Staring at an incredible view – just one of the many things to do in Sardinia
“You should really visit Sardinia,” I said to my friend Diana a few weeks ago. She was on her way to Madrid, from where she’d start traveling across Europe for roughly two months. I thought this would be her chance to finally get to the island of wonders.
“But it is winter, still. There won’t be many things to do in Sardinia now, right?” she argued.
“What?! There’s so many things to do in Sardinia, in any season!” I pointed out, frustrated to have to explain one more time that really, there are plenty of reasons to visit Sardinia outside of its amazing beaches and that yes, Sardinia has a lot to offer regardless of the weather. There I was, once again trying to debunk some of the hardest to die myths around Sardinia tourism. After all, what do I expect when most of the world doesn’t even know where Sardinia is?
Read more about Sardinia on my post “Where is Sardinia, anyways?”
A beautiful sunrise in Sardinia
Finding things to do in Sardinia – other than going to the beach
For a bunch of reasons that are too long to explain on this post, there is a common misconception about Sardinia, according to which the best things to do in Sardinia all involve a beach. Public authorities and local businesses alike have done little to change this belief, and continue investing most of their funds in summer tourism. It really is a pity though, because there is way more to Sardinia than just beaches – which, granted, are as gorgeous as it gets.
Read more on some of the best beaches in Sardinia on my post “How I got to one of the best beaches in Sardinia (and almost killed myself there).”
Sardinia tourism has already invested a lot on the gorgeous beaches to be found on the island
I have lived in Sardinia most of my life, this is what I call home and where I feel I belong and I won’t ever get tired to say that Sardinia is a great place to visit any time of the year. So there I was, yet again having to do my best to demonstrate that really, one should not limit herself to visit Sardinia only in the summer months. The thing is, I know for a fact that with a little extra effort, with even small funds invested in some good marketing campaigns and using the already existing resources in a more effective way and with a bit more vision, Sardinia tourism would thrive in any season.
Already last September I went on a mission to show another side of Sardinia, attending Autunno in Barbagia in the village Oliena. Autunno in Barbagia is a festival that spans over the course of three months across 29 villages, and which celebrates Sardinian traditions, culture and food. Back then, I insisted that there are way more things to do in Sardinia than one could ever imagine, and was glad to see that finally more effort was done to promote Sardinia tourism in the low and shoulder seasons.
Read more about things to do in Sardinia in the shoulder season on my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia.”
There’s always things to do in Sardinia, even on a gloomy day – photo courtesy of Giuseppe Mercorella (flickr)
Sardinia has all that it takes to keep its visitors entertained, whatever their interests may be. This island never stops amazing me: every time I think I got Sardinia figured out, it surprises me again with another of its many hidden treasures. Yes: there are way more things to do in Sardinia other than going to the beach and there are many more places to visit in Sardinia than just beaches.
Sardinian beaches are gorgeous, but there’s way more things to do in Sardinia – photo courtesy of Luca Manca (flickr)
In my crusade to show Diana that it is really worth to visit Sardinia throughout the year, I told her how, every time I think I have done most of the things to do in Sardinia, I realize that there is an event I have yet to attend, one that makes traveling to Sardinia worth it and a keepsake of how varied this island is. From Sartiglia – a spectacular equestrian event that takes place on the last Sunday and the last Tuesday of Carnival – in February, to Sant’Efisio – a huge parade in traditional costumes from all over the island – in May; from Berchidda jazz festival in August to the many wine and food festivals that take place all over Sardinia throughout the year (a reminder of the fantastic wines produced in the island and of its culinary traditions); from archeological sites to biking, hiking and climbing trails, I explained to my friend that there is always a good reason to visit Sardinia.
Attending the Sartiglia is one of the many things to do in Sardinia – photo courtesy of Luca Eskimo (flickr)
Read more about the many perks of Sardinia tourism on my post “Sardinia dos and donts.”
Knowing Diana is passionate about discovering new cultures and interested in nature and history, I told her that many of those who visit Sardinia find it a great destination to enjoy nature and archeology. I explained to her that population density is so low here that there are vast portions of the island still completely uninhabited, where nature rules and the only signs of life in sights are just a few shepherds whose multitude of sheep and goats herd freely.
