While it might not be as popular to the average tourist as the rest of Italy, Sardinia is a gem in plain sight, especially during the summer. Many have already discovered the beauty of this island with pristine beaches and paradise-like settings. While there are many things to do on the island, there are many delightful things to do in Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital city.
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Where is Cagliari, Sardinia?
Cagliari is the capital city of Sardinia and it’s located in the south of the island. The name Cagliari comes from the word Casteddu in campidanese Sardinian. It translates to a castle, which is quite fitting, as once it was a giant citadel. The castle gates closed at night, allowing only the locals to remain inside until they opened again in the morning.
Much like Rome, the city was built on hills and is located on the beautiful Bay of the Angels (Golfo degli Angeli). This strategic position has made Cagliari an important port city that has played a significant role in the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. Today, Cagliari’s port is Sardinia’s economic and industrial hub. While Cagliari might lack the glamour and polish of Milan, Florence or Rome, it has its own style and appeal. There are many things to do in Cagliari that will make you forget about those other places soon enough.
Cagliari’s history goes back to Neolithic times. Many civilizations have made this place their home since then and added their imprint on the city. There are traces of the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines and even the Pisans and the Piedmonts. Here you’ll find a combination of the African feel of palm trees and yellow limestone, mixed with distinctly western architecture. For me, discovering all these cultures was one of the best things to do in Cagliari.
The Phoenicians turned Cagliari into a thriving commercial port mainly due to its strategic location. The Romans used it as a military base and added their architecture and style. After a short period of decline in later years, it was during the Byzantine Empire that the island achieved political independence and autonomy.
The Pisans fortified the town before it passes hands to the Catalans, Austrians and eventually the Piedmonts. It was during this time that the city underwent urban development and renewal. Sardinia became part of modern-day Italy after the unification in 1871. Today the island is one of five autonomous regions of Italy.
Things to do in Cagliari
With this much history and unique geographical locations, there is no lack of things to do in Cagliari. It all depends on how much time you have to spend here. You might want to spend a few days here before exploring the rest of the island.
Bastione di Saint Remy
Located in the heart of the city, the Bastione di Saint Remy was a defence fortification built in the 19th century on ancient city walls that date back to the early 14th century. This impressive white limestone with an ornate façade has a wide-open terrace and an intricately covered walkway.
Today, this viewing platform provides magnificent views of the city, especially at sunset as you gaze across the Mediterranean. You can access the top by stairs on Piazza Costituzione or take the elevator from the Giardino Sotto Le Mure. The elevator is free and runs 24/7.
Cittadella dei Musei (Citadel of Museums)
Also in the Castello district, is the Citadel of Museums. This museum complex, once the site of the Regio Arsenale (Royal Arsenal) is a result of extensive restoration after WWII. This picturesque area offers treasures from different epochs as well as fantastic views of the city and the coast.
Il Castello neighbourhood
This is Cagliari’s oldest and most iconic neighbourhood. It’s also a great way to discover the past and marvel at the architecture from the past. As it’s located on top of a hill, it’s quite steep as you walk along the narrow streets.
During its time as a citadel, the Castello was a self-contained place with churches, residences and government buildings. Today you’ll find a number of restaurants and bars popular with tourists and the locals. It’s one of those things to do in Cagliari that you might stumble upon even if you’re not looking for it.
Parco di Monte Urpinu (Monte Urpinu Park)
One of the first municipal parks in Cagliari and a former military base, Monte Urpinu is a nice reprieve from the bustle and hustle of the city. These 284,000 square meters of land are a treasure trove of wildlife with a wide range of trees and shrubs. From pine trees, myrtle and juniper to oaks, olive and carob trees.
Open daily 7 a.m. to 6/7 p.m. in winter, 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. in summer. The main entrance is on Via Pietro Leo with additional gates at Viale Europa and Via Vidal.
Palazzo Regio (Royal Palace)
Located in the historical Castello district, the Palazzo is worth adding to your things to do in Cagliari list. Former residence and seat of the viceroy since 1337, it is now a government office. The viceroy represented the king of Sardinia during the Aragon, Spanish and Savoy domination. On the first floor, you can see the portraits of all the viceroys who had a seat there.
During that 18th century, it underwent a number of extensive renovations and additions. It was also the official residence of the royal family between 1799 and 1815. Today you can visit some of the spaces, as the rest is a private residence of the magistrate.
Open daily except for Monday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The entrance fee is € 1.50.
A list of things to do in Cagliari can’t be complete without a visit to the Roman amphitheatre. Dating back to the 2nd century AD, the amphitheatre is near the northern entrance to Il Castello. Carved partially into the Buon Cammino hill, the arena could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators in its heyday.
As you look at what remains of the amphitheatre today, you can almost imagine the gladiators battling each other as well as wild animals in front of crowds. Much of the splendour is now gone, having been hacked apart for building material over the centuries
Open every day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance full/reduced € 3/€ 2.
Santa Maria Cathedral, Cagliari Cathedral
The cathedral of Santa Maria is quite the sight as you’re making your way up in the Il Castello district. The original church dates back to the 13th century during the Pisan dominance of the city. While the original was simple in design, further expansion and improvements in later decades by the Aragon and Spanish reigns elevated the church’s appearance. This included the marble floor inside and the façade on the outside.
A stop by the church is definitely worth adding to the list of things to do in Cagliari. The marble façade shimmers almost pink at sunset. You can also enjoy the views of the city around you. It’s a popular spot, so expect a gathering of locals and visitors.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Entrance is free.
Santuario and Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria
A complex of buildings that includes the Basilica of Our Lady of Bonaria, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria and a monastery. The original cathedral, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, dates back to the 14th century.
