This clifftop city was one built for contemplative views. As with many islands in the Med, everyone has had a hand in shaping Cagliari — from the Romans and Byzantines to Genovese and Spanish — but it began as a Phoenician burial site. The lofty old Castello district has modern glass elevators to whisk visitors up to medieval ramparts, zigzagging cobbled roads, balconies and terraces. Up here, immense blue vistas stretch in all directions, and in the distance, pink-hued flamingo flocks gather on Santa Gilla Lagoon, the sole occupants of the site where the original Phoenician city was founded in 10 BC.
But Cagliari is no museum piece. It’s Sardinia’s buzziest city. Many of its streets are daubed with graffiti, and in the huge port, tucked neatly below the old town, ships dock with metronomic regularity. “It’s a real city,” says my guide, Francesco Manca, as he roller coasters me around the city in a little Fiat 500, a leg-saving way to tour the town from Castello’s tip to toe-pleasing stretches of sandy beach below. “But it’s a Sardinian city,” he says. “Not Italian, really.” It’s a sentiment echoed across Cagliari, from the chefs who serve up Sardinia’s unique Spanish-Arabic-influenced cuisine, to the phrases of Sardo spoken in favour of Italian. “Bèni benìu,” says Francesco. “Welcome!”
See & do
Street art: Cagliari is home to prolific street artists. Villanova district’s Via San Saturnino has the biggest concentration: an open-air canvas takes on everything from satire to Greek myths and declarations of love.
Archaeological treasures: Cagliari’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale houses stellar Roman and Phoenician finds plus the gigantes (giants) of Mont’e Prama — the ancient stone-carved guardians from tombs of the Nuragic, a remarkably advanced civilisation that inhabited the island from the Bronze Age to the Roman occupation. Beyond this is a ruined Roman amphitheatre; and a mile north, the honeycombed Phoenician-Punic necropolis of Tuvixeddu, one of the Med’s largest ancient burial sites.
Duomo: The Cathedral’s lofty Castello hilltop spot is worth the climb for its piazza views, gothic-baroque wedding cake exterior, and underground chambers carved out of rock.
Eat & drink
Su Tzilleri ‘e Su Doge: A top spot for Castello views and rich, tomato-based fish stews, this rustic restaurant does Sardinian specialities such as handmade culurjones de patate (beef ragu-filled ravioli), and is next door to Caffè Libarium, a terrace bar with the best views in town. Via San Croce, 3.
Dulcis: A sweet little spot down in the marina, where you can get an aperitivo (try the slightly effervescent local Vermentino white wine), and a neat, pastry-based snack. Shelves are stocked with tempting bottles of local Korem and Turriga wines.
Gli Stefini: This place has the best granita, gelato and sorbetto in town; the blood orange sorbet is the stuff of legend. Via Giovanni Maria Dettori, 30.
Via Sulis: The city’s designated design street is home to such indie finds as La Libreria di Via Sulis, selling vintage books, reimagined old maps and glossy tomes on art, architecture and photography.
Black sheep shopping: The Nera di Arbus sheep is an icon of Sardinia’s wild interior, producing beautiful if tricky-to-craft black wool. Designer Patrizia Camba creates arty women’s clothing with it.
Singular shopping: The corner of Via Roma and Largo Carlo Felice is home to la Rinascente, a department store set in a 1900s villa. Many of the indie outlets nearby specialise in specific items, like gent’s hats, or ladies intima wear, just as they have for decades.
Published in the Sardinia 2019 guide, out with the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)