Asinara is one of the most beautiful places you can hope to visit – not just in Sardinia, but anywhere in the world; and if you are traveling to Sardinia you should make it a point to include it in your itinerary.
This small island off the north west coast of Sardinia is as wild as it gets – at least by Italian standards. Picture a place when nobody lives; with abandoned buildings scattered around; animals roaming freely; and wind sweeping the most beautiful beaches, with the clearest waters you could swim in. This is Asinara.
In this post, I will highlight everything there is to know about Asinara, and share some useful information to better plan your trip there.
A Few Facts About Asinara Island
With its 52 square km, Asinara is the second largest island of Sardinia. It’s located off the north west coast of Sardinia. Contrary to common believe, according to which Asinara takes its name from the many albino donkeys (asini bianchi, in Italian) that live there, the name actually comes from the Latin “sinuara,” which means sinuous and which refers to the shape of the island.
Asinara is blessed with unique landscape and it is a safe haven for wildlife (more about that below). It is dotted with abandoned buildings. Some date back to the 1600s, when a community of shepherds and fishermen started residing on the island (though there is proof that it was inhabited since Neolithic age).
Not many people lived on the island when, in 1720, the Habsburgs, who had succeeded the Aragonese in the rule of Sardinia, decided to surrender Sardinia to the Savoy in exchange for Sicily. That’s when shepherds coming from Corsica started moving there.
For about 30 years after that, King Charles Emmanuel pushed to turn Asinara into a productive island. Local shepherds moved out of the island in 1767 when the French Velixandre brothers bought their land. That’s when around 150 French settlers moved in. These, however, left soon after realized they had been swindled by the Velixandres.
From 1774 onwards a small community of shepherds coming from Liguria moved on the island, which at the time was being ruled by Don Antonio Manca Amat.
From 1885 onwards the residents of Asinara were forced to leave, as this was designed to become a maximum security prison and a sanatorium. Prisons were established in Fornelli, Cala d’Oliva (the main village), Campu Perdu, Trabuccato and various other places on the island. The sanatorium was built in Cala Reale and it’s where people suspected of diseases such as leper and cholera were quarantined.
In 1915, during WWI, Asinara started hosting Austrian prisoners of war. Around 20000 of them lived on the island and 7000 died of cholera and other diseases, and ended up being buried in mass graves scattered around the island.
In the 20th century Asinara became known as the Italian Alcatraz and remained completely off-limits until 1997. Its prison hosted famous criminals such as mafia bosses Bernardo Provenzano and Toto Riina were held. It’s in the main village – Cala d’Oliva – that public prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (who both died at the hands of mafia in 1992) resided for a few months in 1985 as they were preparing their trial against the criminal organization.
The island was officially declared a national park (the smallest of the 3 national parks in Sardinia) in 2002. That’s when it finally opened to visitors, who can since enjoy the incredible beauty that its complete isolation helped preserving.
Continue reading this post to discover the many things to see and do in Asinara, and how to organize your trip there.
11 Things To See And Do In Asinara
Hiking is the best way to enjoy the island of Asinara. There are several excellent hiking trails of various difficulty levels, each of them offering different views and a different experience. Keep in mind that it can get seriously hot in Sardinia during the summer, so if you intend to go hiking in Asinara you should make it a point to visit no later than May.
Sentiero del Granito is a circular route that starts in Fornelli, one of the docking places for ferries from Sardinia.
Sentiero del Castellaccio, also starting in Fornelli, goes all the way to a medieval castle from where you can appreciate incredible views. It’s a short hike that will take you no more than 3 hours, but the walk up the castle can be a bit challenging.
Sentiero dell’Acqua is another circular route starting from Fornelli, that follows the coast to get to a small lagoon where you will be able to admire local birds.
Sentiero della Memoria trail starts in Cala Reale and it allows visitors to discover some of the most historically relevant places on the island. It is a circular trail that goes all the way to Campu Perdu, where prisoners enjoyed a more permissive system that allowed them to cultivate land – there even used to be some vineyards in the area.
