Sardinia (in Italian, it is Sardegna) may not be exceptionally rich in must-see destinations. Instead, it is a place where everything is unpretentious and simple. Plus, the beaches are gorgeous, the villages are often colorful, and the nuraghi are always impressive.
This article covers Cagliari, Alghero, Bosa, Oristano, Castelsardo, and a number of other points of interest on the island.
The capital of Sardinia, Cagliari has a number of visual highlights – the most prominent are the Bastion St-Remy ♥, city gates, medieval towers (Torre dell’Elefante and Torre di San Pancrazio) – as well as occasional impressive building details and occasional picturesque corners. Unfortunately, it is also full of graffiti. Not all of it is bad – you can find true art pieces here or there – but the majority is just defacing and makes the town center look neglected. On the plus side, the entire main quay was being renovated at the time of our visit: it is full of Renaissance mansions, so one of these days it should be a sight to behold.
The Cathedral ♥♥, whose full name is Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e Santa Cecilia, looks newish on the outside and is very lavishly decorated within, including several chapels on the lower level with extensive galleries of saints. Other churches in the historic center are worth a quick as well.
There are several non-major museums in Cagliari, such as Museo Archeologico Nazionale or Galleria Comunale d’Arte. On the middle level of Bastion St-Remy, you can access Passegiata Coperta, a set of large halls, some built into the old walls, and some adjacent, that is marginally worth checking out for the nominal price.
The core of the city sits on a high hill, so walking up and down is unavoidable. Replacing walking with riding on a Segway ♥ is a fun way for some to see the same major highlights. Getting a hang of Segway is a matter of 5 minutes of practice, even if you’ve never done it before. You do have to stay focused on controlling the device when riding, and the actual sightseeing will constitute no more than 20% of the tour, so setting aside time to see those major points on your own either before or after may not be a bad idea (but then it’s back to walking). The guide nonetheless does a good job of giving you key facts about top landmarks. Our tour lasted close to an hour and a half while being advertised as being one hour long.
The Nuragic civilization existed in Sardinia from the Bronze Age to the times of Roman colonization. It takes its name from nuraghe, a tower-fortress type of settlement that ancient Sardinians built in large numbers between roughly 1800 BCE and 1200 BCE. There are thousands of them located throughout the island, with a few dozen open to visitors.
The largest such archaeological site, Su Nuraxi di Barumini ♥♥ is the only current World Heritage property in Sardinia. The site maintains significant settlement outlines and a reasonably well-preserved central tower complex. The visit is only possible with a guide here, occasionally English-speaking but more frequently Italian. There are three challenging passages to navigate, which probably justifies the need to regulate the number of visitors. Impressive enough on balance. You can sneak a few minutes of self-exploration of exterior parts after the guide declares the tour to be over. The ticket allows entry to a couple of related museums nearby for those who have time.
Over 30 other nuraghi are part of the tentative World Heritage list to extend Su Nuraxi into a serial site. None of these “lesser” sights are too crowded and most can be explored without any guided assistance. Most also offer reasonable souvenir shops and onsite cafés.
Nuraghe Santu Antine ♥♥ (in Torralba, about an hour from either Alghero or Bosa) is especially impressive, as its well-preserved tower complex maintains a defined layout with relatively wide spaces and corridors. Quite incredible for a 3500-year-old structure. A very good audio guide enhances your visit via an app, and there is an excellent concise booklet if you do not want to listen to the narration. The ticket also allows entry to the archaeological museum in Torralba for those inclined.
Nuraghe Palmavera ♥ (a few kilometers out of Alghero) has a smaller remaining standing part compared to Santu Antine, but a larger outline of surrounding structures. There is plenty of information on boards at the start of the visit.
Santa Cristina Archaeological Park ♥♥ (an hour or so from Oristano on the main north-south autoroute) is a nuraghe-plus. It covers a large and relatively wooded area. The Nuragic settlement includes one small remaining tower and a “barn”, which are surrounded by the village outlines. A few hundred meters away is a separate sacred well area, which is rather unique; additionally, there are several well-preserved buildings of a medieval Christian village that existed on the site, with a small accessible church. Here, in addition to a better-than-average gift shop and a usual café-bar, there is also a serviceable full restaurant that works fantastically for lunch.
