While mainland Italy spoils with its own set of charms, Sardinia positively dazzles travelers who are willing to dig a little deeper. Popular among A-listers and the European glitterati, Sardinia mesmerizes with its stunning natural beauty (think brilliant beaches and crystal-clear water) and its mysterious, ancient past. It's an outdoor adventurer's paradise as well, ideal for hiking, cycling, beach volleyball, jogging, and more. It offers both a sparkling, contemporary yacht culture and deep roots dating back to the Bronze Age. With their medieval streets, cozy cafés, and restaurants, its charming towns are enchanting.
Sardinia is its own place, an island off the coast of central Italy. This is a new culture, a new cuisine, and a new take on life. Tell the mainland to move over -- it's time to become enamored with Sardinia. Here are some of the best things to do on this island paradise.
Bask On The Beach
Visiting Sardinia and skipping the beach is like visiting Mexico’s Riviera Maya and skipping the beach. Life on this tiny Mediterranean island revolves around the sea, so homage must be paid to its shores. Even during the off-season, you’ll find locals getting their daily dose of exercise on the beach, whether in the form of beach volleyball, beach tennis, walking, running, or biking. Indeed, one look at the shimmering, turquoise water, and beach time will be a difficult thing to say no to.
But on an island with 1,148 miles of coastline, where should you begin? The most posh of Sardinia’s coastlines is certainly Costa Smeralda, or the Emerald Coast. This is the playground of Europe's rich and famous, where the well heeled and glamorous come to sip Negronis beachside or parade around on one of the fabulous yachts. It's certainly a scene to drink in, but Sardinia is home to more mellow beaches as well. Take, for example, the Golfo di Orosei on the island’s east coast, home to several hidden beaches and coves. Hire a local gommone, or dinghy, and prepare for epic views, private beach excursions, and perhaps even a dolphin sighting or two.
Experience The Castello Neighborhood
Charming doesn’t even begin to describe the historic and photogenic Castello neighborhood of Sardinia's capital, Cagliari. The city itself has been inhabited for thousands of years. Within its most historic neighborhood is a hilltop citadel with medieval streets. Take some time to explore the archaeological museum or the 13th-century Cathedral of Cagliari. The city walls are just a few steps from fascinating Roman and Carthaginian ruins as well. For the best view in the town, be sure to climb the Bastione di Saint Remy, a limestone structure from which you can drink in views of the Mediterranean and Cagliari. At the top of the Bastione is the cathedral, so the climb is certainly worth it. Don't forget to sit and relax as the locals do, whiling away a few afternoon hours at one of the bars or restaurants. Try L’Imperfetto, a small restaurant off a quiet street away from the touristy area. The food is made with love, and the wine is exceptional. Don’t skip the antipasti or the risotto.
Travel Back In Time To The Bronze Age
It might seem crazy to pry yourself away from the pristine beaches and picture-perfect towns of Sardinia to head inland and chase the shadows of the past. But no trip to Sardinia is complete without a dive into its mysterious history. Not much is known about the Nuraghi except that they were shepherds and farmers who lived in small communities in Sardinia about 3,500 years ago; they inhabited the island for about 800 years. All that is left of their community are the 7,000 shadowy stone towers they left behind. Their purpose isn’t known for sure, though archaeologists believe they were territorial markers. One of the most popular examples is at Su Nuraxi di Barumini, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site two decades ago. Explore this piece of history that features more than 200 homes and 11 towers within a castle complex.
Revel In Roman Ruins
Rocket ahead a few centuries and discover Sardinia’s Roman side at Nora, about a 45-minute drive from Cagliari. Nora was initially founded by the Phoenicians, but the Romans took over in the third century B.C. The market town is now very beautifully preserved and provides a glimpse into Roman times.
The archaeological site of Tharros, near the Golfo di Oristano, is home to another fascinating set of ruins. Some of the ruins date to the eighth century B.C., when the town was founded by the Phoenicians. The rest, including an aqueduct, baths, and other large monuments, date to the second and third centuries A.D. Travelers can follow the Cardo Massimo, the main artery of the city, to the remains of a Punic temple and the Roman Tempio Tetrastilo. Tip: Climb the 16th-century Torre di San Giovanni watchtower for a bird's-eye view of the ruins.
