Years ago, I (rightly) predicted that Morocco would become the next "Iceland".
Iceland - a country no one bothered about previously, but is now top of everyone's bucket list because it started trending on Instagram and people started to want to be seen there or perhaps even because their peers had been there.
Today, Morocco is exactly that (Iceland). Suddenly everyone wants a "desert camp experience", or to have their photo taken in Morocco's "Blue City", Chefchaouen. What changed?
Greece on the other hand, has long been a typical tourist hotspot, with Santorini leading the charge of course; blue seas, great beaches, white & blue houses, and most of all, instant Instagram recognition.
Vacations don't come cheap though. Many people take just one big trip a year, it's a tough choice; Where to next?
Greece? The typical romantic "semi exotic" travel destination? Or the newest kid on the block and current "Like Generator", Morocco?
Well, you can thank me later, but THIS recommendation of mine just solved that dilemma of yours;
(Probably among the most Instagram-able travel destinations most will likely never visit)
Café Des Delices, the most photographed place in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia
Tunisia, like Morocco, is a country in North Africa which has the usual interesting souks (markets), offers an experience of the Sahara, desert camping, camels, and the like.
And just like Greece, Tunisia also has a sort of Mediterranean vibe to it, boasts some great beaches and many spectacular archaeological sites.
Both Morocco & Greece would certainly be considered among the most popular exotic destinations to visit. And Tunisia? Well, let's just say it offers vacationers a good mix of both countries. To top it off, Tunisia is also home to key film locations of one of cinema's greatest wonders; Star Wars.
Where Is Tunisia? / Route Overview
Tunisia is the northernmost country on the African Continent, and is bordered by Algeria, Libya, and the Mediterranean Sea. It's pretty close to Italy and Malta, so if you'd like to combine another country to visit along with Tunisia, it would be those two.
The most comfortable way to tour Tunisia would probably be to rent a car as the overnight trains don't have sleeping berths (unlike those in Europe), and buses aren't the most efficient or comfortable way to get around.
Renting a car cost $30 USD a day ($15 each!), and here (below) is the route we took.
Tunis - Sidi Bou Said - Carthage - El Jem Amphitheatre - Matmata - Douz - Tozeur - Kairouan - Sousse - Tunis.
7 full days would be perfect for Tunisia, and you could probably add in a couple more Star Wars destinations than we did. We aren't fans, so we didn't bother visiting every site.
What Is There To Do?
Archaeological Tourism (Basically Ancient Ruins)
The Baths of Antoninus, Carthage Ruins
If Athens has the Acropolis, Tunis has Carthage.
Carthage was one of the Roman Empire's most important cities and was the centre of Roman influence in Africa.
I have visited both archaeological sites and admittedly, the ruins of Carthage aren't as impressive as the Greek Acropolis because they haven't been maintained as well over the years and it has well, fallen in a pretty bad state of ruin; as far as ruins are concerned. The best preserved site would be the "Roman Baths". Standing there, I could imagine how it was back in those times, and admittedly, it felt pretty amazing.
For very impressive ruins in Tunisia able to rival any in Greece, visit Dougga and El Jem.
"The Girl" overlooking the arena at El Jem
The El Jem amphitheatre is the best preserved ancient roman site in all of Africa.
I have been to Rome's colosseum and I must say El Jem is just as impressive. In fact the entrance fee for El Jem is 3 times cheaper at $4 USD and allows access to more parts of the colosseum than the one in Rome does.
The gladiators would enter the arena and face death or freedom from here
The Tunisian's like to market El Jem as the inspiration for Russell Crowe's Gladiator.
This "fact" is debatable, but I must say, it looks very similar to the one in the movie. Even the sections where the gladiators wait to enter the arena and the parts where the animals are kept looks the same!
Imagining ourselves watching a gladiator fight from the stands
From the stands, we could imagine ourselves watching the gladiator fights. We turned on the gladiator soundtrack and wow, the "feel" was there!
View of El Jem from the centre of the arena
Doesn't this scene look very familiar?
Even if you aren't a "history" sort of guy, we're certain you'll be impressed by the ruins in Tunisia. Just stick to the 3 main archeological sites, Dougga, Carthage, and El Jem.
So yes, if Greece has impressive ruins, so does Tunisia; at even lower prices.
Desert Camping In The Sahara (Feel Like A Nomad)
The "Star Wars" spaceport of Mos Espa in the Sahara Desert
Desert Camping is fun, trust us.
We've recommended "Desert Camps" so often in our blog for a reason, they're really great.
You can have this "Nomadic desert experience" in many countries. But for the actual "Sahara experience", most people choose to visit Morocco. What people don't know is Tunisia offers this experience as well.
The difference? Well, it's easier to get to the Sahara in Tunisia than Morocco. In short, that means less driving to get to the Sahara, resulting in an even more "convenient" desert experience than the one you get in Morocco
Camel riding across the dunes of the Sahara. Witness the beauty of the desert, absolutely spectacular.
So there you go, the most "hassle free" Sahara desert experience is found in Tunisia, not Morocco.
Accommodation in the desert doesn't equal shitty conditions. We stayed in a 4 star desert hotel for $80 SGD a night ($40 each)! Admittedly, as much as we do enjoy camping in the desert, walking on dunes, and watching the stars above us, camel riding isn't exactly enjoyable and gets silly after 1 hour. So if anyone approaches you for a 2 hour camel ride? Don't waste your money, go for just 1 hour.
Enjoy The Postcard Perfectness (It's Instagram Time)
"The Girl" loves this door near Café Delices, Sidi Bou Said.
Many people live (or die in some unfortunate cases) for the pursuit of the "perfect picture".
It's normal to feel a tinge of jealousy (knowing you don't have the budget or time to visit both places) when you see your friends visit Morocco & Greece, especially when the usual pictures of "white and blue" houses, beaches or camel rides in the desert pop up on your news feed. I know, you want those "perfect pictures" too.
In Tunisia, you can create for yourself similar memories and pictures, all in one place, and with little effort too. It's so beautiful that every photo you take turns out perfect. It's just so hard to take a bad picture!
Check out some Greece & Morocco lookalikes in the pictures below!
Sidi Bou Said - decked out in white and blue, just like in Santorini and the Flag of Greece.
Similar to Morocco's Chefchaouen too isn't it? On 2nd thought, Sidi Bou Said is even more beautiful!
Same picture, but sunset view this time...
This surely looks like Greece!
As does this picture...
The Great Mosque of Kairouan looks a little like what you can get in Morocco, but more impressive. This is one of Africa's largest mosques after all.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan
Even as I type this post, I'm still amazed at the diversity and beauty on offer in Tunisia. It's not often where a single destination offers so much.
On the contrary in Europe, many countries look so similar and on many occassions, I've even heard a particular saying; "In Europe, you see one, you see all". (I've travelled to more of Europe than most and seen some pretty spectacular differences though).
The Mountain Oasis
For me (The Bald Guy), exploring the mountain oasis of Chebika, Tamerza, and Mides in the Tozeur region was the highlight of my trip. Tozeur is the westernmost province of Tunisia and around 1 hours drive away from the Algerian border.
In 1969, floods caused these oasis villages to be abandoned, and today, tourists flock to this part of the country for a glimpse of what life was like back then. As we hiked through the oasis, spectacular views of palm trees and mountains greeted us. We were delighted to find waterfalls and swimming holes on our hike.
Anyone can enjoy the wonders Tozeur has to offer. It’s a simple hike and walking with us were kids and elderly tourists
There are many similarities between Morocco and Tunisia. But as far as mountain scenery is concerned though, Tunisia has the edge.
The views on display in the mountain oasis of Chebika, Tamerza, and Mides and canyon of Sidi Bouhlel (Star Wars Canyon) are in a different league altogether and we would rank them as some of the most spectacular desert/mountain scenery we've ever seen (and that's saying a lot).
Star Wars Filming Locations
Luke Skywalker's home, exterior; Chott El Jerid salt flats
Okay, so I’m not a fan. “The Girl” hasn’t even watched a Star Wars film before. But still, we drove hundreds of kilometres into the desert, in the “fictional planet” of Tatooine; hunting for Luke Skywalker’s home and the spaceport of “Mos Espa”.
“Star Wars” was filmed in various locations all over the globe. 9 of them, which also happen to be the most iconic of them all, were filmed in Tunisia.
Luke Skywalker's home, exterior; Chott El Jerid salt flats
Most Tunisians don’t really have an idea of what Star Wars is. But they do know, that keeping these “abandoned” film sites keep the tourism money flowing in.
There was once a plan to “resurrect” these sites and make them a “proper” tourist attraction, but revolution and terrorist attacks sent those plans into the bin. Today, only the most hardcore of fans fly into Tunisia for the “Star Wars” tours.
Entrance of the spaceport of "Mos Espa". All sorts of tourist trinkets are sold here.
The 9 Star Wars Sites in Tunisia are;
1. Mos Espa Slave Quarters 1 (Ksar Hadada, Ghoumrassen)
2. Mos Espa Slave Quarters 2 (Ksar Ouled Soltane)
3. Mos Espa Spaceport (Mos Espa, near Tozeur)
4. Luke Skywalker's Home, interior (Matmata)
5. Luke Skywalker's Home, exterior (Chott el Djerid)
6. Tatooine Desert (La Grande Dune, near Nefta)
7. Mos Eisley Spaceport (Ajim, Island of Djerba)
8. Tatooine Tosche Station (Sidi Jemour, Island of Djerba)
9. Tatooine Canyon scenes (Sidi Bouhlel
The Streets of Mos Espa, location of the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon Jinn & Darth Maul
Hotel Sidi Idriss, also known as Luke Skywalker's home interior, location; Matmata
I'm not a fan, but the interior of Luke Skywalker's home is really cool!
We weren’t interested to see all 9 locations, so we just chose 3 of the more iconic ones to visit since we were driving.
Even if your not a “Star Wars” fan, Tunisia is “right up there” as far as travel destinations go. And while you enjoy yourself in this amazing country, you know “tourist dollars” help buy another weeks worth of bread for the locals who’s livelihood is dependent on the continued popularity of the Star Wars franchise.
Shopping & People Watching
The Great Mosque of Sousse
In Morocco, we really enjoyed strolling around the main square, people watching while being entertained by snake charmers and dining on street food.
In Tunisia, we did pretty much the same thing as well. We would usually sit ourselves down at a coffeeshop along the street, sipping a mint tea and watching the world go by.
Shopping in the Medina and souks of Sousse
Cafes to people watch while enjoying a mint tea in the streets of Sidi Bou Said
Here's where Morocco beats Tunisia though.
We found the square of Jemaa El Fna and the medina's in Morocco more impressive than any we'd seen in Tunisia. The overall atmosphere was way more lively in Morocco, and the dizzying effect of the sights, smells, and sounds on offer in Moroccan medinas and souks is something Tunisia cannot hope to compete.
Beaches - Sun & Sea
The beach in Sousse
If you've been to Greece, Lebanon, or Cyprus, you'll know that Mediterranean beaches aren't those typical white sand beaches, but instead, rock beaches.
Tunisia is actually famous for its beaches, and we visited a couple of the more recognizable ones; the tourist beach at Port El Kantaoui, which was the site of the 2015 terror attacks, and also, the main stretch of beach in Sousse frequented by locals.
The beach at Sousse
If I were honest, I found neither particularly impressive probably because we've already visited so many amazing beaches on our travels that certain expectations have already been set. Also, it would be tough for any beach to impress me after our time at Tanzania's Zanzibar.
Nonetheless, while we didn't visit the Tunisian island of Djerba (which is also home to 2 Star Wars sites), that should be where the country's best beach is. Other beaches which are supposed to be good are in Hammamet, Monastir, El Haouaria, and Plage De Chaffar.
Still, Greece has a the leg up in terms of good beaches simply because they are more readily available.
"The Girl" and I have stepped up as far as accommodation standards are concerned.
In the past, we were happy with a dorm bed in a hostel, but nowadays, we stick to hotels (cheap ones of course), or minimally private rooms in a hostel for a little more comfort.
We are in Douz, at the edge of the Sahara and this is the view of the pool from our room!
Our hotel room in Kairouan, 56 Euros for a room
We were pleasantly surprised to find that in Tunisia, quality hotels could be had at Bangkok prices.
With the exception of its capital Tunis, 4 Star standard of accommodation in the rest of the country cost us between $80 - $100 SGD per room, decent. We rotate between using Agoda, Booking.com and Hostelworld depending on the discounts and country we are visiting. For Tunisia, we used Agoda. Most decent hotels have free parking within a secured compound, so that's another reason why doing a road - trip in Tunisia is highly recommended.
Food & Drink
Similar to Moroccan's, Tunisian's eat Tagine and Couscous.
Here though, the majority of local restaurants seem to prefer serving Couscous instead of Tagine, which wasn't to our liking. We spent more money to dine in the "TripAdvisor recommended" restaurants to taste the best the country had to offer, and also, with the intention of avoiding eating couscous.
The cost of dining out is really cheap in Tunisia. Meals in the "tourist restaurants", barely cost more than $5 USD per meal, portions were huge, and came with loaves of bread; which meant if you were really intent on saving money, 2 could share a meal and still be full.
Street food cost a just 20 cents and yes, I know this is not food related, but I just had to share this; Shisha in Tunisia cost just $2 USD, cheaper than in Oman ($4 USD), Qatar ($6 USD) and obviously, a world apart compared to costs in Singapore.
And no, there is no beer in Tunisia except at the hotel bars.
Our rental car, a Hyundai i10 for $30 a day
Rent a car, for sure.
At $30 USD (or less) a day, Tunisia is one of the cheapest places in the world to rent a car. Petrol prices, while not as cheap as in the Middle East, is still very reasonable and is roughly the equivalent of petrol prices in Malaysia. Just a word of caution though.
The roads are long and endless, aren't of the best quality in certain parts, and connection could be non existent in the desert. So if you're renting a car, I would suggest being able to change a spare tyre and having loads of water stocked up in your car incase of a flat or breakdown. I don't know how to change tyres, so in our case, we just prayed for a uneventful drive.
If you have time, taking the uncomfortable trains and buses might provide a better glimpse into the local way of life, but I suggest just taking public transport once or twice for a "feel" of it, but leave the majority of "getting around" by car.
Tunisia is without doubt a fairly exotic travel destination which offers the perfect blend of the highlights that make Greece & Morocco the tourist draws that they are today.
The country in general is safe (safer than most of Africa at least), and is one of those few destinations in the world with so much to offer, yet not costing an arm and a leg as a trade off for experiencing its wonders.
I foresaw that Morocco would become a huge tourist draw and it has. Sadly though, despite having more to offer than Morocco, I don't see Tunisia becoming a bigger hit than Morocco largely because most people have a hard time stepping out of their comfort zones to embrace the exotic, preferring instead to stick to wherever is tried and tested, places their peers have visited, and wherever is trending on Instagram or Facebook. Social validation, rather than what the actual destination has to offer seems to be the force driving travel choices these days.
Perhaps one day, when an "A List" celebrity visits Tunisia and comments about the wonderful experience he/she had, will Tunisia finally join in the ranks of the "semi exotic country clique" of Morocco, Iceland, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Finally, it will be a destination worth visiting because some celebrity said so.
And if that happens, just refer back to this post, and I'll say, "See? I told you so".
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