Tunisia's Roman ruins - Our pick of the best sites to visit c. Kathmandu & Beyond

Tunisia’s Roman ruins – Our pick of the best sites to visit

Which Roman ruins in Tunisia are worth seeing?

But first, a little history…

With their eye on the famously rich agricultural lands of North Africa, and after two failed attempts, the Romans eventually defeated the Carthaginian (aka Punic) empire at Carthage in 146 BCE. Establishing the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, the abundant agricultural exports led to long periods of prosperity in what is now modern-day Tunisia. A cosmopolitan culture ensued during the Republic’s 800-year reign. 

What that means today (taking Italy out of the debate) is that Tunisia is one of the best places in the former Roman world to discover archaeological sites and other relics associated with the mighty empire. Indeed, three of Tunisia’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites were either built (or re-built) by the Romans, of which two, Dougga and El Djem, are amazingly well preserved.

Compared to other great Roman archaeological sites in the region, such as Baalbek in Lebanon, Volubilis in Morocco, and Jerash in Jordan, Tunisia more than holds its own when it comes to vestiges of Roman Imperialism. 

Yet, it is hard to understand why the ruins in Tunisia, by comparison, see a fraction of visitors.

Deviating from the topic for a moment, Tunisia is an incredibly diverse country that is not too big, yet not too small, and easy to get around. From gorgeous whitewashed Mediterranean towns to spectacular Saharan scenery, there is much to see and do in Tunisia. Plus, the cuisine is delicious, there are plenty of charming boutique hotels in which to stay, and the Tunisian people are warm and friendly. The upside to the above conundrum as to why Tunisia isn’t as popular as it should be is that if you do choose the country as your next holiday destination, you are likely to share many of its resplendent Roman sites either with only a handful of other tourists or even have them entirely to yourself.

The best of Tunisia’s Roman ruins is concentrated in three areas – in and around Tunis, the northeast of the country and the central part. 

The best Roman ruins in and around Tunis

Tunis, the country’s lively capital, is a good place to begin discovering Tunisia’s Roman heritage. The city itself is home to the magnificent Bardo National Museum, and nearby are the once-great cities of Carthage and Utica.

Bardo National Museum

Second only in importance to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Bardo is one of Africa’s greatest museums. Housed within an old beylical (royal) palace located in a Tunis suburb, the museum is home to a vast collection of Roman mosaics that have been meticulously excavated from all over Tunisia. Many other exhibits from the Roman era are also on display, including marble statues, masks, coins and jewellery.

The archaeological site at Carthage and a mosaic in the Bardo Museum

Carthage

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Carthage is where the Romans’ incursion on North African soil began. After two failed wars, it was the senators in Rome, led by senator Cato the Elder, who pushed for a third, and ultimately successful, attempt to take one of the largest and greatest cities in the ancient world. Senator Cato the Elder was known to finish every speech, regardless of whether they were related to Carthage or not, with the phrase “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam – “moreover, I am of the opinion that Carthage ought to be destroyed.”

And destroyed it was but, in true Roman style, almost a century after its fall, Carthage was rebuilt during the reign of Julius Caesar and, this time, even more lavishly than before. Eventually, the city was destroyed again, firstly by the Vandals and, later, by the Arabs and what remains of Carthage nowadays is scattered over several sites in a suburb northeast of the centre of Tunis. 

Corinthian Travel recommendations:

  • Carthage is such a renowned name in the world of antiquity that expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment when taking into account what remains of the city. Hence, the service of a knowledgeable guide who can bring the city to life is invaluable when discovering Carthage. 
  • Some of Tunis’s most luxurious hotels are a short distance from Carthage offering an alternative to the hustle and bustle of downtown Tunis.

Tunisia itineraries featuring Carthage and the Bardo museum

Carthage and the Bardo museum are important sites when learning about Tunisia’s history and as such, they feature in almost all of our suggested itineraries. Additionally, the likelihood of a holiday starting and ending in Tunis is high, so they are very easy to include in a holiday itinerary. 

Utica

Utica was an ancient Phoenician and Carthaginian city that fell to the Romans not long after they defeated Carthage. As Utica had allied itself with the Republic during the final attack on Carthage, the city was awarded tax privileges and served as the capital of the newly formed Africa Proconsularis (province), a vast region that roughly extended along the northern African coast from modern-day Algeria through Tunisia and into Libya.

