Albeit being a small city, Olbia, in the Gallura region of Sardinia, is home to one of the most important harbors in Italy, and for a good reason: it’s a place rich in history, traditions, activities and is literally the gate to the internationally famous Costa Smeralda.
Thanks to its location, it has always been a city bustling with life. However, the city started to grow and become a staple of tourism in Sardinia since the foundation of Costa Smeralda in 1962. From then on, hotels and holiday resorts have increased and improved exponentially, making for a huge part of Olbia’s economy.
If you happen to have some free time when visiting the area; if the weather isn’t great for a day at the beach; or if you simply want to do more than just visiting a few beaches, you should choose to spend at least a whole day in Olbia. There really are plenty of things to see and do, from museums to the nearby nuraghe, from some unique churches to a Ferris wheel.
In this post, I will highlight all there is to see and do in Olbia. However, let me first give you some context but quickly outlining the history of Olbia.
A Short History Of Olbia
The area around Olbia was already inhabited during prehistoric times, as the many ruins and remains show. Among the best-preserved ones, the Giants’ Tomb of Su Monte ‘e s’Abe and the Sa Testa Sacred Well are two structures that are worth and visiting.
Olbia was founded by the Punic people and probably gets its name (meaning “happy, lucky”) from the Greek language. Back then and throughout all the Roman era, it was an essential place for trade and military strategy; and it was one of the most populated cities in Sardinia.
Olbia was the capital of the Gallura Giudicato and was, therefore, an important city during the Middle Ages, even when the Judges lost control to the Pisan and a new city was founded not too far away, close to the harbor, with the name of Terranova. In Olbia you can still admire a part of the defensive walls, the Pedres castle, and several churches built during those centuries.
From this point on, although never being completely depopulated, Olbia began to lose its key role in the Mediterranean, while Spain was becoming stronger. The Aragonese conquer, the pirates’ invasions, and every tragic historical event until the Fascist regime only touched upon the city, reduced to a dirty, poor village, until an assault by Mussolinian forces.
But even after the wars and some bombings, the city didn’t fully get back on its feet. It was the foundation of Costa Smeralda that helped Olbia flourish once again.
Make sure to read my post A Brief History Of Sardinia.
What To See And Do In Olbia, Sardinia
Explore the city center
Olbia city center is a nice place to explore. If you take a stroll through the famous Corso Umberto (the main street) you can find plenty of places (both high-end and not) for your shopping and admire several older buildings (the ones in Liberty style are the most photographed in the area). Moreover, if you go there at night, you can enjoy a nice evening in one of the many pubs and bars in Piazza Regina Margherita.
Close to the City Hall, you can also admire the remains of the Roman Court and, a little outside the center, the even more ancient Punic defensive walls. If you keep exploring the area, you will find two of the most important religious buildings in Olbia.
San Paolo Church
Famous thanks to its majolica dome that can be seen from a fair distance, San Paolo church has for a long time been the main church in Olbia until San Simplicio cathedral was rebuilt and consecrated again. Although its main charm is the outside dome, the inside of the building is also worth a visit. The relics and paintings are simply beautiful.
San Simplicio Cathedral and Necropolis
This church is the best-preserved Romanic Church on the Island and it was supposedly built in the XI century, making it also the most ancient in the North of Sardinia. It was built for and dedicated to St. Simplicius, who was martyrized under the reign of Diocleziano.
Although the simple and clean style of the church is well worth praising, the main attraction of this building lies underground.
In fact, during some excavation, a huge necropolis with about 450 martyrs’ bodies was found and is now open to visits and guided tours (you will need to book in advance). Some of the objects and tools found in the tombs have been left there, so to display their original setting, while many other are exposed in Olbia’s Archeological Museum.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Sardinia.
Olbia Archeological Museum
This is one of the few museums in the whole world to have some ships’ remains on exhibition. The whole museum is, actually, aimed to reconstruct the history of one of the main harbors in the Mediterranean, from its golden ages in ancient times to its decline and new birth during the modern days. The museum is divided into two floors and will walk you through Olbia’s history with short movies, explanations, and plenty of relics. The most important ones are two Roman ships that were destroyed in about 450 AD during a fight with the Vandals.
The museum is located on the small Peddone island and can be visited Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. There is no admission fee.
Read my post The Best Museums In Sardinia.
Olbia Ferris Wheel
Located right in front of the Museum of Archeology and inaugurated in 2019, the Maestosa Ferris Wheel is the main attraction of Olbia’s nightlife. It’s 36 meters (118 feet) tall and offers a great view of the Gulf, and a nice photo while you are waiting for your turn to ride in one of the 26 cabins.
Rides cost €8 for adults and €5 for kids between 2 and 12 years old. Disabled people and kids under two years old can access for free.
Hike around Su Monte ‘e s’Abe Giants’ Tomb and Pedres Castle
This area is rich in history and is the location of two of the most important ruins in the city – and from two completely different times, too!
