the houses are white with blue decorations and you can find some viewpoints towards the sea, I enjoyed wandering all over it, however I found it very touristy as it’s full of souvenir shops and didn’t like that so much.
To go to Sidi Bou Said from Tunis you can get a tram to Tunis Marine station and then a direct train from there. The journey from the city center in Place Barcelone station costs 1.2TD
On the same day you can visit the ruins of Carthage, I did it right after Sidi Bou Said. As it’s only a couple of train stops on the way back to Tunis.
The ticket to enter the ruins of Carthage is 12TD and gives you access to 8 sites that are scattered around, fear not you could walk pretty much to all of them, my favourite were the Antonin Baths. As I like learning about the history of the places I visit here goes a little bit of it as Carthage was a really important place some 2000+ years ago:
Carthage was first a Phoenician settlement and developed into a trading empire in the Mediterranean. Founded in the ninth century BC, it reached its height in the fourth century BC as one of the largest metropolises in the world. The name of Carthage means “new city” in Phoenician language. Following the Punic Wars, Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, who later rebuilt the city.Roman Carthage was eventually destroyed—its walls torn down, its water supply cut off, and its harbours made unusable—following its conquest by Arab invaders at the close of the 7th century.
In February 1985, the mayors of Rome and Carthage, signed a symbolic treaty “officially” ending the conflict between their cities, which had been supposedly extended by the lack of a peace treaty for more than 2,100 years.
Visiting El Jem
After a couple of days in Tunis, I took the train to Sousse which is a great base to make day trips to El Jem, Monastir and Kairouan.
I stayed at the Hotel Paris in Sousse which is the cheapest place but it was quite nice and clean, and also in a great location by the Medina and walking distance to the beach.
To go to El Jem I took a louage which costs 6.8TD and takes almost an hour to get there. The louage station is some 20min walking from the Medina although you can get buses or taxis to get there (I walked)
I really enjoyed El Jem as it’s one of those destinations that made me travel in time so this was one of my favourite things to do in Tunisia. The entry ticket costs 12TD and gives you access to the Colosseum and to the Museum.
Built almost 1800 years ago and with a capacity of 35000 spectators, the Amphitheater of El Jem is considered the third largest in the world, and completely unique in the African continent.
According to Unesco, El Jem is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman architecture of an amphitheatre, almost equal to that of the Coliseum of Rome.
It almost felt like a déjà vu of when I went maaaany years ago to Rome (fun fact: that was my first ever solo trip!) but the greatest thing here in El Jem is that there are not thousands of tourists and you can walk pretty much all over the place, including the underground passages.
The museum also shows huge mosaics from houses of the time as El Jem was a pretty affluent town back in the day.
A local I met told me you can still catch the louage back to Sousse in the afternoon at around 5pm, but I didn’t want to risk it as a couple of travellers I met at the Hotel Paris told me that they had to pay a taxi from El Jem to Sousse as they were told the previous afternoon that there were no more louages, so I recommend you to try to go there early in the morning and go back to Sousse at around noon.
Exploring Matmata, a galaxy far, far away
If you’re a Star Wars fan you may have heard that Tunisia is home of several filming locations for the movie franchise.
The Berber desert village of Matmata is one of these filming locations and it’s home to troglodyte houses, troglodyte meaning cave-dwellers.
Carved in the form of a pit, houses in Matmata are dug up in the perimeter to form caves, which are used as rooms and homes connected through passageways. About 1,200 of the homes have been preserved and some are still used by locals. Others have been converted into hotels and guesthouses.
I stayed at the Hotel Marhala Matmata, which has been a hotel for 60 years but was built about 200 years ago. I loved my stay there as the hosts were very friendly and told me many stories of the region and life in Tunisia. The hotel also included a great dinner and breakfast which were some of the best meals I actually had in Tunisia (again, because it was Ramadan when I visited most restaurants were closed)
This village was used in 1976 as a filming location in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, in which it featured as the home of Luke Skywalker, his Aunt Beru Lars and Uncle Owen Lars on the planet Tatooine. The name for the planet is inspired by a nearby village here in Tunisia called Tataounie where other scenes were also filmed. You can join tours if you’d like to see all the filming locations, I didn’t do it as I preferred instead to improvise a desert hike which was incredible and pretty easy to do as well!
To go to Matmata you have to go to Old Matmata, or Matmata Ancienne in French. First I took a louage from Sousse to Gabes, then a louage from Gabes to New Matmata, and then a third louage from new Matmata to Old Matmata. This may sound like a huge journey but it was actually quite easy and waiting times for the louages were short.
Hiking in Matmata
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may know already that I avoid paid tours and prefer to improvise adventures on my own and this involves always looking for a good hike!
The landscape around Matmata is full of hills and because it’s arid you are able to see where to go and don’t lose orientation. You certainly don’t need a guide to go hiking in Matmata.
I left the Hotel Marhala Matmata in the morning with no destination in mind, just went to top of the closest hill and then to the next one, and to the next one….I ended up doing a circuit of some 9Km that you can roughly see on the screenshot below, I did a counter clockwise route. In many places I was following trails but in many others I just made my own trail. The terrain is really easy to walk on and you don’t need hiking boots, just a good pair of trainers and plenty of water!
I also went to the top of the closest hill for the sunsets in the couple of days I spend there and it was magical, just knowing that you’re in between the Sahara and the Mediterranean made it quite a special place.
From Matmata you can also join tours to go to the Sahara and spend the night in the dunes, I decided to leave that for another occasion as my days travelling in this beautiful country were short but I’m sure that must be a really cool thing to do in Tunisia.
Enjoying the beach in Djerba island
To go from Old Matmata to Djerba Island there’s a daily bus at 10:00. Because of Ramadan there was no bus so instead I took one to Gabes (also at 10:00) and then a louage from Gabes to Djerba.
On my first night I stayed at the Sindbad Hotel which is in Houmt Souk, which literally means “the market neighbourhood”, so it was very centric and easy access to explore Djerba Island, the hotel is quite old though so do not expect much luxury or even cleanliness.
The beach in that part of Djerba is actually quite ugly so you have to go towards the east of the island, where they say the best beaches in the country are to be found.
I spent a night at the Dar El Menara Hotel which apparently is a 4-star hotel although is really run down, it was possibly a nice hotel 20 years ago, but hey, it was pretty cheap to stay and walking distance to nice sandy beaches. Sidi Yeti 1 and 2 are the best beaches by the lagoon although I liked more the beach right by the hotel.
This part of the island is called the Zone Touristique, so don’t expect to find much authenticity and instead only hotels and souvenir shops.
10 Day itinerary in Tunisia
There are so many things to do in Tunisia and places to go, so 10 days will not be enough for everything but I covered several places in the east of the country and someday I shall return to go to the west and explore the Sahara desert, this was my itinerary for 10 days backpacking on a budget in Tunisia
Tunis, explore the old Medina and the colonial-era French architecture around town
Tunis, day trip to Sidi Bou Said and Carthage
Sousse, explore the Souk and the beach
Sousse, day trip to El Jem and Monastir
Matmata, explore the village and find the Star Wars film location at the Hotel Sidi Driss
Matmata, go for a hike around the surrounding mountains
Djerba, explore the market in Houmt Souk and the Ghazi Mustapha Tower
Djerba, move to the east of the island to enjoy the best beaches in Tunisia
Tunis, back to Tunis to keep wandering the Souk and find any souvenirs and spices to bring back home
If you’re looking for things to do in Tunisia or would like to mention other destinations for fellow travellers please do leave a comment below and share your experiences with the world!