Cagliari: Sardinia’s city by the bay

Sunset on Cagliari
Sunset on Cagliari

Cagliari: Sardinia’s city by the bay

by Amanda Palumbo
Stripes Europe

There is a tiny city on a tiny island in a very big ocean. Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, is only 33 square miles, a blip on the radar when compared to the major Italian cities like Rome, nearly 500 square miles. But Cagliari doesn’t care it’s often overshadowed by the behemoths Rome, Venice and Milan. There is a very different culture here, one you will find nowhere else.

A City with Personality

Those lucky to call this beachside city home often joke they’re not 100% Italian, thanks to Sardinia’s long and interesting history. The island has been under Roman, Pisan, Spanish, Austrian and eventually Italian rule in 1861. Over the course of several centuries, Sardinia became a melting pot of European culture. It’s also one of the most welcoming cities for immigrants. New culture is infused with old. Cagliari is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Italy, with residents dating back to 5000 BC living in the area’s vast caves. 

It gives Sardinia and its capital a very different personality. Cagliari still has the richness of Italy but with a more laid-back reserved mentality. Don’t mistake this for disinterest or aloofness. The people here want to share their city with the world, they’re just not pretentious about it. Cagliari is sort of like you’re really “chill” friend. People tend to move a little slower here, take in the scenery a little more and spend more moments making memories over a good meal and glass of wine. It’s a city made to lose track of time.

Walk Through History

Cagliari’s history goes back a few millennia and much of it has been preserved over time. The city’s Castello district, a hilltop fortified citadel, is still surrounded by ancient walls and towers. The “old town” still sits high above the rest of the city and is only accessible by two 14th-century gates. Both the Tower of St. Pancrazio and the Elephant Tower offer amazing panoramic views of the city with ocean and mountain backdrops.

The city is also home to a Roman amphitheatre built in the 2nd century that could once seat 8,000 t0 10,000 people. When you walk through the ground level, with the rock and limestone towering above, you will be standing in the exact place gladiators once battled and men fought wild beasts for entertainment. If you hike to the top, you’ll see Cagliari’s famous skyline.

The churches show you how architecture not only changed over time but with whom was ruling the area. There are seven churches in the heart of Cagliari. Four are Gothic, two Baroque and one in Pisan-Romanesque. The Pisans built Cathedral of Santa Maria in the 13th century and it has been transformed into many styles throughout the centuries. The church is home to the Sanctuary of the Martyrs, a crypt beneath the altar with nearly 200 preserved relics. Also inside, the “Madonna col Bambino,” or “The Virgin and Child” wooden statue dating back to the 14th century.

Best Beaches

If you’re a beach bum at heart, Sardinia’s coast will give you everything you need from adventure to serene and relaxing views. A word of caution: do not take any sand or rocks from the beaches. It is illegal and strictly enforced with a fine up to 3,000 euros.

Poetto

Poetto is Caligari’s main beach and runs nearly five miles. It is also considered one of the most photogenic beaches, making it an Instagram-worthy dream. Poetto is flat; its water clear and shallow, making it perfect for families with young children. There are also lifeguards on duty and entertainment for children. Locals come here to exercise, so you’ll see plenty of people getting their morning walk or bike ride in. They won’t mind if you join them.

Cala Fighera

Poetto can get a bit crowded and windy in the summer. If you’re an introvert like me, head to Cala Fighera. While the beach has more pebbles than sand, this small inlet is much more secluded and quiet. Its turquoise waters splash alongside sandstone cliffs providing a peaceful view. This is also where daredevils will leap from the cliffs and into the water, though you should be careful. Cala Fighera is considered “nudist-friendly” so keep that in mind.

Cala Regina

If you’re wanting a more authentic “stranded-on-a-beautiful-desert-island” feel, head to Cala Regina. This is about a 40-minute drive southeast of the city but worth it. Cala Regina is another pebble beach but because it’s located within a small cove, it’s protected from the strong winds that blow over many beaches. An old Spanish watchtower perched on a hilltop gives you a view of the ocean you will never forget. Since the water is so clear here, it’s a fantastic place to snorkel and experience life under the sea.

Food

You can’t write about any Italian city without mentioning the food! There will be the usual Italian dishes like pizza and pasta but it’s best to live like a true Sardinian. Swap pasta for “fregula,” a toasted couscous very similar to a risotto. Another favorite is “culurgiones,” dumplings native to Sardinia. They can be filled with vegetables, spices, meats or cheeses. Since Cagliari is a coastal city, you’ll naturally have the freshest and best seafood. Wander the sights and smells of the city’s fish markets.

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