Castello is the most ancient of Cagliari’s historic districts. It is located on top of a hill at about 100 meters (328 feet) above sea level, and has always been the place where nobles and rulers used to live and conduct their business.
The correlation between the aristocracy and the district was so close and taken for granted that the place ended up being associated with the nobles’ manor (in Italian, castello) so much that it became more than a symbol and a landmark, and it gave the name to the whole area.
The district can only be accessed by going through the ancient doors: it is surrounded by the defensive walls that have protected it for centuries, and that still keep it separate from the rest of the city (though most of it the walls are not visible today).
Castello is filled with ancient buildings, museums, and many other attractions, and is probably the area that will need the most of your time. You never run out of things to see and streets to explore! I often go there – to visit a church, to wander around or simply to take in the incredible views. So I thought I’d write a short guide to highlight its main landmarks.
Make sure to also read my posts A Quick Guide To Villanova, A Short Guide To La Marina, A Short Guide To Stampace and The Best Things To Do In Cagliari.
A Short History Of Castello, Cagliari
Much like the other ancient districts of Cagliari, Castello was inhabited since very early times, but its official foundation was in the 13th century by the Pisans. Castello was born after a war that had led to the end of Cagliari’s Giudicato, the destruction of the old capital city (Santa Igia, the modern Santa Gilla), and the creation of the new one, with headquarters in Castello.
The nobles and the ruling class all moved there, the ownership of Sardinia was passed to the Aragonese, and Cagliari became a flourishing marine city – or better, its power increased; it was already quite powerful and invested in its commercial activities.
Castello was, therefore, the place where nobles and wealthy people lived. However, its history had quite some dark pages. For example, when the Spaniards took over the Aragonese in the 15th century, the Crown started to force Christianity on every part of its kingdom, all territories included.
Why is this important?
You see – back then, in Cagliari, there was a huge Jewish community, the members well-integrated with the rest of society and used to run their businesses in peace. Unfortunately, due to the Spanish policies and the 1492 decree (which forced the expulsion of all the Muslims and Jews refusing conversion to the Catholic religion), many of them was literally evicted from their homes and their synagogue transformed into a church.
During the following centuries, Cagliari was raided and attacked by several people, but Castello always stood strong thanks to its fortifications – which protected it through several wars. The bombings of WWII did their fair amount of damage like in other areas of the city, but the area was carefully remodeled and brought back to its older splendor.
What To See And Do In Castello, Cagliari
Now that you know a bit more about the history of Castello, Cagliari, let’s check out its unmissable sights.
The Archeological Museum of Cagliari is an incredible collection of relics and artworks of ancient ages, from pre-history to the Byzantine empire’s times, and it’s the most important museum in Sardinia.
The museum started as a private collection in the 1700s but was quickly opened to the public and expanded year after year thanks to generous donations and important findings, such as the Mont’e Prama Giants.
The Archaeological Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. Tickets are €9 full price and €4 discounted. Advanced bookings are recommended for larger groups.
Check out my post The Best Museums In Sardinia.
Porta Cristina is one of the access doors to Castello and was built in 1825. Its neoclassical style follows Rome’s Porta Pia and the door is dedicated to Maria Cristina Borbone, wife of the then King Carlo Felice.
Cagliari Cathedral and its Bell Tower
Cagliari’s Cathedral is located in Piazza Palazzo, next to some other of the most important landmarks in Cagliari. It is officially dedicated to St. Cecilia and St. Maria Assunta, was built in the 1200s and renewed throughout the centuries, and nowadays carries parts of art from each of the city’s most important historical moments.
The bell tower, for example, is still the same as it was when the church was first built, while the façade is the newest addition, built in the 1930s in what became known as fake Gothic. Make sure to also pop inside the crypt.
There is a €3 fee to access the bell tower, from where you can enjoy incredible views of the city.
Check out my post The Prettiest Churches In Cagliari.
Museo del Duomo
The Cathedral Museum is a huge exhibit of the so-called “Cathedral Treasure”, a collection of all the treasures that the previous bishops and archbishops have left behind or donated to the most important church in the city.
The museum is divided into five floors, where you can see several relics, tools, precious tokens, and artworks commissioned by the Church throughout the centuries.
