Updated: Feb 27, 2020
After a couple of days hanging out in Tunis, you start to get a little tired of the hustle and bustle, heavy traffic and general heat and noise, so it's a good thing that the city is right by the sea and within very easy access of two places that can be visited on one (fairly long) day-trip: Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. The former, one of the best examples of Punic ruins across North Africa, spreads several kilometres over what is now a well-to-do suburb of Tunis, and is your first opportunity to acquaint yourself better with the antiquity all around you in Tunisia. More of that in a moment. The latter is a picture-perfect little resort that rolls across cliffs just to the north of Carthage, a village full of pretty white-washed houses with blue window frames and doors - the whole place is the colour of the Greek flag, and instantly brings to mind somewhere like Santorini or Crete. As it's only four or five kilometres from Carthage, the two combine well for a trip in one day, but an early start is crucial. It's best to visit the ruins of Carthage before the full heat of the sun is overhead - you'll be wondering around the ruins without much tree coverage, and it can get incredibly tiring. A good strategy is to hire a taxi for a half day (about 20 Euro) from Carthage train station (it's a 45 minute journey from Tunis) to take you around all the main sites, which are too far to walk between comfortably, then get the driver to take you to Sidi Bou Said and drop you off. Trains back to Tunis run until about 10.30pm in April-October. An early start is definitely a good idea in high summer. We visited in early September, and late morning temperatures were at around the 30 mark already. Take plenty of water whenever you go, and give yourself time for rests. A minimum of 3-4 hours is needed to take in the main sights.
Once Rome's major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialized in the Punic Wars. The ruins are extensive but spread out, and if you've been lucky enough to visit ancient city sites such as Ephesus in Turkey or Volubilis in Morocco, which are well-preserved, Carthage can seem quite underwhelming at first. But these UNESCO World-Heritage-listed remnants are hugely important historically, and any tourist interested in North Africa's ancient past shouldn't miss a visit here. Although Roman Carthage was destroyed, many artifacts, sculptures and ruins have survived. Such remains include a theater, an amphitheater, baths, temples, a circus, a kiln, a cemetery, basilicas, an odeum (Roman roofed theater), remains of Roman houses, water cisterns, Roman aqueduct and more. Perhaps the most popular Roman site in Carthage is the Antonine baths, which is the largest Roman bath outside of Rome. You will be able to walk through the ruins of this large Roman bath including the caldarium (hot room), a tepidarium (warm room), a frigidarium (cold room), and palestras and gymnasiums (enclosed room with mosaic floors for naked wrestling and other sports). It's not worth trying to visit every site at Carthage. Better to take a 'more is less' attitude and just make the most of what you have time and energy for. We picked the following, and I will put a few thoughts with each site.
- Byrsa Hill
This hill was the central feature of the Punic settlement, and during the later Roman era, the Roman city builders sliced some six meters off the 70-meter summit in order to make a broader platform for their imperial buildings. Today, the hill is crowned by the Cathedral of Saint Louis, built in 1890 and dedicated to King Louis IX, who died here in 1270 during the siege of Tunis. From the summit, tourists can enjoy fine views across the entire Carthage area. It's a serene and relaxing place, and seeing a Christian church here seems pleasantly incongruous. Behind the Church is an interesting Necroplis, ruined and atmospheric.
- Punic Naval and Commercial Harbours
Along Rue Hannibal, down the hill from the church, lies the old Punic harbor, with two basins in which the mightiest fleet in the Mediterranean once laid at anchor. It's a sleepy, non-descript place now, but according to the ancient sources, the commercial harbour was in the shape of a rectangle measuring 456 meters by 356 meters, linked with the sea by a channel 20 meters wide. The naval harbour to the north, which was surrounded by a high wall, had a diameter of 325 meters. A channel giving it direct access to the sea was constructed only during the Third Punic War. The naval harbor alone had moorings for some 220 vessels, both along the landward side and around the island. Again, the major attraction here is peace and solitude. It makes a nice place for a stroll and a snack, under one of the shady trees.
