There is a great offer of things to do in Cagliari.
Although Sardinia is a popular summer holiday destination, not many realize that Cagliari, its capital, is a fantastic place to visit year round and where you are most likely going to learn a great deal about the local history, culture and overall vibe.
Cagliari will cast a spell on you, much as it did on D. H. Lawrence who in 1920 declared he found it to be “…strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.” In fact, that’s a common feeling. Most people that end up visiting do so thinking they are going to just another Italian city, but soon realize upon arriving that there is something different here – and they can’t quite put their finger on it.
To give you an idea of how stratified and diverse Cagliari is, let me give you a bit of information about its name. Cagliari comes from the Punic world “Karel” or “Karalis” – which means rocky place and it’s an obvious indication of the morphology of the city. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, Cagliari saw the dominations of – among others – the Romans, the Punics, the Arabs, the Pisans and the Aragonese.
But in Sardinian, one of the official languages of the island (together with Italian and Catalan), we call Cagliari “Casteddu” – a reference to the walled medieval city which had doors that were closed every night.
I guess what’s important, for you, is to know that Cagliari is a splendid city and one of a kind. Perched on the hills and facing the blue waters of the Mediterranean, it has a mix of architectural styles, and layers of history that you will want to discover. It’s a great destination for a long weekend, and a perfect starting point for a trip to Sardinia.
In this post, I highlight the many things to do in Cagliari.
15 Not To Miss Things To Do In Cagliari, Sardinia
Explore the historical center
The historical center of Cagliari is divided into 4 quarters: Castello, Stampace, Villanova and Marina. One of the nicest things to do in Cagliari is exploring the historical center.
Castello is a hilltop citadel where you will see domes, palaces, towers – this is where the aristocracy of the city used to live in medieval times, a maze of narrow alleys, old buildings that look like they are falling apart but which hide many a treasure. Make sure to walk along Via Stretta – there isn’t much to it, really; except it is incredibly narrow and local residents have adorned it with lovely plants.
Located in Castello there are the two watchtowers – Torre di San Pancrazio and Torre dell’Elefante. Both of them were built at the beginning of the 14th century by the Aragonese rulers. You can go up (the ticket is €3) but double check they are actually open before going, as they are occasionally closed for renovation work.
Other highlights of Castello include the Cathedral and the Archeology Museum (more on those in a bit) and Palazzo Viceregio, once the residence of the Spanish and Savoy viceroys. It’s open every day from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm in the winter and from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm in the summer. It is free to enter but you have to pay €5 for a guided tour.
TIP: Cagliari version of the city pass is “Biglietto Integrato Beni Culturali Cagliari” and gives you access to one of the towers, the Roman Amphitheater, Santa Restituta Crypt and Villa di Tigellio. It costs €6 for one day, and €8 for seven days.
Make sure to also pay a visit to Santa Croce church in Castello. What’s interesting about it is that it was built on top of a synagogue in an area that until 1492 was known as the Jewish Ghetto of Cagliari.
Your wandering across the historical center should also take you to Stampace, Cagliari’s working class district in Medieval times and home of Santa Restituta crypt, which has been used since pre-Christian times, and of Sant’Efisio church; Villanova a colorful area that has recently become one of the trendiest of Cagliari; and La Marina, where you’ll get the best nightlife in town.
These are the best tours of Cagliari that will take you to its historical districts:
- Top sights of Cagliari tour
- Cagliari segway tour
- Private walking tour with a local guide
- Walking tour of the historical center
- Cagliari tour by vintage Fiat 500
- Tuk tuk tour in the center of Cagliari 4 district and flamingo spotting
- 2-hour sightseeing bike tour
- Half day private sightseeing tour
LOCAL TIP: In Via Roma, make sure to stop by Palazzo Civico, Cagliari’s beautiful City Hall. Built between 1899 and 1913, you can visit it on guided tours on Saturday, but you have to book them in advance.