The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 4:30 to 7:30 pm. Admission is €4 full price and €2,50 reduced fee (kids under twelve and people over 65).
Palazzo Vice Regio
The King’s palace, also known as Viceroy’s Palace, is in Piazza Palazzo and has been, of course, an essential building throughout Cagliari’s history. It was the place where the viceroy – sent by the Spanish King, who of course couldn’t keep the city in check himself – used to live and rule the territory. It was first built under the Aragonese in the 14th century but has been the headquarters of the ruling class up until very recently.
Palazzo di Città
Palazzo di Città, located in Piazza Palazzo right next to the Cathedral, has been Cagliari City Hall for centuries and, after thorough and careful remodeling, it is now a museum/art gallery dedicated to temporary exhibits. Every time you go there, there is something new to see. One of the most recent ones was a photography exhibit dedicated to photographer Steve McCurry.
Piazza Carlo Alberto
Piazza Carlo Alberto is a small square in the center of Castello, right under Piazza Palazzo and the Cathedral. The place was historically used to execute people accused of various crimes during the Spanish Kingdom and has always been considered sort of a smaller twin to Piazza Palazzo, the big, broad square where all the administration buildings used to be.
Head over to my post The Nicest Squares In Cagliari.
Torre di San Pancrazio and Torre dell’Elefante
These two towers, designed by the same architect and built only two years apart from one another, have served as defensive towers throughout the centuries – especially during the Saracen invasions – and are still the main gates to Castello. They mark the tallest points in Cagliari and it comes as no surprise that the view from there is breathtaking.
Both towers are currently closed for much needed restoration works. When they are open, admission for each tower is €3. Or you can pay €6 for a combined ticket valid for one day that will give you admission to the Roman Amphitheater, the other tower, Santa Restituta Crypt in Stampace and Villa di Tigellio.
Bastione di Santa Croce
Santa Croce Bastion is the part of defensive walls, located in the homonymous street, that used to be the Jewish area of Cagliari. But, as previously mentioned, all people who didn’t convert to Christianity were evicted in 1492. The synagogue was turned into a church, the Santa Croce church that gave name to the bastion (more about that in a bit). What didn’t change during the centuries, however, is the stunning view from there!
Basilica di Santa Croce
The Santa Croce church – which has been reopened in 2007 after years of restoration works – is a piece of Castello’s most troubled history. It was, in fact, the old Cagliari synagogue, up until 1492, when the Spanish Crown decided to evict all people – including the Jews – who didn’t want to convert to Christianity.
The synagogue was remodeled and transformed into a beautiful church, ornated with artworks from great artists of the time, and the Jesuits took care of it until quite recently. Their monastery is now the headquarters for Cagliari University Architecture department.
Read my post Where To Go For A Walk In Cagliari.
Ghetto degli Ebrei
The Jewish Ghetto is an erroneous name that was given by the population to the barracks built in the 18th century to host and train the soldiers part of the “Dragoni di Sardegna” division.
The place, which has gone through several changes – including a part of it becoming private houses – is now the location of a gallery that hosts temporary exhibits and event room. The mistake with the name comes from the fact that a little bit further, there actually used to live Cagliari’s Jewish community.
Bastione di Saint Remy
Saint Remy Bastion is one of the main symbols of Castello and Cagliari itself. It was built in the 19th century, uniting three pre-existing bastions, and was given a beautiful staircase to complete its monumental look – the arch makes it look even bigger than it already is!
The panoramic terrace will make all the climbing worth it. You can snap beautiful shots from up there, and also enjoy a drink in Caffé degli Spiriti, while taking in the beautiful view.
Passeggiata Coperta is an area underneath the Saint Remy Bastion – to be more precise, under its staircase – that has been created at the beginning of the 1900s and has been used in various ways.
The tunnel, very bright thanks to the numerous arch-shaped windows, has been a banquet area, then a field hospital during the war, a school, and is now an art gallery that can be visited every day except Mondays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Admission to the Passeggiata Coperta Gallery is €6 (€3 reduced fee). It’s free for children and disabled and their chaperons.
Teatro Civico di Castello
Castello’s Theater was firstly a small university theatre which, at the beginning of the 18th century, was enlarged and became the place where the high society would watch performances of various kinds, from ballet to theater plays.
