A Beginner’s Guide to Sardinia: Cagliari

With the Italian lockdown gradually coming to an end, and the borders now open to flights from other EU countries, what better time than now to start planning your break away?

For this chapter of Viva La Dolce Vita’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Sardinia’ I’ve decided to cover the Sardinia’s main city, the Mediterranean jewel, Cagliari.

Cagliari

If you’ve missed out on my previous ‘Beginner’s Guides to Sardinia’, check out the other posts by clicking the links here:

Beginner’s Guide to Alghero

Beginner’s Guide to Oristano

Beginner’s Guide to Carloforte

Beginner’s Guide to Barbagia

The Beginner’s Guide to Cagliari

So first off, where is Cagliari?

Well, let’s have a look at the map…

Cagliari, or Casteddu in Sardinian, is located in the south of Sardinia. It’s the biggest city on the island, and the Capoluogo, or Capital City, of the region of Sardinia.

The city itself is home to around 155,000 people, but if you count the metropolitan area – which includes Cagliari and 16 other towns – the number rises to around 475,000.

Now, in order to pronounce the name Cagliari correctly, you have to remember that it’s not actually pronounced with a hard ‘G’ in the middle.

If you’re familiar with the Italian language, you’ll know that ‘Gli’ has a unique pronunciation. In my experience it can take quite a bit of practice to master it, and some Italians even tend to struggle!

If you want a bit of a workaround in the meantime, try forgetting about the G completely – practice saying ‘Kyle-Yer-eee’ all in one go, without a pause, and you’re halfway there!

Useless Cagliari fact of the day:

‘As the crow flies’, Cagliari is closer to Tunisia than to Sardinia’s second largest city, Sassari, in the north of the island.

Medieval map of Cagliari

Cagliari – A Brief History Lesson

The area around Cagliari has been inhabited for thousands of years.

Neolithic Domus De Janas, or ‘Fairy Houses’ – a type of underground burial tomb – were found in what are now the Monte Claro Park, and the area around the Sant’Elia neighbourhood of Cagliari. These tombs are believed to be over 5,000 years old.

The first city built on the site of modern day Cagliari, was the Phoenician city of Karaly in 800 BC.

The Phoenicians, a civilisation from what is modern-day Lebanon, chose the location due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean.

After two centuries, the city was conquered by Carthage in 600 BC – this began Cagliari’s long history of domination by different civilisations. When the Romans conquered the island in 238 BC they founded the settlement of Caralis or Karalis.

As domination of the city changed, so did the city’s name: Caralis > Calaris > Callari – the modern name Cagliari derives from the Spanish pronunciation of Callari.

Fact of the Day:

The Sardinian name for Cagliari, Casteddu, means ‘Castle’.

Showing its multicultural history, examples of Punic, Carthagian, Roman, and Byzantine settlements can be found all over the city – both under and above ground.

Following Byzantine rule, the city was conquered by the Republic of Pisa in the 11th century. The city was heavily fortified by the Pisans, however it fell two centuries later to the Aragonese Kingdom of Spain.

The Spanish then held the city for almost 400 years, leaving a lasting effect on the city’s architecture, and language. The Campidanese dialect of the Sardinian language in the south of Sardinia has a large number of Spanish loanwords still in use today.

From 1718 until the unification of Italy in 1861, Cagliari was ruled by the Royal House of Savoy from Turin, as part of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont.

In the years following the unification of Italy, Cagliari experienced rapid growth. A huge period of building and modernisation took place – one impressive example being the white marble City Hall near the port.

Cagliari City Hall
Image credit: Wikipedia

Travel

So, how do you get to Cagliari?

Cagliari, as the biggest city, is obviously one of the best connected places on the island. The largest airport, Cagliari-Elmas Airport is about 10km from the city centre, and is connected by a great rail link.

One-way train tickets to Cagliari cost €1.30, and can be bought using the Trenitalia app for Android or iPhone, or from the automated ticket machines close to the platforms.

