Perhaps the only thing you’ve heard about Sardinia is the famous Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, which takes its name from the color of the water crashing against its white-sand beaches. But the rugged Mediterranean island has much more to offer than this paradise of sybaritic jets. Tourists seeing Sardinia for the first time are surprised to discover that an island so renowned for its beautiful beaches can be so rugged and mountainous, just a few miles from the gulf-washed sands.
The other thing that may surprise you is the staggering number of prehistoric sites, especially the enigmatic round stone towers known as nuraghi (singular: nuraghe). You will learn about the mysteries these prehistoric fortresses/dwellings hide as you climb their dark stone steps and discover passageways built in the Bronze and Iron Ages. You can also walk on original Roman streets and visit the windswept ruins of cities built by the Phoenicians. Unique local customs and traditional festivals, attractions you won’t find anywhere else, a cuisine very different from the rest of Italy, even a different language (although everyone speaks Italian and a lot of English), makes Sardinia a one-of-a-kind friendly destination.
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1 Cagliari and Southern Sardinia
Ancient ruins in Nora
The southern coast of this island offers tourists a glimpse of Sardinia’s infinite variety.
From the medieval streets and lofty bastions rising above the waterfront in the island’s capital of Cagliari, it’s just a few miles to the ruins of the ancient city of Nora, where Phoenicians , Carthaginians and Romans had their trading posts. Head east from the city and within minutes you can be sunbathing on one of the legendary beaches that make Sardinia one of Europe’s favorite summer squares.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cagliari
2 Nuraghe Su Nuraxi
Remains of literally thousands of these stone towers are scattered all over Sardinia, most of them in complete ruin, but this is the best preserved and most complete. It is also the largest closest to Cagliari, and best interpreted, with 30-minute tours and English-speaking guides. If you can only see one, check out this one, listed by UNESCO as one of the best restorations anywhere in the Mediterranean. The wood found in the walls of the central tower was carbon dated to 1500 BC. And the outer towers were built in the 11th or 12th century BC. You can go inside the tower and climb to the upper reaches for a close-up view of the stacked dome made of dry stone without mortar. Spiral stairs inside are 1, 8-meter-high walls connect the three floors, and as you climb through the corridors you can appreciate the finesse of the engineering and craftsmanship these prehistoric people achieved. After exploring the towers and foundations of the old village that surrounds it, you should stop in theCasa Zapata Museum , in the village, where you can see – along with other fascinating exhibits – another nuraghe excavated from under the building. Here you get a bird’s eye view of the construction of a walkway above the walls.
Address: SS 131, Barumini (near Sanluri)
3 Costa Smeralda
From the port city of Olbia to the tip of Capo de Testa, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches lie in jagged coves washed by a sea so green and clear it’s known to the world as the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast. The comparison to one of the most expensive jewels can also apply to the customers who have frequented the coast since the Aga Khan was developed into a series of resorts for the most affluent in the 1960s. Enclosed resort “villages” are built to resemble Greek islands and the Riviera. The center of it all is Porto Cervo , a beach resort village and marina for private yachts built in the 1960s. Aside from people-watching, the only draw for those not booked into a Doctors of the World resort, a stylish modern art museum with changing exhibitions and a terrace café overlooking Porto Cervo. The most modest seaside resort in the region is little alive Cannigione , on the Gulf of Arzachena.
Don’t be surprised if the language you hear around you in this lively coastal city sounds a little different – almost like Spanish. It is, and you can still find some signs and labels in Spanish. A 14th-century pope gave Sardinia to the king of Aragon, hoping to free the island from control of Pisa and Genoa. He gave kingdom to about 400 families from Aragon and Catalonia if they settled the island with a base in Alghero, displacing the local population. Mass at the Church of San Francesco is still said in Catalan and you should visit to see the ornate 13th-century cloister, reached through the sacristy to the left of the altar. The 14th-century cathedral has a Spanish Gothic doorway. When the afternoon turns into evening,
5 Nuraghe Losa
You may wonder if you should stop at every nuraghe, and if you’re not already fascinated by these mysterious towers, maybe you shouldn’t. But most tourists quickly fall under the spell of these towers of which so much is still unknown and soon discover that they are all very different. Considered one of the top three, Losa has several awards. It’s lit inside by built-in lights, so if you don’t have a flashlight with you, now’s your chance to see the interior details of the stacked stone thalos domes. It is one of the most complex, a large tower with three outer towers forming a triangular bastion, which you can explore through a maze of stone passageways that spiral upwards within the massive walls. The second floor is still intact and the roof is complete. Although dating from the 12th to 14th centuries BC (the Bronze Age), the great central chamber of the main tower is in excellent condition and more refined in construction than most others. A small museum contains bronze bracelets and other artifacts found here.