It lived periods of great fame and times where it almost faced bankruptcy, but it always stayed as a symbol of Castello’s bourgeois life. It was greatly damaged during WWII and has reopened in 2006 after long remodeling works.
Cagliari’s University Palace is also known as Palazzo Belgrano (from the engineer who designed it) and is now the headquarters for the University’s offices and Library. The inside is decorated with Baroque statues and paintings, in line with the designer’s tastes and era.
Contus de Arrejolas
Contus de Arrejolas (lit. Tales of Tiles) is a small museum, born as a tile collection and that now showcases some extra relics and artifacts from Sardinia. The tiles exposed here aren’t common tiles, but the ones used to decorate the nobles’ houses during Castello’s golden age. They are all different and pretty and have been collected in the span of 15 years by this small museum’s owner.
Cagliari narrowest alley is aptly named Via Stretta – literally narrow lane. It’s a residential only street, and no cars can go through (not even tiny Smart cars!). Residents have decorated it beautifully with flower pots and plants which give it an exotic look. They are amused to see the very street they call home becoming an attraction. It’s so narrow that light it awkward to photograph it, but you should still go!
Guided tours of Castello
Literally any tour of the historic center of Cagliari that will take you to Castello, but if you want something that is truly specific and focused on the history of the noble class that lived in this district, get in touch with Arasolé, an excellent local operator. They operate private tours at reasonable prices. Just send them and email at [email protected] – make sure to mention my name!
Alternatively, you can book your guided tour online here or here.
Where to eat and drink in Castello
Castello doesn’t have the many bars and restaurants you will find in other parts of Cagliari, but there are a few good places for a drink and a meal. The following ones are my favorite.
Pani e Casu
Pani e Casu offers typical Sardinian food, in the Santa Croce church’s neighborhood on the same terrace where Café Libarium is located. This means that, on top of an excellent – and fair priced – meal, you can enjoy great views. Or, after some quality sightseeing, you can have a great meal without having to walk for miles!
Caffè Libarium Nostrum
One of the most popular cocktail bars in town, it is located just a few hundred meters from the Cathedral, in Via Santa Croce, and offers a stunning view of the city and excellent drinks and food. If you are looking for a quick lunch you will remember for a long time, go ahead! In case you manage to book your spot for the evening, though, it will be even better: sunsets from there are incredible. Keep in mind they don’t take reservations for drinks though.
Check out my post The Best Bars In Cagliari.
Bombas is a hamburger place that takes pride in using only local ingredients – so to add value and give more visibility to Sardinian producers and farmers. The location is lovely: it’s a bit like a cave with a view over a Roman cistern. Service is great, prices more than affordable and food absolutely delicious. My favorite burger there is Janas. The potato chips are to die for (seriously).
Pablo Caffé is another great place in a fantastic location. They serve both quick snacks (brunch) and drinks. Close to the actual café you will find a terrace with tables and nice views over Molentargius and Villanova. It’s basically on the opposite side of Café Libarium Nostrum.
Osteria di Castello
Osteria di Castello is a bistro serving traditional Sardinian food in a cozy, nice area of Castello. The prices are definitely affordable and the Osteria offers vegetarian and vegan options as well.
Where to sleep in Castello
There isn’t much in terms of hotels in Castello, but you will find some nice guest houses. Keep in mind this part of town is fairly central, but public transport is lacking. And if you decide to rent a car during your trip to Sardinia, you will have to pay attention as it is a ZTL (limited traffic area) that can be accessed only at certain times of day, and parking inside Castello can be a nightmare.
For more places to stay in Cagliari, read this post.
Relais Santa Croce
This guest house is only a few meters from the Santa Croce church, and features excellent rooms, with a stunning view. You can will enjoy free Wi-Fi, a delicious breakfast, and much more. The place is also pet-friendly.
A Bed and Breakfast in the heart of Castello, with rooms equipped with every comfort, Bianca Dimora offers free Wi-Fi, airport shuttle service (quite convenient for an area that’s more difficult to reach on public transport), as well as bicycle and car rental services. This is another place very close to many attractions, extremely comfortable for exploring the city.
Just a hundred meters from Torre dell’Elefante, L’Antica Torre features neat, classic-style rooms with free Wi-Fi, private bathrooms, and an airport shuttle service on top of the other things. You can bring your pet here, too.