Visit the archeological sites
There is no doubt that one of the things to do in Cagliari is visiting the Roman Amphitheater. Accessible from Viale Sant’Ignazio, it dates back to the 2nd century AD when it was entirely carved in the rock. It could hold up to 10000 people!
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The Roman Amphitheater is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is €3. It’s part of the “Biglietto Integrato” circuit.
Another interesting site is Villa di Tigellio, a 1st century BC villa once the residence of poet and musician Tigellio Ermogene. Admission is €2 – again, this is part of the Biglietto Integrato circuit.
GOOD TO KNOW: One of the coolest, creepiest things to do in Cagliari is visiting its undergrounds. The city is incredibly stratified and this way you get a good understanding of it. Keep in mind that you can’t do this independently so you have to look for a local guide who knows where to take you.
And the museums
One of the top things to do in Cagliari is visiting the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. This is located in Piazza dell’Arsenale, in Castello.
The museum has an exquisite collection of bronzetti (bronz figurines), and will give you a taste of the nuragic civilization of Sardinia. You will also be able to admire Mont’e Prama Giants (the others are located in Cabras’ Museo Civico), enormous stone statues which have been dated to the 8th and 9th century BC and on whose significance there is still a lot of mystery.
Next to the museum, the Pinacoteca Nazionale is an art gallery with pieces dating back to the 15th and the 17th century, with works of Catalan and Genoese artists, as well as Sardinian ones.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm – keep in mind it is closed on national holidays. Admission is €7. A combined ticket for the museum and the Pinacoteca Nazionale costs €9.
Make sure to read my post “The 12 Best Museums In Sardinia.”
Visit a church
Among the best things to do in Cagliari there is visiting the beautiful Cathedral, in Piazza Palazzo. The church was built in the 13th century in Baroque style and has a beautifully decorated crypt which holds the tombs of the members of the Savoy royal family. Make sure to climb the tower too for an added fee as the views are splendid.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The Cathedral is open every day from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 4:00 to 8:00 pm. Access to the tower is €3
Another impressive church is the Basilica di Bonaria. You will find a sanctuary right next to it which holds the relics of a wooden statue of Virgin Mary and Christ. Legend says that the Virgin Mary save a Spanish ship from draining in the 14th century.
Right below the church you will find a well kept historical cemetery, which is not in use since 1968. The cemetery can be visited on guided tours Tuesdays to Sundays. They cost €8 and have to be booked in advance – for more information visit the website of Cagliari Tourism Board. I wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the quirkiest things to do in Cagliari.
Other notable churches are San Saturnino Basilica, the oldest church on the island and built over a Roman necropolis; San Michele church, built in rococo style; Sant’Efisio church, famous for being the starting point of Sant’Efisio parade every 1 May.
Take in all the views
Make a note of this: one of the best things to do in Cagliari is catching the incredible views. There are many places in town perfect for that, but I will never tire of going to the terrace of Via Santa Croce. The views are stunning at any time of day, but go for sunset and you will be in for quite a show. You may even want to get a drink at Libarium, a local bar where they serve excellent cocktails – nothing better for a good sunset experience.
Another place for views is the Bastione di San Remy, which is accessible either from Via Università in Castello or from a beautiful staircase in Piazza Costituzione. Bastione was built between 1899 and 1902 and is now a nightlife hub.
Check out my post “The Most Beautiful Churches in Sardinia.”
Go to the market
If you are interested in learning more about the food culture of Sardinia, one of the things to do in Cagliari is visiting a local market. There are many around town, but my favorite one is Mercato di San Benedetto which is a fantastic fish market. It’s open from Monday to Saturday, from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm.
If you need guidance, you may want to opt for a market tour:
- Local market tour and dining experience at Cesarina’s home
- Local market visit and private cooking class
Make sure to check out my post “5 Markets In Cagliari For Your Shopping Needs.”
Try local food
Speaking of markets and food culture, one of the top things to do in Cagliari is eating! You will find many interesting specialties in town, some of which unheard of in the rest of Italy. Food in Cagliari is fantastic, and you’ll find some specialties that you won’t see in the rest of Italy.