Location: Off SS 131, near Abbasanta
Official site: www.nuraghelosa.net
6 Prehistoric sites of Arzachena
One of the highest concentrations of stone and copper ages is only a few miles from the Emerald Coast resorts, but seems a world away. The six notable sites are nuraghi, cemeteries and the curious chamber tombs known locally as tomba gigante (giants tombs). The main chambered tomb of Coddu Vecchiu , an 18th century BCE tunnel tomb, with an entrance facade of flat stones added several centuries later, and another, Li Lolghi , has a similar entrance, but with a standing stone of three and half a meter. The nearby necropolis of Li Muri had stone tombs built in circles of flat stones once covered by mounds. Nuraghi Albucciuis unusual in that its shape is oval with one side formed by a large protrusion of stone. Nuraghe La Prisgiona is the most recently excavated, a central tower with two side towers and the remains of a village. This region is known for its rocky outcrops, often eroded by the wind into odd shapes; one just east of Arzachena looks like a giant mushroom.
7 Santa Cristina Nuraghe in de heilige bron
Not far north of Oristano is one of Sardinia’s most atmospheric and diverse archaeological attractions, where you can see a remarkably preserved “sacred spring” – a spring temple from 1200-1100 BC – and a nuragic tower where you can look into the open climb its wildflower-studded roof for views down to the prehistoric stone village that surrounded it. In one of the elongated houses, the stone roof is still intact. Take a flashlight so you can see the interior as you climb to the nuragic roof. If you want another layer of history, stop between the well and the nuraghe to see the group of small stone pilgrim lodges, the former cells of former monks surrounding a 12th-century church. Pilgrimages still come here in May and October.
Location: Cabras, 19 kilometers west of Oristano
8 Nuoro and de Gennargentu
Clinging to the top of a steep mountain ridge, the steep streets of Nuoro open to views in all directions. The 19th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria della Neve sits above a cliff that drops straight into the valley, and the small piazza in front of the church is almost the only flat point in town. Nuoro is a good base to explore Gennargentu , the most rugged and beautiful inland areas of Sardinia and the remote villages ( Mamoiadais especially interesting), which are barely touched by the 20th century, let alone the 21st. It’s a fascinating region, with towns clinging to escarpments and local customs that still date back to the distant past. However, driving here is not for the faint of heart, as roads are narrow and steep with hairpin bends over steep slopes, with no handrails. You can learn more about these villages and their often strange customs at Museo Etnografico Sardo(Museum of Sardinian Traditions), which alone is worth a stop in Nuoro. This is the island’s best collection (and brilliantly displayed) of Sardinian costume and decorative art; clothes are shown on models with jewelry and accessories worn at weddings and festivals. An entire gallery displays traditional masks. While you’re there, the National Archaeological Museum has collections excavated from the Neolithic sites, as well as fossils.
9 Nuraghi Valley (Vallei van Nuraghi)
Grown by the cones of ancient volcanoes, this wide flat valley, dotted with eroded rock formations, is also dotted with prehistoric sites, especially the 16-meter Nuraghe Santu Antine . Santu Antine, one of the three largest and most complex on the island, with three towers connected by a defensive wall, was built in the 16th century BC. This is one of the most interesting to explore, as you can climb the stairs within the thick walls of the central tower to the second and third floors, which are intact and follow an upper corridor from the west to north towers. From the top you can see several other nuraghi and a short drive away is Sant’Andrea Priu, tombs carved into a rock sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC. They were used as hermitages in the Middle Ages and you can see some frescoes painted inside. This site is open irregularly, but you can see it from the entrance and climb a path to see the top.
Locations: Off SS 131, Torralba, Sardinia
Walk amidst the stone remains of the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman cultures on this rocky outcrop and try to imagine what it must have looked like when the Roman streets were lined beneath your feet by shops where you now see only foundations and thresholds. Columns from the baths still stand, along with parts of the aqueduct and temples; the amphitheater overlooks the sea. On the hilltop above is a Phoenician necropolis (they left around 650 BC). For a sense of what archaeologists have found here, visit the excellence Museo Civico Giovanni Marongiuin the town of Cabras where carved stone stela, funerary urns and other finds are displayed, positioned as they were originally found. You can see more of the treasures unearthed at the Antiquarium Arborense museum, in the small town of Oristano , also nearby. The Duomo of Santa Maria in Oristano dates back to the Middle Ages, but was renovated during the Spanish rule of this part of Sardinia in the 18th and 19th centuries, which explains the colorful tiles that cover the domes.
