A First-Timer's Guide to Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia Sardinia Insider Guides Beaches and Islands
by Claudia Flisi May 21, 2024

For Italians, Sardinia is synonymous with “Costa Smeralda” (Emerald Coast), the summer playground of the rich and famous. But the natural and cultural attractions of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean are available to many travelers, not just the glitterati who gather on their mega-yachts at Porto Cervo every August.

The lifestyle of Sardinia alone is an attraction, since people here live longer, healthier, and better lives than almost anywhere else. Some villages boast almost 10 times as many centenarians (people more than 100 years old) per capita than the US. It could be that the food has something to do with it, but the stunning ocean vistas, strong family ties, and cohesion of the unique community likely all contribute, too.

Here are the best places to go and sights to see in Sardinia, Italy, plus advice on when to go, where to stay, and regional specialties you definitely don’t want to miss.

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Getting there and around

There are no direct flights from the US to Sardinia, so you’ll need to fly to Rome, then catch a flight to Cagliari, Alghero, or Olbia. You can also connect through a dozen or more cities in Europe, including London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, or Zurich, then fly on to Cagliari. The fastest travel time from JFK airport in New York City is just under 11 hours.

The best way to get around Sardinia is by car, either driving yourself or by hiring a private driver. The distances are not huge, and it takes less than four hours to drive from Cagliari in the south to Santa Teresa Gallura in the north. Going from Oristano in the west to Tortoli in the east takes less than two hours. But the entire perimeter of the island is 1,149 miles, and it’s not a place to rush. You’ll want to allow enough time to linger on breathtaking seascapes, or stop for scrumptious meals.

The best time to visit Sardinia

Barbagia carnevale sardinia italy

The unique Carnevale celebrations of Barbagia start in January each year. Photo: Tore65/Shutterstock

The best time to go depends on what you want to do. Summer is ideal for beaches and water sports, but it’s also the most crowded and costly. Spring and fall are perfect for hiking, outdoor sports, and sightseeing. If folkloric traditions are your thing, aim for Christmas (December), Carnevale (February), and Easter (March or April) for special ceremonies and markets, religious and not.

Of particular note is the Carnevale celebration in Barbagia, in the heart of Sardinia. It begins its Carnevale celebrations each year on January 16 with the bonfires of Sant’Antonio Abate. “Su Karrasecare“(Carnevale in the Sardinian dialect) is closely tied to the area’s agro-pastoral traditions, with pagan roots different from anywhere else in Italy.

Throughout the year, every town has its own sagra, or local food fair; you can find the schedule for most of them online. The wettest and rainiest month is November, and the coldest is January, with an average daily high and low of 58 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. But that also makes them the least crowded and most affordable.

What to do in Sardinia



Photo: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

Cagliari is the largest city of Sardinia and the island’s major airport hub, but it feels uncongested, with sunshine, ocean walks, wide tree-lined avenues, and pastel-colored buildings. The varied architecture is living testimony to the many cultures that have contributed to Sardinia over the centuries: Phoenicians, Punics, Romans, Greeks, Spanish, and mainland Italian city-states.

The elevated historic area, Castello, holds the most important architectural and cultural monuments of Cagliari, including churches, palaces, museums, museums in palaces, the bastions of Santa Croce and St. Remy, the “Elephant Tower” (with a marble elephant to justify the name), and a building called “The Ghetto” (near the former Jewish ghetto). The best way to see it is on foot with a guided or self-guided walking tour – though you can also hitch a ride on the Cagliari tourist train through Castello, too. It’s only 10 Euros, and you buy your tickets on board.

The Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archeological Museum) merits a visit for two intriguing exhibits: a collection of bronze Nuragic statues (the bronzetti) and 16 of the 28 “Mont’e Prama” stone giants.

