Things to do in Cagliari
A winter city break. A gem to discover.
Tourists often ignore Cagliari in favour of the luxury resorts, but it offers a taste of the real Sardinia.
Most visitors go to the north-east, to the touristy fishing port of Alghero, or to upper crust, luxury resorts like Forte Village and Costa Smeralda. But a new airline route to the island's capital, Cagliari, has opened up yet another potential Mediterranean, short-break destination.
Cagliari spreads across several hills like a micro-Rome, and the best way to get your bearings is walk up to the top of one of them. From Monte Urpinu Park, you'll see that the crowning glory is the historic Castello district, the apex of Cagliari's central hill, while the Marina district down by the harbour is its chief hotspot for eating and drinking. The gateways of the Castello district lead into hulking towers dating from when the Pisans owned the town. The cathedral's crypt has carved roses in the ceiling and a frieze of childlike saints. Below the Castle is a huge Roman amphitheatre and a more recent throwback, the square-pillared hallucination that is Mussolini's Palace of Justice. Cagliari expresses its regional grandeur rather well.
But at the Marina, one's thoughts turn to eating rather than culture. The major dining opportunities are rolled out over two streets parallel to via Roma – via Sardegna and via Cavour, and Sardinia is a simple gastronomy heaven. Its terroir has full flavours and crosses mountain with coastal cuisine. Its most famous product is pecorino sheep's cheese – all Sardinian tables have a rough hunting knife, with which Sards chip at chunks of pecorino like sculptors. The wine is equally serious. The vernaccia is almost as strong as sherry, and with its 13% punch it is a head spinning experience.
Cagliari off the beaten track
When you think of Sardinia the first thing that comes to mind are the gorgeous white beaches, the uncontaminated and crystal clear waters that surround it. Many in fact associate this region to the summer holidays at the sea, ignoring the fact that Sardinia has so much more to offer.
Let’s take Cagliari for example: a city with a particular allure and with century old traditions. History and culture mix together with the everyday life, in a medium sized city on a human scale. To get to know the city better you can start on foot from the Marine Quarter (the city port) to reach the high part of the medieval city known as the Castle Quarter
As one ascends, the view opens up into a breath-taking panorama of the city repaying you for the hard work of the trip up. You can reach the Castle Quarter from the north via the San Pancrazio Porta, once the heart of administration and religion of the city. You can also get lost in this quarter for hours, between alleyways, stairs and small squares which serve as terraces for the underlying city. Stop for a coffee in one of the bars with outstanding panoramic views which you will find descending towards Bastione di Saint Remy, one of the most important and suggestive defense walls of the city.
Villanova is a historic district of the city which certainly deserves a visit: until a few years ago it was a poor and disreputable area, now it is one of the most upcoming and in demand areas, even though the ancient, artisan shops are still able to survive. Entering the goldsmith laboratory in Busonera for example (Via D’Arborea, 8) you will feel like you have taken a step backwards in time: here both gold and silver are worked by hand with simple machinery, like it was done once upon a time. But there are also others, like the Bonifacio Shop which produces art pieces in ceramic.
If on the other hand you wish you buy fresh fish or simply watch the Cagliaritani barter the fish prices, take a visit during the early morning to the Civic market of San Benedetto: we are talking about the largest market in Italy and the second largest in Europe. Don’t be surprised (or shocked) to see live crabs trying to escape, walking along the tables, down the corridors or even fish eels wiggling out of the tubs.
How to get here: Cagliari is easily reachable with budget airlines from all over Europe. Ryanair is the best choice. The ferry is not advised as the prices are high unless you are considering a longer stay.
When: Spring and autumn are the best periods to discover Cagliari due to the mild weather and low prices. (The costs of accommodation drops dramatically). To avoid: July and August as they are packed with Italian tourists and the prices tend to surge.