The 15 best attractions in Sardinia
Perhaps the only thing you’ve heard about Sardinia is that it has the famous Emerald Coast (Costa Smeralda). The coast gets its name from the color of the water, which rolls in waves on the white sand beaches. But this Mediterranean island is more than just a piece of land with beaches in the middle of the sea. Tourists coming to Sardinia for the first time are often surprised by a mountainous wilderness, which begins just a few kilometers from the white beaches.
Another thing tourists are usually surprised by a large number of archaeological sites from prehistoric times. Especially a lot of mysterious round megalithic towers, known as “nuragi” (in the singular “nurag” or “nuraga”). You’re sure to ponder the mysteries of these prehistoric fortresses/dwellings as you climb the time-darkened steps and walk through corridors built of stone in the Bronze and Iron Ages. In Sardinia you can also stroll through the original Roman streets and visit the windswept ruins of Phoenician cities. The island of Sardinia is one of a kind. You won’t find folk customs and celebrations like these anywhere else. Local cuisine differs greatly from that of other parts of Italy. Even the language is different (although everyone in Sardinia speaks Italian and many speak English).
1 Cagliari and Southern Sardinia
The southern coast of the island can give the tourist an idea of Sardinia’s endless diversity. From the medieval streets and high bastions overlooking the island’s capital Cagliari, it’s only a few kilometers to the ruins of the ancient city of Nora, once ruled by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans. Head east from the city and in minutes you’ll be on one of the legendary beaches that make Sardinia one of Europe’s most popular summer vacation destinations.
2 Su Nuraxi di Barumini
There are thousands of megalithic towers scattered across Sardinia, many of which are literally piles of ancient stone. Su Nuraxi di Barumini is the largest and best preserved nuraghic complex on the island. It is located not far from Cagliari. There are half-hour tours of the megalithic complex with English-speaking guides. If you have the opportunity to see only one prehistoric monument, choose Su Nuraxi, you will not fail. UNESCO considers Su Nuraxi di Barumini one of the most important archaeological sites in the Mediterranean.
Radiocarbon analysis of the wood found in the walls of the central tower showed that it is about 3.5 thousand years old. The outer towers were built in the 11th or 12th century BC. You can go inside the tower and climb to the top of the dome, built of stone without the use of mortar. The walls are 1.8 m thick. The three floors of the tower are connected by spiral stone stairs. Even people far from construction can appreciate the level of engineering skill achieved by the prehistoric builders. After exploring the towers and foundations of the ancient village houses, don’t forget to check out the Casa Zapata museum located in the village. The museum has many interesting exhibits and another nuraga found under the museum building itself.
Address: Highway 131, Barumini (near Sanluri)
3 Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast)
Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are located in the rocky coves between the port town of Olbia and the tip of the Cape Testa (Capo de Testa). The beaches, bathed by clear and green water, are known worldwide as the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast. The comparison with one of the most expensive gems can refer not only to the resort itself, but also to its guests. Tourist life of the Emerald Coast began in the 1960s, when the Aga Khan IV decided to turn part of the northern coast of Sardinia in the “reservation for millionaires. Resort “villages” are built in the form of seaside towns on Greek islands. The largest center of the coast is Porto Cervo (Porto Cervo), a resort village and marina for private yachts, built in the 1960s. The only local attraction for those not involved in resort life is the MdM, a stylish contemporary art museum with changing exhibitions and a cafeteria with a summer terrace overlooking Porto Cervo. The most affordable resort on the coast is the lively little town of Cannigione by the bay of Arzacena.
Don’t be surprised if you think the locals speak a different language. It is – it’s almost Spanish. In many corners of the city you can still see signs and signs in Spanish. In the 14th century, the pope gave Sardinia to the King of Aragon, so that the island is not taken over by Pisa or Genoa, at that time feuding with the Vatican. He gave land to about four hundred families from Aragon and Catalonia on the condition that they settle on the island, namely in Alghero, replacing the local population. Church services in the local church of St. Francis are still conducted in Catalan. It is worth visiting the church to see the magnificent 13th-century covered gallery, which can be accessed through the sacristy to the left of the altar. The cathedral has a 14th century Spanish Gothic doorway. Toward evening, climb the walls built by the Spanish to defend against attack from the sea and join the locals for an evening stroll by the mighty bastions and admire the sunset over the sea.
