The second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, Sardinia sits off the west coast of Italy, just south of the French island of Corsica. And what a beauty it is, with hands-down some of the loveliest beaches in Europe spread along its 1178-mile coastline, proper mountains to entice even the most intrepid climber or trekker, and some 7000 nuraghi, Bronze Age towers and tombs, offering a fascinating romp into prehistory.
At first glance, the Sardinians (or Sards) admittedly bear a lot in common with the average Italian, but the longer you linger, the more the differences become apparent. As well as conversing in Italian, they can easily switch to Sardinian. There are many subtle nuances in the cuisine, with locals putting their own riffs on bread, pasta and sweets (dolci), and their own tradition-rooted celebrations and festes (festivals).
Planning Your Trip
Yes, it’s an island, but it sure is a big one, and many make the mistake of thinking they can see everything in a week, and so try to cram in too much in a short a space of time, leaving no wiggle room. If you want to do the whole island justice, two to three weeks is more realistic, otherwise it’s better to focus on one specific region, coastline or activity. For inspiration, check out our eight-day cycling through Sardinia itinerary, or our 12-day drive and hike trip.
If you’ve come for specific outdoor activities – be it guided hiking, rock climbing, diving, kayaking, surfing or mountain biking, bear in mind that some of these will require advance booking, especially during the peak summer season.
When to Go
Sardinia is at its hottest and most crowded in August, when Italians flock to the island's coastal resorts on vacation. During this month, accommodation is at a premium, room rates rocket, and roads are heavily trafficked. The shoulder seasons (April through June and September through October) reveal a more relaxed side to the island and more affordable rates.
In spring, the island can be a delight, with trees and wildflowers in full blossom, and warm temperatures for hiking, cycling and exploring. Early autumn can be pleasant, too, with mild, sunny days and a sea that's had all summer to heat up. In winter, the weather is cooler and wetter, and most hotels and restaurants are closed. See the article Best Time of Year to Visit Italy for more.
This is a festive island and with a little planning, you could tie in your visit with one of the calendar highlights. Brightening up the winter are dramatic bonfires lit in towns like Orgosolo and Orosei to honor Saint Anthony the Abbot in January, and the high-spirited, pre-Lenten carnevale (carnival season), where monster-like characters called mamuthones race through the streets in Mamoiada. Oristano's Sa Sartiglia is a flamboyant display of medieval horseback jousting. Easter is celebrated in the best of Catholic traditions, with processions and Passion plays throughout Holy week in major cities like Cagliari and Alghero.
Other big events to look out for include the historic reenactment of the Cavalcata Sarda in Sassari in May, the Girotonno marking the mattanza (tuna catch) in Carloforte in June, the thrilling S'Ardia horse race in Sedilo in July, and the Sagra del Redentore, a vibrant costumed parade in Nuoro in August.
Getting There & Around
The main airports are Cagliari (in the south), Olbia (in the northwest) and Alghero (in the northeast), all with regular flights to major Italian destinations and European cities. Alternatively, you can reach the island by ferry from Italian mainland ports such as Citavecchia (just north of Rome), Naples, Genoa and Livorno, as well as from Palermo (in Sicily).
To really get the most out of Sardinia, it's worth considering hiring a car, as public transport services can be patchy and don't cover the island's off-the-beaten-track corners. A number of major car-rental companies, such as Hertz and Avis, have downtown agencies and airport offices. Your own wheels—be it a car, scooter or bicycle—will give you much greater freedom to explore at your own pace. Multi-lane highways connect up the big cities, but the island's minor roads can be narrow, bendy and slow.
What to See & Do
Sardinia’s beaches certainly live up to the hype, with pristine turquoise water and powder-soft sand. For a dose of glamor, the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia’s northeast is the haunt of oligarchs, movie stars and the international jet-set. Indented with half-moon bay and coves snuggled among rocks and backed by pines and fragrant Mediterranean scrub, it really is special, particularly if you avoid the busy summer period.
Top billing goes to bays like the Spiaggia del Principe, a perfect crescent of white sand and a favourite of the Aga Khan. But don’t stop there: just as lovely are the wilder, cliff-backed beaches of the Gulf of Orosei in the east, reached on foot or by boat, the secluded coves of the pink-granite La Maddalena islands in the north, the remote, dune-flanked beaches of the Costa Verde in the southeast, and the dazzling white sands of the Costa del Sud in the south.