The first one, a Giants’ Tomb, was built in different periods of the pre-Nuragic and Nuragic era; the first part of it dates as back as the third millennium BC, while the second part, the main tomb in which the bodies were buried together (collective burial technique), dates to about 1600 BC.
You can visit the site free of charge and walk around.
Pedres Castle is best reached on a hike from the prehistoric tombs. It was built as a defensive fortress during the Visconti reign in the 12th century and was later used by the Pisans during the war with the Aragonese. What’s left now is some ruins in which you will still, however, be able to distinguish some of the rooms and the watchtowers.
Head over the most posts The Most Interesting Archeological Sites In Sardinia and The Best Castles In Sardinia.
Parco Fausto Noce
This park was founded in 2004 after cleaning out and reconverting a deserted area in the city and is now a peaceful haven for families and sports lovers. The park features several sports fields, four fountains, and 18 hectares of trees and plants from the Mediterranean basin. It’s open from 6:00 am to 9:00 and is overseen by guards 24/7, making it a quiet and safe place for whoever wants to have a peaceful stroll in the middle of nature.
Attend one of the festivals In Olbia
Olbia is rich in festivals. These are are the main ones.
On May 15th, Olbia celebrates its Patron Saint, St. Simplicius, who was martyrized in 304 AD. This is the most important and heartfelt celebration in the city and every year is rich with events; the most famous of those is the mussel’s festival held together with the religious one. Another traditional event is the Palio, a horse race similar to Oristano’s Sartiglia.
The celebrations usually start around May 10th with sports events and parades, while the religious rites start on the 14th with a Mass.
San Giovanni e Madonna del Mare
Celebrated yearly on June 24th, this is the second most important event in the city and celebrates St. John and Mary. Its main charm is the beautiful boat procession in the harbor when the two Saints’ simulacra are brought around and flowers are thrown in the water to commemorate the fallen sailors and pray for the city’s perpetual protection by John and Mary.
Together with the religious celebration, the locals usually look forward to the fried fish and seafood festival – where you can taste some great cuisine – and the traditional Salto dei Fuochi (Fire’s jump), a popular tradition performed to propitiate friendship by jumping around a bonfire.
Water World Music Festival and Film Festivals
During the summer, Olbia hosts a fair amount of events about performing arts as well. The Water World Music Festival is one of the most awaited concerts in Sardinia and brings important artists to the city each summer, while the two main movie festivals (Olbia Film Network and Olbia Figari Film Fest) are a great spotlight for emerging artists and already popular-ish ones.
Check out my post The Best Festivals In Sardinia.
Visit the nearby islands
Olbia is an excellent starting point to visit the small Tavolara and Molara islands. While the first can be easily reached by public ferry from Porto Taverna (around 20 minutes drive from Olbia); the second one is a private island which can only be visited on guided tours departing from Cala Finanza and run by Associazione Molara. Both are excellent hiking, snorkeling and diving destinations.
The Best Beaches Near Olbia
Olbia is the gateway to Costa Smeralda, but there are more beaches in the area which are not part of Costa Smeralda. Let me highlight them!
Considered one of the top 15 most beautiful beaches in Sardinia and even called “the little Tahiti”, this heavenly beach in San Teodoro’s area (about 25 km -15.5 miles – from Olbia) looks like it came from a tropical holiday catalog. The beach itself is fairly narrow so it can get crowded; but you can enjoy a beautiful and well-kept pine grove, gardens, and a pond where pink flamingoes rest and nest.
The parking lot is shared with Lu Impostu beach and is €2 per hour. The white sand and the low bottom make the beach, equipped with everything you might need, an ideal place for families with kids.
Make sure to read my complete guide to Cala Brandinchi.
Another great beach for families and kids, equipped with all comforts, but slightly different in its appearance when compared with Cala Brandinchi. Lu Impostu looks, and is, in fact, wilder. It’s the ideal place for those who don’t want to give up on the emerald waters but prefer a quieter, more cozy-looking space for their day. Of course, you will not be stranded on a remote beach: you are still a few meters away from restaurants, hotels, and everything else.
This beach is on a beautiful cove in the Golfo Aranci area, about 20 km (12.4 miles) from Olbia. Albeit small and not equipped with anything, Cala Moresca is a wonderful gem that deserves a visit. With its white sand and its crystal-clear, shallow waters, you will not regret spending a peaceful day there. You can also take some stunning pictures of the view and, if you like snorkeling, get lost in the multitude of colors for hours.
Pittulongu is a long stripe of sand very close to Olbia, only about 8 km (5 miles) from the city, and is therefore considered “Olbia’s official beach”. Locals come here to enjoy a relaxing day without having to move too far, and several others have bought a house and decided to live in the smallest and more silent Pittulongu village.
There are several beaches alongside this strip of sand, each of them with clean water and soft sand. The most famous one is the La Playa Pittulongu. The parking is free and the place is the ideal choice if you don’t feel like driving for more than fifteen minutes.
