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10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Monastir

Snugly wrapping around the coast, the historic city of Monastir is prime beach territory and it is these blissful strips of sandy shore that are top of most visitors' things to do list. But the city has many more sightseeing options for those who want to do more than soak up the sun. The Ribat, perched right on the coast, is one of Tunisia's most impressive relics of the Islamic era. Next door to the Ribat is the opulent Mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, named after the founder of the modern Tunisian Republic, which magnificently blends traditional and modern Tunisian architecture. This is also one of the best bases from which to see the mighty El Djem amphitheater, rightly considered one of Tunisia's top tourist attractions.

1 Ribat

Ribat
Ribat
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Right on the sea is Monastir's most famous point of interest: the Ribat, built by Harthama ben Ayan in AD 796. Movie-buffs will instantly find the building familiar as it played a starring role in Monty Python's Life of Brian film and also featured in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Like the Ribat of Sousse, it is one of the oldest Arab fortresses in North Africa.

On the southeast side is the three-story Nador tower, from the top of which are fine views of the yachting harbor, the cemetery and the Bourguiba Mausoleum, the Great Mosque, and the roofs of the medina. An imposing gateway on the west side of the Ribat leads into the inner courtyard, surrounded on three sides by buildings several stories high and containing the accommodation cells, store-rooms, and case-mates. The main living quarters were separated by another gateway from other buildings (perhaps women's quarters), probably added in the ninth century. The Islamic Museum now occupies the former prayer hall on the upper floor.

Address: Rte de la Falaise, Monastir

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Monastir

2 Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum

Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum
Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum
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The mammoth Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum sits on the northern edge of Monastir cemetery. Its opulent splendor, topped with a golden dome, is a tribute to Tunisia's first president after independence from the French. Built in 1963, this burial mosque holds the bodies of ex-President Bourguiba as well as his family. Two 25-meter slender minarets are made of Italian marble, while the facade is covered with beautifully delicate tiling work. The tomb of Bourguiba itself sits amid a dazzling interior of glass-inlay and underneath a spectacular chandelier.

Address: Rte de la Falaise, Monastir

3 Bourguiba Mosque

Bourguiba Mosque
Bourguiba Mosque
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As the birthplace of Tunisia's favorite son - Habib Bourguiba, founder of the Tunisian Republic - Monastir is home to a grand mosque in tribute to the ex-president. Taieb Bouzguenda built the Habib Bourguiba Mosque in 1963. It was modeled on the Hammouda Pacha Mosque in Tunis, and boasts a 41-meter-high octagonal minaret and a prayer hall that can accommodate a congregation of a thousand worshipers.

Nearby, inside Monastir's tourist office (ONTT), is a small Costume Museum with exhibits of wedding costumes from all over Tunisia. On Rue Trabelsia is the Musée du Mouvement National (National Movement Museum), which is devoted to the history of Tunisia's struggle for independence from the French.

Address: Rue de l'Indépendance, Monastir

4 Medina

Medina
Medina
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Monastir's medina (Old Town) has been painstakingly restored and has, unfortunately, lost much of its authentic charm in the process. It's still a lovely place to wander about and explore, especially if the heat on the beach becomes too much. The shopping opportunities within the souk streets are endless, with handmade ceramics, woodwork, silverware, and leather work all on display. As the medina shops are geared towards tourism, be aware that prices are correspondingly high.

Location: Central Monastir

5 Cemetery

Cemetery
Cemetery
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Immediately northwest of the Ribat lies Monastir's atmospheric cemetery, which holds a vast number of beautiful old tombs. Many are decorated with bands of Kufic inscriptions and faience tiles. In particular, look out for the 12th-century tomb of Sidi el Mazeri, a Sicilian born marabout (Muslim holy man) who preached here. The cemetery is photogenic and is also a peaceful spot for a meander after exploring the tall towers of the Ribat, which rise up above the white tombstones. Just to the south of the cemetery and Ribat is Monastir's Great Mosque, built in the 9th century. The structure was enlarged by the Zirid dynasty in the 11th century.

Address: Rte de la Falaise, Monastir

6 Harbor

Harbor
Harbor
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Monastir's pretty seafront promenade (known as the Corniche) leads to the Port de Plaisance harbor, where pleasure yachts bob jauntily on the Mediterranean. Local yacht operators here can organize trips out onto the Mediterranean for a lazy day of swimming and sunbathing. At sunset, this is a favored place to head for an evening stroll, to catch some fresh sea air. Just past the harbor area is the modern beachfront resort complex known as Village Touristique, where most of Monastir's luxury hotels lie.

Address: Port de Plaisance, Monastir

7 El Djem

El Djem
El Djem
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For most foreign tourists, a holiday in Monastir wouldn't be complete without a day trip to the mighty El Djem amphitheater, an easy 60-kilometer drive away from town. This mammoth Roman relic can also be easily visited from Sousse, Sfax, or Mahdia. One of the finest examples of surviving Roman amphitheater architecture in the world and the largest remaining in Africa, El Djem is one of Tunisia's not-to-be-missed star attractions. The wonderfully atmospheric monument transports you back to the glory days of the Roman Empire.

Location: 60 kilometers from Monastir

8 Skanès

Skanès
Skanès
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The northern suburb of Skanès (just off Route de la Falaise) is packed full of gorgeous, dazzlingly-white villas and luxury hotels that have incorporated traditional Tunisian architecture into their mid-century modern architectural design. This upper-class suburb is also where some of Monastir's best beaches lie, so a trip here is on the Monastir itinerary of most sand sloths. The road to Skanès' main tourist district passes the former Presidential Palace, enclosed by high walls and an ornate wrought-iron gate.

Location: North from Rte de la Falaise

9 Monastir Beaches

Monastir Beaches
Monastir Beaches
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For many visitors, Monastir's main attraction lies in its strips of perfect white sand. The town itself hugs the coastline, surrounded by beaches stretching along the coast in both directions. All the beaches in this area are kept clean and host excellent facilities, with restaurants and cafés galore to choose from plus sunshades and loungers to rent. Many of the beaches also have water sports and boating opportunities for those who don't just want to laze around soaking up the sun.

10 Moknine

If you're looking for an easy half-day trip from Monastir, head to Moknine. Sitting alongside the shores of a salt lake, this little town is noted for the finely-worked ceramics and jewelry produced by its artisans. In the town center, don't miss a visit to Moknine's folk museum, which occupies the former Mosque of Sidi Babana. The building is interesting for its original architecture (an example of the type of "tube-vaulting" found at Bulla Regia) as well as for its exhibits on local culture and artistry.

Location: 15 kilometers south of Monastir

History

The Phoenicians first settled Monastir, establishing a trading station named Rous Penna here. Under the Romans, the town was named Ruspina, and during the civil war with Pompey (49-46 BC) Caesar made this his North African headquarters. When the Arabs arrived in the region, they recognized the strategic value of this site, right on the tip of the peninsula, and built the Ribat here. It was from here that the Arabs launched a series of campaigns against the Christian island of Sicily.

The Ribat retained its military importance into Tunisia's Ottoman era, when the local Ottoman Beys (rulers) made it a powerful stronghold. Monastir's importance only waned when Tunisia became a French protectorate, and the town lost its strategic significance.

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