For a real local treat, make sure to have a “pizzetta sfoglia” for breakfast – you can get one at any good coffee shop. It’s a phyllo pastry stuffed with tomato sauce, anchovies and capers and a hint of tomatoes. It’s truly yummy.
To get better acquainted with local food, you may want to opt for a food tour or even a cooking class:
- Cagliari historical walking tour with local markets
- Culurgiones cooking class
- Sardinian bread baking experience
- Cagliari market tour, home cooking demo and dinner
- Local market visit and private cooking class
And here is a selection of my go to restaurants:
Framento – the best pizza in town, prepared with only local ingredients.
Grains – another excellent pizzeria with a strong focus on local ingredients and lovely staff!
Cremoso, La Chiccheria and Gocce di Gelato e Cioccolato, are the best gelaterie.
Seafood is good in La Marina. La Stella Marina di Montecristo is a nice basic eaterie which serves fresh fish – advanced bookings are recommended. Ristorante Italia is a fancier seafood place.
Sabores is where you will find excellent meats and cheese, to accompany the best local wines.
The best burgers are at Bombas in Via Università. They are prepared with local ingredients so in a way you are eating traditional food!
Osteria Kobuta – a fusion between Sardinian and Japanese food. I can’t even explain what it is, but it’s so good that you have to take my word for it!
I Sarti del Gusto – one of the best restaurants in town, it will surprise you with unique combinations. It’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner, perfect for a romantic date. And if you are heading out for the day, you may take advantage of their food baskets – think gourmet sandwiches here!
Make sure to check out my post “15 Incredible Restaurants In Cagliari.”
Attend a festival
One of the most interesting things to do in Cagliari if you happen to be there on May 1st is attending Sant’Efisio Parade. It is a massive celebration of Sardinia’s most venerated saint, during which people coming from all over the island and dressed in traditional costumes walk from Sant’Efisio Church all the way to Nora, at about 50 km from Cagliari, to accompany the statue of the saint – which is carried on a beautifully adorned carriage pulled by bulls.
Spend a day at the beach
Regardless of the season, one of the best things to do in Cagliari is going to the beach. We locals can’t really do without it and any excuse is good to go – a coffee with friends, a sunset drink, a walk for fresh air, a swim and even running. As long as we get to see it!
These are the best city beaches:
Poetto a long stretch of fine sand and clear waters, with a fabulous running and biking trail. It can get terribly crowded during the summer months, but we love it all the same. You will find kiosks to have a drink and a meal and places to rent umbrellas and whatever else you may need for the day. It’s served by public transportation.
Calamosca a small cove on the other side of Sella del Diavolo, with nice clear waters. There is a kiosk. You can reach it by public transportation from the city center.
Cala Fighera a popular nudist beach that requires a bit of a hike to get to. It’s gorgeous.
Hike Sella del Diavolo
What if I told you that hiking is one of the nicest things to do in Cagliari? We have trails in the city, so we don’t have to get out of town to catch views or feel at one with nature. The trail to reach the peak of Sella del Diavolo departs from Calamosca, right behind the beach. It’s an easy to follow and well marked trail and once you get to the top, the views of Poetto beach and Molentargius Nature Reserve are just stunning.
Not far from Calamosca you can access another trail that goes to the Fortino di Sant’Ignazio, a fort (of which not much remains) that dates back to 1792. It is close to a lighthouse and a Spanish watch tower and the views are stunning.
Admire pink flamingoes in their natural habitat
Molentargius Nature Reserve is the perfect nesting place for pink flamingoes and a favorite of other species of birds. Locals love going there for walks, runs and to just admire the animals in their natural environment.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Molentargius Nature Reserve can be accessed from several places in town. The easiest one for you is likely to be Poetto beach. It is open every day from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm in the summer, and from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm in the winter. There is no admission fee.
If you want to opt for a guided tour, here are some good ones:
- 2 hour bike tour in the flamingo oasis
- Electric bike naturalistic tour
- Tuk tuk tour in the center of Cagliari 4 district and flamingo spotting
Make sure to read my post A Complete Guide to Molentargius.
