Costa Smeralda evokes Sardinia’s classic images: pearly-white beaches and weird, wind-whipped licks of rock tapering into emerald seas. The stretch of dazzling coast that the Aga Khan bought for a pittance in the 1960s is today the playground of millionaires and A-listers.
Built high and mighty around a rocky citadel, Cagliari gazes out to the glistening Med, basks in southern sunshine and looks proudly back on almost 3000 years of history. Sardinia’s cultured, open-minded capital makes a fine base if you’re seeking more than the classic sun-and-sea mix, with a clutch of museums, baroque churches and fortifications begging exploration.
Forget flying: the best way to arrive in Cagliari is by sea, the city rising in a helter-skelter of golden-hued palazzi, domes and facades up to the rocky centrepiece, Il Castello. When DH Lawrence arrived in the 1920s, he compared the Sardinian capital to Jerusalem: ‘…strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.
Silky beaches, prehistoric treasures, haunting mines – Sardinia's southwest is rich in history and natural beauty. The main drawcard is its thrilling coastline, which stretches from the great untamed sands of the Costa Verde to the cliff-bound coves of the Iglesiente and the seductive bays of the Costa del Sud.
This part of central Sardinia boasts much of what makes the island such a beautiful and intriguing place: sublime beaches, vast tracts of verdant hills, ancient ruins and mysterious nuraghic temples. In the heart of it all is Oristano, one of Sardinia's great medieval cities. It's a lively place with a gracious historic centre and laid-back atmosphere.
One of Sardinia's most beautiful medieval cities, Alghero is the main resort in the northwest. Although largely given over to tourism – its population can almost quadruple in July and August – the town hasn't given up its unique character and it retains a proud and independent spirit.
Sassari, Sardinia's sprawling second city, requires a bit of work. On first sight, it's not an immediately appealing place, but persevere and you'll discover that beneath its rather scruffy veneer lies a proud and cultured university town with an unpretentious atmosphere and a bustling, workaday vibe.
North of Palau, the wind-whipped coast rises and falls like a rocky sculpture, culminating in the lunarlike headland of Capo Testa. Fine beaches stretch out towards Vignola in the west and sunny Santa Teresa di Gallura in the east, the fashionable heart of the summer scene on the north coast.
South of Iglesias, the SS126 unfolds into flatter, less-inspiring country as it runs down to the south's second largest city, Carbonia. Carbonia itself is of little interest but there are a couple of interesting sights in the vicinity. To the west, Portovesme is the embarkation point for ferries to the Isola di San Pietro.
To the north and west of Iglesias, the mountainous landscape is picturesque and strangely haunting. Wild green scrub cloaks the silent hills in a soft, verdant down, while abandoned houses serve as a poignant reminder of the mining communities that once thrived here. The coast is dramatic, offering superb seascapes.
Once an isolated hilltop village and a byword for banditry, Nuoro had its cultural renaissance in the 19th and early 20th centuries when it became a hotbed of artistic talent. Today museums in the historic centre pay homage to local legends like Nobel Prize–winning author Grazia Deledda, acclaimed poet Sebastiano Satta, novelist Salvatore Satta and sculptor Francesco Ciusa.
Bosa is one of Sardinia’s most attractive towns. Seen from a distance, its rainbow townscape resembles a vibrant Paul Klee canvas, with pastel houses stacked on a steep hillside, tapering up to a stark, grey castle. In front, moored fishing boats bob on a glassy river and palm trees line the elegant riverfront.