Tunisia tours

In Tunisia’s oak forests, red deer graze, just like they do in the Scottish Highlands.

“It’s quite unexpected to see red deer in Africa,” says Tom Clode, director and founder of our partner Pictus Safaris, which specialises in wildlife tours of Tunisia. “As a naturalist myself, who comes to Africa to see lions, cheetahs and wild dogs – to see something so familiar in a landscape so foreign is exciting.”

That’s Tunisia all over: taking visitors by surprise, so long as they get up off the beach. The country is small and easy to get around, with landscapes that range from the surprisingly familiar to – in the case of the Star Wars sets that have been left in situ in the desert – the distinctly alien.

Red deer – also known as Barbary stags – are found in Tunisia’s mountainous, forested north-west, in El Feija National Park, three hours’ drive from Tunis. If you were to drive for two hours south from the capital instead, you’d be on the country’s rolling plains, at two very different UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s Kairouan, a historic Islamic centre of learning, and El Jem, site of a miraculously well-preserved Roman amphitheatre.
Those idiosyncratic Berber buildings you come across in the desert? They’re ghorfas, stacked rooms used for grain storage
Drive for four hours further south from here, and you’re not in Tunisia anymore: you’re on Tataouine, a destination George Lucas clearly thought was out of this world when he decided to use it as the location for scenes from Star Wars: A New Hope. He filmed here in the 1970s, leaving intact props and sets that can still be visited today. You’re also getting into the Sahara, and it shows in the rocky, sandy hills with scattered Berber villages.

From here, most tours head back up the country – perhaps along the coast to the city of Sfax or to Djerba Island for a few days of relaxation. With sites so close together, the question really should be, why wouldn’t you tour? Road travel is easy, distances are short, and you can go off the beaten track quite quickly, with little effort, cost or time.

Reasons to stay away from the beach

There are reasons to stay away from the beach: Tunisia’s north-east coastline is awash with beach resorts; it’s oft-touted as a good-value Mediterranean beach holiday destination. These resorts – often foreign-owned – promote enclave tourism, where money doesn’t reach many of the local people who live in the shadow of the massive hotels.

Tunisia’s coastline also struggles with pollution. Local people in the suburbs south of Tunis have protested the state of their beaches, awash with bacteria and plastic waste from unregulated sewage discharge. Whilst this doesn’t affect all beaches, it shows the pressures brought on by the urbanisation of the coast; 80 percent of all urban areas in Tunisia are coastal, and its where 90 percent of employment opportunities lie.

Spending some time inland, then, diversifies Tunisia’s tourism – and encourages investment in inland sites, which are perhaps under-visited by Tunisians themselves.

Take wildlife spotting, for example. “There is no real culture of wildlife guiding in Tunisia,” says Tom. “In terms of people visiting their own parks, this has not taken off because of the expense and accessibility.”

Visitors may also find that Roman ruins are under-appreciated. The most striking difference between El Jem’s Roman amphitheatre and Rome’s Colosseum, which is of a comparable size, is the stark difference in the number of visitors. The Colosseum gets six million annually – that’s two thirds of Tunisia’s total tourists.

Visitors who come to Tunisia and sit on a beach are clearly facing the wrong way, then. The Mediterranean Sea is distracting them from the country’s real treasures – what’s happening inland.

Tunisia tour itinerary

Tunis

Most tours of Tunisia start and finish in its beachside capital, where you’ll find a historic medina, and cafés with breezy rooftop terraces. Tunis is now so large that the nearby archaeological site of Carthage is within the suburbs of the city. Sidi Bou Said, a nearby fishing town with distinctive blue and white buildings, is a popular trip out for photographers looking to capture typical Tunisian architecture.

Jebil National Park

Jebil National Park is an essential stop for wildlife watchers. There have been several rewilding programmes here, so you can see addax (desert-adapted antelope) – very near extinct in the wild – which have been reintroduced. Night-time safari drives can, with the help of a spotlight, reveal glimpses of elusive desert species, including, for the very lucky, fennec foxes.

Dougga

Dougga, a small town two hours’ drive south-west of Tunis, is dominated by the ruins of a complete Roman city – most impressive are the ancient theatre and a clutch of temples with columns still intact. Like many Roman ruins in North Africa, they are very well preserved, yet far less visited than corresponding sites in Europe.

Djerba Island

Of course, it would be churlish to forgo the beach completely on your Tunisia tour. Djerba, accessible by causeway from the mainland, is a palm-fringed island which sticks very closely to a blue and white colour scheme – white-sand beaches and blue sea are matched in town by distinctive whitewashed buildings with blue shuttered windows. The odd brightly woven carpet, hanging out for a beating, breaks up the palette.

