Sandwiched between Libya and Algeria lies a “North African gem,” said Jason George in the Chicago Tribune. While Tunisia shares borders with those countries, it doesn’t share their most serious problems. Having lived and traveled in the Arab world, I can say with confidence that “I’ve never felt more at ease in the region or more welcomed as a tourist than I did in Tunisia.” The country’s remarkable ecological diversity takes in portions of the Sahara Desert and Atlas Mountains, as well as “800 miles of Mediterranean seacoast.” Cultural, historical, and geographical riches are all crammed into a “stretch of land the size of Wisconsin.”

My trip started in the capital, Tunis, a former French colonial city that still “exudes European chic.” The Avenue de Paris acts as the spine of the city; its colorful “mix of cathedrals and mosques, smart boutiques and butcher shops, hints just how much this city straddles two worlds.” (Both French and Arabic are official national languages.) The Bardo Museum houses a “stunning collection of mosaics from the third and fourth” centuries, many of which were collected nearby, at the site of ancient Carthage. A day trip to the ruins of Rome’s defeated rival costs only eight dinars (about $5.50) in a taxi and even less by rail, though “taking in the magnitude of the destroyed city” is an experience worth any price.

You can’t get a sense of the whole Tunisia, however, without venturing deep into the desert. Nearly three-quarters of the country is covered by arid wasteland “unlike anything you’ll find on the European side of the Mediterranean”—though some sites may seem oddly familiar. The ancient Roman settlement of El Djem is where Gladiator was filmed; farther south lie abandoned sets from a recent Star Wars installment, littering the Sahara like a “ghost village.” Sign up for a daylong desert tour leaving from Tozeur. “Don’t miss the chance to try matabga, ‘Berber pizza,’” which is cooked in the sand itself. Listen to the background music of “wild camel grunts and the desert wind.” Then watch the sunset over a “Martian vista of mountains” that may make you wonder what planet you’re really on.