Fitting a tour of ancient Carthage, Tunis into 2 hours

After a few sun-drenched and dry days exploring Tozeur at the edge of the Tunisian Sahara, it was back to Dubai for me. There were no conveniently connecting flights, however, so that meant an overnight stay in Tunis before an afternoon flight out of town–and here on the Mediterranean, it was choosing to pour. There were many things I wanted to do in Tunis–check out the medina and Bardo Museum, see Ville Nouvelle and explore Sidi Bou Saïd a bit more (I got just a taste of the Santorini-like location while waiting out a long layover on my way in with lunch at Dar Zarrouk)–but ancient Carthage was at the top of my list. My plan was to scarf down a breakfast then head straight to the historic neighborhood for a couple hours before high-tailing it back to the airport. The rain seemed to have other plans for me. Not knowing when I’d find myself back in Tunisia, I figured it was worth the risk of getting a bit wet–and that risk paid off. On my way the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the sky above went blue. It lasted exactly long enough, the stormy weather returning as I caught a taxi away. Some luck!

You may recall Carthage as a famous and powerful center in the classical world–the capital of the Punic empire, brutally destroyed then rebuilt by the Romans. Today it’s an affluent modern suburb peppered with archaeological sites, a scenic and fascinating place to wander.

When exploring Carthage, I’d recommend a plan of some sort. You’re likely to miss out on a lot if you just rock up and start walking. I downloaded a handy app called GPSmyCity that is packed with self-guided walking tours for destinations around the world. Among other Tunis guides, I found a two-hour walking tour of Carthage that included seven stops (though a couple sites are bunged together, so it’s more like five)–perfect. At your first stop, buy a ticket and that will get you into all of the sites (I can’t recall the price, but remember it being quite reasonable).

Tophet de Carthage

I started on a leafy street off of which a tophet (cemetery) is found. The carved gravestones here are for children–possibly sacrifices–and are dedicated to the city’s patron Phoenician deities, Baal and Tanit. It’s a small area, peaceful and shaded (and perhaps just a little bit creepy), where hundreds of eroded grave markers rise from the ground like rows of decayed teeth.

A few remains stand up at the Punic Port

Heading north along the coast, next I passed by the Punic Port. Once able to hold some 200 ships, a presumably bustling hub of trade, it’s now quiet and lined with Mediterranean shrubs and whitewashed buildings. The ruins remaining are few, a handful of blocks standing up on the inner quay.

The ruins of Punic Carthage, with the domes of the Acropolium in the background

From there I strolled on pretty streets lined with bougainvillea and juice shops, going up to Byrsa Hill, a walled citadel where Carthage was founded in 800BCE by the Phoenician queen Dido. The more modern Acropolium (Saint-Louis Cathedral), designed with Byzantine-Moorish flourish, is found here surrounded by the ruins of Punic and Roman Carthage–and views for days (lead image). Mostly destroyed by the Romans, it’s still possible to glimpse a preserved residential quarter with gridded streets, cisterns, mosaics, sewerage and shopfronts where the great general Hannibal himself would have walked. There’s also a museum housing artifacts, but it is closed on Sundays (the day of my visit).

The Roman Theater

Downhill, back toward the sea, I came to the Roman Theater–and one of the less interesting sights. While a neat spot that still hosts modern festivals, it was wildly looted over the centuries and its modern reconstruction was pretty heavy-handed. If you’re short on time, this would be what I recommend you whittle out.

Continuing down the hill from the amphitheater I made it to my final–and favorite–stop, the Baths of Antonius. No Roman city is complete without a sprawling area of thermae, and Carthage is no different. On the seaside, you’ll walk through an overgrown garden area where tombstones and ancient blocks are scattered before getting to the main site, a beachfront complex of ruins that primarily make up the foundations of what must have been a grand hub of socializing and leisure–this bath was the largest of its kind in North Africa, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. A few columns still soar, and you can imagine the lofty ceilings they would have been holding up.

A stunning setting for the Baths of Antonius

Plan for plenty of time to explore, this complex is a fantastically atmospheric place with aqueducts and paths beneath archways, a labyrinthine space that would have held hot and cold rooms, gymnasiums for sports such as wrestling, and a swimming pool, all with the crash of the Mediterranean surf in the background.

There you have it: my hack for those with but the shortest amount of time to spend in Tunis–but my real recommendation is to set aside a couple days to spend in this gorgeous, historic seaside city that is Mediterranean and Berber, contemporary and ancient, and filled with stories to tell.

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