Hiking and photography as a proof that Sardinia tourism can thrive all year long
As I told Diana, there’s no doubt that one of the best things to do in Sardinia is hiking. This is one of my favorite ways to explore a place and I regularly go hiking – hardly ever to the same place. A few days ago, my conversation with Diana almost forgotten, I joined a hiking expedition that took me all the way from Masua Pan di Zucchero, a beach on the wild South West coast of Sardinia, to Cala Domestica, another lovely beach tucked away in what almost looks like a fjord. For the duration of the hike, which was 11 exhausting and very technical km long, we walked along the coast.
Hiking is one of the best things to do in Sardinia
This wasn’t a leisurely walk at the beach – and after all, this isn’t yet the season to spend the day frying under the sun or swimming in the sea. This was a strenuous trek, with lots of steep uphills and downhills through a difficult terrain, over high cliffs, through the thick bushes of Mediterranean vegetation whose aroma was sweet and intense – something that those who visit Sardinia often find fascinating.
But I was well compensated for my efforts with some of the most incredible views I could have wished for. At every turn, the blue waters of the Mediterranean laid in front of me, stacks scattered along the coast, with Pan di Zucchero towering above the rest. And I couldn’t help stopping continuously along the way to capture them with my camera. It was just to underline yet again that one of the things to do in Sardinia is taking photos of its amazing landscapes, and to point out how photogenic Sardinia is.
Overjoyed with the spectacular views: those who visit Sardinia always enjoy hiking
Visit Sardinia to discover some unique archeological sites
“Let’s make one more effort and walk up to the tower,” suggested our guide just as we thought the hike was over, as we had finally reached Cala Domestica.
Relaxing at the beach is only one of the many things to do in Sardinia – photo courtesy of Carlos de Paz (flickr)
I was already savoring the idea of relaxing at the beach before making my way back to the village from where we had started walking, when the guide mentioned the presence of a Spanish tower that looked over the beach from the top of the hill.
“But I am exhausted,” I – as well as many others in the group – prayed.
“I promise you it is worth it. The view from up there is spectacular,” he insisted. I was intrigued: one of the best things to do in Sardinia is visiting its unique archeological sites – many of them tucked behind a gorgeous beach – and anybody who visit Sardinia would have to agree on that. So up we walked, one last effort.
An archeological site on top of a hill overlooking an incredible beach – this is what people get when they visit Sardinia
What can I say, other than the guide surely wasn’t lying? The Spanish tower stood lonely up on a hill beaten by the strong winds – surrounded by rocks and short bushes of the only plants that manage to resist the sweeping winds. The view from up there was breathtaking. After all, enjoying the spectacular landscapes is one of the most fantastic things to do in Sardinia, and I should only know it too well.
Sardinia tourism will thrive thanks to the sheer beauty of the island. This is the view from the Spanish tower of Cala Domestica
The Spanish tower of Cala Domestica was built during the Spanish domination of Sardinia and used as a watch tower, to overlook and protect the small beach below which – together with many others along the south-western coast of Sardinia – was used as a harbor for the shipment of the minerals that were extracted in the area. It was also used during World War II as an observation point.
But Cala Domestica and its tower are only one of the many places to visit in Sardinia for anybody who enjoys nature, archeology and adventure. As I stared at the spectacular view from the Spanish tower, my mind started running…
“If only people knew Sardinia is that beautiful all year long,” I thought, my mind racing to my friend and wishing he could appreciate what I was seeing.
“If only people knew how many things to do in Sardinia there are…” I wished.
Sardinia tourism could thrive in any season – photo courtesy of Giuseppe Mercorella (flickr)
And, even more so, if only I could show to as many people as possible that Sardinia tourism is active year round. Because really, putting together a passion for nature, archeology and adventure is so easy here, with so many archeological sites hiding behind amazing beaches or tucked away in thick forests; so many trails that walk along a gorgeous coast line. Indeed, one of the best things to do in Sardinia is exploring the many unique sites that are scattered across the island, and that date back to various times in history – from the nuraghe dating back to the 17th century BC to the mines along the south west coast of Sardinia (actually not far from Cala Domestica and Masua Pan di Zucchero) and that today make up the Mining Park, so unique in its value that it is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And these archeological sites are only some of the places to visit in Sardinia that have yet to become famous.