Visit a park
There are many nice parks in Cagliari. Locals love Monte Urpinu, a pine grove with a small pond at the center; Monte Claro, on the hills and equally well kept; Tuvixeddu, a large necropolis where you feel like your walk in nature has an historical flavor; Terramaini, the newest park in town.
If you are looking for something special, go to the Botanical Gardens. Opened for the first time in 1858, they are home to more than 3000 species of flora. Make sure not to miss the remains of the Punic cistern and of the Roman quarry.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The Botanical Gardens are open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in the winter, and from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm in the summer. Admission is €4.
Check out my post 10 Parks In Cagliari You Should Visit.
Go to an art exhibit
If you want to take advantage of its thriving cultural scene, one of the things to do in Cagliari is going to an exhibit. Places like Ex Ma, the former abattoir, or Lazzaretto, located in a beautiful spot by the sea in Sant’Elia, regularly host exibits.
Another place is Castello di San Michele, a fortification located on top of a hill overlooking the city, which dates back to the 10th century – it became the residence of the Carroz, a powerful local family, in the 14th century. The castle has been beautifully restored and it now holds art exhibits.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Castello di San Michele is open Tuesdays to Sundays. Admission is €3.
Jump into the local nightlife
For as small as it is, nightlife in Cagliari is thriving and you are bound to find something that suits your taste. The ones I mention are my favorite places in town:
Florio is a favorite local spot in Villanova.
Babeuf is a nice bar, also in Villanova.
B Flat, in Via del Pozzetto (outside the city center) regularly has live music. You need to reserve a table in advance.
De Candia and Caffè degli Spiriti are both located on the Bastione and perfect for a drink with friends.
For the best cocktails in town, go to Libarium (already mentioned above) or Biffi American Bar in Via San Giovanni, Villanova. The latter is a rather hidden place: you literally have to ring a bell to get in!!
Make sure to check out my post “Cagliari Nightlife: A Guide To Cagliari Best Bars.”
Go on a day trip out of the city
The chances you will be stuck with no things to do in Cagliari are very slim, but if you feel the urge to get out of the city, the choice is massive. One of the best options is to go for a wine tasting tour, and for that I recommend heading to Serdiana and Dolianova, two small towns at about 20 minutes drive from Cagliari, with a plethora of wineries and immersed in the most bucolic countryside. I recommend opting for a guided tour so you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving.
These are two good wine tours:
Another option may be that of visiting a small village. I am a fan of San Sperate, literally an open air museum with its many murals. If you want to opt for a guided tour, this is the best option:
If you are an archeology geek, make sure to visit at least one nuraghe. The Nuraxi di Barumini is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sardinia. You may also want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Nora or the mines in the Sulcis region.
These guided tours all depart from Cagliari and take you to the best sites in southern Sardinia:
- Full day Porto Flavia and Zuddas cave trip from Cagliari
- Nora archeological site tour from Cagliari
- Barumini and Giara Park tour from Cagliari
- Half day tour of Su Nuraxi di Barumini
If hiking is your thing, you will find many excellent trails in Sardinia. Take care never to go alone and to join a guided hike for the hardest trails.
Check out my post “The Best Hikes In Sardinia.”
These are some of the best guided hikes:
- Half day ancient Roman Road hike – an easy hike with stunning coastal views.
For more day trips from Cagliari, check out this post.
Further readings about Sardinia
Make sure to read my other posts:
- Where Is Sardinia?
- 10 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Sardinia
- The 15 Best Beaches In Sardinia
- A Great Sardinian Food Guide
- The 7 Best Beaches In Cagliari
- A Complete Guide To Poetto Beach
- The Nicest Hotels In Cagliari
- The Most Captivating Castles In Sardinia
- The Best Places To Go Shopping In Sardinia
- The Nicest Squares In Cagliari
- 7 Beautiful Churches In Cagliari
- 5 Lovely Walks In Cagliari To Discover Its Beauty