The train station in Cagliari is very central, and links to ARST (regional buses) and CTM (Cagliari City Buses) can be found at Piazza Matteotti just in front of the train station.

View of Cagliari Train Station from Piazza Matteotti

Useful tips for accommodation

Being the largest city on the island, Cagliari has no shortage of accommodation options. You’ll easily be spoilt for choice between hotels, B&Bs, and self-catering apartments.

If you like to be in the centre of it all, the Marina neighbourhood close to the port is the most central place to stay. One thing worth noting though – the area can get quite noisy at night.

Castello is a great historical place to stay, but I advise against it if you have mobility issues – the streets are uphill and not very many of the buildings have lifts – or elevators for our American readers.

If you like something central but relatively quiet, I recommend the Stampace or Villanova neighbourhoods.

If you prefer the beach side of things, anywhere near Poetto Beach, or the Quartiere Del Sole neighbourhood is the best place to be.

The neighbourhoods of Cagliari

The neighbourhoods of San Michele and Sant’Elia, although cheap to stay, are generally not very popular with tourists.

If you are travelling on a budget, as a personal preference I recommend using Airbnb to find self-catering apartments in the centre. There are many to choose from, and it can work out considerably cheaper than a hotel or traditional Bed and Breakfast. Usually you can also look at the reviews and see what previous guests have said about the host and/or accommodation.

If you don’t have an account, you can use my link here to create one, and get up to €28 off your first booking!

Getting Around Cagliari

Once in the city, the local CTM Buses offer a great way to get around. Tickets can be bought using the CTM Busfinder app for Android or iPhone, or can be bought from any tobacco shop.

Cagliari CTM Bus

A single 90 minute ticket costs €1.30, and it must be validated when entering the bus. If using the app, look out for the QR codes inside the bus to validate your virtual ticket.

Taxis are also an option to get around, but I personally don’t recommend them if you’re on a budget – they can get quite expensive, quite fast.

Overall, travelling in Cagliari is very safe. You won’t find the scams or crime found in many larger tourist cities, but common sense should come into play to protect your belongings.

Things to See

Centro Storico

Cagliari doesn’t really have a typical Centro Storico, or ‘Historical Centre’. Instead Cagliari is divided into four historical Quartieri, or neighbourhoods – Castello, Marina, Stampace and Villanova.

Cagliari’s four historical neighbourhoods

Quartiere Stampace

Some believe that the name Stampace derives from the Sardinian word Stampu, meaning ‘hole’, owing to the huge number of underground limestone caverns and tunnels under this part of the city.

This neighbourhood, originally a walled and fortified area of the city, is now mainly a residential area. Though, many bars and restaurants can be found along the pedestrianised street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

On the border between Stampace and Castello, you’ll find Piazza Yenne – the central square of Cagliari.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele during Christmas

To the west of Stampace, you can find the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre (under renovation since the early 2000s), the Roman Villa of Tigellio, the Cagliari Botanical Gardens, and the Phoenician Tuvixeddu Necropolis.

Quartiere Castello

Castello is, in my opinion, the most impressive historical neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is built on top of a hill, and a lot of its fortifications have been restored to their previous glory.

Inside the neighbourhood’s walls you’ll find beautiful narrow, winding streets and buildings dating back hundreds of years. A word of advice, wear comfortable shoes when exploring this area!

Castello, meaning ‘castle’ in Italian, has always been the home of the ruling class in Cagliari, dating back to the 11th century.  During Spanish rule, the gates to this neighbourhood were closed at night-time, and any non-Spanish citizens found inside after dark were thrown to their deaths from the high walls.

Castello’s high walls

Castello offers impressive views of the surrounding city, especially from the huge open space at the Bastione Saint Remy – a fortified structure built in a Classic style between 1896 and 1902 on the old city’s medieval bastions.

Bastione Saint Remy

Nearby, at the opposite entrance to Castello, is the Torre Dell’Elefante or ‘Elephant Tower’, built in 1307. At the time, the city was occupied by forces from Pisa.

