Sardinia captivates with its wild hinterland, out-of-this-world beaches and endearing eccentricities. Here coastal drives thrill, prehistory puzzles and four million sheep rule the roads.
Sardinia has some of the dreamiest beaches you’ll find without stepping off European shores. Yes, the sand really is that white, and the sea the bluest blue. Imagine dropping anchor in Costa Smeralda’s scalloped bays, where celebrities and supermodels frolic in emerald waters; playing castaway on the Golfo di Orosei’s coves, where sheer cliffs ensure seclusion; or sailing to La Maddalena’s cluster of granite islands. Whether you're walking barefoot across the dunes on the wave-lashed Costa Verde or lounging on the Costa del Sud’s silky smooth bays, unroll your beach towel and you’ll never want to leave.
Whether you go slow or fast, choose coast or country, Sardinia is one of Europe’s last great island adventures. Hike through the lush, silent interior to the twilight of Tiscali’s nuraghic ruins. Walk the vertiginous coastal path to the crescent-shaped bay of Cala Luna, where climbers spider up the limestone cliffs. Or ramble through holm oak forests to the mighty boulder-strewn canyon of Gola Su Gorropu. The sea’s allure is irresistible to windsurfers on the north coast, while divers wax lyrical about shipwrecks off Cagliari’s coast, the underwater Nereo Cave and Nora’s submerged Roman ruins.
Island of Idiosyncrasies
As DH Lawrence so succinctly put it: ‘Sardinia is different’. Indeed, where else but here can you go from near-alpine forests to snow-white beaches, or find wildlife oddities such as the blue-eyed albino donkeys on the Isola dell’Asinara and the wild horses that shyly roam Giara di Gesturi. The island is also a culinary one-off, with distinct takes on pasta, bread and dolci, its own wines (Vermentino whites, Cannonau reds) and cheeses – including maggoty casu marzu pecorino, stashed away in barns in the mountainous interior. In every way we can think of Sardinia is different, and all the more loveable for it.
Sardinia has been polished like a pebble by the waves of its history and heritage. The island is scattered with 7000 nuraghi, Bronze Age towers and settlements, tombe dei giganti ('giant's grave' tombs) and domus de janas ('fairy house' tombs). Down every country lane and in every 10-man, 100-sheep hamlet, these remnants of prehistory are waiting to be pieced together like the most puzzling of jigsaw puzzles. Sardinia is also an island of fabulously eccentric festivals, from Barbagia’s carnival parade of ghoulish mamuthones, said to banish winter demons, to the death-defying S’Ardia horse race in Sedilo.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sardinia.
In the heart of the voluptuous green countryside near Barumini, the Nuraghe Su Nuraxi is Sardinia’s sole World Heritage Site and the island’s most visited nuraghe. The focal point is the 1500 BC tower, which originally stood on its own but was later incorporated into a fortified compound. Many of the settlement's buildings were erected in the Iron Age, and it's these that constitute the beehive of circular interlocking buildings that tumble down the hillside. Hours vary by month – check the website.
The last beachette of the gulf, Cala Goloritzè rivals the best. At the southern end, bizarre limestone formations soar away from the cliffside. Among them is jaw-dropping Monte Caroddi, also known as the Aguglia, a 148m-high needle of rock beloved of climbers. Many boat trips will take you here, or you can hike in from the Altopiano del Golgo on the beautiful, 3.5km Cala Goloritzè Trail. Note that the beach itself is rather small and can get crowded in summer; boats cannot land as it's protected park.
Hidden in a mountaintop cave deep in the Valle di Lanaittu, the mysterious nuraghic village of Tiscali is one of Sardinia’s must-see archaeological highlights. Dating from the 6th-century BC and populated until Roman times, the village was discovered in the late 19th century. At the time it was relatively intact, but since then grave robbers have done a pretty good job of looting the place, stripping the conical stone-and-mud huts down to the skeletal remains that you see today.
About 2.5km north of Stintino, the Spiaggia della Pelosa is a dreamy image of beach perfection: a salt-white strip of sand lapped by shallow, turquoise seas and fronted by strange, almost lunar, licks of rocky land. Completing the picture is an Aragonese watchtower and the craggy Isola Piana. The beach gets extremely busy in July and August, but is popular throughout the year, especially with wind- and kitesurfers, who take to its waters when the maestrale wind whips through.
Reachable only by boat or by a demanding three-hour trek from the Altopiano del Golgo, Cala Mariolu is arguably one of the most sublime spots on the coast. Split in two by a cluster of bright limestone rocks, it has virtually no sand. Don’t let the smooth white pebbles put you off, though. The water that laps these beaches ranges from transparent white at the water’s edge through countless shades of blue on to a deep purplish hue.
Sardinia's most spectacular gorge is flanked by limestone walls towering up to 500m in height. The endemic (and endangered) Aquilegia nuragica plant grows here, and at quieter times it’s possible to spot mouflon and golden eagles. From the Rio Flumineddu riverbed you can explore about 1km into the boulder-strewn ravine without climbing gear; follow the markers. Near the narrowest point (just 4m wide) you reach the formidable Hotel Supramonte, a tough 8b multipitch climb up a vertical 400m rock face.
Crowning the Bonaria hill, around 1km southeast of Via Roma, this religious complex is a hugely popular pilgrimage site. Devotees come from all over the world to visit the understated 14th-century Gothic church sanctuary and pray to Nostra Signora di Bonaria, a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ that supposedly saved a ship’s crew during a storm. To the right of the sanctuary, and accessible through a connecting door, the towering basilica still acts as a landmark to returning sailors.
Alghero's golden sea walls, built around the centro storico by the Aragonese in the 16th century, are a highlight of the town's historic cityscape. Running from Piazza Sulis in the south to Porta a Mare and the marina in the north, they're crowned by a pedestrianised path that commands superb views over to Capo Caccia on the blue horizon. Restaurants and bars line the walkway, providing the perfect perch to sit back and lap up the holiday atmosphere.
Cagliari’s graceful 13th-century cathedral stands proudly on Piazza Palazzo. Except for the square-based bell tower, little remains of the original Gothic structure: the clean Pisan-Romanesque facade is a 20th-century imitation, added between 1933 and 1938. Inside, the once-Gothic church has all but disappeared beneath a rich icing of baroque decor, the result of a radical late-17th-century makeover. Bright frescoes adorn the ceilings, and the side chapels spill over with exuberant sculptural whirls.