While there is an abundance of vacation destinations within Europe, Tunisia has emerged as a popular short getaway for European because of its lower prices and exotic cultural scene. The country is located in the Maghreb (Northwest) region of Africa with a 1,300-kilometer coastline of the Mediterranean sea.
I joined a packaged tour visiting Tunisia because it is much easier to get around. I know, I know… many travelers (and travel bloggers) may have an impression that backpacking: “good”, packaged tour: “bad” – mostly because the packaged tour is mostly scheduled and planned and it lacks a personal element; it doesn’t make your trip any more special than everyone… (and it goes on and on)
To me, I think it depends on which country you are going to, and also depends on time and cost-effectiveness. For example, I did research on both self-arranged travel and packaged tours to Egypt. In the end, the route and itinerary are pretty much the same, except you don’t have to book tickets and arrange transportation on various websites (with a higher cost).
Besides, an experienced local guide could share their knowledge of history and culture, tell you the highlights of each destination, and remind you of useful tips and guides on safety and shopping – these are just as important, especially in countries like Egypt. All in all, there’s no absolute answer for self-planned or packaged tour groups, it’s more about a question if you choose it right, if you choose the traveling style and suit best to your style and purpose. But I will expand this discussion in my future post, for now, let’s go back to my exploration of Tunisia, Africa.
So, to open the file of Tunisia, I am going to offer an overview of the country and traveling tips, before diving deeper into the other places that I visited post by post (that I go round the country from Tunis counter-clockwise.)
Something about… Tunisia
So let’s start with some statistics about Tunisia. The republic is a small country in the Maghreb region of North Africa, covering over 160,000 square kilometers with a population of about 11.7 million. Tunis is the capital city and the main hub connecting to the rest of the world by flight. There are several coastal cities in the northeast that are popular ports for cruise ships to stop as well.
The country enjoys a Mediterranean climate – warm, wet winters, and hot, dry summers. While only the northern part of its land has fertile soil. The southern part of the country is semi-arid and desert. Compared to its neighboring states, a.k.a. Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is relatively politically stable, making it the third most popular destination in North Africa, after Egypt and Morocco. Economically, the country relies on tourism too, and as I mentioned, the country is now known for its, according to the New York Times, “affordable luxuries” to foreigners.
When to go?
In Tunisia, summer is the peak season if you are a beach lover.
It’s a nice short summer getaway and waves of Europeans (especially Russians, there are chartered flights from Russia to come here) come to Tunisia for the warmth and sun.
There are many hotels and resorts by the coast with balconies and an unobstructed view of the ocean (and we stayed in some). In contrast, winter is a low season, yet I find it nice to enjoy some peace and quiet without the crowd, and I always like cooler weather.
Either way, September is a bad month to come because of the sandflies. Perfiliewi is now the most abundant sand fly species in irrigated areas in Central Tunisia.
It could be quite irritating to have flies landing on your food when you are eating outdoors or orbiting you when you are trying to have a walk along Sousse.
However, it may not be too much of a problem for some people, I just won’t recommend it as a good time if you could visit some other time.
Credit cards are generally accepted in hotels, shops, and restaurants, all you need is some cash for souvenirs or snacks (unless you are planning to do some serious shopping like a carpet). For me, I only got some handicrafts as a souvenir to support local vendors – there wasn’t much to shop for and spend.
The currency in Tunisia is called the Tunisian dinar (pronounced as “dinner”). We only exchange about 500 US dollars and so we thought it would be easier for us to simply do it at the airport money exchange – and we were right, there was no huge difference in exchange rates between the airport and the city. Besides, it would be safer to do so at the airport. The money exchange office is at the departure entrance and you can get money exchange after baggage claim. It is difficult to get dinar to US dollars after the trip, so prepare to spend it all; ask for 10 dinar notes, as they also have 10 dinar coins now. It would be too heavy to carry the coins around. Lastly, keep the money exchange receipt to make sure you can get a refund if you need to.
The Chatt Jerid in Tunisia is a salt flat without a mirror. But I could still eat the sunrise for breakfast. #eatthesun #eatthemoon
The living standard in Tunisia is not high yet the cost of a cup of coffee fluctuates. A cup of coffee in a fancy cafe in a tourist area usually costs about 2-3 dinars (0.7 to 1 US dollars); a donut costs 0.8 to 1 dinar, and a very nice dinner usually costs about 18-20 dinars. If you want liquor, they could be found in supermarkets but they do not sell them on Fridays because of their religion. I recommend buying bottled water because there usually isn’t bottled water provided in hotel rooms, and foreigners may not adapt to boiled tap water.
In terms of dining, Tunisia is a tipping country. Don’t expect the waiters will return with small changes after you settle the dinner bill, they usually assume the changes are tips. For us, we just usually rounded it up to the nearest 10 and it was kind of understood that the changes were tips. In terms of shopping, Tunisia is a haggling country.
Whenever you want to buy a souvenir from a local vendor, cut the price in half and start there. The pricing in Tunisia could be tricky, you may see “1,000” on a price tag and you could just ignore the last three zeros. One thing that you should also pay attention to, is that the currency in Tunisia is “dinar”, and if you hear a vendor (or if you say) say “dollar”, it may be assumed that the discussion is talking about the US currency.
How to get a data phone card?
Data Phone cards could be bought at the airport as well.
The data coverage is good country-wide and it may be a good idea to purchase a card if you need internet service because the Wi-Fi connection is always too weak or literally nonexistent.
There are ladies giving our sim cards after custom control, saying that they are “free”. That’s not true – They need to be charged for data service once you install them into your phones and the reception is pretty bad.
It is generally safe in Tunisia, but theft and robbery may occur. Just keep an eye on your personal belongings, and use standard precautions when you are going out and it should be fine.
How to get around?
As I mentioned, I joined a package tour for my trip to Tunisia. Self-driving in Tunisia was quite difficult; first, car rental service is not widely covered in the country and it may be too dangerous for a foreign driver to handle the complicated traffic rules and the absence of traffic lights. My advice – resort to taking a taxi if you don’t have traffic arranged and you need to visit somewhere.
Meter taxis start at 2 dinars and a 15-minute taxi ride costs about 15 dinars. Remember to negotiate (or haggle) the price before getting in a taxi if the taxi has no meter.
It’s important to have an idea of where you are going, and how far you are going to have a sense of how much your trip should cost.
Highlights of Tunisia
For our 10 days trip to Tunisia, I traveled around the country counter-clockwise and covered places from Tunis, Tozeur, Douz, Matmata, El Jem, Sousse, Hammamet, and more.
What we saw was actually diverse: from natural sceneries, religious monuments, historic ruins, local markets and old towns, coastal resorts and boat trips, and more.
Apart from the white and blue house in Sidi Bou Saïd that basically could be seen in any Tunisia, travel book, there are also a few points of interest that have a famous background that you may not be aware of.
To name a few key highlights of Tunisia:
Matmata’s Hotel Sidi Driss is the original film set featured as Luke Skywalker’s house in the Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars
- Part of the scene of the Oscar-winning film, The English Patient, was shot in the Medina of Sfax
- Chott el Djerid, the largest salt pan of the Sahara Desert
- Great Mosque of Kairouan, a Unesco World Heritage and one of the largest Islamic monuments in Africa
- The Amphitheatre of El Jem is an oval Roman amphitheater dated back to 238 AD in the Roman Empire
- Bardo National Museum has a rich collection of Roman mosaics in the world
- The Medina of Sousse and the cruise trip in the harbor have a history of the notorious “Captain Hook”
- Oasis Towns of Southern Tunisia, and ride a carriage and explore a date palm forest