Over the years, the tower was damaged in 1708 by English bombing, in 1717 by Spanish cannons, and it finally lost its top part in 1793 during a French attack. In 1906 the tower was restored.

Torre Dell’Elefante or ‘Elephant Tower’

In Castello, you’ll also find the impressive 13th century Duomo Di Cagliari – also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria. Here, you can also visit the Museo del Duomo.

Quartiere Marina

Marina is the neighbourhood located directly between Castello and the Port of Cagliari. This is one of the more lively areas of Cagliari, with many bars and restaurants located along its many small streets.

This area, also originally heavily fortified, was home to the merchants, traders, and fishermen of the city. Marina was heavily bombed during World War 2 by allied forces. The neighbourhood however has still managed to hold onto its historical charm.

The area was originally inhabited during Roman times, and the remains of a 4th century Roman road and ruins of houses, were located under the Sant’Eulalia church.

A visit to the Area Archeologica e Museo di Sant’Eulalia to see these Roman ruins, as well as many impressive historical artefacts, is not to be missed! Information on tickets and tours can be found on the museum’s website here.

Quartiere Villanova

Villanova is one of the ‘newer’ historical neighbourhoods indicated by its name, meaning ‘new town’. Built and settled in the 13th century, it was home to farmers from the surrounding Sardinian countryside.

The immediate area around Villanova remained an important agricultural centre for the city of Cagliari until the early 20th century.

Villanova, Cagliari

The neighbourhood’s original gardens, fields, and vineyards eventually made way for the new neighbourhoods that now surround Cagliari’s historical centre.

Characterised by narrow streets, and filled with balconies full of potted plants and flowers, the neighbourhood is now home to a mixture of artisan workshops, and cozy bars and restaurants.

Villanova, Cagliari

Poetto

Ask any person from Cagliari during the summer what their plans for the day are and they’ll likely tell you they’re heading to Poetto.

View of the Sella Del Diavolo, or ‘Devil’s Saddle’, from Poetto Beach

Poetto is Cagliari’s famous beachfront spanning 8km from the Sella Del Diavolo hill, all the way to the nearby city of Quartu San’Elena. The beach is about 8.5km from the centre of Cagliari, but is easily reached by a number of CTM public buses (30, 31, 5, PQ, PF).

During the hot summer nights, the beach bars lining the seafront, are very popular with locals and tourists alike.

Poetto Beach

Monte Urpinu

This city park offers great views of Cagliari to the west, and Poetto beach to the east. It’s also a great place to hide from the midday sun, and there are loads of hidden spots under the pine trees for a picnic.

Cagliari seen from Monte Urpinu Park

From the park it’s also possible to see the Molentargius Lagoons and salt flats, home to Cagliari’s own Flamingo population. If you’re lucky enough to be here at sunset, you’ll see huge flocks of Flamingoes flying back to the lagoons to nest for the night.

Molentargius Lagoons seen from Monte Urpinu Park

This is also a great place to bring children, as there are plenty of play areas, as well as ponds with ducks. If you keep your eyes peeled you might even spot a few peacocks!

Museums

Given the amount of history that Cagliari has, it’s no surprise that it’s full of amazing museums!

Some museums worth mentioning, apart from those above, are:

Museo Archeologico Nazionale – National Archaeological Museum

Pinacoteca Nazionale di Cagliari – National Picture Gallery

Galleria comunale d’arte – Municipal Art Gallery

Museo sardo di antropologia ed etnografia – Sardinian Anthropology and Ethnography Museum

Not all of these websites are available in English, but Google does a decent job of translating them!

Overview

Now, this post is obviously not a complete list of things to do in Cagliari as there is so much to see!

If you think I’ve missed anything important, or if you have any other tips or questions about Cagliari, feel free to leave a comment below!

Also don’t forget to follow Viva La Dolce Vita on Instagram here, or Facebook here, for daily pictures, and weekly posts!

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