I would imagine the best way to arrive in Cagliari is by sea. Like Rome, built over seven hills, the city of Cagliari rises from the land majestically, seemingly stretching as far as the eye can see, from the magnificent grand buildings on the front, through the crowded jumble of buildings jostling for space on the slopes, up to the impressive Castello walled town at the summit of the hill.
Unfortunately, we arrived by train. However, whilst we didn't have the benefit of seeing the city laid out in all its splendour before our eyes, nevertheless it was still hard not to be impressed. Walking along Via Roma, the main thoroughfare along the seafront, the buildings, the noises, the honking cars, the people, street vendors and cafes vying for trade, not to mention the smells of coffee and freshly cooked pizza wafting through the doorways, all of this soon made me realise that I had arrived in a big, significant and vibrant city.
Moving up through the city inevitably necessitates climbing up a steep hill sooner or later. It is unavoidable; all routes lead upwards, either along one of the wide tree lined avenues or along one of the many dark narrow streets that lace like a spiderweb through the city. As an old seaport, you sense that the place is steeped in history and that the city has absorbed, and continues to welcome different cultures over the centuries, whilst still maintaining its very Sardinian, very Italian heart.
The marina district of the city, just north of Via Roma to the east, is made up of a number of steep narrow streets, lined with restaurants, cafes and street food vendors. There is a real buzz to the place, especially in the evening when the place comes alive. Alternatively, the peaceful back alleys of the Villanova district are largely pedestrianised, quiet, and a lovely place to wander on the way to San Bernadino Indoor Food Market, one of the largest of its kind in Europe. A visit to Cagliari is not complete without a vertigo inducing climb up to Castello on the top of the hill; the old walled town is steeped in history, with a number of historical sites, museums and the thirteenth century cathedral within its walls. The views from the summit over Cagliari are also stunning. Directly to the west of the Castello, within walking distance, you can find the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, clearly visible from the road and well worth the visit.
If you need a break from the heat of the city (Sardinian summers are very hot!), a short bus ride away to the East takes you out to Poetto beach. As the main city beach for Cagliari, it can get very crowded, especially during the summer and weekends, but at over 5km long, there is plenty of space on the sand for an extra beach towel or two. The sea, whilst not great for snorkelling, is a good place to swim or cool down from the heat of the day.
In terms of nightlife, as a big city there will be something for everyone. As stated previously, the Marina district comes alive at night, but most of the bars are centred near and around the Monumento a Carlo Felice. The area is teeming with packed cafes, restaurants and bars, and is a great place to people watch. One sight we were particularly happy to see, after an exhausting day out to Pula, and a climb up a particularly steep hill, was that of a 100 Montaditos, the Spanish pub chain equivalent of a Witherspoons in the UK (but much much nicer)- ridiculously cheap food and drink, which, when travelling on a budget is always of high importance. If branching out into Europe beyond the borders of Spain, as appears to be the case, I would recommend 100 Montaditos management if you a reading this, come to the UK- Newcastle Upon Tyne specifically- we love our cheap ale.
Back to Cagliari, whilst it is undoubtedly a place that attracts tourists, unlike other big European cities, it doesnt give the appearance of being swamped by tourists. There is no sign of locals being AirBNB-ed out of existence, or mass gentrification pricing out the inhabitants that you get elsewhere. Villanova, for example, is still quite tatty in parts; elsewhere you get the sense it would have been spruced up, gentrified and converted into holiday lets and second homes. The fact that it hasnt is one of the reasons that I love the place. Also, most of the tourism into the city is Italian- there seemed to be very little by way of tourism from other European countries (except when the occasional cruise ship was in dock); I think I heard 2 other British voices the whole time I was there. Very few of the restaurants or cafes had menus in anything other than Italian, and dont expect many people in the shops to speak English. If youre fine with this and are happy to be out of your comfort zone, youll have a great time.
To me, visiting Cagliari feels like experiencing an authentic piece of Italian city life, not one that has become warped, corrupted and altered by mass tourism, and I can highly recommend it.
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