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Tunisia has a lot of Roman heritage of which two places are highlights: Dougga Roman town (covered in my 2-week Tunisia itinerary as well) and the Amphitheatre El Jem. El Jem is best visited as a day trip from Sousse / Monastir or even from Tunis. If you’re coming from Sousse, then a half day Sfax medina tour is a highly recommended add-on. In this travel guide I recommend you how to plan your day trip from Sousse and get the most out of your time. I’m sure you’re impressed by this magnificent amphitheater and the medina of Sfax.
El Jem day trip
I did this El Jem day trip while I was roadtripping in Tunisia and it was one of the highlights for sure. There are a few points of interest in El Jem but the El Jem Amphitheater is of course the, literary, biggest highlight. It’s one of the largest and best preserved Roman amphitheaters. I’ll first give you some tips on how to get there and hen take you on an El Jem tour.
A two week Tunisia itinerary: a road trip to all the highlights
How to get to El Jem Amphitheater
El Jem is located between Sousse and Sfax and can be reached by car or train. If you also visit Sfax medina as a half day trip, the only option you have is by car as you won’t have time otherwise. I recommend a car, weather self-drive or with driver in any case. Car hire is cheap in Tunisia. You’re also more flexible to get to the museum quickly and drive a bit around town. Of course, you can also join a group tour, but I don’t like this as I travel different as others and others different as me. That doesn’t work.
I drove from Sousse in about an hour to El Jem where I arrived just before 10AM. If you’re coming from Tunis, then the trip will take just over 3 hours so adding Sfax from Tunis is not option. The drive is straightforward over the highway. Start at the Roman amphitheater first, then the museum.
El Jem day trip: The Roman amphitheater
If you arrive before 10AM you should have the place a bit for yourself as the tourist groups arrive later. Entrance was just 10 TD and for photography I had to pay 1 TD more. Not expensive for a UNESCO World Heritage Site of this size.
El Jem in Roman time was called Thysdrus. The amphitheater was completed in the mid-3rd century and had a capacity of 35.000 spectators. As with most Roman cities the amphitheater was much larger as the total inhabitants. This was the case in Thysdrus as well where emperor Gordian III was responsible for the construction. After the fall of the Roman Empire the El Jem amphitheater served as fortress, re-use of blocks for other constructions, factory, and storage. Today, what is left, and that’s a lot, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once I was inside, I first walked up to the right (more open) side. To get some great photos of an almost empty amphitheater. Only then I released that the El Jem amphitheater is huge. I continued walking towards the other side, continued to the front again through the middle and then climbed to the top. Don’t forget to visit the dungeons as well where the gladiators and animals resided.
I recommend spending about 90 minutes at the amphitheater. After the visit continue to the El Jem museum where many mosaics are on display, a Roman villa is rebuilt and old foundations of Thysdrus are visible.
El Jem day trip: Museum & Roman Villa
The museum in El Jem is most famous for its Roman villa and mosaics. Entrance is included in the ticket of the El Jem amphitheater.
There are various rooms with mosaics that were found in the old roman city on which El Jem is built. Behind the museum you can see a part of the old Roman city Thysdrus. A Roman villa is also reconstructed at the premise which gives a good understanding of how the Romans lived.
Spend about 45 minutes here. It should be about 12:30 when you finish so you have time to drive to Sfax and have lunch there. If you’re an early lunch eater you can take lunch in El Jem first and then drive to Sfax. It’s about an hour drive south to Sfax.
Sfax medina tour
Sfax is a city that isn’t on many Tunisia itineraries. I don’t know why because it has a lovely old medina with beautiful city walls, Kasbah, museums and of course souks. It’s much more local and of the beaten track compared to Tunis or Sousse. You’ll get a much better impression of the local life in Tunisia. A half day Sfax medina tour is easily added to an El Jem day trip. If you go on an organized tour to El Jem ask to go to Sfax as well! It’s well worth it.
How to get to Sfax
Sfax has an airport but not many flights go and arrive there so you’ll probably not arriving that way. Sfax is 1 hour south of El Jem, so 2 hours south of Sousse or 4 hours south of Tunis by car. You can also drive up from Djerba but if you plan a Sfax medina tour it’s best done while doing a road trip in northern Tunisia. I would say Sfax is the most southern place of interest in north Tunisia. I parked my car near the Sfax museum (closed for renovations) but you can park close to any entrance of the medina.
Sfax medina tour: Wander the souks
The Sfax medina dates to the 9th century and has kept is medieval atmosphere and looks. This is one of the reasons the medina is now a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. Do I think it will be? Read on! Entrance to the Sfax medina is free but some places of interest ask a small entrance fee.
A two week Tunisia itinerary: a road trip to all the highlights
When I entered to start my Sfax medina tour I directly noticed there were no other tourist. It was just locals and it was very authentic. As I entered from the opposite of the Grand Mosque, I decided to explore the souks first and make my way to the Great Mosque of Sfax. I love those narrow streets as after each turn there is a new surprise and a great view. I wandered around for 45 minutes after which I explored the mosque.
Museum Dar Jallouli
Next up was the Museum Dar Jallouli. It’s one of the old houses in Sfax that have a common architecture called El Dar. These houses have a, mostly beautiful decorated, patio with rooms surrounding it. They have several floors. This house was built in the 17th century by refugees from Spain. It was then bought by the al-Jalouili family and turned into the Regional Museum of Arts and Folk Traditions in the 20th century. You can learn here about the traditions of Sfax.
The Sfax Kasbah is in the southwestern corner and was close to my parking spot. I finished my Sfax Medina tour here.
A Kasbah is a fort inside a medina and often incorporated into the wall. At the top you have a magnificent view! Today it’s a museum where you can learn about traditional architecture.
If you have time left, you can wander around the Sfax medina a bit more. There are some tombs and other beautiful houses to see. Most not accessible for tourists but worth looking at the facades. It was already late afternoon when I returned to Sousse which was my base for the 2nd half of my Tunisia 2-week road trip. I really enjoyed El Jem and Sfax, so I recommend combining these two places into one day trip from Sousse.
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Did you visit El Jem Amphitheatre & Sfax Medina too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!
Gallery El Jem & Sfax
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