Explore One Of The Largest Marine Caves In Italy
Did you know that there is a Catalan presence on Sardinia? The northwest coast of Sardinia, particularly the town of Alghero, faces Spain, and Spanish traditions and the Catalan language have trickled over the Mediterranean to the island. Algherese Catalan is much closer to Spanish than Italian.
This part of Sardinia is also known for its gorgeous caves, particularly those between Porto Conte and Capo Caccia. Of particular note is Neptune's Grotto, one of the largest marine caves in Italy and truly a jewel of the Mediterranean. The grotto was formed two million years ago, and you can still pass through its many rooms to marvel at the monumental rock formations as well as the underground lake. You can get to the grotto via boats that depart daily from Alghero -- or, if you're feeling adventurous, you can climb the 654 cliff-clinging steps.
Visit The Area’s Other Islands
Now that you've made it off the coast of the mainland, go one step further and venture off the coast of Sardinia. The sea around Sardinia is dotted with several other islands. First, visit the island of San Pietro, located in the Archipelago of Sulcis off the southeast coast of Sardinia. The only town there is Carloforte, and it boasts uninterrupted views of the sea and nature. You can reach Carloforte by ferry from Calasetta, a small town on the island of Sant'Antioco, or Portoscuso on mainland Sardinia. The Archipelago of La Maddalena, north of Sardinia, is home to several unspoiled islands with friendly people and stunning views of Corsica. A bit farther afield from the main tourist trail, these islands are the perfect places to experience peaceful, laid-back living off the coast of one of Europe’s most heavily trafficked tourist destinations.
Eating In Sardinia
Eating in Italy is an adventure all on its own. In fact, you could build an entire itinerary around it. Each region has its own style and specialties, and Sardinia is no different. Get ready to dive into some truly decadent and unique Sardinian cuisine.
It goes by many different names around the world, but Sardinia's bottarga -- a delicacy of salted, cured fish roe -- is probably the destination’s most famous dish. A staple in pantries across Sardinia, the dish is often served with vegetables or, more commonly, heaped on fresh pasta.
You’ve heard of ravioli. Now meet ravioli’s Mediterranean-born cousin, culurgiones. These chubby dumplings are native to Sardinia, particularly to the province of Ogliastra. The filling is commonly made with potatoes, olive oil, pecorino cheese, garlic, mint, and nutmeg, but that varies from region to region. In southern Sardinia, for example, culurgiones are often prepared with ricotta cheese, meat, egg, and saffron and seasoned with basil, pecorino, sauce, and spinach. No matter which type you choose, you’ll enjoy something truly Sardinian.
A crunchy flatbread, pane carasau, can be found across Sardinia. There are two types of carasau bread: guttiau and frattau. Pane guttiau involves olive oil, salt, and pecorino Romano cheese, while pane frattau involves tomato sauce, olive oil, eggs, Spanish onion, thyme, garlic, carrots, and pecorino Sardo. Both are incredibly popular items on the island.
Every Italian destination has its own delicious wine. Sardinia’s is known as Cannanou. This red wine is made from the grenache grape, which is said to have been brought to the island by the Spanish. Cannanou is grown all over the island, but the best examples come from the eastern portion of the island, particularly the Nuoro, Ogliastra, and Cagliari provinces. Try the fortified versions -- you’ll see the word liquoroso on the label -- that are higher in alcohol content, sweeter, and best paired with desserts.
Shopping In Sardinia
You can find everything from designer labels and sparkly things to traditional coral jewelry, linens, rugs, and ceramics in Sardinia’s stores. No matter your taste or style, there is a boutique or market to match it in Sardinia.
Porto Cervo is where the rich and famous go to see and be seen, so it’s no surprise that the stores here cater to the yacht community. The Piazzetta is home to the most esteemed Italian designer names. Esmeralda is a beachfront boutique specializing in high-end women's fashion and accessories.
Agostino Marogna on the west coast of the island sells Sardinia's famous coral jewelry. Coral has been harvested off the coast of the island for years, and this is the region's premier place to buy a range of jewelry, from necklaces to brooches and more.
Breathe in and smell that wonderfully buttery Italian leather. Calzoleria Naitana, one of the oldest shops in Alghero's Centro Storico, has been selling handmade leather belts and sandals since the 1940s.