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The captivating North African country of Tunisia sits at the heart of the Mediterran, straddling the old and the new, the exotic and the traditional. Caught in a cleft between Algeria and Libya, it offers travellers sumptuous modern seaside resorts set side by side with a treasure-trove of ancient Roman, Arab, Berber, and Phoenician sites.
Just a few miles north of the capital, Tunis, lie the remains of the legendary ancient city of Carthage, founded in the 8th century BC. By contrast, Tunis is a bustling modern metropolis where steel, glass, and palm trees form the backdrop to streets filled with fast-moving yellow taxis.
The centuries slip away in the medieval Medina found in the heart of this pristine city. It serves as a haven for souvenir hunters, boasting hundreds of narrow streets crammed with vendors of antiques, jewellery, pottery, carpets, perfumes, dried fruit, books, spices, and other delights. Also, no tourist to the city should miss a visit to the Bardo Museum, for the joy of viewing one of the world's greatest collections of Roman mosaics.
Tunisia has a thousand miles of coastline to the north, where luxurious resorts like Hammamet and Nabeul nestle amid citrus orchards. Vacationers relish the sandy beaches and crystalline waters along the waterfront, where the only alternative to lazy bronzing is to indulge in a round of golf or take the plunge with some watersports.
Those intrepid enough to venture into the south, on the threshold of the Sahara desert, will be rewarded with some interesting geographical features like the 'forest in the desert' at Ramada, the dry salt lake at Chott el Jerid, or the remote oasis at Ksar Ghilane.
The cherry on the top for visitors to this affordable and exotic holiday destination is the warmth and genuine friendliness of the Tunisian people. This is evident in even the smallest of villages, where if you happen to pass through during one of the numerous summer festivals you will be welcomed and urged to join.
Although recent political upheaval has kept Tunisia on the front page rather than in the travel section, the country has made the transition to democracy smoothly and is once again welcoming tourists and cruise ships to its shores.
A popular holiday resort destination for tourists, Tunisia has more to see and do than just beautiful beaches scattered along its Mediterranean coastline, and luxurious resorts such as Hammamet and Nabeul. There are countless attractions to meet just about every sightseer's needs.
Visitors should start off in the capital of Tunis, a fast-paced modern metropolis juxtaposed by a medieval Medina. Ideally they should spend a few hours here taking in the history and hunting for bargains and souvenirs in the countless tiny streets lined with vendors touting antiques, pottery, jewellery, and other delights.
It's worth heading to the Bardo Museum to marvel at some of the world's greatest Roman mosaics, while just a few miles north of Tunis lie the remains of the legendary ancient city of Carthage, which dates back to the 8th century BC. Venturing south towards the Sahara affords visitors plenty of fascinating geographical features such as the 'forest in the desert' at Ramada, as well as the dry salt lake at Chott el Jerid, and the remote oasis at Ksar Ghilane.
The largest mosque in Tunisia, the Zitouna Mosque dates back to the 8th century; the 160 columns of the mosque were brought from the ruins of Carthage. Set in the heart of Tunis, the mosque was improved upon almost continually until the 19th century, when the minaret was added. Zitouna (or Al-Zaytuna) was the centre of learning and intellectual pursuits in Tunisia, and is considered the first Islamic university. Visitors to the Zitouna Mosque must dress modestly, and non-Muslim guests may only enter the courtyard. The mosque is surrounded by bustling souks on three sides.
Tunis' largest parks, Belvedere Park covers 270 acres (110 ha) just north of the city. Known as the 'Lungs of Tunis' due to the scarcity of green spaces in the city, Belvedere Park has a number of family-friendly attractions to enjoy on fine days in Tunis. Children will love the Tunis Zoo, a pleasant facility with monkeys, bears, deer, peacocks, and elephants; while adults will marvel at the intricately decorated high domed ceilings of the Turkish Pavilion. Belvedere Park has an art gallery featuring local contemporary works near the entrance gate, and when the weather is hot visitors can cool off in the shade of trees overlooking Lake Tunis on Place Pasteur.
Carthage was the base of a powerful trading empire during the Phoenician and Punic periods, ruled by the infamous conqueror Hannibal. Destroyed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, the site was redeveloped a century later and became a Roman capital. Located in an affluent suburb roughly nine miles (15km) north of Tunis, the remaining ruins of ancient Carthage were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Visitors can buy a ticket for just a few dinars that allows access to up to 10 different archaeological sites, including the Antonin Baths, Amphitheatre, Water Cisterns, Basilica of Saint-Cyprien, Punic Tophet, and the Carthage Museum. Also on-site in the museum complex is the Acropolium (St Louis Cathedral), a stunning cathedral built in the late 19th century.
Approximately 50 miles (80km) east of Tunis lies Kerkouane, a former city of the Phoenician and Punic periods. The city was abandoned around the 3rd century BC, which meant it was largely ignored by the conquering Romans and is today the only remaining untouched Punic settlement. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s. The remains of Kerkouane and its famous necropolis are not large, and can be explored in about an hour. Visitors can look for the distinctive minimalist mosaics of the Punic god Tanit, and learn about the city's surprisingly modern town planning. A small museum housing interesting relics and artefacts gives further insight into the history of Kerkouane.
