Cagliari: Planning Your Trip

Cagliari in Sardinia, Italy

Larry Koester /Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Located along the southern coast of the Italian island of Sardinia, Cagliari is the capital city, with a large cruise port and airport making it accessible from mainland Italy and points beyond by both sea and air. Home to many interesting attractions ranging from archaeological treasures and medieval monuments to centuries-old churches and museums highlighting the area’s vast heritage, the bustling capital of Sardinia makes a great place to begin a tour of the island, especially if you’re looking to escape the crowds of larger Italian locales—the population here is nearly 155,000 versus the more than 2.8 million people who live in Rome, for instance. Here’s how to make the most of your time in this captivating Italian city.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Spring and fall are more pleasant times to visit thanks to fewer crowds and calmer weather. Summers are hot and dry, with nights cooled by sea breezes; winters can be chilly, and October to February, rainy.
  • Language: Italian is the national language, though people in larger towns likely speak some English. That said, learning a few Italian phrases can go a long way toward endearing yourself to the locals.
  • Currency: The euro is the official currency of Italy. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, though it’s sometimes easier to carry cash, especially in small towns. Be aware that American Express and Diners Club cards are not as widely accepted.
  • Getting Around: Local buses extend to the coast and villages throughout the province, while long-distance buses connect Cagliari to other parts of the island; rail lines also run north to Sassari or Olbia.
  • Travel Tip: If time is more of a concern than money, renting a car will offer more flexibility when it comes to seeing the rest of the island. Public transit may be cheaper, but driving times can be considerably shorter than bus and train trips.

Things to Do

History buffs will love Cagliari for its rich Italian culture and vast historical background. For a closer look at the city's Roman heritage, check out the Roman amphitheater, built in the second century and now a popular spot for outdoor concerts in the summer. The Historic Castle District (in and around Castello di San Michele Cagliari ) is the oldest and highest part of Cagliari and a great place to wander if you've got some time to kill or just want to get a better idea of what the city looked like way back when. Stop by the roof of Bastione di Saint Remy, an open terrace where you can take in views of Cagliari and the sea beyond or enjoy a drink at one of the nearby bars—inside is an exhibit area and a venue where concerts are sometimes held.

Also in the Historic Castle District, you'll find the Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria and its accompanying museum, the Archbishop's Palace, and the impressive Elephant and San Pancrazio Towers. Nearby, the Archaeological Museum offers exhibits tracing Sardinia's history all the way from the Neolithic Period through the time of the Phoenicians, Romans, and Christians as well as the Middle Ages. You'll find it in the Citadella dei Musei, a museum complex situated within the former arsenal along with the National Art Museum and the Siamese Art Museum.

  • The Marina District, located near Cagliari Cruise Port, is home to several churches, the town hall, and an arcaded street full of cafes and shops. Have a gander at the excavations beneath the Church of Sant'Eulalia, Vico del Collegio n.2, where you can view a Roman paved road, the ruins of several buildings, a porticoed building with the remains of pillars, and a thesaurus (a sort of sacred "temple" where a collection of coins was found). The excavations here offer a glimpse at the continuity of life from the third century B.C. through the fifth century A.D.
  • The University of Cagliari's Orto Botanico (botanical garden) is one of Italy's top green spaces and can be found at Via Sant'Ignazio da Laconi. Come to see caves where ferns are grown, spend time among a collection of Mediterranean and tropical plants, and check out the Carthaginian and Roman ruins.
  • Do a day trip to the nearby Nora Archeological site, located 40 minutes south of the city in a beautiful setting along the sea, which has Phoenician, Punic, and Roman ruins, as well as a small Roman theater that's used for outdoor performances in the summer. Alternatively, Su Nuraxi di Barumini, located about 37 miles north of Cagliari, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great place to learn more about the nuraghe, ancient structures found at archaeological sites throughout Sardinia—the village around this particular one has been excavated so you can see that as well.

Learn more with our full-length article about Sardinia's best tourist attractions, with more details about the top sights on this fascinating Italian island and tips for things to see and do during your stay.

What to Eat and Drink

Fresh, natural, and simple foods made with locally sourced ingredients is the name of the game here in Cagliari. Seafood, especially shellfish, is by far the most popular menu item, largely due to the city's proximity to the sea. Don't leave without trying octopus salad or a typical seafood pasta dish featuring fregula (Sardinian pasta made with semolina that blends cooking influences from Northern Africa) and clams, cassola (a popular seafood soup), or spaghetti with clams or sea urchin (and sometimes fish eggs).