The bronzetti are mysterious because bronze contains copper, and there are no copper mines in Sardinia. Experts speculate that locals traded obsidian – a hard volcanic rock found on this volcanic island — for the desired copper. The stone giants are part of a collection of 28 massive sculptures discovered near Mount Prama, starting in 1974. Some are up to 10 feet tall and date between the 11th and 8th centuries BCE. That makes them the oldest anthropomorphic (human-like) sculptures found in Mediterranean Europe. The statues’ eyes are hypnotically large and compelling, leading some to whisper that aliens were the original role models.

Poetto beach in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

Poetto beach in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy. Photo: Torruzzlo/Shutterstock

About an hour north of Cagliari is Sardinia’s only UNESCO World Heritage site: Su Nuraxi di Barumini. There, you’ll find nuraghi, a special type of defensive structure found only in Sardinia. They date to the Bronze Age and are defensive stone towers shaped like truncated cones. The complex at Barumini is arguably the best example of nuraghi, but you’ll find them all over the island.

The three-day Festa della Madonna del Naufrago (the festival of the shipwrecked Madonna) is a yearly event held above and below water every third week in July. It’s held off the coast of the Isola dei Cavoli south of Capo Carbonara, about an hour southeast of Cagliari. In addition to the usual processions, food feasts, and music, the festival includes a ceremony held 33 feet underwater in which a priest blesses a 10-foot-tall statue of the Madonna. Only divers and fish can “hear” the blessing, but no one questions its power to protect sea-going fishermen and sailors.

Also at Capo Carbonara is a wide lagoon called Stagno Nottieri (Nottieri Pond). It’s home to both migratory and year-round pink flamingo populations. Guided tours will take you there, but it’s easy to find Nottieri — and the birds — on your own.


sardinia italy - town of alghero

Photo: Grzegorz Majchrzak/Shutterstock

The city of Alghero lies along a coastline known as the Riviera del Corallo (Coral Riviera), named for the coral deposits exploited there. The Museo del Corallo (Coral Museum) in the city center is a testament to the importance of that resource, the city’s coat of arms even includes a red coral branch, and shows off the artistry of local craftspeople able to enhance the beauty of red coral in jewelry and other objets d’arte. The museum is open daily, and tickets are only 5 Euros (about $6).

A walk on Alghero’s 13th-century-and later ramparts is a visual delight, with the sea and sun reflecting the pale ochre walls and towers, churches, domes, and forts. Alghero is one of only a few Italian cities to have maintained 70 percent of its original walls and is a gorgeous place for a leisurely stroll.

A strictly Sardinian curiosity is that a small (and diminishing) number of locals speak a variant of Catalan, reflecting the rule of the city for hundreds of years by the Aragons of northeastern Spain. Additional proof of the impact of Spanish culture is in the city’s nickname: Barceloneta, or “little Barcelona.”

Alghero offers a variety of interesting museums, churches, and fortresses. The city doesn’t have any must-do sites to check off in a frenzied fashion like Paris or London, but worthy of a visit is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Immacolata di Alghero (Alghero Cathedral), where construction started in 1570 but wasn’t completed for 150 years. The cathedral’s Torre del Portal (Port Tower) was built in 1560, and was the control point for access to and from the city center. It’s also known as the Torre degli Ebrei (the Jewish tower), perhaps because the Jewish community helped fund it. The entire site is free to visit.

sardinia, italy - neptune stairs

The many steep stairs leading to Neptune’s Grotto on Sardinia. Photo: marcociannarel/Shutterstock

About 14 miles from Alghero is Porto Conte Park, where you can visit Neptune’s Grotto, or Grotto di Nettuo. If you start your visit on land, you’ll need to go up and down 656 steep and not-easily-navigated steps. But you’ll be rewarded with the sight of a half-mile sandy beach, an underground salt lake, and four soaring limestone rooms inside the cave. You can also take one of the many daily boats headed to the grotto from nearby Port of Alghero (just buy tickets at the port). If you’re coming from land, you can buy your cave tour online. If you come via boat, you can just buy your ticket when you arrive, as tickets to the cave aren’t included in the cost of the boat ride.

For those who prefer to exert themselves underwater, Nereo, off Capo Caccia, is the largest submerged marine cave in the Mediterranean.