Tozeur

Tozeur is known as the gateway to the Sahara, but its palmerie – a plantation that’s hundreds of thousands of date palms strong – leaves an impression of lushness, not aridity. Near the city is Chott el Djerid, a massive salt lake that’s a popular part of a road trip. For most of the year, the lake is a massive, shimmering salt pan. It’s an important area for birds, including flamingos.

El Jem

The whole population of the town of El Jem could comfortably sit in its massive Roman amphitheatre, which once held tens of thousands of baying Romans. People tend to stop here to see the ruins, undoubtably one of the most impressive Roman sites in North Africa, on the way to or from nearby Kairouan.

Kairouan

Kairouan, which in the 9th century was hub of Islamic scholarship, remains the fourth most holy city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Visitors who aren’t here on pilgrimage can still admire the stately architecture of the Grand Mosque and go into the medina in search of fine carpets and makroudh (date pastries), a speciality in the city.

Sfax

You can tell you’re on the coast by Sfax’s atmospheric fish market, situated within the old city. This city’s old town also has a mosque-dominated medina and labyrinthine souks where you can go off in search of beautiful textiles, emerging some hours later with a hand-woven rug.

Sousse

One of Tunisia’s oldest coastal cities; Sousse’s history is seen in its UNESCO-listed medina and archaeological museum. The museum is well-known for its lovely Roman mosaics, and its setting isn’t bad, either; it’s housed in an old Kasbah.

Mountain oases

Midway down the country, near the Algerian border and not far from Tozeur, there are several remarkable mountain oases. Chebika, Tamerza and Mides in the foothills of Djebel el Negueb mountain have splashing waterfalls framed by pretty palms, and make a welcome stop on a traveller’s desert journey.

Tataouine

Famous because you can visit the remnants of Star Wars sets from the planet Tatooine, the town of Tataouine has Berber architecture, including underground cave dwellings to protect its inhabitants from the desert heat. Most tours of Tunisia don’t go much further south than this; from here on, it’s Sahara desert all the way down.

The Sahara

The Sahara encroaches upon the bottom half of Tunisia. Wildlife tours might start looking out for desert animals – gerbils, foxes and possibly rare sandy cats. The further south in Tunisia you travel the sandier it gets, until you find yourself on the Great Eastern Erg – a field of sand dunes. Tours don’t tend to go this far south – travel advice advises against travelling in the region close to Libya.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Tunisia or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities

What are Tunisia tours like?

The best time to tour Tunisia is outside of summer, as otherwise the desert is far too hot. April to May and October to November are the most popular times to travel, and this is when many small group tours depart.

January and February are the true off-season in Tunisia, meaning that the country is at its quietest. Tailor made tours still embark in winter, and it’s becoming an increasingly popular time of year to visit.

Tours will give you a sense of how the culture of Tunisia changes across the country. “People like how open the local people are, and how relaxed the country feels,” says Lindsay Booth, CEO of our Tunisian tour specialists Off Season Adventures. “My experience of Tunisia is that it is in a much more liberal space,” says Tom Clode, from our partner Pictus Safaris. “People are used to seeing people from other cultures in a way that our suppliers from Algeria and Morocco are not.”

Tolerance does not extend to everyone; LGBT rights in Tunisia lag far behind the rest of the world. Visitors may note that rural areas likely to be more conservative in values and dress than the cities.

Tunisian food is celebrated. Delicious harissa is a menu staple, as is lablabi – a warming chickpea soup. You can even do a food tour.

“The country is a major exporter of olive oil,” explains Lindsay Booth, CEO of our Tunisian tour specialists Off Season Adventures. “There’s a place outside of Tunis where you can go and learn about olive oil production and also have lunch on site.”

Other stops might include guest houses serving farm-to-table delicacies, and family run restaurants.

Small group tour or tailor made trip?

You can travel in a small group in Tunisia, or choose a tailor made holiday. Both kinds of holiday tend to make use of local drivers and guides. Whilst public transport is an option in Tunisia, the best way to see the sights, with the least fuss, is with a driver. This way, you can get to remote areas that might not be on the bus route.

Some tours of Tunisia include internal flights to take visitors back to Tunis quickly from the south of the country. For those interested in reducing their flights, there are tours that do not do this, and instead do a driving circuit.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dennis Jarvis] [Intro: Ossa90] [Tunis: Mohamed Moslem Mosbah] [Tozeur: Gilbert Sopakuwa] [Sousse: Ben guedria houcine] [What are Tunisia tours like?: Chermiti Mohamed]