Sardinia is undoubtedly best known for the clear turquoise sea and exquisite beaches of the Costa Smeralda, but there are plenty of them elsewhere on the island too, and for a fraction of the price. Food and wine are just as important here too – the island is a designated ‘Blue Zone’, a region where people live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet.
But unless you’re a fan of the History Channel, you might not know that Sardinia is one of the most mysterious places on earth. The oldest land mass in Europe, it has archaeological sites, discovered in the 1970s, dating from between 1900 and 730 BC. (Sardinia’s Stonehenge). Little is known about the Nuragic civilization, but there are over 7,000 stone fortifications (the oldest in Europe) around the island, and some of the giant statues that were made are over eight feet tall, giving rise to the notion that Sardinia may indeed have been a ‘land of giants’.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day roundup of the best things to see and do. For further Sardinia inspiration, see our guides to the island’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlife, beaches and things to do.
Base yourself in the beautiful port of Cagliari, the island’s capital, where there are regular street markets and plenty of great bars and restaurants, and start day one by heading west to the charming town of Pula. From here it’s a short drive to the sea-front Roman and Carthaginian ruins of Nora, which include mosaics, temples and thermal baths. The tours are fascinating, thanks to the enthusiastic guides who provide a lot of information about the place.
After a morning of exploring, head back to Pula where you’ll find a variety of places to eat and drink. S’Incontru in Piazza del Popolo is one of the liveliest. Grab a patio table and watch the world go by while you wait for your wood-fired pizza, topped with prosciutto cotto e rucola (ham and arugula) or frutti di mare (seafood). There is also a sushi bar and vegetarian options.
After lunch it’s back to Cagliari, with its beautiful biscuit-coloured buildings from the 19th century and the impressive Museo Archeologico which has exhibits from 6000 BC. The Sardinian ‘Stone Army’ is not to be missed: the large sculptures are 500 years older than China’s Terracotta Army. Afterwards, try not to miss the Cagliari Antiquaria flea market (Piazza del Carmine, every Sunday of the month, except the third), where you will find local crafts, linens, old maps and books, and historical ephemera.
Rafè Coffee & Shop is a great pit stop for a drink or lunch, as well as some shopping (they sell local honey and pretty pottery). Then it’s well worth a trip to the popular Poetto beach, a short bus ride away, or head to Molentargius, the regional park where over 10,000 of the inhabitants are flamingos.
It’s a short walk up to the historic center to admire the Torre dell’Elefante which has been recently restored and now offers spectacular views of the city and beyond. Insider tip: the tower can only be visited with a guide and reservation (closed on Mondays).
If you made the trip up, reward yourself at the nearby Caffè Libarium Nostrum, which overlooks the tower, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is an excellent spot for a sunset. The starters (think cheese croquettes, crudo ham, chips and nuts) come free, and the spacious terrace offers views of the city, harbor and sea beyond. There is also a full dinner menu, which is recommended to reserve in advance. For more dinner recommendations, see our guide to the best restaurants in Sardinia.
On the northwest coast, Alghero overlooks the sea and is a joy to wander around. Once conquered by the Catalans, some of the city’s inhabitants still speak ‘Algherese’, a variant of the Catalan language, and the historic center is still known as ‘Barcelonetta’. There are plenty of shops, as well as a marina where boats sail to the caves of Capo Caccia and Neptune’s Grotto. Alternatively, take a trip to Anghelu Ruju, where there is a large collection of Domus de Janus (pre-Nuragic tombs that were thought to be “elf houses”, although they are actually tombs).
The food here has a distinctly Spanish twist, and paella can be found on many menus. After a relaxing walk along the seawalls, follow your nose to Les Arenes pizzeria for a meter pizza, or order online for Catalan aragosta (lobster, a local speciality) or the famous porcedu (suckling pig).
By car you can reach Nuoro in less than two hours. It is the capital of the province of the same name, and the birthplace of Grazia Deledda, the only Italian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition to visiting Deledda’s house, the town has an excellent Museo del Costume, where visitors can explore the island’s distinctive culture. Nearby, in the delightful Piazza Sebastiano Satta, named after the famous Italian poet, you will find sculptures by Sardinian-born Costantino Nivola.
From here you can head up towards the Costa Smeralda, stopping at Olbia to visit the Museo Archeologico, which is shaped like a moored ship, in front of the old port. Displaying important relics from ancient Roman ships, this is a fascinating place to start delving into the history of this seafaring town before heading on to Porto Cervo to visit the beautiful Stella Maris Church, built by the Aga Khan as thanks for allowing the development of the area.
As dusk begins to fall, Porto Cervo has a small Piazzetta where the rich and glamorous sip cocktails with no thought for the bill (a coffee can cost €5/£4.50, and something with alcohol can set you back €30/£ 28 ), or you can splash out on a fantastic dinner at the award-winning Blù Restaurant). Don’t miss out branzino (sea bass) baked under salt, and black fregola (handmade Sardinian ‘couscous’ blackened with charred vegetables) served with prawns and asparagus.
