Carthage - Guide for Tourists

Page update - Feb 5, 2023

The excavation of ancient Carthage is Tunisia's number one attraction. Almost 1.5 million tourists visited the site in the year 2019 (in 2020-2022 the figures were lower because of the pandemic).

Inspired by a school history course, the greatness of the city of Carthage and the three Punic wars, tourists expect to see grandiose temples or high walls there, but encounter the harsh reality - the remains of foundations, but no more.

Not a single even small ancient building has survived, and there are only a few intact columns. The only really uplifting part of the tour is the museum with its beautiful statues and large mosaics. But first things first.

Excavations and modern Carthage

Carthage is now a real town with a permanent population of around 25,000. This satellite city of the capital is now the most expensive in the country, with the most expensive land and real estate there. It is home to the official residence of the Tunisian president and the villas of officials and wealthy businessmen.

It is difficult for archaeologists to excavate new sites, as the land is not being released to them. Therefore, archaeological excavations in Carthage are focal. Almost all such "pockets" are accessible to tourists.

Tourists on organized tours see the museum and only two excavation sites out of a dozen available - the Byrsa Hill and the Thermae of Antony. Self-guided tourists can see much more.

Excursions to Carthage

A trip to Carthage is the most popular excursion in Tunisia and all tour operators have it. It is called "Carthage - Sidi Bou Said - Tunis". It comes in two versions, but is usually called the same.

The first option is if the tourists are taken to the city center of Tunis as a last point in the excursion program. The tourists see the Big Ben of Tunis, walk along Habib Bourguiba Avenue and enter the medina of Tunis. A walk through the center of the capital is not of great cultural value but tourists are given the opportunity to visit a large supermarket and the tourist market of the medina. A good option if you want to buy Tunisian gifts and souvenirs and there are no decent shops near the hotel. For what to buy and the prices, read our detailed review "Best gifts from Tunisia".

The second option is to take the tourists to the Bardo Museum as a last point in the excursion program. This is the best option for those who love history. You can see all the most interesting archaeological finds in the country during one trip.

How to get there on your own

If holidaying at a hotel in Gammarth, La Marsa, Cedria Beach or another resort near the capital, the easiest way to get there is by taxi. For example, it's only 12 km (7.5 mi) from Gammarth to Carthage, the journey will cost up to 10 Tunisian dinars and takes 10-15 minutes. Take advantage of the low taxi prices in Tunisia. For the current taxi fares, read our detailed review "Taxi fares in Tunisia". For the current exchange rates, read our detailed review "Money in Tunisia".

If you're holidaying in Nabeul, Hammamet or Yasmine Hammamet, a taxi will already cost you a pretty penny. It's easier to get to the capital by bus. The bus station in Tunis to Carthage is about 20 km (12.5 mi) away, with a cost of up to 15 dinars.

From the resorts of Sousse and El Kantaoui, you can get there by train. From Mahdia and Monastir, can also reach by train, but you will have to take the Metro Sahel train and make a change in Sousse. It's just over 20 km (12.5 mi( from the train station to Carthage, 15 dinars for a taxi and 20-25 minutes. You can walk along Avenue Habib Bourguiba and take the TGM train to Carthage.

Ticket price

The admission costs 10 Tunisian dinars and the photo permit costs another 1 dinar. This price includes the museum and the admission to all other excavation sites in Carthage.

Tickets can be purchased at the ticket offices on Byrsa Hill or at the Antony Baths. See the photo near the sign at the ticket office on Byrsa Hill, why did the cashiers put up two pieces of paper with prices? Apparently a great Tunisian mystery.

Opening hours

8 am to 7 pm (8-00 to 19-00) during the summer season.

8-30 am to 5 pm (8-30 to 17-00) during the winter season.

How much time to plan

If you want to see all the archaeological sites, plan a full day. Tourists take 2-2.5 hours to see the Byrsa Hill, the museum, and the Antony Thermae.

A bit of history

The most ancient city of Carthage was founded by Phoenician sailors. There's an interesting legend about the founding.

Queen Dido, the founder of Carthage, negotiated with the local Berbers to buy a piece of land for the city. The cunning Berbers naturally did not want Phoenicians on their land. They sold as much land as could be covered by a single bull skin. Queen Dido cut the hide into narrow strips, spliced them together, and encompassed a large tract of land. This is how the city of Carthage was founded.

A little clarification needs to be made there. The prepositions 'in' and 'under' were probably the same word in ancient Berber language. Or the second version, 'buy as much land as you can fit into one bull skin'. The truth we no longer know, as the Berber language has changed too much in the last 2.5 thousand years.