Sentiero dell’Asino Bianco starts in Cala Reale and goes to Trabuccato, all the way to an Aragonese watchtower from were you can enjoy magnificent views.
Sentiero del Leccio is the one that, starting in Cala d’Oliva, goes all the way to the viewpoint of Punta della Scomunica, which at 408 meters above sea level is the highest peak on the island.
Sentiero del Faro is by far the best on the island. After about one km you reach Cala Sabina, one of the nicest beaches on the island. After that, you can continue to Cala d’Arena and then all the way to a lighthouse. The views along the hike are simply spectacular.
If you want to join a guided hike, your best bet is contacting one of the local companies such as La Nassa.
Enjoy the beaches
Asinara has some excellent beaches, blessed with incredibly fine, white sand and the clearest, cleanest waters of a million shades of blue. And since nobody lives on the island, this means that even on a crowded day the beaches are much emptier than their equivalent Sardinian beaches.
Cala Sabina is one of the best and most easily accessible beaches. It’s a 15 minutes hike from Cala d’Oliva, on a trail that offers incredible views – it’s the one that continues to the lighthouse. There’s a small gazebo for shade on the beach, and a small one with tables and benches if you fancy a picnic.
Another lovely spot is Cala dei Detenuti, a tiny cove with plenty of trees for shade and a nice platform from where you can get in the incredibly clear water. There’s not much of a beach, really – but it’s as beautiful as it gets. Trabuccato is another nice beach. And for a cool swimming spot, go to the bridge near the ossuary.
Keep in mind that not all beaches are accessible in Asinara – some of them are heavily protected, in an effort to allow the marine life to reproduce. Places like Cala Arena and Cala S. Andrea are close to the public.
Sail around the island
One of the best ways to fully appreciate the beauty of Asinara is on a sailboat. Several companies depart regularly from Stintino and sail around the island’s most beautiful places – though keep in mind they can’t access the restricted areas either. Sail trips cost around €85 and include lunch and several stops for snorkeling and swimming in the sea.
Considering that there’s more to see in Asinara than you’d ever think, one of the best things to do there is exploring it by bike. Mind you – some of the hiking trails are really too rough to be suitable for bikes. But others are just perfect. Besides, there is also the paved road that can be used and since there are basically no cars on the island (other than service cars for the only hotel, and the occasional police car checking around), biking is super pleasant.
Keep in mind that much like Sardinia, Asinara island is very hilly. If you aren’t a pro biker, you’re probably better off using an e-bike. There are several charging stations around the island.
Diving and snorkeling
Asinara probably is one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Sardinia. Protected as it is, marine life is thriving there and if you decide to get under water you are bound to see a great variety of fish and even corals.
If all you want to do is snorkeling, make sure to bring your own snorkeling equipment and jump in anywhere it is permitted. If, on the other hand, you want to dive, you will need to join a guided expedition that keeps you away of restricted areas.
There even is a diving and free diving school located in Cala d’Oliva, called Cala d’Oliva Diving, where you can get certified.
Admire local wildlife
Asinara is famous for its wildlife. Don’t expect anything tropical, but if you enjoy the sight of wild donkeys you’ll be in for a treat. They are literally everywhere, they wonder around undisturbed, at times getting to the beach or walking the streets of Cala d’Oliva, the only place on the island that resembles a village. Keep in mind that donkeys and other animals are protected, and it is forbidden to touch them and to feed them. Just enjoy their presence and take photos of them!
Mouflons and goats also live freely on the island. The first are harder to spot, whereas goats can be seen chewing on grass and licking salt from the rocks on the way to the beach.
Wild boars wander Asinara too. Shy during the day, if you hang around the village in the evening chances are you’ll be able to spot a mama wild boar with her cubs looking for food.
Last, but not least, peregrine falcons are among the most beautiful bird species that live on the island.
Visit the prisons
As I have explained, Asinara used to be home to a maximum security prison. However, there isn’t just one but ten different prisons on the island.
The main prison is the one in Fornelli. This is where people that were accused of acts of terrorism were kept in the 1970s. Following an insurrection in 1979, security measures were increased heavily. This is also where people accused of being connected to mafia were held.