For a more authentic Sardinian experience, try Agriturismo La Colti, where you’ll save room for desserts, which include the famous seadas (a large ‘raviolo’ filled with ricotta and sprinkled with honey). Night owls who want to continue the evening, see our guide to nightlife in Sardinia.
If it’s beaches you’re after, and you can’t hack the staggering prices of the glittering Costa Smeralda, know that Sardinia’s beaches are spectacular wherever you look. From Olbia, Cannigione is worth checking out. Once a fishing village, it has a number of beautiful beaches, local markets and restaurants serving typical Galluran cuisine. It is also the perfect starting point for visiting the Maddelena Archipelago.
There’s a festival going on somewhere, wherever you are in Sardinia. Plan your trip to coincide with one of them and experience Sardinian culture at its best, for free. The most famous of all is Sant’Efisio, which takes place over four days in May. Start at the Church of Sant’Efisio in Cagliari and watch the representatives from each corner of the island display their spectacular costumes, some on horseback, others accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments.
The further south you go, you will find that prices drop with each mile travelled. La Caletta’s La Nuova Torre restaurant, for example, does a mean pizza for around €12 (£10), and then you can take a stroll around the harbor and visit one of the simple local bars along the main street, Via Nazario Sauro .
Several of the nicer hotels have their own beaches, even boats, so it is possible to arrange a private dinner on the beach, watch dolphins and whales, or even arrange a romantic night cruise. For example, Delphina has eight hotels in northern Sardinia, and several boats at its disposal, including a magnificent sailboat from 1927.
Where you will live
Contemporary family-owned Gabbiano Azzurro Hotels & Suites has sea-view rooms decorated with Moorish-style arches, lights sculpted into white walls and Sardinian handicrafts made of wood or ceramics. It has its own private beach and a first-class chef, plus a hotel boat used for trips to nearby islands and dolphin watching.
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Su Gologone, Sardinia’s best country house, basks in a fantastic mountain setting. But it is more than a hotel: dedicated to bringing the best of Sardinia to guests, it is a colorful oasis of authenticity, art and beauty, a world away from the bling-obsessed Costa Smeralda. A five-minute walk takes you to the bucolic spring that gave its name to Su Gologone.
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Characteristic and well designed, The Place Cagliari – a converted 19th century traditional building – has six rooms, each with its own charm. Plump for Suite Regina Elena, a huge space with beamed ceilings, animal skin carpet and its own sauna and free-standing claw foot bath in the bedroom. There is a small cafe area on the first floor and a small library with interesting reference books about Sardinia. For more recommendations on the best places to stay in Sardinia, see our guide.
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What to take home
Mirto is a delicious liqueur, unique to Sardinia and nearby Corsica, made from the berries of the myrtle plant. If you have only brought hand luggage, there are plenty of delicious scented soaps and moisturizing creams made from the berry.
Sardinian pottery is plain, often white, and decorated with simple but ancient designs believed to represent good harvests and fertility: fish, chickens and the Sardinian vipe (pavoncella).
When to go
There is one golden rule: avoid August. That’s when the whole of Italy, with mothers and kitchen sinks in tow, storms the island, floods the beaches and books up all available accommodation. Prices also go up and it can be unbearably hot. Just about any other time is fine, with May/June seeing the island at its best, with the clearest skies, while a balmy, post-blitz calm descends the island in September, when the crowds have left and the sea is at its best. warmest. However, the depth of winter can see ski resorts looking a bit sad and abandoned, and some places are closed until Easter.
Know before you go
Embassy in Rome: (00 39 06 4220 0001; gov.uk)
Emergency assistance: Call 113
Tourist offices and information: There is no office that covers all of Sardinia, but you will find lots of information at sardegnaturismo.it. The most useful local offices are: Palazzo Civico, Via Roma 145, Cagliari (00 39 070 677 7397; cagliariturismo.it); Largo Lo Quarter, Alghero (00 39 079 979054; algheroturismo.eu); Municipio, Corso Umberto, Olbia (00 39 0789 52206; olbiaturismo.it)
Telephone code: Dial 00 39 when calling Italy from abroad, and always use the full area code regardless of where you are calling from (070, 0789, etc.) Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: From UK airports to Sardinia it is two to three hours.
Local laws and etiquette
Note that the law requires drivers to carry their personal ID, driver’s license and car documents with them while on the road, and all cars must have a warning triangle and reflective jacket on board. Speed radar detectors are prohibited.
Sardinians are taking the Covid pandemic and its restrictions very seriously and visitors should respect the rules. Masks must be worn in shops, and in most bars and restaurants until you sit at a table.
Jan Fuscoe is Telegraph Travel’s Sardinia expert, and spends much of the summer there. She has met a woman who weaves gold thread from giant mussels ‘bisso’, and hung out with a Sardinian beekeeper, but who is mostly found swimming in the sea.