While you're in this area of Carthage, don't miss out on the oft-overlooked Tophet - thought to be the place where the Phoenician princess Elissa landed in Tunisia, the Tophet is a religious sanctuary, where people worshipped the sun god Baal-Ammon. Excavations here have revealed that during the early days of the city, it was common practice to sacrifice first-born children here to make sure the city found favor with the gods. Although human sacrifice died out, the Tophet was used as a cult site of some sort right up to the Christian era.
At the lowest level of all, the excavators discovered a small niche, the Chapel of Cintas, which may possibly have been the burial chapel of Elissa herself. The site is a maze of burial shafts and remains of foundations, with some of the numerous stelae bearing inscriptions and symbols. On the offer of a small tip, the custodian will open a shed containing numerous stelae, most of them with inscriptions, and pottery urns said to contain the ashes of the unfortunate sacrifice victims.
- Theatre and Royal Villas
The 2nd-century Roman theater is found on Avenue Reine Didon, built into a hillside facing the sea. There is seating for 5,000 spectators. The stage, slightly raised, is backed by a scenae frons (stage wall). Immediately adjoining the theater is the Park of the Roman Villas. Once a Punic cemetery (in which a number of shaft graves are still to be seen), the site was later occupied by the peristyle villas of wealthy Romans. One 3rd-century house, the Villa des Volières, has been restored. From the terrace, on which there are a number of fragments of sculpture, there is a fine view over Carthage, the Presidential Palace below, the Gulf of Tunis, and Cap Bon beyond.
Just one kilometer northwest of Byrsa Hill is the 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre, a five-story structure with seating for some 50,000 spectators and an arena that could be flooded for mock naval battles. Apart from its massive foundations and a few underground rooms, however, the whole structure has been destroyed. During the persecution of Christians in AD 202, St. Perpetua, her slave-girl Felicitas, and others were martyred here by being trampled to death by a wild cow. A marble column erected by the Pères Blancs commemorates them. St. Cyprian was beheaded here in AD 258, the first African bishop to be martyred, and St. Augustine lectured in the arena. This is another great place for sitting and resting, and you'll likely have the place to yourself and maybe a few locals, who meet here to chat and get romantic.
- Archaeological Park and Baths of Antoninus
Probably the pick of the Carthage sights and the one that you shouldn't miss, some of the most striking ruins of the site are here. The Romans chose a sublime seaside setting for this monumental terme (bath complex), a short walk downhill from the Roman villas. Begun under Hadrian and finished in the 2nd century AD under Antoninus, it was the largest terme outside Rome, supplied with water by the great Zaghouan aqueduct. Just the foundations remain, but they are awesome in scale. A plan of the baths above the main complex will help you imagine how the complex would have functioned in its heyday. An octagonal caldarium (hot room) was flanked by smaller saunas and led to a small tepidarium (warm room), which allowed access to the huge 22m-by-42m frigidarium (cold room) at the centre with its eight colossal pillars. Beyond this was a wonderful, 17.5m-by-13.5m seaside swimming pool, no trace of which remains. To either side of the frigidarium were palaestras (gymnasiums), where people could indulge in naked wrestling and other frisky sports. A sole 15m-high frigidarium column gives a sense of its former dimensions – its capital alone weighs 8 tons – and huge fragments of marble inscription supply a taste of the decor. To the southwest a huge semicircular construction was discovered, with around 80 seats, which archaeologists at first thought was a theatre. It turned out to be a large group of communal latrines. Only the shape and traces of the mosaic floor remains. The baths were destroyed by the Vandals (doing what they did best) in AD 439, and the stone was reused by the Arabs during the construction of Tunis. The overgrown garden contains other remains, too, including Punic tombs and a tiny early Christian funerary chapel with a mosaic floor that was moved here from northern Carthage and rebuilt.
Behind the baths is the Archaeological Park, where the rectangular grid of streets clearly shows the layout of Roman Carthage's residential quarter. The park reflects the long history of Carthage, with Punic graves of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the five-aisled Basilica of Douimès dating from the 6th century AD, and an underground burial chapel (the Chapelle Sainte-Monique) of the 7th century. All over the site are the remains of Roman cisterns, and under a tree are numbers of limestone "cannonballs", projectiles from Carthaginian arsenals. North-east of the Archaeological Park, on a site formerly occupied by a 19th century Bey's Palace, stands the well guarded Presidential Palace.