Sant’Anastasia ♥ is a smallish archaeological site (smack in the middle of the town of Sardara), dominated by the compact 11th-century church built on top of nuraghe. Some outlines of the prehistoric settlement are visible; the most interesting component is the sacred well, with an unexpectedly significantly larger water basin than at Santa Cristina.
Around the island
Bosa ♥♥♥ is gorgeous and colorful, well deserved of its place among I Borghi più Belli d’Italia, picturesque literally around every corner in the fully pedestrian core, and mostly quiet just a few steps away from the main street. There are many nice artisan shops and galleries dotted around its historic quarter. The Cathedral ♥ offers a few interesting features, but it was being significantly renovated at the time of our visit, likely to become entirely resplendent in the future. Chiesa San Rosario on the main street is worth a quick look.
Museu Casa Deriu is a local museum that could offer a reasonable diversion on a rainy day. The first floor is given to a small ceramic collection and a room of unusual and mostly macabre drawings by a local young artist. Above is the Piano Nobile, a five-room good representation of the local aristocratic dwelling. The top floor is a gallery of a relatively famous local painter Melchiorre Mellis, some of whose works are quite interesting. There is one extra floor in the opposite building, also a gallery by a local accomplished painter Antonio Atza, again not without interest.
Other key points of interest in town are Museo delle Conce (Bosa used to be a huge leather-processing center, with former tanneries lining up on quay) and Castello di Serravalle, whose main attraction are the elevated vistas over the town and towards the sea. If you do not want to go all the way up to the castle, there are slightly less-elevated but still good perspectives from viewpoints on Via Canonico Gavino Nino.
Another point of interest is a couple of kilometers outside town, an 11th-century small church of San Pietro Extra Muros. It is practically devoid of interior decorations, but not without interesting details, such as the original inscription on one of the columns or the unusual chalk architrave.
Bosa anchors a stretch of coast with a lot of small uncrowded beaches, and one way to explore it is to take a boat trip from Bosa marina ♥♥♥. There will be several stops off various coves for swimming, a very nice lunch onboard replete with local delicacies and drinks, a reasonable narration of important points of interest, and good times all around.
A common half-day excursion from Bosa is to the village of Cuglieri ♥♥, which is awfully atmospheric and crowned by a worthy basilica ♥, with a number of Baroque features, chapels, and decorations. The streets in the village core are nearly claustrophobic, of the kind that you should not try driving on. Picturesque and enchanting.
If you go through Tinnura on your way to Cuglieri, take time to get out of the car and admire the fantastic collection of murals ♥ along the main street. Murals in various villages are a frequently mentioned attraction all over Sardinia, and Tinnura is among the most eye-pleasing examples of that.
Alghero is at places attractive and at others muted; there are highlights and nice perspectives and picturesque corners, but the overall package is a bit underwhelming, IMHO. The historic core is fairly commercialized, so shopping here may be a bigger attraction than history. The walled seaside quay is the main visual highlight, guarded by several towers and displaying a number of defensive weapons along the perimeter.
Among other highlights in Alghero is the Cathedral ♥, understated in the interior but with an exuberant altar and pulpit ensemble; the church of San Michele ♥, with a number of opulent chapels and other expressive details, and a lovely tiled dome; and the monastic complex of San Francesco ♥, accessible for a fee, which is probably the most impressive of all. The interiors of these churches are much more impressive than the exteriors, San Michele’s dome aside. Both the cathedral and San Francesco have accessible towers for elevated views, but unfortunately, we happened there during high winds, and they were closed for safety reasons.
Museum of Coral ♥ is well worth a half-hour visit, with a compact exhibition focusing on both the scientific and the artistic aspects of the coral industry. Quite a few fetching artifacts on display, lots of information on the boards, as well as an educational movie. Children under 14 go free.
If you are staying in the area, the marina of nearby Fertilio is a pleasant place for a passegiata, with across-the-bay views of Alghero. There is also a smattering of eateries on the central street leading to the marina.
