Where to start? Giants' tombs, mysterious Nuraghic fortresses, or exquisite sandy beaches lapped by impossibly turquoise sea? Then there’s the mountainous interior, excellent for hiking. But one of the best ways to experience Sardinia is to arrange your trip around one its many festivals. Sardinians are immensely proud of their traditions and you’ll see intricate costumes, taste local foods and hear some of the most unusual music – polyphonic folk singing, accompanied by launeddas (pipes) that have been played for over 3,000 years.
Meet Sardinia's 'stone army'
Up in Cagliari’s Castello area is a museum complex that includes one of Sardinia’s finest archeological museums, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, which has exhibits dating back to 6000 BC. Unmissable is the Sardinian 'stone army': the sculptures, which are more than three metres high, with some weighing over 400 kilos, are 500 years older than China’s Terracotta Army. Other fascinating exhibits include a collection of 'pintadera' – terracotta plates used to showcase the breads created for Sardinia’s many festivals.
Insider tip: In the museum complex is a decent art gallery, a museum of Far Eastern art, and a collection of weird 19th-century anatomical wax specimens.
Contact: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, museoarcheocagliari.beniculturali.it; Pinacoteca art gallery, pinacoteca.cagliari.beniculturali.it; Museo d’Arte Siamese, museicivicicagliari.it; Mostra di Cere Anatomiche, 00 39 070 675 7627
Get swept up in the festivities of a four-day festival
Every May, Cagliari celebrates the city’s survival from a 17th-century plague, and gives thanks to its patron saint, Sant’Efisio. The four-day festival starts at the church of Sant’Efisio, and hundreds of participants from all over the island, wearing their town’s typical costume, accompany an effigy of Sant’Efisio (which normally resides in the church), 40 kilometres down the coast to Nora, then back, accompanied by musicians, enormous bread 'sculptures', and thousands of followers.
Insider tip: This is an excellent opportunity to hear musicians playing the ancient launeddas (pipes), as well as extraordinary polyphonic folk singing. Events carry on well into the evening, so head for Piazza del Carmine for more music and celebrating.
Price: Free to watch
Flock to see Cagliari’s resident flamingos
The Molentargius-Saline Regional Park, spread over 1,600 hectares, was established in 1999 in order to protect the vast numbers of waterfowl that came to nest and winter here each year. Today it has the widest range of species in the Mediterranean, and is the most important site for flamingos, which number in their tens of thousands. The area had been designated a world heritage site in 1976. As well as birdlife, there are a number of buildings dating back to the 1900s that reflect the area’s mining past.
Insider tip: The park takes its name from the men who used to lead the donkeys (su molenti) that carried salt from the plains. One of the best ways to explore the park is by bike, and it’s possible to hire binoculars from the park’s Infopoint.
Opening times: Daily, sunrise-sunset
Spot symbolism in a beautiful church
Porto Cervo’s Stella Maris church is situated on a hill overlooking the sea, and the story behind it is as beautiful as the church itself: the Aga Khan, the current Imam of Ismaili Muslims, wanted to give thanks to the Catholic population for allowing him to develop the area. He commissioned the architect who had been most involved in the creation of the Costa Smeralda, Michele Busiri Vici, to build the extraordinary church for the people.
Insider tip: The church is full of symbolism: the undulation of the whitewashed exterior is reminiscent of waves. The cupola, decorated in curved tiles, reminds you of the turquoise sea, and seven monolithic columns of local granite support the front of the building. Look out for 16th-century artist El Greco’s 'Mater Dolorosa'.
Dive with Dolphins and discover underwater marine flora
A thriving community of bottlenose dolphins lives in the waters of the Golfo Aranci (not least because of the location of a nearby fish farm that provides rich pickings) and Gabbiano Azzurro Hotel hosts regular boat trips that enable you to watch them feed and play, close up. You can even go snorkelling alongside them.
Insider tip: Discover underwater marine flora and fauna with PADI-qualified scuba divers. Explore the marine protected areas of Tavolara and the Molara Islands, as well as the natural reserve of Figarolo and Capofigari and the Island of Mortorio.
Be awestruck by the Giants’ Tomb
The Tomba dei Giganti (Giants’ tomb) dates from around 1600 BC, and one of the best preserved is at Coddu Vecchiu, in Arzachena. The site was only excavated in 1966 and little is known about the 11 granite stones that are arranged in a semicircle, measuring around 12 metres across, but it is thought that the arrangement might harness some subterranean energy for the purposes of rejuvenation – an abiding theme in Sardinia. The central stele – about four metres high – incorporates the entrance to the megalithic tomb beyond. Some suggest that the shape of the construction depicts that of a woman giving birth.
Insider tip: Though thought to have been a tomb for a giant, the most likely explanation, if less ‘Game of Thrones’, is that it was a communal burial chamber. That said, the Bell Beaker people, who probably arrived here before making for Britain, were thought to be pretty tall.
Walk in the footsteps of the Carthaginians
Just outside the pretty town of Pula, along the coast from Cagliari, the ancient site of Nora holds Sardinia’s most impressive Carthaginian and Roman ruins, which include mosaics, temples and thermal baths. Its situation, overlooking the sea, makes the site even more spectacular. The tours are fascinating, thanks to the enthusiastic guides who provide plenty of information about the site.
Insider tip: When you’re done, there are several beaches nearby, but a 20-minute drive takes you to Chia, where you’ll find a series of magnificent bays, beyond which lie the lagoons that are such important flamingo breeding grounds.
Admire the variety and intricacy of Sardinia’s local costumes
The largest ethnographic museum in Sardinia, Museo del Costume, explores the island’s rich culture through its costumes, jewellery, and musical instruments, including a 3,000-year-old launeddas – an ancient trio of pipes that sounds something like a set of bagpipes. There’s even a section on bread: there are 100s of different bread designs that are used for the island’s many festivals.
Insider tip: Entrance is free on the first Sunday of the month, otherwise 5 euros. A combined ticket for 7 euros includes entrance to the Deleddiano Museum dedicated to the life of Sardinia’s winner of the 1926 Nobel Prize in Literature, Grazia Deledda.
Meet the white donkeys of Asinara
North of Sassari lies the island of Asinara – Sardinia’s Alcatraz – which was once a 19th-century penal colony, World War 1 prisoner-of-war camp, and, during the 1970s, a prison. Today it’s a superb marine and wildlife reserve, and its most unusual residents are the albino donkeys.
Insider tip: The island is excellent for walking and cycling, and has a couple of lovely beaches, including Cala d’Oliva. It’s also possible to visit the old prison buildings. Boats leave Stintino at 9.30am and return at 4.30pm.
Discover Sardinia’s wild interior (and bizarre festivals)
The mountainous region of Barbagia has wonderful trails for walkers, and many of its own festivals, including the extraordinary Mamoaida (February), a truly bizarre re-enactment of the victory of Barbagian shepherds over Saracen invaders: the Issohadores (‘shepherds’ dressed in red felt waistcoats) lead, by rope, the Mamuthones (‘captured Saracens’ wearing black wooden masks and sheepskins with cowbells attached) through the streets.
Hundreds of murals colour the streets of Orgosolo and have much to impart about the strength of resistance on the island. Themes range from the depiction of rural life – including the work of women and shepherds – to the socio-political struggles for power.
Price: Free to watch