At the time of writing, Fornelli prison is closed to the public as it is in desperate need of restoration works. You should still try to see it at least from the outside as it is quite an impressive sight.
The prison of Trabuccato was built right after WWI to host dangerous criminals. These were forced to work on the island and had to look after the nearby vineyard – unfortunately, nothing remains of the vineyard so there is no way to taste Asinara wine.
Similarly to Trabuccato, the prison of Campu Perdu was established right after WWI, though the buildings existed before. Prisoners living there used to work in the fertile land that surrounded the prison.
Another prison is located in Cala d’Oliva and there are two different sides of it. One is known as “Diramazione Centrale” and has the cells built around a very large garden; there was a small doctors’ office, and even a barber shop. Prisoners were free to leave the prison and dedicate themselves to the land.
Another side of the prison in Cala d’Oliva is known as “bunker” and it’s where mafia boss Totò Riina was held. It was also meant to hold Bernardo Provenzano, but by the time he was finally captured, Asinara prisons had already been dismantled. In order to avoid communication between the two bosses, a small courtyard was built right in front of each cell so that they could each enjoy their hour of fresh air but not communicate with each other.
During the 112 years the prisons in Asinara existed, only one prisoner – Matteo Boe – successfully managed to flee the island in 1986. At the time, he was nothing more than a common criminal but he was later on accused of much more serious crimes.
Walk around Cala d’Oliva village
Cala d’Oliva is the only real village on Asinara, and people stopped living there altogether when the prison was established in 1885.
It’s a lovely small white village that can be easily explored in no more than 30 minutes. The location is idyllic: the village faces the magnificent Mediterranean sea, and it is overlooked by an Aragonese watchtower that dates back to the 17th century. Among the places of interest in the village there are the house where public prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino lived in 1985, the church, the school and the prison.
The only people that currently live in Cala d’Oliva are the seasonal workers – those employed in the only hostel on the island, at the coffee shop, and the rangers.
Admire the Aragonese towers
There are three Aragonese watchtowers in Asinara. The first was built in the area of Trabuccato as early as 1609. The tower surmounts a beautiful beach and can be visited inside.
The watchtower of Cala d’Oliva dates back to 1611 and was used to communicate with Porto Torres, on Sardinia’s mainland. The tower of Cala d’Arena was built in 1611, but it was abandoned in 1721.
Walk up the Ossuary
Not far from Campu Perdu and right by one of the nicest swimming spots on the island, there is an ossuary that was built upon request of the Austrian authorities in 1936. This hosts the remains of the more than 7000 Austrian soldiers that were held on the island as prisoners of war and ended up dying there.
Shop for locally made products
Farmasinara is the only shop in Asinara where you can buy products made with locally sourced ingredients. It’s a really tiny building located at the back of the restaurant of Cala Reale where you can purchase high quality cosmetic products.
Practical Information For Visiting Asinara
How to get to Asinara
Asinara is connected to mainland Sardinia by ferry.
During peak season Delcomar has three daily ferries departing from Porto Torres and going to Cala Reale. They depart at 8:15 and 11:30 am and at 4:30 pm. The ride lasts about one and a half hour and costs €15 one way and €20 round trip. The ferries from Cala Reale to Porto Torre departs at 9:45 am and at 1:00 and 6:00 pm.
Linea del Parco / Ausonia ferries depart from the tourist harbor of Stintino and go to Fornelli. There are two ferries per day, one departing at 9:30 am and one at 10:30 am. The ride lasts less than 30 minutes and costs €20 – it is not clear whether the price is for one way or round trip. The ferries from Fornelli to Stintino depart at 5:00 and 6:00 pm.
Private boats depart from Stintino upon request. They are significantly more expensive than the public service.
How to explore Asinara
Cars are not admitted on Asinara island and you’ll only see the odd police car or the van that belongs to the only hostel running around for errands. Other than obviously walking, these are the best ways to move around the island.