Elsewhere in Sardinia, be sure to try other traditional dishes like porcheddu (suckling pig), zuppa gallurese (a lasagna-like dish from the northwestern part of the island), lamb served with artichokes (this is typically popular around Easter), and a delicious dessert called seadas, a ravioli-like pastry filled with sweet cheese that's topped with honey or sugar. Other Sardinian favorites include different types of pasta, including malloreddus, which is reminiscent of the Italian gnocci you'll find on the mainland, ricotta and mint dumplings called culurgiones, and a traditional type of flatbread called pane frattau.

Sardinian wine is among the best on Earth, thanks largely to the Monica grape varietal; it's predominantly found in the southern part of the island and is responsible for some of the area's best red wines—the Nuragus grape, meanwhile is behind Cagliari's popular white wines. After organic grape residue was found on a stone press among ancient ruins near Cagliari in Monte Zara, archaeologists determined the practice of wine-making actually dates back to the 15th century B.C. during the Middle Bronze Age in this area, and that some of the oldest wines in the world can be traced back to southern Sardinia.

Explore our articles on the best foods to try in Italy, the best dining, and where to learn how to cook.

Where to Stay

Like most European cities, you’ll find your share of bed and breakfasts and hostels in addition to more well-known hotel brands (in this case, Holiday Inn, part of the InterContinental Hotels Group. Cagliari is also home to several top-rated independent hotels, like Hotel MiraMare, an artsy, bohemian-style 4-star boutique right by the water on Via Roma, or Hotel Regina Margherita, a 4-star hotel in the city center featuring modern rooms, a restaurant, and a great bar.

Those looking to stay just outside the city should try T Hotel, a 4-star design hotel with luxury amenities like a pool and spa, while visitors seeking accommodations near the vibrant Marina District should head to Hotel Italia, an older 3-star hotel with a chic wine bar thats' located within walking distance of the train and bus stations. If you're planning to spend more time soaking up the sun at Spiaggia del Poetto (Poetto Beach), La Peonia Boutique B&B is a cozy choice situated in a residential neighborhood that's easily connected by bus to the beach and city center.

Whether you prefer to stay near the bustling Marina District, airport, beach, Historic Castle District (near Castello di San Michele Cagliari), or elsewhere throughout the region, there's an accommodation option to suit every style and budget. If you really want to experience Cagliari like a local, consider staying in an Airbnb or VRBO vacation rental for a slice of life within a local neighborhood.

Getting There

Cagliari Elmas Airport (CAG), located just outside the city, receives flights from other parts of Italy and Europe—there are no nonstop flights available from the United States so American travelers will need to fly through a major hub like Milan, Paris, Vienna, London, Zurich, Madrid, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt first. Check Google Flights to stay on top of flight sales from your preferred airport or sign up for email newsletters from sites like Scott's Cheap Flights to get them sent straight to your inbox.

The only other way to reach Cagliari is by ferry from Naples or Civitavecchia (the port closest to Rome) in Southern Italy or Palermo in Sicily. Once you arrive, ride the bus 40 minutes or take a car or taxi about 15 minutes to reach Cagliari's city center from the airport—it's a 25 minute bus ride or 10 minute car or taxi ride from the cruise port.

For more ways to get around Italy by flying, see our guide to Italian airports.

Money Saving Tips

  • When searching for flights from other parts of Europe, consider budget airlines like easyJet, Vueling, Wizz Air, and Ryanair, which offer discounted tickets from a range of European cities depending on the season. Do the math to see if the price makes sense for you, as budget airlines tend to add extra fees for bags or to pick a seat.
  • Remember that most beaches throughout the island of Sardinia are free to visit. Pick up some picnic materials from Mercato di San Benedetto or another local market and head to Spiaggia del Poetto, a five-mile stretch of sand about a mile away that's one of Sardinia's best beaches.
  • For an interesting and affordable day just 10 minutes from Cagliari, head to Parco Naturale Molentargius Saline (Molentargius Marsh) to see the many species of migratory and water birds, including a huge colony of flamingos, that call the nature park home.