This small cove in San Teodoro area was a hidden treasure until a few years ago but now has gotten quite popular. You better get there early to save a spot, because missing this small beach is almost a sin. Although not equipped with umbrellas and other services like the other places in the area, its appearance alone is enough to leave you stunned and convince you to spend half a day – or a whole one – there. It’s also safe for kids.
Located about 10 km (6.2 miles) from Olbia, Porto Taverna is a great beach that will suit each tourist’s tastes. There are some areas equipped with everything and some that are completely free, leaving you the choice of what to do. The sea is of a stunning emerald color and you can have a clear view of Tavolara Island from there. It’s a popular choice among families thanks to several factors: the water isn’t deep, the beach is broad, there are a few restaurants serving nice food and the place is easy to reach from the city.
Another long, large beach close to Olbia, with a dog-friendly area and a nice, peaceful vibe. It’s not among the most crowded, so you could go there when looking for a peaceful place. Since the sea is deeper and the wind stronger compared to many beaches in the area, it’s not rare to see windsurfers practicing or having some fun here. The beach is linked by a small natural canal to the ponds, where the old saltworks that give the name to the place were located.
Where to sleep in Olbia
Olbia and its surroundings abound in accommodation options, so you will have plenty of choice for places to stay. Here are my recommendations:
Altré Guesthouse – This is the place I normally stay at when in Olbia. It’s a lovely small guest house with 3 rooms only; right by San Simplicio Church and close to the train station, and a few minutes walk to the center of town. Rooms are spacious and clean, equipped with everything you need for a short stay. The owners are masters of hospitality!
La Casa del Pittore – Another place I love to stay at, this guest house is located mere steps away from Corso Umberto, in the historic center of Olbia. Completely renovated, rooms are very spacious and comfortable. A full breakfast is served daily in the dining room upstairs. There is a terrace with views of San Paolo church.
Jazz Hotel – Located very close to the airport and a short driving distance from the city center, this hotel features everything you might need. Free Wi-fi, free parking, private bathroom, swimming pool… you can rest assured that you will spend a relaxing holiday. The onsite restaurant is fabulous.
Carpe Diem B&B – Great location and great service. The building is very close to the city center and its main attractions and offers great rooms with private bathrooms. The breakfast options are both buffet and continental.
Smeralda Flats – For the ones who want to have their private space even when on holiday, an apartment is the best choice. This one is located in the city center, a few steps away from all the main attractions, and offers free Wi-Fi, free parking, and everything you can expect to find in a nice, well-furnished apartment.
Where to eat and drink in Olbia
Whether you want a quick bite, a traditional meal or something a bit more elaborate, you will have plenty of options when in Olbia. The following places have all been tried and tested by yours truly:
Natura – For as quick, healthy yet budget friendly lunch head to Natura, in Corso Umberto I in the heart of Olbia. Unless you are truly a massive eater, the regular bowl is more than enough for a person!
Bacchus – You’d hardly think that an airport hotel restaurant could be this good – but it really is! Michelin listed Bacchus has a strong focus on seasonal dishes of Sardinia – both fish and seafood and meat dishes. Portions are quite large, service is spot on and prices fair. It’s a great choice.
Giropizza – Close to Altré Guesthouse and San Simplicio Church, you wouldn’t give this place a dime from the outside, but it’s actually really nice and modern inside, and the garden a perfect setting for a summer dinner. You have the option of order gourmet style pizza as well as earthy portions of pasta or fish.
Spirits Boutique – These may well be the best cocktails on the island. This small cocktail bar is located in Via Cavour, in the historic center of Olbia. Cocktails are prepared with seasonal, local ingredients masterfully mixed. They even make their own vermouth.
Disigios – For great Sardinian wines, craft beers and charcuterie, head to this lovely place on a tiny alley parallel to Corso Umberto I. It’s super cute!
How to get to Olbia
Olbia is one of the easiest places to reach in Sardinia – served by an international airport, a harbor and with trains and connections to the rest of the island. Here’s how you can get there.
From the airport
Olbia is well equipped with shuttle and public bus services that will bring you to the city center in 20 minutes, tops. It’s also a fairly short car drive and the road signs are clear and easy to spot – the airport is 5 kms away from the city.
For more information, make sure to read my post How To Get To Olbia From The Airport.
From the harbor
The harbor is actually located close to the city center – just a quick walk!
The easiest way to get from Cagliari to Olbia is by car. Take SS131 towards Sassari and once you get to the Abbasanta junction take SS131 BIS to Nuoro and Olbia. It’s a smooth 3 hours drive.
If you’d rather go by public transport, you can count on a good web of buses and trains regularly departing from Cagliari town center and even from Cagliari Airport.
Make sure to read my post How To Get From Cagliari To Olbia.
I hope this guide of Olbia has been useful to give you an idea of what to do and see during your holidays. Olbia is an ancient city, full of history and traditions, and located in one of the best coastal areas in Sardinia. You will definitely like it there.