Many modern Tunisians remember the days of Carthage with nostalgia, for back then the Carthaginians were masters of the Mediterranean Sea. For example, Queen Dido is illustrated on the coin of the Tunisian dinar (on the photo near, click on the photo to enlarge). Let us look at the names of hotels: "Hannibal Palace" or "Carthage Thalasso", we shall remember the amusement park Carthage Land, and the range of souvenir shops abounds with objects with the theme of ancient Carthage. Modern Arabs are not embarrassed by the fact that they have nothing to do with the Phoenicians of Carthage.

The city of Carthage was founded in 814 BC. Within 500 years it had become the political center of all Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean. The Carthaginians conquered Sardinia, Corsica, part of Sicily and part of Spain. Carthage becomes a major maritime power with a battle fleet of over 300 ships.

Relations with the Roman Republic were initially good, with two treaties of alliance and trade relations signed in 508 and 348. However, a conflict of interest loomed, and the First Punic War took place between Rome and Carthage from 264 to 241. Rome wins and Carthage loses its lands in Sicily.

From 219 to 201, the Second Punic War took place. In this war, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca crossed the Alps with his army and defeated the Romans in Italy, with the Battle of Cannes, the biggest single-day battle of antiquity. But for every legion defeated by Hannibal, the Romans field a new one. The gigantic mobilization potential of the Roman Republic played a crucial role. At the end of the war, the Romans land near Carthage and win the decisive battle of Zama. Carthage loses all but a small area of land around the city.

The Third Punic War ends with the utter destruction of Carthage. All the inhabitants were either exterminated or led into slavery and the land was covered with salt so that nothing could grow there. We make a small note: salt was very expensive in those days and the Romans could not afford to add salt to the land; it was a symbolic spreading of salt, probably only one sack at most.

After 25 years, the people's tribune Gaius Gracchus offered to build a new city on the site of Carthage, but this initiative failed in the Senate. Julius Caesar was the next to come up with the idea, but his death by the knives of Brutus and other senators prevented these plans from coming to fruition. Emperor Octavian Augustus was next, and he had already succeeded.

The Romans carried out extensive earthworks and built a major new city. In time, Roman Carthage became the center of the province of Africa, the largest and richest city.

In 439, the city was conquered by the Vandals, in 553 it was conquered by the Byzantines, and in 698 by the Arabs. These three conquests proved fatal for the city.

Most of the ruins and artifacts that tourists look at belong to Roman Carthage. But there are some remains of buildings and objects from Punic Carthage.

Let's talk in detail about what tourists are looking at.

Byrsa Hill

Byrsa Hill was the center of the Punic city. It has been suggested that this was the site of the citadel, the last stronghold of the Carthaginian defense in the Third Punic War. It has also been suggested that the city's central temple dedicated to the god Baal Hammon was located there.

All this is speculation, the truth is now impossible to determine. The Romans had leveled the top of the hill when they built their colony by order of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, and destroyed all traces. This assumption is made on the basis of the records of the historian Strabo, who lived after the fall of Carthage, and on the basis of logic, because the hill is 57 meters (187 feet) high - an ideal place for a citadel.

However, some fragments of the Punic city have survived on the slopes of the hill, part of a Punic necropolis and some residential quarters. It is difficult to get a good idea of the organization of a Punic city there, for this it is better to go to Kerkuane.

The name of the hill "Byrsa" comes from the Greek word "byrsa", which translates as "skin". The hill is believed to have been acquired by Queen Dido from the Berbers after she belted the hill with strips of oxhide. This version of the name is put forward by the poet and historian Virgil.

The center of the Roman colony was also on top of the hill. There was a forum, the Capitol, a library and temples. The center of Roman Carthage consisted of two squares with public buildings. It was 12,000 and 13,000 square meters (3 and 3.2 acres), three times larger than the Forum of Augustus in Rome and 10 times larger than the average of the empire. The Romans were building a large city and the capital of the entire province of Africa from the start.

It's difficult to create any idea of the layout of the buildings, too little remains of them. The museum has a miniature model (pictured near, click on the photo to enlarge) showing visitors what the city center looked like in Roman times.

Nameplates are scattered around the hill, showing visitors what and where it was, a little help in navigating. How the excavation area looks now, see the photo gallery below, after this gallery, we will continue our story.

Byrsa Hill is very important to the French, as it was there King Louis IX, later canonized by the Catholic Church, died in 1270 during the Eighth Crusade. In 1830, the French agreed with the beys of Tunisia to build a chapel in his honor, and they built it in 1840. After the establishment of the French protectorate, the French built a large cathedral (from 1884 to 1890), which still stands today. The Cathedral of St Louis is no longer functioning as a church. After independence, it was closed and it was converted into a museum in 1993.