If you have seen a few nuraghe and are not “hooked” by these mysterious towers, most likely nothing will surprise you anymore. But most tourists quickly fall under the fascination of these megalithic structures, about which almost nothing is known, and notice that they are quite different from each other. The Vine, one of the top three nuraghe, has several features. There is lighting inside and even without a lantern you can clearly see the walls and the inner surface of the domes. The Vine is one of the largest complexes, consisting of a large central tower and three outer towers forming a triangular bastion, which you can explore by walking through a maze of stone corridors that rise in a spiral inside the massive walls. The second floor is well-preserved and the roof is also intact. Although the complex dates back to the 12th and 14th centuries BC (Bronze Age), the large central hall is in excellent condition and its appearance is more refined than most of the other rooms. In the small museum you can see bronze bracelets and other artifacts. Location: off Highway 131, near Abbasanta Offsite: www.nuraghelosa.net
6 Prehistoric Monuments of Artsakhena
One of the largest clusters of Stone and Copper Age structures is a few kilometers from the Emerald Coast, but it feels like another world. Six noteworthy complexes include nuraghes, burials and curious chamber tombs known as tomba gigante (“tombs of giants”). In the chamber tomb of Coddu Vecchiu, an 18th-century B.C. tunnel tomb, the entrance is lined with flat stones added several centuries later. The entrance in the Li Lolghi tomb is very similar, but here a 3.5m upright standing stone is set at the entrance. In the nearby Li Muri necropolis, the stone tombs are arranged inside circles of flat standing stones, once covered by earth. The oval shape of the nuraga Albuccu is unusual. Nuraga. Artsakhena is also known for its bizarre rock formations, which have been subject to erosion for many centuries. One of them, on the east side of Artsakhena, looks like a giant mushroom.
7 Nuraga Santa Cristina and the Shrine of the Well
Just north of Oristano is one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Sardinia. Here you can see the beautifully preserved “sacred well” – the temple-well of 1200-1100 B.C. – and the nuragic tower, from the roof of which you can see the views of the prehistoric stone village surrounding the temple. One of the oblong houses still shows the original stone roof. Climbing up to the roof of the nuraga is more convenient with a lantern. If you want to see another layer of history, pay attention to the small stone “bags” between the well and the nuraga. These are the monks’ cells surrounding the 12th century church. Pilgrims still make pilgrimages here in May and October. Location: Cabras, 19 km west of Oristano
8 Nuoro and Gennargentu
The streets of Nuoro, sprawling on top of a mountain range, offer beautiful views in every direction. The cathedral of Santa Maria della Neve (nineteenth century) stands on a rock “growing” from the valley floor and the small square in front of the church is practically the only flat area in the whole town. Nuoro is a good base for exploring the Gennardgentu National Park, where the most beautiful mountains of Sardinia are located. There are also remote villages here that seem to be still in the 19th century. Amazing places where small towns nestle on the steep mountain slopes, and the traditions have not changed for centuries. You have to be extremely careful when driving here because of the narrow roads and steep turns and rises. Learn more about the local villages and traditions at the outstanding Ethnographic Museum of the traditions of Sardinia, located in Nuoro. The museum has the best collections of Sardinian costumes and decorative art. A separate gallery is dedicated to traditional masks. The National Archaeological Museum, with artifacts from the Neolithic period and fossils, is also worth a visit.
9 Nurag Valley
A wide flat valley surrounded by the cones of ancient volcanoes, known for its eroded rock formations and prehistoric monuments, the most famous of which is the 16-meter-high nurag of St. Anthony. One of the three largest nuraghe in Sardinia and the most complex consists of three towers connected by a defensive wall. Santo Antine dates from the 16th century B.C. You can climb the steps inside the thick walls to reach the well-preserved second and third levels of the central tower and take the upper corridor to the west and north towers. Several other nuraghe can be seen from above. Not far from the complex there are tombs carved into the rocks from 4000-3000 BC. In the Middle Ages they were used as hermitages and inside some of them you can still see frescoes. The attraction is far from always open, but even without getting inside there is a lot to admire. Location: off Highway 131, Torralba
Wander amidst the stone heritage of Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Roman cultures at the ruins of the city of Tarros. Try to imagine what the place looked like when the houses and benches had not yet turned into ruins of foundations and doorways. There are still columns from Roman baths, fragments of an aqueduct, temples and an amphitheater overlooking the sea. At the top of the hill is a Phoenician necropolis (the Phoenicians left here in about 650 BC). What archaeologists found in the ruins of Tarros can be seen in the Civico Giovanni Marongiu Museum in Cabras, where carved stone steles, funerary urns and other artefacts are on display. More treasures are on display at the Antiquarium Arborense in the small town of Oristano. The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary in Oristano dates back to medieval times, but it was restored under the Spanish in the 18th and 19th centuries. The colorful tiles on the domes of the cathedral belong to this time. Location: Cabras, 19 km west of Oristano
Since the ninth century B.C., Bosa rises above the mouth of Sardinia’s only navigable river, in a valley now widely used as farmland. The labyrinth of medieval streets stretches from the old stone bridge and pastel houses at the waterfront to Malaspina Castle at the top of the hill. Although you can drive right up to the castle, don’t miss the opportunity to wander through the ancient streets where modest huts are juxtaposed with large noblemen’s mansions. The restored Deriu House works as a museum with furnished rooms and an art gallery. In the castle you can see a 13th-century chapel with unusual 14th-century frescoes. The seaside road from Boza to Alghero offers very scenic views. And you’ll have hair on your head only in certain sections.
