Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, with nearly 1,243 miles of coastline featuring idyllic sandy beaches that edge crystal-clear aquamarine water and a mountainous interior crisscrossed with hiking trails. It lies between the Italian peninsula and the Balearic Islands, renowned for its stunning beauty and its rich history, with many ancient sites to explore. History enthusiasts can explore everything from the mysterious Bronze Age stone ruins shaped like beehives known as the nuraghi as old as 1500 BC to remarkable archaeological ruins like Nora and Tharros with ancient Roman streets, temples, and theaters. There are museums that bring the past to life through a variety of impressive artifacts along with markets where visitors can get a taste of the local life while purchasing everything from delicious produce to handcrafted goods. The wide variety of beaches provide something for everyone, from sunbathers, swimmers, and divers to surfers, including kite surfers and windsurfers.
The National Archaeological Museum is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in the island’s history, providing an excellent overview that will give more meaning to the Sardinia attractions and insight into the lives of the people who lived here over 3,000 years ago. It includes impressive collections of ancient gold work, bronze statues, and other treasures that have been uncovered. The collection includes more than 4,000 artifacts from prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages, including Neolithic mother goddesses, the reconstruction of a Phoenician settlement, Carthaginian goldsmith examples, Punic, Phoenician, and Byzantine jewels, Roman and Italian ceramics, Nuragic bronzes, and the Nora Stone, an important archaeological find providing valuable insight into the Carthaginian presence on Sardinia. There is also a room that houses an important collection of wax anatomical models created by sculptor Clemente Susini from dissections by an anatomist in Florence in the early 19th century.
Certosa di San Giamaco is the oldest structure on the island, built in 1371. The finest remaining example of Caprese architecture, the monastery is made up of three blocks of buildings that includes one that was reserved for a life of seclusion with a series of cells around a late Renaissance cloister, one that holds the women’s church and pharmacy, and another a guest space. Today, it’s primarily a museum but it also houses a library, school, and temporary exhibition space, as well as serving as a concert venue. It has a rather harrowing history as a stronghold of Capri’s powerful Carthusian fraternity. It suffered from a vicious attack in the 16th century during pirate raids and in the 17th century monks avoiding the plague came here and faced an irate public who threw corpses over the walls. The dark past is brightened by some beautiful 17th-century frescos in the church, however.
One of the top attractions in Sardinia is the 2nd century AD Roman Amphitheater, part of the ancient city of Nora. The extensive remains of this Phoenician settlement were later taken over by the Carthaginians who were followed by the Romans. It began its decline around 500 AD and was abandoned a few hundred years later. The amphitheater is so well preserved that it still hosts concerts today. You’ll see many other structures, including a forum, temples, mosaic pavements, villa foundations, and more, like an open-air museum of antiquities still in their original setting. The thermal complex is renowned for its gorgeous thermal baths with four that remain in various stages of preservation. Along the Roman streets, there are multiple public buildings, including the Foro which was the beating heart of Roman politics. The aqueduct complex provided water to public places like thermal baths as well as private homes.
There are many gorgeous beaches around the island, including quite a few within a short drive of the capital city. The southern coast of Capo Carbonara is home to a picturesque crescent beach, within 30 miles of the city center, and just a bit farther, past the resort town of Villasimius, you’ll find a number of long, white sandy beaches on the King’s Coast, Costa Rei. Punta Molentis and Porto Giunco beaches are lapped by water that ranges in shades of brilliant green and pale blue, and there are many smaller beaches tucked into coves between the headlands. At the northern corner of Sardinia is Porto Ferro. Often named among the world’s best beaches, its unique orange-hued sands stretch for over a mile, with the color the result of an unusual mix of crushed shells, orange limestone, and other volcanic deposits. There are also three Spanish lookout towers here, dating to the 17th century.
Parco Nazionale dell & Archipelago di La Maddalena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the northeast coast of Sardinia. The collection of seven islands is UNESCO-listed for its diverse array of plant and marine life, but the reason most visit is for the visual appeal, featuring chalk- white beaches, rock formations, and the aquamarine Mediterranean Sea. Most of the islands can be reached by boat, with half and full-day excursions that will allow you to enjoy the tranquil coves and peaceful beaches that feel as if they’re worlds away from the mainland. It’s a masterpiece of nature, with rocks sculpted by the elements and even magically pink sands while shallow waters are so still, they’re like a mirror. The underwater world is inhabited by thousands of plant and animal species, ideal for snorkeling. Some tours include stops to shop in the local craft shops and to swim and snorkel while skirting many of the islands for breathtaking views.
Set on a thin strip of land detached from the mainland in the western region near Oristano, the Tharros ruins on Capo San Marco are particularly impressive, surrounded by the crystal-clear blue Mediterranean Sea. The ancient city was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, once a prosperous port that traded salt and materials like bronze with the Nuraghic civilization occupying Sardinia. The Carthaginians occupied it afterward, followed by the Romans who destroyed a temple dedicated to a Phoenician deity, building one dedicated to a Roman god instead. It continued to grow until the 11 th century when raids forced the people to move further inland and establish Oristano. As you wander through today, you’ll see various periods of the island’s past with buildings that include everything from the ruins of Nuraghe on Murru Mannu hill to the San Giovanni di Sinis Church, although most are from the Roman and early Christian periods.
