Most people are familiar with the Italian island of Sicily, but not everyone knows there’s another large island off the coast of Italy. Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian) lies to the west of the peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea just to the south of the French island of Corsica.
Only Sicily is a bigger island in the Mediterranean, but Sardinia remains far less visited – so I thought it made sense to introduce you to the best things to do in Sardinia (part of my ongoing “top 10 things to do in Italy” series) with this excellent list of recommendations by Sardinia resident, Paolo Rossi. Take it away, Paolo!
The Sardinian tourism promotion office created a slogan for this Italian island; ‘Almost a continent.’ I couldn’t think of a more striking slogan.
Sardinia is one of the most ancient bodies of land in Europe. Many nations have tried to conquer Sardinia since around 6,000 BC, but not many were able to control the island for a long period of time. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Catalans, all have ruled (parts of) Sardinia and left their tracks at its sandy beaches. This has not divided Sardinia but has resulted in a culture with a wide variety of flavors, of which ten have been listed below.
Top 10 Things to Do in Sardinia (According to Paolo)
- Visit one of the 8,000 Nuraghi
Nuraghi are beehive-like stone dwellings from the bronze age, and can only be found on Sardinia. The exact use of these structures is unknown, but many believe that they were either used as religious temples or military strongholds. The most well known Nuraghe is Nuraxi su Barumini, which has been declared as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Barumini is located at approximately 60 kilometers North of the Sardinian capital Cagliari.
- See your feet in the clear blue water
Sardinia is believed to have the most beautiful beaches in the entire Mediterranean Sea. Beaches like Cala Gonone, Li Coggi beach, or the touristic Costa Smeralda consistently appear in the top of ‘The World’s Best Beaches’ lists of international magazines and travel websites. However, the most amazing beach is La Pelosa, near Stintino, at around 50 kilometers North of Alghero Airport. Usually, the small town of Stintino only has 1,200 inhabitants, but this number is a LOT higher during the summer when literally thousands of Sardinians and tourists visit these stunning beaches.
- Take photos of Sardinian wildlife
Just like many other islands, Sardinia has a very rich and unique wildlife. The isolation has pretty much given it the gift of diversity. None of the animals that live on or near Sardinia are poisonous or very dangerous, so you can explore the island without fear. Unique species of deer and foxes live in the woods and mountains, while many different types of birds, including the Chaffinch and Flamingo, visit the island every year in great numbers. Monk seals and turtles live in the Sardinian waters, and the Balaenoptera Physalus (or fin whale) can be spotted near the shores quite regularly.
- Feel completely relaxed at La Maddalena
Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Di La Maddalena is a national park in the North of Sardinia. During clear days, you can see the coastline of the French island Corsica from the most Northern island of La Maddalena, Isola Razzoli. This archipelago, of which most islands can only be reached by boat, offers an unspoiled nature, stunning views, friendly people, and nearly anything else you need to feel completely away from this world. The Louis Vuitton Trophy, one of the most prestigious sailing races in the world, visits La Maddalena with a good reason!
- Enjoy the view of Bastione San Remy
The Sardinian capital Cagliari was built on seven hills. The oldest part of the city, Castello, lies on top of one of these hills, resulting in a stunning view of the Gulf of Cagliari, or Angels Gulf. Especially from Bastione San Remy, which was built in the typical local white lime-stone, you can see most other parts of Cagliari, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. When you have reached the top of Bastione San Remy, the beautiful Romanesque Cathedral of Cagliari is at walking distance, making the climb even more worthwhile.
- Ooh and aah at Porto Cervo MarinaThe Costa Smeralda, in the North-East of Sardinia, is the favorite holiday destination of some of the wealthiest people in the world. Ever since Prince Aga Khan visited this region in the 60’s, many celebrities have chosen the Sardinian Emerald Coast to spend their vacation. This makes finding an affordable hotel during the summer months relatively difficult, but the side effect is that there’s a lot to see when you’re strolling along the shoreline. In July and August, many millions of Euros float in the harbor of Porto Cervo, which is the place to be for luxury yacht spotters during the summer. At Porto Cervo Yacht Club, spotting multi-million dollar yachts, such as the Maltese Falcon, is not very difficult.
- See the proof of Roman civilization at Nora or Tharros
If you rather see archaeological findings, instead of luxury yachts, that’s possible too. At Tharros, near Oristano in the west, or Nora, near Pula in the south, you can still see what the Romans have left behind two thousand years ago. Both sites are basically open-air museums, allowing you to literally wander through ancient Roman streets while seeing ruins, columns, and thermal baths. Both Tharros and Nora are located near the sea, which makes combining a visit with a dive in the sea a wonderful option.
- Taste the local food and drinks
One of the absolute must-do’s when visiting Sardinia (or in fact during any of your travels), is to enjoy the local food and taste. Sardinian food is characterized by very strong flavors, of which Cannonau, the local wine, is the perfect example. Carasau (a type of thin crispy bread), Porcheddu (a frequently basted young pig) and Culurgiones (a ravioli-like pasta filled with pecorino cheese, mint, and other ingredients) are other products of the Sardinian gastronomic tradition. Local restaurant Su Combidu, located in the center of Cagliari, is a great place to explore the different tastes of Sardinia, but there are many more great traditional restaurants across the island, too.
- Go underground in Sardinian mines
The long mining history of Sardinia started probably around the 6th millennium BC, which means that mining has played an important role in the island’s history. The small village of Ingurtosu, together with the nearby Montevecchio was one of the most important mining areas of Sardinia until the mid of the last century. To prevent this region to become isolated or abandoned, UNESCO has decided to declare it World Heritage. Lots of old mining facilities have been renovated, restored, turned into a hotel (Le Dune), or are open to visit, making this region very attractive for travelers and culture-lovers trying to avoid mass-tourism.
- Gaze at kite surfers at Isola dei Gabbiani
I found it very hard to choose the 10th item on this list, as it meant that I had to leave out lots of other great things. Hiking in the Sardinian mountains, walking along the rocky coastline or visiting one of many interesting museums are excellent recommendations, but the same goes for visiting Isola dei Gabbiani. During the summer months, many winds- and kite surfers visit this island near Palau, in the north of Sardinia. It’s amazing to see the professionals fly over the water, trying yourself is even better. There are many surf shops where you can hire equipment, and there are surf schools at Isola dei Gabbiani as well.
It is impossible to capture an island that is ‘almost a continent’ in just 10 highlights. In order to really experience Sardinia, you will have to come and visit it. Although you can reach it by boat (for example from Civitavecchia, near Rome), it’s probably best to take the plane. That’s a lot faster, which means you’ve got more time to spend in Sardinia.
Paolo Rossi works for travel agency Charming Hotels Sardinia, where he can do the two things he loves most: helping others finding the perfect vacation, and talking about his beloved Sardinia all day long. He (and his colleague Giulia) also blog regularly about Italy at Charming Italy.
Photo at top by robad0b, photo of #2 above by Dirk Hartung, photo of #3 above by cristianocani, photo of #7 above by Effervescing Elephant, photo of #8 above by roboppy, photo of #10 above by Fab:o Fo:s; all other photos via Charming Sardinia.