A lot of people that visit Asinara decide to explore it by bike. Bike rental is available in Fornelli or Cala Reale. Alternatively, you can either bring your own or rent it in Porto Torres or in Stintino, before boarding your ferry – please take care to note that the ferry ride from Stintino is more expensive if you carry a bike. As the island is very hilly and biking can be quite challenging, I wholeheartedly recommend opting for an e-bike.
By electric car
If you don’t feel like biking, the best option to explore Asinara is by electric car. There are 2 and 4 seats one. The 4 seater costs €100 for the day, so it doesn’t end up being too expensive. You can pick up your car in either Fornelli or Cala Reale. I recommend booking in advance as this is a quite popular way to move around the island. The best way is to call in advance. This is the number +39 079512290.
By train on wheels
There are a couple of trains on wheels that roam around Asinara. Tickets cost between €45 and €55 for the whole day, depending on the season (children under 12 pay between €35 and €40). The train makes several stops around the island. It’s a good option if you can’t find an electric car or if your group is larger than 4 persons.
On a jeep tour
Of all the ways to explore Asinara, this is a good one if you have limited time and want to see as much as possible. Jeep tours depart from either Cala Reale or Fornelli as soon as passengers get off the ferry, and they stop at all the most important places around the island. Jeeps carry up to 7 passengers, so if it is a full group the car can get filled up.
Several companies run the tour, which costs €55 and has to be booked in advance. It does not include lunch.
Occasionally, a public bus runs around Asinara island, connecting Fornelli to Cala Reale and Cala d’Oliva. This year it isn’t running. I will update this post accordingly if there are news.
When to visit Asinara
The best time to visit Asinara is spring, when it is in full bloom and the colors of the wild flowers pop out. That’s also when the temperatures are mild and you can best enjoy the hikes. If you enjoy swimming, then the best time is by far the summer when the water is warm enough to swim.
How long to stay in Asinara
The majority of people who visit Asinara go there on a day trip. It’s a pity, because spending the night in Asinara is one of the best things you can do! At night, it becomes incredibly silent – all you hear is the occasional donkey, and the wind. The sky is incredibly starry, and the atmosphere truly unique.
On my last visit, I spent 2 nights and 2 full days on the island, and I honestly wished I had stayed longer. Make sure to take your time to fully enjoy all that it has to offer.
Where to stay and eat in Asinara
Until a few weeks ago, the only place to sleep in Asinara was the hostel in Cala d’Oliva. It’s a very basic place, with dorms and private rooms, all of them with shared facilities. The prices include breakfast and dinner. It would be a good option, where it not for the fact that meals are not exactly good (it reminds me of a cheap high school cafeteria) and the hostel staff isn’t exactly kind and available to share information and help guests.
The good news is that you can now opt to stay at the newly opened La Locanda del Parco, which has 6 beautiful rooms and where you can also eat much better meals prepared using locally sourced fish and seafood.
The other two places where you can have a bite are the restaurant in Cala Reale and the coffee shop and restaurant in Cala d’Oliva called “Asino Bianco”. I can’t really comment on the restaurant in Cala Reale, but I can really recommend Asino Bianco for a drink, for the freshly made sandwiches and for the kindest staff you can hope to encounter.
Other useful information
Internet is hardly a thing in Asinara, so don’t be surprised if your phone hardly catches the signal. The hostel and the newly opened bed and breakfast both have wifi, but this is not really reliable.
A few movies have been filmed on Asinara island, featuring it in the plot. The most recent one is “La Stoffa dei Sogni,” a beautiful movie that was filmed and aired in 2016.
For more readings about Sardinia, make sure to check my other posts:
- A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia
- An Excellent Guide To The Best Beaches In Sardinia
- Hiking In Sardinia – 14 Incredible Trails
- 11 Amazing Surfing Spots in Sardinia
- A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Cagliari
- A Guide To The Beaches In Cagliari And Its Surroundings
- A Guide To Hotels In Cagliari: Where To Stay In Sardinia’s Capital
- A Complete Guide To Bosa Sardinia
- A Complete Guide To Alghero Sardinia
- A Local’s Guide To Costa Rei, Sardinia
- All The Sardinian Food You Should Try
Make sure to also read my post 17 Reasons To Visit Italy As Soon As Possible.