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 Nuraxi tower, the oldest part of the complex, originally rose to a height of 18.6m and had three floors, each housing a single tholos (internal chamber). It was subsequently strengthened in around 1200 BC with the addition of four subsidiary towers and a massive curtain wall. The first village huts arrived in the Bronze Age, between the 11th and 9th centuries BC, though many of the ruins you see today date to a later phase of construction in the 6th and 7th centuries BC. As the village grew, a more complex defensive wall was built around the core, consisting of nine towers with arrow slits. Weapons in the form of massive stone balls have also been unearthed here. In the 7th century BC the site was partly destroyed but not abandoned. In fact it grew and it was still inhabited in Roman times. Elements of basic sewerage and canalisation have even been identified. The site was rediscovered by Giovanni Lilliu (Sardinia's most famous archaeologist) in 1949, after torrential rains eroded the compacted earth that had covered the nuraghe and made it look like just another Marmilla hillock. Excavations continued for six years and today the site is the only entirely excavated nuraghe in Sardinia. You can get an inkling of the work involved by seeing how many square bricks have been incorporated into the structure – these were deliberately made to stand out so they could be distinguished from the original basalt. Visits are by guided tour only, in Italian or English. It's also worth noting that queues are the norm in summer when it can get extremely hot on the exposed site.
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. Despite the fragmentary condition of the ruins themselves, Tiscali is an awe-inspiring sight, with jumbled stone foundations amid holm oak and turpentine trees huddled in the eerie twilight of the limestone overhang. The inhabitants of nearby Sa Sedda ’e Sos Carros used it as a hiding place from the Romans, and its inaccessibility ensured that the Sards were able to hold out here until well into the 2nd century BC. Local guides lead hikes – tough and steeply uphill at times – to the site.
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. To preserve the beach, you're required to use a straw mat beneath your towel. Local shops sell them. Also, no smoking on the beach. Year-round buses run to the beach from Stintino (€1.30, five minutes, four weekdays, two Sundays). In summer services are considerably increased. If you have your own wheels, there's limited roadside parking near the beach (within the blue lines) for around €5 per half-day.
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. You can either hike into and out of the gorge, or book a ride in a jeep one way (€20, including canyon entrance fee) or both ways (from €30) with Chintula Company – the Gola Su Gorropu website has details of packages. To hike into the gorge, you’ll need sturdy shoes and sufficient water. There are two main routes. The most dramatic begins from the car park opposite Hotel Silana at the Genna ’e Silana pass on the SS125 at Km 183. The 8km trail takes 1½ to two hours one way, so allow at least four hours for the return trek, longer if you plan to spend time exploring the gorge itself. While the descent is mostly easygoing, the climb back up is considerably tougher. The hike weaves through holm oak woods, boulder-strewn slopes and cave-riddled cliffs. For a bird’s-eye perspective of the gorge, you could take the 6km ridge trail from the car park to 888m Punta Cucuttos. It takes around 1½ hours one way. The second and slightly easier hiking route (14km) to Gorropu is via the Sa Barva bridge, about 15km from Dorgali. To get to the bridge, take the SS125 and look for the sign on the right for the Gola Su Gorropu and Tiscali between Km 200 and Km 201. Follow this road for 10.5km until the asphalt finishes (about 20 minutes). Park here and cross the Sa Barva bridge, after which you’ll see the trail for the Gola signposted off to the left. From here it’s a scenic two-hour hike along the Rio Flumineddu to the mouth of the gorge (four hours return). If you’d prefer to go with a guide, Sandra and Franco at the Cooperativa Gorropu arrange all sorts of excursions and activities, from trekking and canyoning to caving and cookery courses; see the website for prices. Their base is in Urzulei, but they also run a small info centre at Genna ’e Silana pass.
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. The sanctuary, the historic seat of the Mercedari order of monks, was originally part of a fortified compound built by the Aragonese. The Spaniards arrived in Cagliari in 1323 intent on wresting the city from the Pisans, but when they saw what they were up against, they set up camp on the fresh mountain slopes of Montixeddu, which over time came to be known as Bonaria for its clean air – from the Italian buon’aria meaning ‘good air’. A three-year siege ensued, during which the camp grew to become a fortress with its own church. Nowadays little remains of the fortress, apart from its Gothic portal, a truncated bell tower, which initially served as a watchtower, and the church. And it’s in the church that you’ll find the revered Virgin Mary and Christ. Legend has it that the statue had a magical calming effect on the sea after it was cast overboard by Spanish seamen during a storm in the 14th century, and still today mariners pray to it for protection on the high seas. Above the church altar hangs a tiny 15th-century ivory ship, whose movements are said to indicate the wind direction in the Golfo degli Angeli. You’ll find yet more model boats, as well as other ex-voto offerings and a golden crown from Carlo Emanuele I in the sanctuary’s museum, accessible through the small cloister. There are also the mummified corpses of four plague-ridden Aragonese nobles whose bodies were found miraculously preserved inside the church. The sanctuary is next door to the hulking neoclassical basilica. Construction started on the basilica in 1704 but the money ran out and it wasn’t officially completed until 1926.
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. To walk the walls, also known as the bastioni, start at Torre di Sulis on the piazza of the same name. This 22m-high tower originally closed off the defensive line of towers to the south of the old town. Continuing northwards along the Bastioni Cristoforo Colombo, you'll pass the Torre di San Giacomo before arriving on the main stretch, the Bastioni Marco Polo, where most of the restaurants are lined up. At the northern tip are two more towers, the Torre della Polveriera and Torre di Sant'Elmo. The last stretch, the Bastioni Magellano, leads on to Porta a Mare, the second of Alghero’s medieval gateways, through which you can access Piazza Civica in the historic centre. Beyond the Porta, the Torre della Maddalena is incorporated into the Forte della Maddalena, the only surviving remnant of the city’s former land battlements.
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. The third chapel on the right, the Cappella di San Michele, is perhaps the most baroque of all, with its ornate sculptural depiction of a serene-looking St Michael casting devils into hell. At the central door, note the two stone pulpits, sculpted by Guglielmo da Pisa between 1158 and 1162. They originally formed a single unit, which stood in Pisa’s Duomo until the Pisans donated it to Cagliari in 1312. It was subsequently split into two by the meddlesome Domenico Spotorno, the architect behind the 17th-century baroque facelift, and the big stone lions that originally formed its base were removed to the altar where they now stand. Beneath the altar is the Santuario dei Martiri (Sanctuary of Martyrs), the only one of several underground rooms open to the public. Carved out of rock, the sanctuary, which is named after the 179 martyrs whose relics are kept here, is an impressive sight with its sculptural decoration and intricate carvings.