Sardinia (Sardegna, in Italian) is Italy’s second largest island after Sicily. With a rocky coastline interrupted by sublime beaches lapped by Mediterranean waters all shades of turquoise, cobalt and cerulean, it’s a vacanza da sogno (dream vacation) for Italian mainlanders. Yet for the majority of non-European travelers, it’s still an undiscovered gem.
And there is so much to discover here. Beyond its stunning beaches, Sardinia yields a ruggedly scenic interior, archaeological sites that predate Rome by thousands of years, world-class museums, cities with well-preserved historic cores, and traditional culture and folkways that may make you forget you’re still in Italy. Here are some of the top things to see and do on this Mediterranean island of wonders.
Explore Cagliari’s Castello Neighborhood
Sardinia’s capital and most populous city has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years. Within the walls of its imposing hilltop citadel are narrow, winding medieval streets; a comprehensive archaeological museum; defensive towers (some of which can be climbed for knockout views of the coast); and the ornate 13th-century Saint Mariàs Cathedral. Roman and Carthaginian ruins are a short walk outside the old city walls. Add in a few pit stops in the area’s cozy bars, restaurants, and shops and you’ve got a nice way to spend an afternoon and evening.
Get Posh on the Costa Smeralda
Sardinia’s “Emerald Coast” rivals the French Riviera as an undisputed playground for Europe’s rich and famous, with a large number of Russian oligarchs and their mega-yachts thrown in for good measure. The summertime action centers around Porto Cervo, home to breathtakingly expensive waterfront villas; bronzed, beautiful women; all-night discos; and encamped paparazzi hoping to catch the latest peccadillo of some Italian politician or film star.
Plumb the Mysteries of Nuragic Culture at Barumini
From around 1500 BCE to the Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, the Nuragic peoples were the dominant culture on the island. They left behind more than 7,000 nuraghi, beehive-shaped stone fortresses surrounded by smaller hive-shaped buildings and often, a defensive wall. The best example of an extensive Nuragic village is Su Nuraxi at Barumini, a UNESCO World Heritage site about one hour north of Cagliari.
Ride a Gommone in the Golfo di Orosei
The “hidden” beaches, coves, and grottoes of the Golfo di Orosei, on the island’s central-east coast, are some of the most spectacular scenery in the Mediterranean. The best way to reach them is by gommone, or zodiac raft, which can be hired at either Cala Gonone or Marina di Orosei. You might see dolphins frolicking in the raft’s wake, and you’ll stop at several different beaches to swim in waters so clear and blue they defy superlatives.
Walk Alghero’s Seafront and Descend Into Neptune’s Grotto
On the northwest coast, Alghero’s 13th- to 16th-century seaside ramparts face toward Spain, and speak to its past as a vassalage of the Crown of Aragon—an ever-shrinking percent of the population still speak Algherese Catalan, a dialect more Spanish than Italian. Explore Alghero’s pretty, well-preserved centro before heading to Neptune’s Grotto (Grotto di Nettuno), a superb stalactite sea cavern reachable by boat or via a 654-step rock-cut staircase.
Discover Sardo Traditions in Nuoro
In the rugged, mountainous interior, the city of Nuoro and its surrounding province preserve indigenous Sardinian folkways, from sheepherding to traditional costume, music, dance, and rituals.
Nuoro’s excellent ethnographic museum attempts to sort it all out, but it is best experienced in smaller towns like Mamoiada, Oliena or Orgosolo, which is famous for its contemporary murals. The region has some of the island’s best hiking, with nuraghi, prehistoric tombs, springs, and grottoes dotting the rocky landscape, plus plenty of random sheep, donkeys and goats.
Sample Cannanou, Bottarga and Carasau
Like every region of Italy, Sardinia is proud of its food and wine. Don’t leave without trying Cannanou, a hearty red made from Grenache grapes or Vermentino, an acidic, citrusy white. Thin, crispy carasau bread is on every restaurant table, and some variation of spaghetti alla bottarga (made with mullet roe) is on every menu. If fish eggs aren’t for you, try culurgiones, pasta pockets stuffed with potato and ricotta. Sardinian cheeses swing heavily towards sharp pecorino or for the daring, casu marzu, a sheep’s cheese with live maggots. Finish your meal with a glass of sweet mirto, a liqueur made from myrtle berries.
Visit the Seaside Ruins of Nora or Tharros
The ancients valued waterfront property just as much as we do now, and the archaeological sites of Tharros, near Oristano, and Nora, near Cagliari, attest to this. The cities date to at least 1,000 BCE, and were inhabited over time by Nuragic peoples, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, all of whom left their marks. Both sites are partially underwater. You may see colonies of pink flamingos near Nora. Just outside Tharros, stop at the exquisite 6th-century Church of San Giovanni di Sinis, one of the oldest on the island.
Get Away From It all on Asinara
If the summer beach crowds get to be too much, island-hop to Asinara National Park, northwest of Porto Torres. There are a few accessible beaches, plus hiking, bike rentals and bird watching. You can even arrange to sleep at the one basic hotel within the park. Try to spot one of the albino donkeys indigenous to the island, as well as feral horses, goats and pigs, and maybe even the occasional mouflon, a wild, horned sheep. Access to the island/park is limited, so you’ll need to book passage with an authorized boating company.