12 Archipelago Maddalena
From the small port of Palau, there are regular half-hour boat trips to Maddalena, the archipelago’s only town in the Straits of Bonifacio, between Sardinia and Corsica. In addition to the beaches, the farthest of which can only be reached by boat, tourists come here to cross the embankment and bridge to the neighboring island of Caprera. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the father of Italian statehood and leader of the struggle for Italian unification and independence, lived here. Garibaldi’s monument attracts visitors to the island from all over Italy and many other countries. There are several beaches on the opposite side of the island, easily found by paths off a single road. Ofsite: www.compendiogaribaldino.it
Castelsardo is an attractive and lively fishing town with pastel houses “climbing” up the mountainside. Above the settlement is a medieval village enclosed by defensive walls. At the very top of the city towers above the castle of the XII century with a good museum of local crafts. The basket-weaving exhibit is especially interesting. Narrow streets wind around the castle and descend down the mountainside, turning into stairs in the steepest places. Women can be seen at the doors of the houses weaving baskets. Views from the top extend in two directions, along the coast and out to sea, all the way to Corsica. In the church in the little square of Castelsardo there is one of the finest altars in Sardinia, dating back to the fifteenth century. The wood carvings on the choir are also magnificent. The bell tower of the church was once a lighthouse.
14 Grotta di Nettuno
Cruise from Banchina Dogan (bay) in Alghero to the tip of Cape Caccia where there is a beautiful cave with stalactites and stalagmites reflecting in an underground lake. Neptune’s Grotto was washed out by sea waves in the 304-meter-high coastal cliffs. The entrance to the cave is at sea level, and the most interesting, though not always easy, to get into the grotto is by sea. You can also go by car from Alghero (about 14 kilometers), passing on the road interesting nuraghe. On the ground will have to descend the 656 steps Escala del Cabirol (“goat stairs”). The steps are carved into the rock. Location: Cape of Caccia, Alghero, Sardinia
Sassari, Sardinia’s second largest city, is a lively university and cultural center with interesting examples of Catalan Gothic, Neoclassic and Baroque architecture. Walk down Via Victor Emmanuel II, the city’s main street since the Middle Ages. Admire the ancient porticoes and windows on the houses of the Spanish period. The National Museum of Sanna, one of the best museums in Sardinia, displays archaeological collections including nuragic bronze figurines and jewelry, as well as ancient Roman artifacts. Don’t miss the main cathedral of Sassari, notable for its amazing 17th-century carved ornaments on the facade by Milanese artisans. Several other churches in the city are also worth a visit, if they are open. But the most notable local religious structure is about twelve kilometers south of Sassari on Route 131. The tower in black and white stripes towers over the church and the ruins of the monastery of Santissima Trinita di Saccargia, the best example of Pisan architecture in all of Sardinia. Inside, if you’re lucky and the church is open, you can see 13th-century frescoes.
How to get there
Sardinia and mainland Italy are connected by car ferries. The distance from the island to the mainland – 193 kilometers. Less often there are ships to Mediterranean ports in other countries, France and Spain. Ferries leave from Savona (western Italian Riviera), Genoa, Livorno (near Pisa) and Civitavecchia (Rome), arriving at the Sardinian ports of Cagliari (capital of the south island), Arbatax (east coast), Olbia (Costa Smeralda) and Porto Torres (north coast). Companies serving Sardinia: Tirrenia, Moby Lines, Grandi Navi Veloci, Grimaldi Lines, Corsica/Sardinia Ferries. Regular flights connect Cagliari international airport, Rome and other major Italian cities. Planes of local flights also land at the smaller airports of Olbia and Alghero.