The “Little Green Train” as Trenino Verde translates to, is one of the top attractions on the island. The narrow-gauge railway has been around for nearly 150 years and runs five different trips throughout the year, providing one of the best ways to explore Sardinia’s rugged landscapes and ports. The average trip is three-and-a-half hours long, but they run anywhere from an hour and 50 minutes to three hours and 40 minutes, traveling along spectacular coastline and through mountainous countryside. Routes include Palau-Tempio, Mandas-Laconi, Mandas-Sadali, Arbatax-Gairo, and Sindia-Bosa. The Palau to Tempio route covers less than 38 miles, traveling slowly to provide an immersion in nature while crossing Gallura from the sea to the mountains. Arbatax-Gairo is particularly fascinating, featuring the stunning cliffs called the Red Rocks, idyllic beaches, and the mountainous territory of the hinterland. The train itself is quite charming, with not much changed since DH Lawrence rode it back in 1921.
Sardinia attracts surfers of all types from across Europe with strong, consistent winds and waves that can reach heights of more than 16 feet. It’s a paradise for surfing, windsurfing, and kitesurfing, with the northern and southern coasts offering the best conditions along with many surfing schools. While it’s possible to enjoy the activity throughout the year, winter is the best season to visit Sardinia for those who want to ride the big swells. It is possible to surf along the west coast too, with popular spots on the Sinis Peninsula like Mini Capo, Is Benas, Is Arenas Reef, and Putzu Idu, but the east coast is generally not very windy. When the winds blow from the north or northeast at Su Giudeu Beach in the south, it’s outstanding for surfing and you’ll see the pink flamingos that live in the lagoon just behind it along the golden dunes that provide a particularly breathtaking scene.
The deepest canyon on the island and one of the deepest in Europe, Su Gorroppu Gorge was shaped over time by the Flumineddu River which flows along its bed at a depth of over 1,600 feet. It’s nearly nine miles in length while the dramatic limestone cliffs rise almost 1,500 feet. If you want to hike the canyon, you’ll need to bring plenty of water and wear sturdy shoes, with the 6.5-mile trail winding past rock pinnacles, eroded limestone slopes, and cliffs marked with caves. It takes about four to five hours to complete, round trip, with the sheer walls of limestone blocking the sun and the world outside. During quieter times of the day, you might see pine martens while golden eagles are often spotted perched in the trees. Look for the endemic Aquilegia nuragica plant with its lilac and white flowers which only grows here as well.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was a military leader and an Italian patriot who helped free Italians from foreign rules and unify the country. The Risorgimento hero led several military expeditions fighting for the unification of Italy and spent the final years of his life on the island of Caprera in the La Maddelena archipelago just off the northern coast of Sardinia. Covered with pinewood trees that were first planted by Garibaldi, Caprera has been declared a natural reserve for birds living on the island, including peregrine falcon and cormorant. The white house that overlooks the sea was his last residence, with Garibaldi living here for 26 years until his death in 1882. It now serves as a museum, allowing visitors to see how he lived, including the original furnishings, works of art, and other objects that belonged to the general. You’ll see a vintage watch hanging on the wall which still marks the time of Garibaldi’s death.
Sardinia has a long history of mining that’s believed to have been started sometime around 6000 BC. During the early 1800s, there were nearly 60 mines in operation, mainly producing silver, iron, copper, and lead. One of the island’s most important mining areas was Montevecchio, which operated through around the 1950s. Today, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, declared to prevent it from becoming completely abandoned. Many of the old facilities have been restored and are now open to the public to explore, and some were even transformed into hotels. Most of Montevecchio has been renovated and restored but there are still some crumbling structures, providing a ghost town kind of vibe. There are five different tours available that follow different routes, all of which include the miner’s homes, the owner’s residence, and management building. Others focus on mining operations, with tools, workshops, and the methods used to extract the minerals revealed.
Sardinia is home to over 7,000 nuraghi, massive ancient stone towers dotted throughout the island from the southern Campidano plain to the granite boulder-strewn valleys and rugged hilltops in the northern Gallura region, built between 1600 and 1200 BC. The mysterious Bronze Age structures were carefully constructed using stones that weigh several tons each, placed on top of each other. This is the only place they can be found on the planet, with the instantly recognizable beehive-shaped buildings now symbolizing Sardinia. It’s unknown as to what they were used for, though many believe they were either religious temples or military strongholds. The most famous is Nuraxi su Barumini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Barumini at the base of Parco della Giara. Remarkably well preserved, there is an extensive village with narrow lanes, meeting huts, and homes that tell a story of what it might have been like to live here 3,500 years ago.
If you are interested in learning more about Sardinia’s culture, you’ll want to visit some of the local markets. The markets on the island have long provided fascinating insight into the local traditions and include everything from food to handcrafted items. Various regions are renowned for specific craft traditions, such as the baskets made from willow, rush, and dwarf pine leaves in Castelsardo. Ceramics can be found at most markets in the larger towns, often painted in blue on white, giving them Greek flavor. The many bustling markets also serve a wealth of fish, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a variety of Sardinian specialties while offering some outstanding people-watching. Sant’Elia Market held every day of the week except Sundays from 7 a.m., is one of the nicest. It’s located in the old fisherman’s quarter on the outskirts of Cagliari’s city center and is especially renowned for its local cheeses.
Neptune’s Grotto is another one of the top attractions in Sardinia many consider a must-visit, extending for about 2.5 miles inside the promontory of Capo Caccia. The cave, which sits right at sea level, was discovered in the 18th century by local fishermen and eventually become a popular tourist spot with its name derived from the Roman god of the sea. It’s possible to reach by boat from Alghero which will drop you off right at the entrance and pick you up for the return. Some choose to descend the over 650 steps carved into the cliffs to reach the cave but don’t forget that you’ll also have to climb back up, a tough trek especially in the heat. The only way to explore the inside of the grotto is to take a tour that covers approximately two-thirds of a mile with stalagmites, stalactites, and a lake with a beach.
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