Visiting old mines now turned into museums is one of the most incredible things to do in Sardinia – photo courtesy of Ezioman (flickr)
“Are we ready to go?” soon enough, the guide interrupted my thoughts and it was finally time to get back to reality. But not before celebrating a fantastic day with a great meal, duly accompanied by some delicious Sardinian wine, just as we like doing here.
Yet more things to do in Sardinia – savoring the island
As we arrived to the restaurant, exhausted after the strenuous hike, starving and in need of a good drink, an array of appetizers was laid in front of us. Beautifully grilled vegetables, cold cuts and cheeses, olives, stuffed breads such as coccoi prena. And then the pasta came – a selection of malloreddus (Sardinian gnocchi) with a rich sausage and tomato sauce served with grated pecorino cheese; and culurgiones, a ravioli style pasta stuffed with potatoes, mint and cheese and served plainly boiled with grated pecorino cheese.
Tasting culurgiones: one of the top things to do in Sardinia – photo courtesy of Pasqualino Piludu (flickr)
As if this was not enough, the feast went on and we were served the slowly roasted suckling pig – so delicious it melted in my mouth. And to conclude, we got a mix traditional Sardinian sweets. All of this was served with a great cannonau wine – one of the best known indigenous grapes. It was a feast for the eyes and even more so for our taste buds. No wonder people who visit Sardinia are always impressed with the food.
Sardinian food is based on fresh ingredients – shopping for them is one of the coolest things to do in Sardinia
Most of the food in Sardinia is prepared using strictly seasonal local ingredients of the best quality. It’s not surprising then that everything here is just so delicious – so much so that Sardinia tourism is slowly placing more focus on eno-gastronomy. One of the best things to do in Sardinia is taking part in food and wine tours that travel across the island to awaken the taste buds of tourists, unveil the secrets of some of the best local recipes and with that give a lot of insights into Sardinian traditions and culture.
It’s always time to visit Sardinia
On the bus that took me home that night, phone at hand, I resumed the conversation with my friend Diana. I sent her some of the amazing pictures I took that day and she was truly impressed with what she was seeing.
“Are you still convinced that there are no things to do in Sardinia at this time of year?” I joked.
Relaxing at the beach after a strenuous hike – one of the things to do in Sardinia
Needless to say, Diana has finally made up her mind and she will visit Sardinia soon. I promised her that I will take her around to some of the best places to visit in Sardinia. I suppose that, like her, more and more people are finally understanding that there are many things to do in Sardinia all year long – thanks to the work of some visionary and passionate people (no bragging, I promise!) who regularly take on the difficult task of spreading the word about the many reasons to visit Sardinia.
Filling the gaps of Sardinia tourism
Not only that. There actually are a few, yet very reliable people who work in the tourism industry who have noticed the existence of a gap in what Sardinia tourism has to offer and are working hard to fill in that gap and invest in alternative forms of tourism – involving traveling to off the beaten path places, biking, photography workshops and food and wine tours – to entertain visitors all year long.
Bird watching is one of the best things to do in Sardinia: pink flamingoes nestle on the island – photo courtesy of Michele Fadda (flickr)
There are many young travel professionals who aim to share the vibes of the island of wonders with anybody who loves nature and wildlife (Sardinia is a paradise for bird watchers!), adventure, archeology, culture, music, food and wine through itineraries that have been carefully crafted with the help of local experts. These people strive to inspire travelers to experience the other (many) sides of Sardinia that don’t necessarily involve Sardinian gorgeous beaches because these are already well-known. The idea is to show that there are way more things to do in Sardinia other than going to the beach.
Gaveena strives to promote Sardinia tourism to off the beaten path places, such as the lovely Bosa – photo courtesy of Antonio Romano Liscia (flickr)
While all tours look interesting to me, photography tours are particularly intriguing since, as of late, despite being a total amateur, I am enjoying experimenting with pictures, exposition and post-production. There would be nothing better than discovering some of the most beautiful villages in Sardinia, some of the places to visit in Sardinia that are off the beaten path, as well as some fantastic archeological sites and natural reserves, experiencing some of the best events on the island and are gorging on the delicious local food and wine. And to think that all of this would occur in the company of a professional travel and landscape photographer who would be available to provide tips on how to take good photographs and who would have some sessions on image analysis and post-processing!
