When planning my Tunisia itinerary, I knew one of the places I absolutely must visit there in El Jem Amphitheatre. This is the third largest amphitheatre from Roman times in the world, slightly smaller yet so much better preserved than the Colosseum in Rome. In 1979 El Jem Amphitheatre was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and it’s clear why – this is hands down one of the best landmarks in Tunisia.
I don’t know what I expected before visiting El Jem Amphitheatre, but my jaw dropped once I entered the site. It is a truly spectacular place, and since all its features and corners are accessible for visitors to explore, sightseeing there is so much more enjoyable. Not to mention hardly any people around since Tunisia (beyond the seaside resorts) is still not as widely popular as it should be.
Even if getting to El Jem took a while, I don’t regret it at all, and I can definitely recommend visiting El Jem Amphitheatre to everyone who plans to visit Tunisia. I put together this guide so you can plan your trip to El Jem smoothly too!
Where is El Jem, Tunisia
El Jem, a town of a bit over twenty thousand inhabitants, is located in the eastern part of Tunisia. Tunis, the capital of the country, is located some 200 km north of El Jem, and Sousse, the third largest city in Tunisia and a popular holiday destination is 70 km north.
A brief history of the El Jem Amphitheatre
The magnificent Amphitheatre was built in the town of Thysdrus (a Roman colony, today’s El Jem) in 238 AD. Its construction was commissioned by the local proconsul Gordian, later known as Emperor Gordian III.
Just like other similar structures in Roman times, El Jem Amphitheatre was also built for events popular at that time (such as gladiator fights). With a capacity of around 35.000 and an ellipse shape with dimensions of 148 meters and 122 meters, this was and still is one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world. Today this is the most spectacular remnant from Roman times in Africa and the unique landmark on this continent.
Over the centuries, El Jem Amphitheatre served as a fortress where locals could hide during attacks, such as those in 430 (by Vandals) and 647 (by Arabs). At the end of the 17th century, during the Revolutions of Tunis, the western part of the wall was blown up to rout the local tribes. In the second half of the 19th century, El Jem Amphitheatre was used for shops, dwellings, and grain storage.
Eventually, the place became a major tourist attraction in Tunisia and a popular place to visit. It was also used as a filming location for movies like “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” or the Nike commercial (you can watch it here).
How to get to El Jem
Getting to El Jem is actually really easy. You can take the direct train either from Tunis or from Sousse, which will take you to the center of El Jem, not far from the Amphitheatre. At the time of writing this article, there are five direct trains from Tunis to El Jem, departing from the capital at 6:15, 9:50, 13:05, 14:15, and 21:20 and back from El Jem at 03:35, 06:13, 07:59, 11:59, and 14:28. All the trains go via Sousse. You can check the current schedule at the website of Tunisian railways here.
The journey time from Tunis is around 3,5 hours (depending on the connection), and from Sousse, around 1,5 hours. You can easily plan a day trip to El Jem from both Sousse and Tunis using trains only, although coming from the capital, you will spend many hours on the train (but it is doable). When I went to visit El Jem Amphitheatre, I took the 6:15 train from Tunis and then back at 11:59 (going to Sousse).
During my trip in January 2023, I paid around 14 TND ($4,60/€4,20) for the first class ticket from Tunis to El Jem and 6 TND ($2/€1,80) from El Jem to Sousse. You can get the tickets shortly before the departure (that’s what most people do anyway), it’s possible to buy them only at the train station, tickets are currently not available online.
Tunisian trains are a bit outdated and rusty but still comfortable in the first class; I had a pretty comfortable journey each time I took them.
El Jem Amphitheatre tours
If you are not convinced to take the train, you can visit El Jem Amphitheatre with a tour. This actually isn’t such a bad option as you will have a guide with you who will tell you all about this magnificent site and will answer all your questions. You can also visit more than just El Jem during your tour.
Here are the best El Jem tours:
- Kairouan and El Jem Private Day Tour with Lunch
- Private Tour to Kairouan, El Jem & Monastir with Lunch from Tunis
- Half-day excursion from Sousse to the amphitheater of El Jem
- Private Half Day Excursion Amphitheater of EL JEM
How to visit the El Jem Amphitheatre
Once you arrive at El Jem, the Amphitheatre is located a short walk away from the train station (10 minutes max). It’s a straight way, really – once you leave the station building, you need to go slightly left and then all the way straight. Here is the map with the exact route.
The El Jem Amphitheatre is open daily, in the summertime (May 1st-September 15th) from 07:30 to 19:00, and in the wintertime from 8:00 to 17:30. When I visited the place, the ticket was 12 TND (around $4/€3,60). The ticket office and the entrance are located on the right side of the small square in front of the Amphitheatre. Once you have a ticket and go through the security control, you are free to explore the site.
During my visit to the ancient sites in Carthage, there were guides hanging around, ready to show you the area for a small fee. That’s what I expected in El Jem too. But when I was at the El Jen Amphitheatre, I didn’t see any guides (at least no one approached me). Too bad, as I would gladly have someone to explain all the details about this magnificent place. That said, maybe I was simply unlucky, and you will find someone to show you the place. To be sure, you can always opt for the tour option.
What to expect at the El Jem Amphitheatre
While the Colosseum in Rome is visited by millions of tourists each year, the Amphitheatre in El Jem is mostly empty. This gives you a perfect opportunity to literally see every corner of it without dealing with crowds and pushing around. When I visited the place on a sunny day in early January, there were maybe a dozen people around (and one local school group) – I couldn’t have asked for better timing!
The best thing about visiting El Jem Amphitheatre is now open to the public this place is. You can visit every corner of the arena, from the basement, where rooms for gladiators or animal cages were located, to the upper parts and all three levels designated for spectators.
El Jem Amphitheatre is one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world that can give you a great overview of the long-gone times. It is, in fact, in a much better shape than the Colosseum. Two-thirds of the walls with 68 arches (out of the original 90), as well as the arena’s floor, remained until today.
The El Jem Amphitheatre was the prototype for the scenery in the famous “Gladiator” movie. Some sources even say it was filmed here, but it was actually made in Morocco, among other places. The amphitheater you can see in the film was the movie set created for filming purposes.
If you happen to visit Tunisia in the summertime, you might get lucky enough to attend the international symphony festival that takes place in the beautiful scenery of the El Jem Amphitheatre. Listening to classical music performed live in this splendid place must be a magical experience. You can find the event’s details here.
I spent around one hour visiting El Jem Amphitheatre. I was not in a hurry, I carefully explored all areas of the site and took many pictures around. But the truth is, you can easily spend the whole day here, exploring the site in great detail and reflecting on the past and the grand importance of the place.
Where to go next
Besides the Amphitheatre, there is not much else to see in El Jem. You can visit the local museum with a large selection of mosaics and a restored Roman Villa; you can also wander a bit around the town to get a feel of everyday life in Tunisia.
From El Jem, you can continue your journey either north to Kairouan / Sousse / Tunis or one of the seaside resorts or south via Sfax towards Djerba island.
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