Despite the Mediterranean glitz and glamour of Sardinia’s upmarket resorts, the island offers a rustic charm that still holds it apart from Italy’s more typical tourist destinations.
Located approximately 240km off the mainland, the fervently autonomous region remains a haven for dreamy, unspoiled coastline, picturesque countryside, and authentic gastronomic experiences. As if hidden in plain sight, Sardinia possesses a timeless agricultural quality, perfectly suited to immersing oneself in the local food and wine traditions.
Over the centuries, the island – almost three times the size of neighbouring Corsica, and only just smaller than Sicily – has beckoned countless conquerors to its shores. The constant changing of the guard on this strategically important island has left behind layers of cultural influence that are woven into every aspect of island life. Various civilisations, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and – more recently – the Italians, have all left their mark, shaping without ever defining this rugged land. The culmination of this rich heritage has given rise to a unique ‘Sardo’ identity.
In many ways, Sardinia is the ideal retreat, whether for a few days or a few weeks. Beaches stretch for miles, lapped by idyllic turquoise waters; inland, rolling hills of lush forests, olive groves and vineyards thrive amidst limestone cliffs, deep canyons and hidden caves. The iconic nuraghi – ancient stone towers dating back to the Bronze Age – punctuate the landscape and evoke Sardinia’s mysterious ancient heritage. Volcanic formations, like the Gennargentu Massif, provide a dramatic backdrop for hikers and nature enthusiasts, offering panoramic vistas of a land steeped in natural beauty. And then there’s the wine.
While it doesn’t boast the commercial history and kudos of other Italian regions, Sardinia’s wine industry continues to evolve impressively. Today, it is made up of a handful of large winery brands and co-operative cellars, and hundreds of small- and medium-sized producers. Two key grape varieties dominate: the fresh and fragrant white Vermentino, and the full-blooded red, Cannonau, known elsewhere as Grenache.
In recent years there has been a surge in both consumer and producer interest in rare grapes, meaning there’s now a growing number of low-volume wines made from the likes of Nuragus, Nasco, Torbato, Monica and Carignano, all of which are strengthening Sardinian wine culture.
My perfect day in Sardinia
Wake up early in the centre of Cagliari and go for a morning run along the marina before stopping for coffee, eggs and pastries with a leisurely flick through Gazzetta dello Sport. After taking it easy for a while in and around Piazza Yenne, stroll through the city’s Castello district, admiring the area’s history and architecture – there’s so much cultural detail here, particularly around the cathedral and bell tower. Lunch may not be far away but there’s probably room for a slice of ‘Sarda’ pizza al taglio.
A quick taxi out to Pula, just south of the city, and a table for two at Fradis Minoris overlooking the Nora lagoon. Surrounded by green aromatic shrubs and cool blue waters, this is a stunning place to gorge on expertly prepared seafood, washed down of course with a few glasses of chilled Vermentino. Chef Francesco Stara focuses on completely ‘circular’ cuisine in this protected marine area, and has been awarded a green Michelin star. After lunch, be sure to spend some time bird watching.
Back in the city, Cagliari’s football stadium is fairly central. If there’s an evening game on it’s always a lively atmosphere under the lights, and fierce island character can be heard in the stands. Otherwise, fully refreshed from an afternoon snooze, enjoy the atmosphere of the local wine bars. Sparkling Torbato, if you can find it, is an unpretentious start to the night, before heading off for dinner at Josto – the spaghetti alla bottarga and lamb from the interior of the island is recommended, perhaps paired with a bottle of old-vine Carignano.
With the comforts of hotel Casa Clàt (see below) within staggering distance, there’s an argument for closing the night down with one final Sardinian treasure: a glass of old, nutty Malvasia di Bosa. It’ll be fine. You can run it off!
In and around Cagliari
Many rare varieties can be tasted while out and about in the island’s cultural and economic capital, the historic and vibrant city of Cagliari. It’s a sensible staging point given the proximity of the local airport to the city, and Cagliari offers a diverse drinking and dining scene. Walk the promenade and take in the busy harbour before stopping in at one of the many coffee shops, wine bars and casual eateries.
Far too many transit through and miss out on this animated urban hub, but it’s worth the hustle and bustle. Stop in at Cucina.eat for a casual lunch of local appetisers and cheeses with a huge selection of wines by the glass and bottle. Be sure to grab an aperitivo in Piazza Yenne and absorb the city’s beautiful architecture and pastel hues during the golden hour, perhaps before dining formally at Dal Corsaro or Josto.
Wineries have generally embraced tourism and many now open their cellars and tasting rooms to visitors. Nevertheless, it is still best to contact them in advance. Most are small businesses with international commitments and don’t always employ full-time hospitality support.
Within easy driving distance of Cagliari is Cantina Argiolas, an accessible brand that looms large on the island. Its portfolio of wines covers practically every variety and style, and includes ‘Turriga’, one of Sardinia’s most recognised fine wines.
On a smaller scale, Antonella Corda’s winemaking project is gaining notoriety for fresh, perfumed wines, as is Elisabetta Pala with her Mora & Memo winery, located in nearby Serdiana. The large Santadi cooperative offers good value wines, as does Cantina Pala, a family-run winery with a broad range.