Bombings during WWII destroyed the original frescos inside the basilica. Faithful restoration after the war has brought them back to their glory. If churches are your thing, these are worth adding to your list of things to do in Cagliari.
Open daily, 6.30 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. – 7.30 p.m. Entrance is free, donations are welcomed.
Torre dell’Elefante (Elephant Tower)
Built in 1307 by the Pisans as a defence against the invading Aragons, the Torre dell’Elefante (Elephant Tower) looms above all the other structures. Named after the elephant decorating it, it was a frequent display of severed heads. Cagliari’s Spanish rulers frequently adorned the tower with severed heads of prisoners, leaving them on display for years.
Not as ghoulish today, it’s a marvellous study of Cagliari’s medieval past. You can climb to the top for spectacular views of the city.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. during summer and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. Admission adult/reduced €3/2.
Beaches and waterfront
As a port city, Cagliari has a well-developed waterfront. You can stroll along the tree-lined promenade and admire wonderful views of the harbour, boats, and even cruise ships. On the other side of Via Roma, you’ll find numerous shops, bars and restaurants where you can sit and people watch or enjoy the sunset.
The waterfront is a great place for people-watching and enjoying all the activities during the busy times of the day. It’s also a central spot for arriving and departing Cagliari. If you’re planning on taking the train, bus or boat from Cagliari, this is where you’ll also buy tickets.
If you crave some beach time, head to Poetto Beach about 15 min by bus from the centre. Despite the title being a city beach, Poetto is a nice stretch of clean, sandy beach with unspoiled views of the sea. You can easily rent chairs and umbrellas for the day right on the beach.
There are a number of bars and restaurants to choose from along the beach. For an extended stay, rent a room at one of the numerous hotels and villas. Italians tend to spend most of August on the beach, so keep that in mind if you’re visiting during that time. Expect higher prices and less choice when it comes to accommodations.
Cagliari as a base for day trips
For a small island, Sardinia has a well-connected infrastructure network. You can do a number of day trips from Cagliari, or take the train to other parts of the island. You can do a number of day trips or a few longer ones, depending on how much time you have.
Parco Molentargius – Le Saline
Molentargius Park lies near the Poetto beach. Stretching over 1600 hectares with numerous species of wildlife, including the pink flamingos. Here you will find fresh and salt-water basins, a memory of Cagliari’s once-dominant salt industry. Today you can enjoy bird watching, biking and numerous cultural events held throughout the year.
Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sella del Diavolo (Saddle of the Devil)
Also near Poetto beach and overlooking the gulf of Cagliari, is a picturesque hilltop with an unusual name. The legends say that demons led by Lucifer were so taken by its beauty that they wanted to claim it. That didn’t sit well with the god who then sent his own army of angels to fight them. During the battle, either Lucifer or his saddle fell down and petrified, leaving the hilltop we see today. This probably explains where the name Gulf of Angels comes from.
Sella del Diavolo is accessible by bus from the city centre or the nearby Poetto beach.
Things to do in Cagliari – enjoy Sardinian food
The food in Sardinia is influenced by the different cultures of the past. It is full of exquisite dishes based on land and the sea diet. From the many varieties of pasta, fish, meat, beans and grains, the culinary adventure awaits you. Cagliari has a great selection of restaurants, bars and cafés that offer fantastic flavours of the island. When it comes to things to do in Cagliari, a culinary exploration is definitely a great option.
Also on your things to do in Cagliari, should be a stop at the Mercato di San Benedetto. It offers two floors of Sardinia’s gastronomical treasures and foodie heaven. The ground floor is dedicated to the treasures of the sea. You’ll find fruits, vegetables, meat and everything else on the second floor. It’s an experience for the senses and a great opportunity to sample some local cuisine.
Open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Best time to visit Cagliari
Sardinia’s mild weather makes this an all-year destination, perfect for a weekend city break or a longer holiday. It all comes down to your preference for things to do in Cagliari and the island itself.
The summer months between July and August are perfect for a beach holiday. These are, however, the most expensive months to visit and the most crowded. Travelling off-season means lower prices, milder temperatures and fewer crowds.
Winter in Sardinia is not too extreme and is a perfect time to explore the local museums, churches and architecture as well as local towns and events.
How to get to Cagliari
Cagliari has an international airport, Elmas Mario Mameli. It is located 7 kilometres from the city centre and is easily accessible from other Italian and European cities. There is both a bus and train connection between the airport and the city centre. You can also take the train to other major cities in Sardinia. With an extensive transportation network, finding out things to do in Cagliari is a breeze.
You can also access Cagliari by ferry from major ferry ports in Italy, mainly Rome Civitavecchia, Naples and Palermo in Sicily. It is also a popular spot for cruise ships, especially during the summer months.
Twice a week, on Monday and Friday
Twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday
Once a week on Saturdays
Getting around Cagliari
Cagliari city centre is the heart of all travel activities. Here you can take the bus, train or ferry to other destinations. Buses depart or pass by Via Roma and the train station and are easily marked with where they are going.
You can get the timetable from the tourism office, train station or the bus stop. You can also download the official app CTM Bus Finder.
Want to discover other less-known amazing places in Italy? Check out the beautiful city of Catania in Sicily!
Is Cagliari worth visiting?
Yes, Cagliari is definitely worth adding to your list. Sardinia is a beautiful island with a lot of history, charm and stunning views. While most people tend to travel to the major Italian cities, not many make the trip to Sardinia. There are many free things to do in Cagliari to keep everyone happy. It’s also a great place to start a road trip around the rest of the island.
Our trip to Sardinia turned out amazing. We discovered a new favourite city in Italy and found centuries-worth of history to explore. While there are many other things to do in Cagliari, I felt that this post would give you enough of a taste to go and check it out for yourself.