At this point, you might feel as if you've seen enough ruins and be suffering from a bit of heat exhaustion, so a nice place to go and spend the rest of the day before heading back to the hustle and bustle of Tuynis is Sidi Bou Said. A taxi to get there should cost no more than about $5, but even better if you have organized for your hire taxi in Carthage to drop you off there at the end of your trip.
Sidi Bou Said
It's a pleasant surprise when you reach Sidi Bou Said. It's a world away from the traffic and fumes of Tunis although it's still in its hinterlands, and it makes a relaxing spot for lunch or an evening meal after several hours of tramping around the sights of Carthage. The Santorini comparisons are apt and for once not just hyperbole; glistening white-washed buildings contrast with blue painted woodwork everywhere, and the deep azure of the ocean and the sky (at least on a sunny day) to create a very Greek feeling little seaside village, perched high on a cliff with commanding views back over Tunis. Rodolph d'Erlanger, the French artist and musicologist, is said to have introduced the blue and white theme in the 1920's when he lived there. Named for a religious figure who lived there, Abu Said al-Baji, it was previously called Jabal el-Menar. Sidi Bou Said also has a reputation as a town of artists. Artists who have lived in or visited Sidi Bou Said include famous occultist Aleister Crowley, Paul Klee, Gustave-Henri Jossot, August Macke and Louis Moillet. You can see just why when you visit; its light seems to have a distinct quality, and it'll have you wanting to whip your camera out at every turn, if not your paintbrush.
After strolling up the hill and past the numerous souvenir stalls (this is undeniably a touristy town - possibly the most touristy one in Tunisia), you might be wondering what there is to do here except perhaps mellow out in one of the cafes and read a book. You can also wander amid the quiet back streets (cars are banned) and take a cue from the relaxed ambiance. With its credentials as a hip hangout for those of an artistic nature, this is also one of Tunisia's top spots to pick up the ceramic work for which the country is famed. Sightseeing in Sidi Bou Said is more about the atmosphere than a list of monuments and attractions, but don't miss a coffee or tea at Café des Nattes (upper end of the main square), where time has done little to change the exterior or interior of this typical Moorish coffeehouse. If you're looking for the best views, stroll up to the Mausoleum of Abu Said el Baji (below the lighthouse) from where there are incomparable views of the Gulf of Tunis, Carthage, La Goulette, and Tunis itself. Palace Dar Nejma Ezzahra (Address: Rue du 2 Mars) is a lovingly restored old residence which was once home to French painter and musicologist Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger, who produced a multi-volume work on Arab music's history. The house now hosts the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music, with a fine display of instruments in its salons. Even if you're not particularly interested in musical instruments, the house is worth visiting for its well-preserved traditional interior decoration and its lovely gardens with views over the sea.
Museum Dar el-Annabi (Address: Rue Habib Thameur) is a great chance for a peek inside a traditional-style Sidi Bou Said house. The family that live here have opened up some of the rooms, so that visitors can view the typical design and layout of local houses. Some rooms contain rather dusty dioramas depicting local life, but the true highlight here is simply viewing the interiors with their colorful ceramic tile and stained glass details. After a visit, tea is usually offered in the courtyard by the family; a great chance to chat to Sidi Bou Said locals.
Finally, for a quintessential Tunisian dining experience, check out La Villa Bleue. This hotel restaurant in Sidi Bou Saïd's upper village is a real treat. Set in a beautifully restored dar (boutique hotel), the lavishly tiled dining room is a comfortable and elegant space in which to enjoy refined Tunisian/French cuisine accompanied by wine from an international and Tunisian list. In summer, it's possible to dine on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. Bookings essential. The views from the terrace are some of the best in Sidi Bou Said, and if you go at sunset you should have your camera at the ready.
After all that, we were pretty exhausted, but were still able to get the train back to central Tunis (they run about every hour until 11pm) and stop for a drink on the way home. Next stop: Cap Serat, Bizerte, El Kef and north west Tunisia - off the tourist trail, and a bit into the unknown - at least as far as it's possible to do in Tunisia.
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This blog is part of a series. Stay tuned for the next part, about north west Tunisia. To read the previous part, on Tunis and an overview of the trip, go here
To read a similar series on other destinations, go here: