I have been intending to go to El Jem for quite some time but being up…
Sousse is a sizeable city of around 173,000 inhabitants, about 140km south of Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis. Located on the coast in the central east of the country, it borders the Gulf of Hammamet which is part of the Mediterranean Sea. Sousse has a long history, dating back over 2,800 years, and has a great deal of character.It was developed in the 1960s as a tourist destination and now has a great deal to offer from its historic Old Town and Medina to the busy port and local sandy beaches.
It is easy to see why Sousse has become a favourite tourist destination. It has a good climate, a beautiful medina, hotels of all classes, good restaurants (try the fish!!!), a stunning beach and many options for enjoying day-trips. The northern beach is lined with purpose built hotels, all built in the same style with a bar, restaurant and swimming pool, these hotels stretch all the way to the port.
Conveniently located, just across the main road from the hotels, is the beach. The beach closest to the centre of Sousse is extremely crowded in peak season, mainly by Tunisians coming here as extended family groups. It’s easy to meet local people here, and the attitude is friendly and easygoing. The beach at the city end of Sousse (its famous and called Boujaafar) is very pleasant for swimming and sunbathing, even if it does get crowded in the afternoons. Local people are friendly, open, and if you go swimming, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself in a ball game with the locals!
The medina of Sousse is a pleasure to visit in many ways. Although it is not very large by Tunisian standards, it’s charming, relaxed and one of the finest in Tunisia for tourists to visit. Most of the old city’s alleyways are covered, either by tiles, ceiling girders or huge supportive eaves. Hustling these days is not a problem as it was in the medina, and women can walk around safely and easily (however please be aware of snach and grab crime). Sousse previously had a well-deserved reputation of being a place where the shopkeepers will con you no matter what you buy, but that is no longer true, as more and more shops have fixed, and reasonable, prices (see article on shopping in Sousse).
Still there are naive vendors who may try to lure you into their shops making you believe that the price is much lower than it is. There is only one thing to do with such folks – walk away with a polite and firm NO MERCI.
Great Mosque in Sousse
Main mosque of Sousse
If you visit the fortified Great Mosque in Sousse there are some things you should be aware of to show respect for this sacred Muslim building. For example, when you enter through the main gate, you face the prayer hall. This is off limits for non-Muslims. Entrance tickets are sold in the square outside the entrance every morning except Fridays, when the mosque is closed to visitors.This main mosque was commissioned by Abou el Abbas Mohammed in 850AD. Like its sister mosque in Karouan it has the outward appearance of a fortress. Unlike many other important mosques in Tunisia, the Great Mosque in Sousse has seen few major alterations over the centuries. The result is that compared to other Tunisian mosques it appears to be incomplete, especially as it has no typical tall minaret tower. In the 11th century, a domed building was added and this continues to serve as the minaret.
The style of the mosque is simple, reflecting the religious attitudes and lifestyle of the rulers of Sousse back then. Notice the courtyard is paved with normal slabs separated by rows of broken paving set in the purple mortar. It slopes towards a central drain which collects rainwater in an underground cistern. There are wash basins for the ritualistic washing of hands before Muslims enter for worship.Surrounding the courtyard is a colonnade with the arches being supported by short square columns. A staircase in one corner leads up to the ramparts, the domed minaret and there is an interesting octagonal sundial.The RibatThe Ribat was one of a series of fortified monasteries which were built along the North African coast by the Aghlabid rulers. It was built in 821 AD and was principally a fortress against the Christians marauders from Sicily. The exceptionally thick walls were because Sousse had no natural defences.
The Ribat stands right on the Place Farhat Hached, apart from the many other crowded buildings in Sousse. It is surrounded by a broad paved area which allows visitors unimpeded views of the building.The word “Ribat” comes from the same root as the North African name for holy men. Ribats of these times were generally connected to a very conservative and often ascetic practice of Islam.The Ribat is open to visitors from Tuesday through Sunday. The tall narrow entrance is framed by two columns, one almost eroded away. Inside are many glass panels which explain the history and design of the Ribat.Like at the Great Mosque, the courtyard slopes down to drain rainwater into a central reservoir. Around the edge of the courtyard, cells for the soldiers can be seen on three sides. The fourth side, closest to the entrance, was the prayer hall. It may appear quite primitive and is generally considered to be the oldest mosque of North Africa.From the top of the Nador, the watch tower, you will have great views over Sousse.
The Kasbah grew up gradually around the Khalaf El Fela Watchtower which was erected first in 859 and stands at the highest point in Sousse. The tower was intended as an improvement to the rather modest view from the Ribat.While the Kasbah is clearly worth the visit, there is little of special interest here. The main attraction is actually the museum within the Kasbah
Sousse Archaeological Museum
Sousse Archaeological Museum is a must-see for all visitors to Sousse. Located in the Kasbah is has an amazing collection of important mosaics and is second only to the even more staggering collection of beautiful mosaics in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. The exhibits are dominated by the mosaics, but there are many other objects too, including vases, masks, statues and whole burial tombs. Most of the exhibits are over two thousand years old and date back to Roman times. Other objects are on display from the Christian catacombs in the Sousse region.The great attraction within the excellent museum is the mosaics showing scenes from amphitheatres, ancient mythical gods, chariot scenes and wild animals such as tigers.
Traditional Museum of Kalaout el-Koubba
Traditional museum of Kalaout el-Koubba
We do not know what purpose the Kalaout el-Koubba originally had. It dates back to the 11th or 12th century and was built according to Fatimid architectural style. Both the exterior and interior are attractive – note especially the zigzag fluting on the cupola. It is the only one of its kind on the African continent. Today, the building is used mainly as a museum, where well-made presentations show life during Ottoman times. The museum is open Mon-Thu and Sat 9.30-13.00 and 15.00-17.30, and Sun 10.00-14.00.
The Dar Essid
The Dar Essid offers a rare opportunity to see the inner quarters of upper class life in Tunisia in the olden days. The house, which is open as a privately owned museum, is quite cramped but beautifully decorated with a mixture of traditional styles, European imports and some private creativity. The house was used by a 19th century official and the families of his two wives. Each wife had her own chamber, but not far from each other. Perhaps the most curious item in the house is the Roman oil lamp next to the first wife’s bed. It is supposed to have been lit every time they had sex, with the husband being in action as long as the light burned (the objective being to spend the same time with each wife).On top of the house there is a cafe in the area where the servants’ quarters would have been. The views from here are far-reaching, although the rooftops of Sousse’s houses are not exactly beautiful but impressive non the less.
The Zaouia Zakkak lies up a narrow street conveniently close to the popular shopping streets in the medina. This three-storey minaret offers the finest example of Ottoman architecture in Sousse. The attractive minaret is octagonal and the tile work and decorations in blue-green stone are decorated with a design which probably originated in Andalusia.
The Catacombs of Sousse may come as a great surprise to many visitors. Many believe that catacombs were built as hiding areas for Christians during time of persecution under the Romans.
Some visitors are even more surprised to learn of Tunisia’s past as a Christian country.The catacombs were not actually built as shelters for the living, but rather for the dead. The tunnels originally stretched for more than 5 km, and contain 15,000 graves. The area open to visitors has a mere 100 metres of tunnels, but you can see through iron gates into the endless tunnels beyond. Lit by soft light, it creates a hushed atmosphere of authenticity. You can make out the “doors” of the many graves (see the right wall on the top photo), and two places where skeletons are exhibited behind glass.
The medina of Sousse is fairly good for shopping. Many shopkeepers have taken the wise policy of keeping prices reasonable – they realise that most tourists here stay for a week or two and have plenty of opportunity to return to a shop that gives good service.There is little to find here that isn’t available in most other major tourist destinations elsewhere in Tunisia. In the huge four storey shopping mall right outside the medina they even have items imported from all over northern Africa, including south of the Sahara.Unfortunately many shopkeepers refuse to accept that some visitors recognise Thuja items from Essaouira in Morocco, or mother-of-pearl boxes from Cairo! The best advice is to buy what you find attraction at a reasonable price, but don’t believe all that you are told!