Would you like to visit Sardinia? What are the things to do in Sardinia that you look forward to the most?
One of the biggest misconceptions of the tourism industry is that some regions of the world are meant to be visited during a specific and limited season, or else travelers should be ready to face bad weather, hurricanes, heavy rains, cold temperatures and the overall inability to visit what seemingly are the only tourist attractions in the area. This would mean that Costa Rica should not be visited between April and October (although the best time to spot turtles is actually July or August); that Cuba should be avoided in September (despite the fact that hurricanes hardly hit it) and that Sardinia is best visited between June and September to properly enjoy its amazing beaches.
I enjoy debunking myths, which is why I can’t help but point out that there are many things to do in Sardinia that actually do not involve laying in the sun all day. Although Sardinia tourism is mostly centered in the summer months, and despite being the biggest fan of Sardinia beaches, I often recommend travelers to visit Sardinia during the fall months in order to put together the most varied trip.
Find out more things to do in Sardinia on my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia.”
It is during the fall that Sardinia shows its visitors and its inhabitants the multiple aspects of its millenary and unique identity. That’s when it flourishes with the sound of the music and singing that accompanies the traditional ritual dances; the flavours of its traditional food and of its delicious wines; the soft noise of the traditional weaving; and the concentrated faces of men who craft the traditional jewels. There is no better time to immerse oneself and fully experience the identity of Sardinia than the fall. In fact, among one of my favourite things to do in Sardinia is participating at one of the regular Autunno in Barbagia events. “Autunno” means fall, and Barbagia is one of the most beautiful mountainous regions of Sardinia, a gorgeous chain with high peaks, forests, canyons (Gorropu is the deepest canyon in Europe), caves and small villages scattered around.
Good news! There are other things to do in Sardinia other than going to the beach
Debunking the myth: there actually are things to do in Sardinia during the fall and winter months!
In 1996, for the first time in Barbagia, the municipality of Oliena organised an event, called Cortes Apertas – literally translated it means “open courtyards”. Historic homes opened up their courtyards and visitors could take a journey through the artistic expressions, the food and wine, and the traditions of the village. The success of the event was such that the local tourism board did not take long to understand the great potential to generate a good and steady revenue. It was visionary enough to see that Sardinia could profit from tourism and create long term employment opportunities that could stretch far beyond those of seasonal work.
Sardinia tourism goes well beyond summer time
It was finally time to take the challenge and prove that Sardinia tourism can flourish year round, and that the territory has much more to offer than just splendid beaches. There are so many things to do in Sardinia that it is reasonable to believe that its attractions can be a source of income all year long, and that a return to the customs and traditional occupations is perhaps the key to lead the region towards a more sustainable development, one that respects the territory, the culture and the people and that, in a region where unemployment and poverty are the biggest social evils, can finally lead out of the financial crisis that hit it badly.
The way out of the financial crisis? A clever use of Sardinia tourism industry
With this in mind, Cuore della Sardegna (Heart of Sardinia) saw its birth in 1997 to coordinate the promotion of tourism in the region. In 2001 it favoured the cooperation and coordination between the tourism board and a multitude of villages in Barbagia, thus leading to the first edition of Autunno in Barbagia in 2001.
But Cuore della Sardegna doesn’t just strive to promote Autunno in Barbagia and encourage visits of the villages that are involved in the festival. One of its aims is to show that Sardinia tourism can thrive all year long, that among the places to visit in Sardinia there also are archeological and natural sites, that it is possible to visit Sardinia on a limited budget too and that there are things to do in Sardinia to keep visitors busy and engaged throughout the year.
Things to do in Sardinia: enjoy Autunno in Barbagia
As I have already pointed out, Autunno in Barbagia is a series of festivals that, starting from the first weekend of September (when, truth be told, the weather in Sardinia is still perfect to enjoy a day at the beach!) and ending in December, involve 28 villages. It is like a moving exhibition, that hops from village to village, and where each one of the 28 participating communities gets to showcase some of its peculiarities, its traditional costumes, its crafts. It is a feast of local customs.
This lovely old lady tried to talk to me – too bad I don’t speak her variety of Sardinian. Perhaps learning how to speak Sardinian properly is one of the the things to do in Sardinia?