Tunisia's climate is Mediterranean on the northern coast, while the inland areas range from semi-desert to desert. Coastal areas average highs of around 91F (33C) in summer and 64F (18C) in their rainy winter season. The inland desert areas are even hotter during summer, producing desert winds that cause a strong increase in temperature, a drop in humidity and sandstorms in the coastal and mountainous regions. Temperatures during these periods (June to September) can be especially hot, sometimes rising above 104F (40C). The height of summer is a popular time to visit, but many people prefer to go between October and May when the temperature is more comfortable, or in the spring (March to May) when there are magnificent displays of wild flowers throughout the countryside.
The unit of currency is the Tunisian dinar (TND), divided into 1,000 millimes. Banks and some hotels provide foreign exchange. ATMs are found in most towns and at all the tourist resorts; almost all will accept Visa cards and many will also accept Maestro (Switch) cards. Visa, Maestro and MasterCard are accepted for payment in many souvenir shops, upmarket hotels and restaurants, although Visa encounters the least problems. All Tunisian currency must be exchanged before departure.
The overwhelming majority of people in Tunisia speak Arabic and French. English is taught in all schools and is increasingly spoken by younger people. Some German and Italian is also spoken.
Electrical current in Tunisia is 230 volts, 50Hz. Round European-style, two-pin plugs are used.
US nationals: US nationals must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay, and can stay visa-free for up to four months.
UK nationals: British passports should be valid for the duration of the stay. British passport holders don't need a visa for visits of up to three months.
CA nationals: Passports must be valid for the period of intended stay. Canadians do not require a visa to visit Tunisia for four months.
AU nationals: Australian nationals need a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay, but can stay visa-free for up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South African nationals must have a passport that is valid for the duration of their intended stay, but can enter visa-free for up to 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a visa. A passport that is valid for the duration of the stay is required. A visa is not requirement for maximum stays of three months.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport that is valid for the duration of their stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
All visitors must hold documents and tickets for return or onward travel, though some nationals can obtain visas on arrival. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination, as immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources. Dual nationals should enter and leave Tunisia on their Tunisian passports.
No vaccinations are recommended for Tunisia and no serious health risks exist, though visitors travelling outside the resorts should ensure they drink only boiled, purified water. All medical expenses must be paid for immediately after treatment in Tunisia, and costs can be quite high. The availability of medication is limited, so visitors should bring adequate supplies of their own medication. Travel insurance is a necessity.
Tipping is not a requirement in Tunisia but appreciated for good service in local establishments. Most people performing a useful service will wait to be tipped. Waiters in resort and hotel restaurants expect a tip of around 10 percent.
Travellers are advised to avoid the border areas with Algeria, and to be extra cautious if travelling alone in the southern and eastern border areas. In general, the northeastern coast region from Tunis all the way down to Gabes, remains safe and tourist friendly, although in recent years, there have been isolated incidences in the safer resort areas, such as Sousse, where violent terrorist attacks have been especially aimed at large groups of foreign tourists.
As a result, many resorts have dramatically increased security to protect their visitors, and foreign travellers are advised to pay close attention to travel warnings and recommendations from official government sources before travel to Tunisia. Travellers should also cooperate with security officials and carry a copy of their passport at all times while in the country.
Although violent crimes are unlikely in larger tourist cities and resorts, petty theft and pick pocketing do occur. An increase in bag snatching has been noted in tourist areas and visitors are advised to keep bags close at all times.
Tunisia is a Muslim country and visitors should respect the local sensibilities, especially during the month of Ramadan. Visitors, and women in particular, should dress modestly outside of the beach resorts. Women should note that coffee houses are mainly populated by men and women are often ushered into the 'family section' in restaurants. Homosexuality is illegal and although it is common to see Arab men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and even hold hands in public, this is unacceptable for tourists. Despite being a Muslim country, alcohol is widely available.
Tunisians like to get to know the person with whom they will be doing business and negotiations tend to be prolonged and very sociable occasions. As with other Arab countries, one is expected to dress conservatively and formally in Tunisia. French is the common language of business and interpreters will be necessary otherwise. A firm handshake is the accepted form of greeting and the Arabic 'salaam aleikum' works better than a simple 'hello.' Business hours are generally 8am to 12pm and 3pm to 6pm Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Tunisia is +216. There is widespread internet coverage, with WiFi in most tourist resorts, hotels, and restaurants. Visitors can purchase local prepaid SIM cards for unlocked phones.
Travellers to Tunisia do not have to pay duty on the following items: 200 cigarettes, or 50 cigars, or 500g tobacco; 1 bottle of alcohol; 250ml of perfume; and gifts to the value of $25.
Embassy of Tunisia, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 862 1850.
Embassy of Tunisia, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 20 7584 8117.
Embassy of Tunisia, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 0330.
Embassy of Tunisia, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6290 2061.
Embassy of Tunisia, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 6282.
United States Embassy, Tunis: +216 71 107 000.
British Embassy, Tunis: +216 (0)71 108 700.
Canadian Embassy, Tunis (also responsible for Australia): +216 70 010 200.
South African Embassy, Tunis: +216 71 800 311.
Honorary Consul of Ireland, Tunis: +216 71 426 730.
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