The Modern Town of SousseThe modern town of Sousse is quite standard for Tunisia. Along the beach there are mainly hotels, while the areas closer to the medina are dominated by French colonial architecture.Sousse is also a good example of a town which has experienced large scale tourism investment you can see the start at the city end of the tourist zone with its hotels which become more modern as you leave the centre of town.A few KM down the tourist zone you will come to the new resort of Port El Kantaoui with its golf course and amusement park.https://www.tunisia.com/port-el-kantaoui
PracticalitiesGetting ThereFrom Tunis
Sousse is fairly close to the main Tunisian airport which it shares with Monastir. The best way of getting to Sousse from the airport is by train. The station is right outside the entrance to the airport and runs to the station in Sousse, down by the harbour.From Enfidah Airport
From Monastir Airport
It is also near the state of the art new Enfidah airport which is between Hammamet and Sousse. Alternatively cars can be hired for the journey from the airport and buses and taxis frequently run to Sousse, which is just 19 km away.
Where to Stay
Since Sousse is a major tourist destination, there are many hotels in the city to suit all budgets. In the high season (June to early September) prices go up, but fortunately there are seldom problems finding a hotel room. During the high season, prices are at least 30-40% above the rest of Tunisia in the same season (excluding Bizerte, which is even more expensive). Prices are very affordable in the pleasant months just before and right after the high season. During the winter prices go even lower and many hotels actually close down for the season.Sousse has all classes of hotels, even if there aren’t too many cheap ones. Generally the standard rises the more you pay, so it may be worth splurging to get a really nice place to stay in Sousse which will still be reasonably priced by European standards.
Sousse has a wide variety of restaurants and many of them offer good food, charm, good service and reasonable prices all at the same time. I have tested some of the typical tourist restaurants and was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality. While the rule applies to all of North Africa that restaurants with only a tourist clientele should be avoided, Sousse is a nice exception to the rule. There are many options along the main tourist streets for budget travellers to eat. Pizzas appear to be the best and most popular budget option here – probably in response to many Western travellers who don’t acquire a liking for Tunisian cuisine.
The Esplanade is the heart of night life in Sousse, particularly for young Tunisians of both sexes. People stroll up and down for a while and then sit on the wall facing the beach. Across the street from the beach there are plenty of clubs where live music is performed, but these cost money, and most Tunisians prefer to listen to the music from the outside and may even get up and dance! The most famous nightclub in Sousse is Bora-Bora which is a large open air nightclub which is summer only and can host thousands of revellers.
Some of the best clubs and bars are found in tourist complexes and hotels in Sousse. However, these are not much cheaper than Europe. Sousse also has a section of seedy bars, which offer its male clientele beer and hookers. These places are easy to spot and it’s up to you whether you choose to enter. If you’re uncertain, remember that any place with a cover charge allows you to enter and have a look before you buy your ticket, or ask the doorman and he will tell you what kind of place it is.Sousse also has a nice section of clubs with live performances. These places are generally licensed, even though there may be children running between the tables.
Climate in Sousse
The best time to visit Sousse is during the months between May and October. However, in the height of summer some days can be really hot with average temperatures in July and August reaching 32C (90F) and above. In the winter months temperatures fall and rainy days increase. Generally speaking, Sousse has a mild, sunny climate.
Sousse covers all the options for money changing all over the city so you will have no problems. There are plenty of ATMs. Banks and hotels allow cash withdrawals on major credit and debit cards and offer currency exchange. Many shops, restaurants and hotels accept major credit cards for purchases (although American Express can be a bit of a hassle).
For overland travelling, Sousse has the best connections in Tunisia. It is even better than Tunis with connections to every possible destination. Fortunately, there is only one station for shared taxis and a separate one for buses. However, the distance between these two is too far to cover on foot if you have luggage. The train station is not too far from the bus station.Sousse has a good choice of car rental agencies and prices are negotiable. Never take the first offer! It is also worth remembering that international agencies do not always offer impeccable service and cars, so you might as well use a cheaper local agency.This also applies to tours if you walk to small agencies in the town you should be able to get a better deal than if you just go via the hotel just remember to check they have licence A which is the authorisation to run tours which entails a standard and insurance for tourists.