Not to mention, there is lots of delicious traditional food involved (I really enjoy the cheese, bread and pasta-making workshops) and even though I am not much of a foodie, I am not one to miss an opportunity to sample some of Sardinia delicacies.
This is to say, I love this kind of cultural events and that is why I did not think about it twice to say yes when I was asked to attend Cortes Apertas in Oliena. This little town of less than 8000 people is famous for the peak of Monte Corrasi, a limestone summit easily visible from the village that glows in the dusky light. It is also known for its Nepente, a Cannonau wine famously loved by Italian writer, poet, journalist, playwright and World War I soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio. Not to mention Oliena is also the birthplace of Gianfranco Zola, Sardinian favourite football player in England.
Waiting in line to enjoy a sample of Nepente – tasting wine is one of the things to do in Sardinia. Can you spot me?
Little did I know then that I, a Sardinian born and raised girl who often brags about knowing most of the hidden secrets of her region, would learn that there are so many more things to do in Sardinia than anybody could possibly conceive.
Sardinian women are strong and proud – visit Sardinia to check
When in the early hours of Saturday my friend Alessandro picked me up in his camping car and we made our way to Oliena, I was not sure what to expect of the weekend that was ahead of me. It didn’t take us long to realise that Cortes Apertas in Oliena is one of the most popular events of Autunno in Barbagia, as we saw many buses on the motorway, all packed with people traveling from the main cities. Sardinians are unique in this sense: they travel the world far and wide, but they are so proud of their land that they love to visit Sardinia and being tourists in their own region.
Lots of people attend Cortes Apertas in Oliena: it is one of the things to do in Sardinia!
The multitude of people that attend Autunno in Barbagia may be a deterrent to some visitors who may consider it as too much of a touristy thing to do. Yet, the fact that most of those who go are actually Sardinians makes it such that it still feels like a very real, local experience. This also gives an idea of how varied Sardinian culture is: each village has its embroidery style, its own way of preparing the same food (which is inevitably the best one), its local dialect (one of the many varieties of Sardinian, the minority language that is spoken all over the island); each is unique in its own way, so much so that Sardinians feel the urge to roam their island to unveil its well kept secrets.
However, before actually reaching Oliena, we opted for a brief detour and got off the beaten path to explore some of Sardinia’s unique archeological and natural sites. That’s how we discovered some places that I had not even heard of before (shame on me) and that very few actually visit.
Where to go in Sardinia to get off the beaten path: the mountains and sites of Barbagia
Sardinia is packed with archeological sites and one of the things to do in Sardinia is exploring them. A few of them are well known and get a fair share of visitors. They even are included among the UNESCO World Heritage sites for their uniqueness. Others, on the other hand, are more difficult to spot and reach and they are hardly mentioned in tourist guides. They are the kind of places that only the people living in the area know about and are able to point at. Not far from Nuoro – Barbagia’s main city – and right outside the pretty village of Dorgali (easy access to more well known sites such as Tiscali and to some of Sardinia’s most amazing hikes such as that to Gorropu Canyon), there is the a scarcely known archeological site, S’Ena ‘e Thomes, that is hard to find but worth visiting.
Looking for a unique experience? One of the things to do in Sardinia is visiting its “secret” archeological sites – this is S’Ena ‘e Thomes
When we got there through a local’s tip, I realized I had actually driven past it a dozen times without ever noticing it, so well hidden it is – once again the confirmation that Barbagia is where to go in Sardinia to get off the beaten path. S’Ena ‘e Thomes is known as a giants’ tomb which, according to legend, was indeed built by giants. The site is actually located in the land belonging to a local shepherd, and in fact there is little more than a sign at its entrance and a warning to visitors to keep the gate shut to stop grazing animals from escaping.
The site has been hardly explored and its main feature is a stelae of about 4 meters, around which the tomb (of about 11 meters diameter) was built. The surroundings are stunning: countryside and mountains offer a spectacular view of one of the best places to visit in Sardinia.
I often say that one of the things to do in Sardinia is enjoying its many hiking trails. Valle di Lanaittu, not far from Oliena, is one of the places to visit in Sardinia to get close to nature. It is a karst valley of about 8 km which is best explored hiking or cycling, and where one can forget about the stresses of daily life. I would have loved to camp here for a night or two with Follow the Sun Sardinia camping car, to just listen to the sound of nature and admire the starry sky – and my friend’s camping car would have been perfect for that (it’s top opens up to reveal a tent – with a real mattress – that sleeps two persons, and there is all the necessary gear to be location independent, such as a small stove, a sink and even a fridge).