Today, what’s left of Utica is inland and not on the coast where it was originally situated. Things to see include a Punic necropolis, some ancient columns and several Roman villas that are decorated with floor mosaics that are still in reasonably good condition.

Roman ruins at Utica

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • Approximately 40 km from Tunis, Utica is a good place to break the journey en route to places of interest along Tunisia’s northern coast, such as Bizarre. 

Tunisia itineraries featuring Utica

Utica’s location northwest of Tunis means it fits well on itineraries like our Northern Tunisia Discovery and it also features on the Grand Tour of Tunisia.

The best Roman ruins in northeast Tunisia

Dougga (Thugga)

There are not enough superlatives to describe Dougga! A UNESCO World Heritage-listed site since 1997, the ancient archaeological site is, without question, the most magnificent Roman complex in Tunisia. 

Perched on the summit of a hill and surrounded by fertile countryside, Dougga, also known as Thugga, is yet another settlement that the Romans inherited. It was initially occupied by Numidian-Berber and then the Punics but it came under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire following their conquest of the region.

The site is vast and a visit takes several hours to do it justice. Things not to be missed at Dougga include the 3,500-seat theatre and the remains of the marketplace where there are superb views of the surrounding countryside. The imposing Capitol Temple, built during the reigns of Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, is also a must, as is the needle-like Mausoleum of Ateban which is one of only a rare handful of examples of royal Numidian architecture. 

Dougga’s rugged setting is another reason why it is such an enthralling place to visit. The location has also kept the site free of urban encroachment and is one of the reasons why it is so well preserved.

The Forum at Dougga Tunisia
The Forum at Dougga

Corinthian Travel recommendations:

  • If you only visit one Roman site in Tunisia, make it this one!
  • With a private driver and guide, it’s easy to visit Dougga as a day trip from Tunis

Tunisia itineraries featuring Dougga

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our enthusiasm for this particular Roman ruin, Dougga is included in itineraries such as Carthage & Roman Africa, Northern Tunisia Discovery, Tunisia Luxury Holiday, and the Grand Tour of Tunisia. A visit to Dougga is offered on our Sojourn in Tunisia holiday and can be included on any itinerary with leisurely stays in Tunis or Sidi Bou Said.

Thuburbo Majus

The large settlement of Thuburbo Majus was located on an important thoroughfare connecting Carthage with the Sahara Desert. At first, it was a Punic town but, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, turned Thuburbo Majus into a colony for war veterans in 27BCE. Retired soldiers were given land there to help them begin their lives away from the military, and the cultivation of wheat and olive groves combined with the colony’s strategic position led to prosperity for many of its 10,000 inhabitants. One-upmanship among the wealthiest resulted in the creation of many exquisite mosaics in Thuburbo Majus, as well as the construction of a higher-than-average number of donated public buildings. Many of the excavated mosaics are now on display in the Bardo in Tunis.

Thuburbo Majus is dominated by the ruins of the Capitol with its four enormous reconstructed pillars but there is more to see at this captivating site including more temples, the remains of the forum and the Winter Baths where, once more, the best mosaics have been removed and taken to the Bardo. 

Thuburbo Majus (image by Hugh DSC_0389)-2
Thuburbo Majus

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • Thuburbo Majus is only 60kms from Tunis. It is, therefore, an ideal spot to either visit as a day trip from the capital, or as a place to break the journey en route to the holy city of Kairouan.

Tunisia itineraries featuring Thuburbo Majus

Thuburbo Majus features on our in-depth Carthage & Roman Africa tour but can be incorporated into any Tunisia tailor-made holiday.

Bulla Regia

Bulla Regia is an archaeological site that shouldn’t be missed. It comprises two Roman-era villas that were built over two storeys with the lower level situated underground. They were designed that way so that the Roman elite could escape the searing heat of the North African summer. Both villas are in remarkably good condition and, with a little imagination, it is easy to conjure images of what it would have been like to live there during Roman times. Each villa is decorated with some stunning mosaics. 