Castelsardo ♥♥ is another Sardinian member of I Borghi più Belli d’Italia association, a visually delightful hilltop town on the northern coast. There are several defined points of interest, such as Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Cattedrale di Sant’Antonio Abate (which cannot be fully visited without a museum ticket), Castello dei Doria, and a couple of other museums. There are also plenty of picturesque perspectives and elevated vistas, and without visiting any of POIs, a couple of hours is enough to see the village. Plenty of seemingly attractive places to eat and quite a few interesting souvenir shops.
The provincial capital of Oristano is of limited interest in itself. The compact mostly pedestrian central area is nice while short of exceptional; there are plenty of bars and pizzerias, and some shopping on the main arteries; step a few blocks away from the center and the town becomes nondescript. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta ♥♥ is the standout feature, quite ornate and impressive, while the nearby Church of San Francesco is also worth a quick look. The Tower of Mariano on Piazza Roma is another visual highlight; it is relatively easy to climb, although the views from the top are average.
Sardara ♥, which does not feature on any Sardinian recommendations as a place to see, turned out to be quite charming and even enchanting. There are a couple of attractive churches that are seemingly always closed except for services (I managed to sneak a peek inside San Gregorio, which is intimate and mostly unadorned), a local archaeological museum Villa Abbas, and the aforementioned Sant’Anastasia Nuragic site. One of the biggest attractions in Sardara are the thermal baths which are hard to feature on a summertime itinerary. There is a lot of renovation going on around every corner, and a fair share of properties are in a state of neglect, but the visual mix of old components and renovated properties is very pleasing.
A few kilometers from Sardara, San Gavino Monreale ♥ is one of the most well-known mural towns; it boasts several dozen modern-art ones, although they take some work to see since they are all over the village. One cluster is close to the newish church of Santa Teresa di Lisieux (which is well worth stepping in by itself), and another is Piazza della Musica. If you manage to see a dozen or so murals in different locations, you will be certainly impressed (and the town center is full of reasonably picturesque corners). The central church of Santa Chiara is also worth a quick look. The oldest church of San Gavino Martire can be another point of interest when open.
One attraction in the Oristano area is taking a boat ride ♥ across the bay (more or less, between Torregrande’s Porto Turistico and the coastline near Tharros Archaeological Site). There will, of course, be swimming off the boat, onboard lunch, and snorkeling equipment will be provided for those interested.
Sardinia is a deceptively large island, and seeing it all in one go would be a challenging task for anyone who enjoys slower travel. Olbia and Costa Smeralda is one obvious area to consider for a future itinerary. Other potential destinations include Carloforte on Isola di San Pietro, Villasimus in the southeastern corner, Palau and the islands of La Maddalena in the northeast one, the well-known mural standout village of Orgosolo, and a number of other “most beautiful Italian villages” in the central and eastern parts of the island.
There are literally dozens of incredible beaches all over Sardinia. Our time was spent primarily near the west coast of the island, so here are a few quick notes on the beaches we visited.
There are several great beaches near Bosa, although the majority of them require non-trivial hiking to get to (S’Abba Druche may be an exception, and there is also the main beach of Bosa that is easily accessible). Spiaggia Cumpoltittu is sandy, mixed with soft sea vegetation debris and occasional large rocks (water shoes are highly recommended). There are no facilities, only clear water and a not-too-crowded vibe of a local favorite. The path to the beach is quite challenging.
Spiaggia di Mugoni ♥ is a long strip of sand in Porto Conte Bay, not far from Alghero. There are several club sections, bars every hundred yards or so, chez-lounges and umbrellas for hire, and sports rentals. Tranquil clear waters.
Another long and narrow strip, Spiagga di Arborea is to the south of Oristano, sandy with a gently sloping floor, with most amenities but also a largely wild feel.
Is Arutas ♥♥♥, anchoring the chain of beaches on Sinis peninsula, may be the most beautiful beach in all of Sardinia. Uniquely, the sand here is of a larger white quartz type, and your feet sink in with every step. The water is gorgeous, although the sea floor drops quickly after just a handful of meters. There are several bars along the beach, with paid toilets, but we did not see any rental facilities.
Spiaggia Portu Cauli ♥ has soft sand and shallow sea floor (but also the same vegetation debris that we’ve seen in Cumpoltittu before); the water becomes very clear about 10 meters in. The beach is among a few on the stretch of SP83 between Nebida and Portixeddu in the southwest of the island which is one of the most scenic drives in Sardinia.