One of the best ways to visit Sardinia is via a camping car – perfect to be 100% location independent
But we were tight on time so we just decided to drive through Valle di Lanaittu. Yet we were able to appreciate the thick vegetation and crips and clean air. This is an area where the most famous Sardinian banditi (bandits) would easily hide, as it is scattered with caves such as the Grotta Rifugio (which was used by the Bonu Ighinu people as a burial ground between 4700 and 4000 BC), the Grotta del Guano, where cooking utensils and ceramics dating back to a period between 3800 and 2900 BC were found, and the Grotta Sa Oche e Su Ventu, two caves linked through a natural siphon. There also are a multitude of other caves that are best explored by speleologists and in fact one of the things to do in Sardinia is speleology (including underwater speleology) and many people visit Sardinia just for that.
One of the best things to do in Sardinia is enjoying its nature
Driving through Valle di Lanaittu, we got to the stunning and very isolated archeological site of Sa Sedda ‘e Sos Carros. This consists of a series of nuraghe huts (buildings which are unique to Sardinia) built around a temple of an evocative cult of sacred waters performed during the Nuragic age, between 1300 and 900 BC. The entrance ticket, which includes a visit to the caves and to the archeological site, costs a more than reasonable €10. We were fortunate to have a guide explain us the main features of the site, and in fact I do recommend hiring one to get a better understanding of the relevance and history of the sites.
A glimpse of a possible future for Sardinia tourism – learning from the past
Once we finally made it to Oliena in the early afternoon of Saturday, we understood why this is one of the most popular villages among those that participate in Autunno in Barbagia. The atmosphere was simply fantastic, confirming once again that attending village festivals is one of the things to do in Sardinia. Men, women and children proudly walked around wearing the symbols of their identity, parading in their traditional costumes, some so richly embroidered that, as an embroider explained us, may well cost over €5000 (the average time needed to embroider a muccadori, the showl worn during festivities, is about 3 months).
Women and children wear the traditional costumes: Sardinia tourism will benefit from a return to traditions
A traditional wedding was celebrated in the main church, beautifully adorned for the occasion. Among the various rituals, the bride and the groom kneel in front of their mothers, who pray for them and then move on to break plates in a noisy yet amusing ceremony.
One of the most interesting things to do in Sardinia is seeing a traditional wedding ceremony
The exhibit in the town hall showed a collection of incredibly intricate traditional jewels, from the buttons used to close the vests, to the earrings, the rings and the rosaries offered to brides and the traditional toothpick which is more a work of art than a utensil. Traditional music was played at every street corner.
Embroidery of a “muccadori” – one of the things to do in Sardinia is admiring its traditional crafts
The locals gladly engaged with the visitors, showing them how cheese is made, explaining the secrets to bake a perfect panedda, a bread that has a shape similar to pita bread but a completely different taste, or to fry a good sebadas, a thin pastry filled with mild cheese, fried and served hot, topped with one of the local honeys. They offered samples of the delicious local wine and oil. There also were many places to eat at very convenient prices (from as cheap as €5 for pasta and a glass of wine). One of the things to do in Sardinia is eating the delicious food and I surely did not want to miss on that.
One of the things to do in Sardinia is learning how traditional bread is made
The success of Autunno in Barbagia, the magic atmosphere we experienced, the traditions, the stunning archeological sites, the beautiful surroundings once more confirmed that there are things to do in Sardinia throughout the year, that is it worth to visit Sardinia even in the shoulder season and that Sardinia tourism can actually thrive thanks to its traditions. I was more than happy to see that Sardinians strive to preserve and protect their cultural identity and that are investing on it as a real economic resource.
A child cracks open a bunch of almonds which will be used to prepare traditional sweets – visit Sardinia to learn how they are made!
Have you ever been to Sardinia during the fall or winter? Have you been to one of its festivals? What did you like the most about it?
A huge thank you goes to my dear friend Alessandro Abis for joining me on this adventure and sharing his amazing pictures with me.