Sea Caves, Canyons, and Natural Marvels
Many of Sardinia's biggest crowd-pullers are natural. Among them is the Grotta di Nettuno, which you can easily reach on a day trip by boat from Alghero. Steps twist steeply down a cliff face to one of Italy's biggest sea caves, dripping with impressive stalactites. Over in the east, you might want to hike down to the Gola Su Gorropu, a huge ravine sprinkled with massive boulders, with intrepid climbers scaling its sheer rock walls. Near Dorgali, the Grotta Ispinigoli is a karst wonderland of epic proportions.
Bronze Age Historic Sites
There's more to this island than a pretty coastline, as the rich remains of the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization attest. With 7000 archaeological sites to explore, you can only hope to scratch the surface, but unmissables include the Unesco World Heritage Su Nuraxi di Barumini, with defensive towers dating to 1500 BCE. Tiscali, a collapsed cave hiding the compelling remains of a prehistoric settlement, high in the Supramonte mountains, is worth the uphill climb. For a fine example of a tombe dei giganti ('giant's tomb' or megalithic grave), check out Coddu Ecchju near Arzachena.
Kayaking, Sailing, and More Outdoor Activities
Sardinia is a highly active island, whether you're looking for a challenging coastal hike or to take to the sea kayaking, sailing or diving. In the east, there are plenty of trails threading up into the rugged mountains of the Supramonte, and along the dramatic coastline of the Gulf of Orosei.
The big one for those with the necessary skills and stamina is the multi-day Selvaggio Blu, an epic week-long trek along the island's wildest coast, involving abseiling, scrambling and some serious navigation. Shorter sections (Cala Gonone to Cala Luna, for instance) are easier and rewarding. This is also a great area for climbing—multi-pitch and deep water soloing—sea kayaking to tucked-away bays, and road cycling.
The northeast coast, particularly around Porto Pollo, and the wave-lashed Sinis Peninsula in the west are hot spots for windsurfing, kitesurfing and surfing, with rental outlets and schools offering instruction. Divers meanwhile head to the crystal waters of islands such as La Maddalena in the north and San Pietro in the southwest.
Where to Stay
The appealing and walkable seafront capital, Cagliari, is a charming first base, with the fortress walls of its hilltop citadel, Castello, enclosing atmospheric lanes, palazzi, and pastel-colored townhouses. Here you'll find everything from family-run B&Bs to boutique hotels. Alghero in the northwest has an entirely different vibe, with a long town beach and Spanish flavor in its walled medieval center—a throwback to its days as a Catalan colony. Options here range from simple B&Bs to luxury spa hotels right on the seafront.
Accommodation abounds in coastal resorts all along the Costa Smeralda, Costa Verde, Costa del Sud and the Golfo di Orosei, but only during the season from roughly Easter to late September. You'll find everything from self-catering apartments to swish hotels and old-fashioned guesthouses in the mix.
For more insight on Sardinia's beautiful, wild, mountainous interior, factor in at least a night or two at one of the island's rustic agriturismi (farmstays) for peace, a family welcome and delicious homemade meals.
Where to Eat
The island is perhaps at its most idiosyncratic in the kitchen, and meals lovingly prepared with homegrown produce and distinctive in flavor, are likely to be one of the most memorable aspects of your trip. Sardinia has some of the finest raw ingredients in the Mediterranean at its fingertips: plump prawns, lobster and mullet from the sea, excellent lamb (note the number of sheep on the island), wild herbs and citrus fruits. Its vintners produce refreshing, mineral-rich vermentino white wines and full-bodied cannonau reds. The crumbly, nutty pecorino is the among the world's best.
While you're here, keep an eye out for Sardinian specialties like pane carasau (thin, crisp, twice-baked durum wheat bread), bottarga (mullet roe), and pasta varieties such as gnocchi-like malloreddus, ravioli-like culurgiones, and couscous-like fregola. You can sample these everywhere from sea-facing restaurants to family-run trattorias. Don't bypass the chance to eat at least once at an agriturismo, where farm-to-plate specialties might include porcheddu, spit-roasted suckling pig served on myrtle leaves.
Sardinians have a notoriously sweet tooth and you'll find pasticcerie (patisseries) all over the island for nibbling on typical sweets, most made with just almonds, egg and sugar.