Location: Cabras, 19 kilometers west of Oristano
Since the 9th century BC, Bosa has overlooked the mouth of Sardinia’s only navigable river, in a valley today green with farms. A warren of medieval streets winds from the old stone bridge and pastel buildings along the riverfront, to the hilltop Malaspina Castle . Although you can drive straight to the castle, take some time to walk the ancient streets, where humble cottages comfortably blend with grand aristocratic homes; the restored mansion of Casa Deriu is open as a museum with furnished rooms and an art gallery. Inside the castle is a 13th century chapel, where you can see the unusual 14th century fresco cycle. The coastal road north from Bosa to Algherois spectacular, and not at all horrifying, despite its height above the sea in places.
Location: Sa Costa, Bosa
12 La Maddalena Archipelago (Maddalena Islands)
Ferries depart regularly from the small port of Palau for a half-hour trip to La Maddalena, the only town in the archipelago in the Strait of Bonifacio, between Sardinia and Corsica. Apart from the beaches, the most remote of which can only be reached by boat, tourists come here to cross the causeway and bridge over to the neighboring island. Caprera . Giuseppe Garibaldi ‘s house here, revered as the father of the Italian state for his leadership in the struggle for Italian unity and independence, is a national monument that attracts visitors from all over Italy and beyond. The other end of the island has several beaches, easily found via paths leading from the road. The sea around the islands is popular with sailors.
Official site: www.compendiogaribaldino.it
As attractive as the busy little harbor town with its pastel-coloured houses climbs up the hill, it pales in comparison to the medieval village within the walls above. At the very top is a 12th century castle with a good museum exploring the local artisanal specialty of basket making. The narrow streets surrounding the castle wind steeply down the hill, climbing stairs at the steepest points and in doorways you may see women weaving baskets with intricate designs. Views from the top extend in both directions along the coast and as far as Corsica. The Duomo, in the small piazza below, has one of the finest altarpieces in Sardinia, dating from the 15th century, along with fine carvings in the choir and a crypt. The bell tower started life as a lighthouse.
14 Neptune’s Grotto
Take a cruise from the Banchina Dogana (port) in Alghero to the tip of Capo Caccia, the long spit of land seen from Alghero’s walls, to visit this beautiful cave, dotted with stalagmites and stalactites that reflect in an underground lake. The Grotta di Nettuno is carved by the sea, in cliffs that tower almost 304 meters above the tower. The mouth of the cave is at sea level and arriving by water is the most dramatic way to approach, not to mention the easiest. But you can also drive there, about 14 kilometers from Alghero, passing an interesting nuraghi along the road. Once there, you’ll need to walk down (and remember, climb back too) on the 656 steps of the Escala del Cabirol (Goat Steps), carved into the face of the cliff.
Locations: Capo Caccia, Alghero, Sardinië
Holy Trinity of Saccargia
Sassari, Sardinia’s second largest city, is a vibrant university and cultural center and boasts a number of fine buildings in the Catalan Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles. Walk Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the main street in the Middle Ages, looking up to see old porches and windows of houses from the region’s Spanish period, five centuries ago. Museo Nazionale Sanna, one of Sardinia’s most important museums, displays archaeological collections of Nuragic bronzes and jewels, as well as Roman artifacts. Don’t miss the Duomo, whose façade is a riot (one might say a mishmash) of 17th-century styles of ornament, crafted by Milan stonemasons. Several other churches are worth a look inside when open, but the most memorable of all stands almost alone in a landscape of grazing sheep about 12 kilometers south of Sassari on SS 131. The black and white striped tower soars above the church and ruined cloister of Santissima Trinità di Saccargia , the finest example of Pisan architecture in Sardinia. Inside, if you are lucky enough to find it, there are frescoes from the 13th century.
Travel to Sardinia
Car ferries connect Sardinia to mainland Italy, 193 kilometers away, and less frequently to Mediterranean ports in both France and Spain. Ferries depart from Savona (on the western Italian Riviera), Genoa, Livorno (near Pisa) and Civitavecchia (Rome), arrival in the Sardinian ports of Cagliari (the capital in the southern part of the island), Arbatax (on the east coast), Olbia (Costa Smeralda) and Porto Torres (north coast). Lines serving Sardinia are Tirrenia, Grandi Navi Veloci, Moby Lines, Corsica/Sardinia Ferries and Grimaldi Lines. Regular flights connect Cagliari International Airport to Rome and other cities, and smaller airports for domestic and other flights are at Olbia and Alghero.