Bosa, Sardinia, Italy

Phtoo: DaLiu/Shutterstock

Bosa’s reputation as one of the prettiest villages in Italy is richly deserved. Its pastel-hued homes and wrought-iron balconies set on a hill overlooking the sea are reminiscent of Chile’s Valparaiso. Little more than a mile away is Bosa Marina, the town’s beach area that’s known for clean and clear water. Dominating the landscape is the Malaspina Castle, where all visits include a guided tour in multiple languages and admission is 6.50 Euros (about $7.50)

Wine is a central part of life here, particularly the (usually) white Malvasia wine from the region.

The Sinis Peninsula

tharros in sardinia, italy

Tharros, on the Sinis Peninsula. Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock

About one hour to 90 minutes south of Bosa is the Sinis Peninsula, where you can encounter more of the Mont’e Prama stone giants. Head to Cabras to visit the Museo Civico Giovanni Marongiu. It’s a compact, handsome space built in 1997 to house six of the 28 giants found to date. Signage is in Italian and English, and it’s currently being enlarged to accommodate an additional 13 statues currently in Cagliari.

A great second stop on the peninsula is Tharros. It’s a crossroads of Sardinian conquest, with Nuragic, Phoenician, Punic, and Roman ruins layered on an extensive site. You can even see ridges in the surviving slabs of road that show where carts and chariots once rolled. It’s the most-visited archeological site in Sardinia, and open almost every day, with tickets priced at 9 Euros (about $10). You can email in advance to request a guided tour in English at no cost, but if you haven’t planned ahead, you can wander around independently or hire a private guide in town. Combined tickets are available for the archeological park and Civic Museum, and a train runs between the two in summer.

If you happen to be visiting Sardinia in September, you may want to plan your trip to see the tiny town of San Salvatore. It looks like a deserted Mexican village, with low-slung homes in sun-hardened yellow. In fact, it was used as a film set for spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the town is empty 350 days of the year — but during a concentrated period bracketing the first week of September, San Salvatore comes alive for the Corsa degli Scalzi, or “Race of the Barefoot.”

Up to 800 men run barefoot the seven miles from Cabras to San Salvatore while carrying a religious statue. A week later, a group of shoeless women walk the course in reverse, bringing the statue back to Cabras. The women are dressed in traditional costumes, the men in white garments. In between the two races are food festivals, performances by musicians and actors, religious programs, parades, and the chance to see a sleepy little 17th-century ghost town come to life.

Asinara National Park

Asinara National Park donkeys - sardinia, italy

Photo: Stefano Rulli/Shutterstock

Asinara is a small island above the northwestern tip of Sardinia. The name is Italian for “donkey-inhabited,” but the name is thought to derive from the Latin word “sinuaria,” meaning sinus-shaped. It used to be known as the “Alcatraz of Italy,” but today, most of the island is a national park. Visitors are drawn by the island’s stunning beauty and curious wildlife, including albino donkeys, wild boars, goats, and wild sheep.

The park is reached via public ferry from Porto Torres, though many tour operators offer their own transportation to the island. Hiking is a popular activity, with other activities like snorkeling, diving, and watersports available from operators in the island’s town of Cala d’Oliva

Where to eat and drink on Sardinia

Closeup of delicious fregola with clam and tomato sauce, typical Sardinian Food

Fregola with clam sauce. Photo: Alessio Orru/Shutterstock

Restaurants across the island range from simple trattorias to elegant eateries. Michelin currently recognizes 50 restaurants, six of them honored with star status. There are so many good restaurants that it’s not so much where to eat as what to eat.

Sardinian cooking stems from a pastoral society, not from the sea. But restaurants began adding seafood to their menus as the growing number of tourists demanded it, and the habit stuck. Dishes not to miss come in the form of fregola con cozze (toasted balls of semolina dough in a spicy tomato-and-clam sauce), taglioline con sugo di mare (a ribbon-like pasta, similar to spaghetti but much thinner, with a seafood sauce), and malloreddus (ridged semolina shells that look like smaller gnocchi and are served with seafood or sausage).