Carthage Museum

The museum is located on Byrsa Hill.

Important note: The toilet on Byrsa Hill is located NOT in the museum. To get to the toilet, walk along the colonnade to the end without entering the museum courtyard.

It is perhaps the museum that can be called the most interesting part of the tour. Little remains of the buildings in Carthage, but archeologists have unearthed thousands of artifacts from the ground. Some are in the Carthage Museum and some in the capital at the Bardo Museum.

There are not many exhibits in the museum worth talking about in detail. The huge mosaic should come first. It's best viewed from the first floor. Another extremely interesting piece is the sculpture of a chariot rider and his wife. Chariot races were as popular as gladiatorial fights in ancient Rome, and the champions of the sport were immortalized in marble. The death rate of the racers was even higher than that of the gladiators, which was an extremely dangerous occupation. See these two exhibits in the photo below.

Tourists want to see the Punic exhibits above all, the Roman ones are not so interesting. There aren't many Punic pieces, and you have to distinguish them somehow. Few guides will be able to help, most of them are not well versed in history.

Punic pottery was traditionally covered in red and black lacquer, so you can tell it apart. This style of ceramics decoration in Tunisia still remains today, and the potters in Guellala on Djerba Island love this style. The main thing is not to be confused with Greek pottery which was decorated in a similar style and a lot of Greek pottery has been found in Carthage.

Try and take a look at the explanatory signs, which are in Arabic and French, but some of the exhibits have signs in English. If you don't know any languages, look for Roman numerals indicating the age of the object's origin.

See the most interesting exhibits in our small gallery below. The article continues right after the gallery.

Antony's Thermae

The largest Roman baths in North Africa. There were several baths in Carthage, but these are the only ones archaeologists have been able to discover.

They were once a grandiose structure, 29 meters (95 feet) high and over 200 meters (656 feet) long. It served as a source of building materials for a long time, and now we can only see the ground floor. Only two columns remain of the upper floors, which have long been the visual "calling card" of Carthage.

Tourists go down and find themselves in a veritable maze, with dozens of rooms and corridors, many climbing through the ruins in order to take a photo at some high point. We urge caution, climbing the 1,900 year old structure can end in injury. Another warning - do not approach the white fence, as this is the residence of the country's president, the guards there may shoot without warning.

See photos of the place in the gallery below. After the gallery, continue reading.

The baths were adjoined by a block of flats, of which almost nothing remains. Walking through it, you can imagine the layout of the ancient city and see the ancient tombs. See a selection of photos below.

Other excavation areas

These areas are not shown on guided tours and can only be seen if you come there on your own or with a private guide.

The Magon Quarter is part of a Punic city that was partly rebuilt during the Roman and Byzantine eras. A visit to this place gives a glimpse of Punic Carthage.

The Roman Villas are several wealthy houses clustered in a once fashionable area of the city. Many amazing mosaics have been found there including the "Mosaic with Horses" and the "Mosaic with Birdcage".

The Theatre and Odeon could seat up to 5,000 spectators, which is surprising for such a large city, as Carthage had up to 300,000 inhabitants at the time of the Vandals' arrival. Little remains of the theater, but restorers got involved and parts of it have now been restored. It was on this spot that Winston Churchill gave his speech.

The Amphitheater had a classic oval shape and was used for gladiatorial fights, houndings and other entertainment. With a capacity of 30,000 spectators, the condition is poor and tourists may even find it difficult to recognise the Roman amphitheater in these ruins.

The Columns Building is an interesting object, a structure from which only the columns remain. The archaeologists have not understood the function of the building precisely, only hypotheses.

There are also the ruins of a dry dock and port in Carthage, the remains of an aqueduct and sewers and the foundations of several basilicas.

Important to know

- Cashiers do not accept credit cards. Nor do they accept any currency other than the Tunisian dinar. Change your money beforehand, read our detailed review "Currency exchange in Tunisia";

- On Friday (the holy day in Islam), the opening hours are normal. During Ramadan (Islamic holy month) the normal working hours at Carthage excavations are 8 am to 5 pm (8-00 to 17-00). However, this situation is observed at almost all attractions in Tunisia. Read our reviews "Friday in Tunisia" and "Ramadan in Tunisia";

- At the Carthage excavations there is almost no place to hide from the sun, only in the museum building. Don't forget to wear a hat and cover your shoulders to avoid getting sunburned. The insidious sun and other dangers were explained in detail in our interesting review "What tourists should not do in Tunisia".

Have a nice walk in Carthage and read our informative and useful pages about Tunisia for tourists (see the pages list below). © 2020-2024