Sulcis and the west
Heading further southwest you’ll reach the region of Sulcis, where Carignano is king. The variety is well suited to the hot, dry climate and produces inky-black wines with luscious berry fruit and complex herbal aromas. Some of the vines are pre-phylloxera, having survived for more than a century in sandy soils, and are now capable of producing only small batches of highly concentrated fruit.
These powerful wines are an ideal accompaniment to su porceddu (suckling pig), an island delicacy that sees a young pig wrapped in myrtle or rosemary leaves and placed over a fire pit to cook slowly until tender. There are great tastings of Carignano to be had at Cantina Mesa, but for an extra little adventure, consider a visit to U-Tabarka on the tiny island of San Pietro.
On the west coast is the small town of Oristano, home to the stylistically oxidised Vernaccia di Oristano, one of the forgotten treasures of Italy. Contini – producing wines since 1898 – is a must visit, especially since the inauguration of the new cellar and tasting space in 2022. Sadly, these wines are drifting out of fashion. Made under a layer of flor, not unlike a fino or manzanilla Sherry, they not only age and improve for many years, but they are also highly versatile food wines. There is still an extensive library of back vintages available to buy, and one can’t help but feel you should get them while you still can.
Seafood & Vermentino
In Sardinia, you are never more than 100km from the sea. As such, seafood is a fundamental component of local cuisine. Fresh sea bream and red mullet, as well as tuna, octopus and shellfish are staples of the many coastal restaurants that dot the island.
Perhaps the most iconic seafood dish is bottarga, a delicacy of salted, cured fish roe pouch, typically of the grey mullet or the increasingly prestigious bluefin tuna. Some of the best bottarga is produced in the village of Cabras, just up the road from Oristano, suggestive of a double visit. It also pairs exceptionally well with Vermentino, whose exotic fruit fragrance and mineral character lift and intensify bottarga’s saline nature.
Vermentino may well turn out to be one of the grape varieties of the future, with its seemingly impervious attitude to heat and drought. Its Sardinian heartland will continue to set the benchmark for its quality and style, despite increased plantings as far away as California, Texas, South Africa and Australia.
Arguably, Vermentino finds its best expression, or at least its most distinctive iteration, on the northern end of Sardinia, in the DOCG territory of Gallura. Here, sea breezes cool the fruit after long sunny days, enhancing the aromatic profile of the wines. Many carry the scent of ocean spray and coastal scrub. There are plenty of recommended visits here; look up Petra Bianca, a B&B winery just outside the lively urban centre of Palau, or Tenuta Muscazega.
Northern Sardinia can be reached through smaller airports in Olbia on the east coast, and Alghero on the west, albeit with fewer direct flight options from the UK. If you’re keen on some nouveau glamour and want your evenings a bit livelier, then you might enjoy the coastal retreats of Porto Rotondo or Porto Cervo; the latter is home to a new marina and the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club.
Stroll the Promenade du Port’s art galleries and open air murals, and nearby experience innovative Sardinian cuisine by top chef, Roberto Paddeu at his La Terrazza Frades. The ever-changing menu showcases fresh, locally sourced market produce.
For something a little less touristy, you could hole up in the chic Petra Segreta spa hotel, before heading into the stylish village of San Pantaleo, known for its artists and artisans. Explore the quiet streets and browse the galleries before a spot of people watching in the piazza.
There’s a great aperitif to be had at Caffè Nina before dinner in one of the local trattorias. As an added bonus, we’re only a short drive to the stunning beaches of Marinella, Ira and the Sassi, or the Capichera winery – one of the leading estates for Vermentino di Gallura.
There’s so much to see in Sardinia, but ultimately its size should dictate your plans. The island’s beauty lies in its diverse landscapes and quiet traditions. Rather than trying to cover vast stretches of road and tick off the sights, this is a place that rewards and celebrates taking it easy. It’s worth ditching the stress and travel, picking one corner of this enchanting land, and soaking up the atmosphere with good food and a bottle or two of the local wines – just like every other civilisation did before.
Your Sardinia address book
Where to stay
Casa Clàt, Cagliari
An eclectic suite hotel with restaurant and lounge bar in the centre of Cagliari.
7 Pines Resort, Baja Sardinia
Stunning views of the Mediterranean and a luxurious and tranquil escape.
Petra Segreta Resort & Spa, San Pantaleo
The only Relais & Chateaux in Sardinia.
Where to eat
Fradis Minoris, Pula
Sustainable concept restaurant overlooking the Nora lagoon.
Sa Nassa, Bosa
Simple, hearty cuisine in Bosa.
Great city centre spot for quality, contemporary food in a relaxed space.
What to do
Enoteca La Bottega, Santa Teresa di Gallura
A brilliant wine shop and delicatessen.
L’Oro di Cabras, Cabras
A co-operative producing bottarga. Stop in to do some shopping and learn more about the process.
A brilliant, atmospheric wine shop, bar and bistro.
How to get there
Airports: Cagliari airport in the south of the island is the largest. Olbia and Alghero are smaller but provide access to the east and west coasts in the north of the island, respectively.
Ferry terminal: Cagliari