Another star of the show is culurgiònes. The dish of semolina-based ravioli filled with potatoes and cheese (usually pecorino Sardo) is topped with variations of mint, garlic, saffron, or other culinary whims. It differs from other ravioli by the distinctive wheat ear (spiga) design on each piece. That makes it a little thicker, so it can stand up to a thicker ragù sauce with wild boar punctuated with locally grown herbs.

panadas, typical Sardinian savory pies, filled with meat, potatoes and legumes

Panadas are a typical Sardinian savory pie, filled with meat, potatoes and legumes. Photo: fabiano goreme caddeo/Shutterstock

Panadas are another typical dish, and each area of Sardinia has its own favorite. Panadas are the local version of Spanish empanadas. The dough is made with semolina flour and lard in southern Sardinia, though the lard may be replaced by olive oil elsewhere. The fillings change by region and season, but it’s usually combinations of vegetables like eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, artichokes, or potatoes and some kind of meat; lamb is the most classically Sardinian. The dish is usually served with garlic, mint, and pecorino Sardo. The latter is a pride of the island and a major export. So is, despite the name, pecorino Romano. It’s just as likely to come from Sardinia as from Rome.

Sometimes found on menus but more commonly spotted in gift shops is bottarga, the salted and pressed roe from gray mullet or tuna. It’s known as the “oro di Cabras “(gold of Cabras), but you can find it all over Sardinia.

Ditto for the wines (this is Italy, after all). The best known are vermentino and cannonau, with producers north and south taking advantage of distinct micro-climates. Many organizations offer wine tours, and there are two official wine associations: the Strada del Gusto Nord Sardegna and the Strade dei Vini della Sardegna. (Google Translate helps for following the various brochures.)

A local favorite restaurant in Cagliari is Luigi Pomata, whose eponymous chef is known as the king of red tuna. The fish is used in dishes like “porgi l’altra guancia” (“turn the other cheek.”) Cleverly, it’s tuna cheeks braised in honey and served with cooked endive.

Where to stay in Sardinia

casa clat sardinia

Casa Clat in Cagliari. Photo:

As a sought-after summer tourist destination, Sardinia offers more than 22,000 lodging options, from modest bed and breakfasts to ultra-luxurious resorts charging more than $10,000 per night.

As a rule, coastal accommodations cost more than inland rooms, and hotels and resorts are pricier than agriturismos (farmstays). Since Italians stay for several weeks or more during the summer, be prepared to book well in advance during the high season.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

In Cagliari, Casa Clat is highly rated, with suites housed in a building from the 18th century and a well-balanced mix of historical and luxury details. It has an on-site restaurant and bar, plus an ocean-view rooftop and garden area with a small pool. Rates start around $260 per night.

Agriturismo Sa Jana Holidays sardinia

The pool at Agriturismo Sa Jana. Photo:

Airbnbs are also readily available in Cagliari, and highly rated options include this Airbnb with a rooftop terrace (starting at $170 per night), this artsy and airy Airbnb (starting at $130 per night), and this penthouse with a hot tub and lots of outdoor space (starting at $164 per night).

In Alghero, Airbnbs are cheaper and easier to find by the coast. Good options include this one-bedroom beachfront condo, this beach house with a garden just south of Alghero in Putzu Idu, or this fun houseboat that can sleep four guests.

Olbia is a very popular town to stay in on the Costa Smeralda, with a large variety of hotels to choose from. Options range from the chic (and expensive) Hotel Abi d’Oru on the beach to the much more budget-friendly Olbia City Hotel, starting closer to $90 per night (including breakfast). Popular farmstays around Sardinia include the adults-only Agriturismo Sa Jana on the east coast, Agriturismo La Rocca Manna just south of Olbia, and Ecoparco Neulè. The latter overlooks Lake Cedrino and has binoculars available to guests for bird and wildlife watching.

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