Roman ruins and mosaics at Bulla Regia

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • Getting to Bulla Regia independently requires a bit of effort, so we recommend enlisting the services of a private driver and guide

Tunisia itineraries featuring Bulla Regia

Our Grand Tour of Tunisia, Carthage & Roman Africa, and Northern Tunisia Discovery private tours all include a visit to Bulla Regia. 

The best Roman ruins in central Tunisia

El Djem

Translating as ‘the place where the lions hide’ in Arabic, the imposing amphitheatre of El Djem is one of the finest sights in Tunisia and must be visited.

Some incredible facts are associated with El Djem, For example, it is one of the best preserved Roman stone structures in the world and it could seat an estimated 30,000 spectators. El Djem is also generally considered to be in better condition than the Coliseum in Rome. What’s more, unlike its counterpart in the Italian capital, visitors are free to explore almost every nook and cranny of El Djem, including the subterranean chambers and dungeons where it is easy to imagine the tension, fear and stench of the wild animals, gladiators and other less-willing combatants who were kept there until it was time to enter the arena.

The oval theatre, which is situated in the heart of the modern-day city of El Djem, is the country’s third Roman UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Amphitheatre of El Jem, Tunisia DT7755979
The amphitheatre of El Djem

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • While in El Djem, it is also worth visiting the small but well-planned El Djem Archaeological Museum, which has an incredible collection of Roman-era mosaics. 

Tunisia itineraries featuring El Djem

El Djem warrants inclusion on any tailor-made holiday to Tunisia and it’s easy to incorporate into any itinerary that travels along the coast. You can visit El Djem on all of the following suggested Tunisia itineraries:  Sojourn in Tunisia, Carthage & Roman Africa, Grand Tour of Tunisia, Northern Tunisia Discovery and Boutique Tunisia

Maktar (Mactaris)

Maktar, known as Mactaris during antiquity, was granted the status of a free city by Julius Caesar at the end of the Punic Wars and became an important Roman colony. Once the most prosperous city in Roman Africa, the remains of Maktar, which includes two triumphal arches, public baths and a stone-paved forum, are reasonably intact. Furthermore, the archaeological site is located on a mountaintop roughly 900 metres above sea level and commands sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. All things considered, Maktar is one of the most memorable Roman ruins in Tunisia. 

Ruins of the ancient Roman town Mactaris modern Maktar, Tunisia DT37653145
Ruins of the ancient Roman town Mactaris modern Maktar

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • Maktar is an ideal excursion whilst staying in Kairouan.

Tunisia itineraries featuring Maktar

A visit to Maktar features in our Carthage & Roman Africa private tour.

Sufetula (Sbeitla)

Situated in north-central Tunisia, Sufetula (modern-day Sbeitla) was centred around an impressive forum and ensemble of Roman temples, which made it one of the most celebrated settlements in Roman Africa. Agricultural prosperity, based predominantly on olive cultivation, meant Sufetula was a rich city and instead of building just one temple dedicated to the three most important Roman gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), it was decided that a separate one should be constructed for each God, with Jupiter’s slightly larger temple being flanked by those devoted to Juno and Minerva. 

Along with the three temples, Sufetula is known for its triumphal arch of Antoninus, the public baths and the remains of the forum, which is considered one of the finest in the Roman world.

Roman ruins in Sbeitla, Tunisia DT21716773
Roman ruins in Sbeitla

Corinthian Travel recommendation:

  • Visit Sufetula in the late afternoon when the light is perfect on the honey-coloured stone from which the city was built.

Note: Algeria is currently (late 2022) experiencing internal conflicts between Algerian government troops and warring Islamic fundamentalist factions. Due to Sufetula’s proximity to Algeria’s western border (around 60 direct kms, 110 kms by road), the current UK foreign travel advice for Tunisia advises against non-essential travel to Sufetula. Contact Corinthian Travel for the latest information before including Sufetula in your itinerary.

Are you planning a holiday to visit Tunisia’s Roman ruins?

The suggested itineraries we have included here are just that – suggestions. All of our Tunisia holidays are tailor-made private tours, accompanied by expert English-speaking guides, travelling in chauffeur-driven vehicles. Please contact us for more details – we would be delighted to discuss the options. 


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Additional images © Kathmandu & Beyond