As mentioned above, Sardinia is deceptively large. Public transport is fairly limited outside of the larger cities. A car is absolutely essential for any reasonable exploration. Keep in mind that there are very few major roads on the island, and most routes traverse mountainous terrain, so driving times will frequently be non-trivial even when the distance appears not too great.
One location cannot suffice as a base for seeing the entire island. Places like Bosa or Sardara allow hub-and-spokes traveling arrangements, and you may need to look for other similar locations depending on which parts of Sardinia you intend to explore.
Our accommodations in both Bosa and Sardara were in the “memorable stays” category.
Casa Pagió (link) is a well-renovated historic tower, not 50 meters from the main Bosa bridge and the town center. The top apartment with a terrace is spacious, well air-conditioned, with a number of vintage accents, and a slightly weird bathroom layout with the toilet situated beyond the wet shower. Full kitchen, although sparsely stocked. There are 53 steps to get to the apartment, but there are also other rooms on the lower floors. The B&B offers a very nice breakfast in a café setting on the street level, with pastries, charcuterie, and fruits. The owners are the nicest of hosts, constantly in contact, and ready to help and advise.
B&B al Vicolo VI (link) is a superbly renovated second-floor apartment in the historic center of Sardara. Spacious, well-appointed, reasonably stocked, with all amenities (including a full kitchen and a washing machine), beautiful and welcoming. The terrace overlooking the rooftops of the town is the crowning feature (as a small negative, wi-fi refused to work on the terrace). Parking is by the door in a dead-end vicolo; somewhat challenging, so you may be better served finding a free space on the sloping wide street leading to the B&B within 50 meters or so. The exceedingly nice host provided tons of support and info; breakfast is brought by the host to the landing below the apartment at the hour that you specify and includes a few pastries and cookies, boiled eggs, fruits, jams, juice, and milk.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Sardinia. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
At the peak season, however, like nowhere else that we’ve seen, restaurants in Sardinia require reservations, or you may be turned away. The number of available dining seats must be at a significant shortage compared with the number of visitors. In fact, reservations appear essential even for lunches even though some places turn tables several times over during the service period and may seat you if you wait in line for a bit. On the positive side, if you are walking around town and you see a likely place for dinner, you should be able to make a same-day reservation most of the time.
In Alghero, La Bottega dei Sappori (on Piazza Municipio) deserves recommendation in no small part due to the fact that they were able to seat newcomers joining the waiting line fairly efficiently even as other establishments were cutting off potential clients on account of ending the lunch service. Our wait lasted no longer than 15 minutes. The food was pretty good too, especially the pizza.
In Bosa, at least three places are worthy of a dining recommendation: Essenza al Borgo Sant’Ignazio (one level of stairway up in the town center), with an interesting menu from which all of ceviche, gazpacho, minestrone, pulpo, agnello, and maialetto got highest marks; Locanda di Corte (on a quiet piazzetta in the pedestrian core), with great choices of locally-influenced dishes; and Sa Nassa (literally where the main bridge hits the old town), with an exceptional local menu headlined by cinghiale.
Outside of Alghero at Sa Cheya Relais and Spa, the restaurant Villasole is possibly the most refined we dined at on this trip, with excellent service and a mix of typical and creative food.
Two pizzeria restaurants gave us the best local-vibe meals. Ciuexi in Sardara and La Padellaccia in Pabillonis both have something like 30 varieties of pizza on the menu; there are limited non-pizza choices but they are not always available and who wants to get a beef chop at a pizzeria anyway (Ciuexi also serves a selection of burgers on Thursdays). Local flocked in after 9 p.m. to both places, most people knew each other, and we were seemingly the only outsiders. At La Padellaccia there were even people waiting by the door for a table to free up. The pizzas were fantastic, the desserts as well, and the unpretentious local atmosphere was just priceless.
Another worthy recommendation is in Oristano, KaliSpeRа, with great food (try carpaccio di polpo), efficient team service, and the people-watching bonus on one of the main pedestrian streets; in addition to the interior and exterior seating, there is a roofed pavilion that blends inside with outside.