Why visit Sardinia, Italy when it is too chilly to swim? I heard that question a lot before I headed to this island in Italy, famous for its beaches. Turns out, reasons to visit Sardinia outside of swimming season include great food, archeology, medieval churches, warm Mediterranean sunshine – and more.
The quality of light in Sardinia is striking. Our favorite was the syrupy yellow of late afternoon that makes the limestone glow. I also loved the brilliant sunlight glinting off the sea and creating high contrast between the blue sky and the white yachts in the downtown harbor. The diffused light in the countryside softens the hills and farmland, reminding me of the famous quality of light in Tuscany.
The strong Mediterranean sun means it stays about 70 degrees into November. Perfect weather for wandering the narrow medieval streets in the center of Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia. There’s a joyfulness on the small piazzas of Cagliari as outdoor cafes stay open late into the night on warm fall and even winter nights. Although parking can be difficult during peak travel season, if you really want to pack in the sightseeing in the off-season, rent a car to explore outside of Cagliari and get from place to place.
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Easy to Get a Seat at a Terrace Café in Cagliari
The Sardinia city of Cagliari is hilly featuring many lookouts with panoramic views of the city, sea, and mountains beyond. You often catch glimpses of the sea from the many hills of Cagliari, which helps you navigate its narrow streets. Off-season, no crowds compete for seats on terraces with views of the sunset. It might be crowded in the summer, with pounding music, but in November the terrace of
Off-season, no crowds compete for seats on terraces with views of the sunset. It might be crowded in the summer, with pounding music. In November, the terrace of Bastione St. Remy transforms into a quiet place to look out over the city in three directions.
Our favorite spot to watch the sun slip behind the mountains was the terrace cafe on Via Santa Croce, atop the wall built by Pisans in the 14th century. Perfect place to end the day with a glass of wine. By our third day, we were regulars in our front row seats for the sunset, and the bartender knew our order.
Off-season, No Crowds at Archaeological Sites in Sardinia
Did you know Sardinia has ruins of towns built in prehistoric times, as early as 1500 BC? I didn’t. The best preserved is the nuraghi at Barumini, a Unesco World Heritage site located outside Cagliari. Outside of the busy summer season, the site may not be crowded; we were the only people there in November. For more on these prehistoric ruins, see here.
Walk through the Botanical Garden, a welcome spot of green in the mostly stone town of old Cagliari. Continue up the hill to see the ruins of a Roman amphitheater carved into the hillside in the first or second century.
Imagine an audience of 10,000 watching gory battles between gladiators.
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Inside the city of Cagliari, enter the Church of Santa Eulalia to view what was unearthed in its basement in 1990. Discover the ruins of a Roman street and temple, along with pots and other artifacts at the site.
Restaurants in Sardinia: Not Crowded Off-Season
Sardinians – well, Mediterraneans generally – consider meals an event to be lingered over and shared with friends and family. I especially appreciated the care creating every Sardinian food experience into an event: the flower on the table, the expectation that even a coffee deserves a cup and saucer. In the land of slow food, there is no such thing as “coffee to go.”
Fresh seafood is no surprise on restaurant menus since Sardinia is an island. More surprising is that traditional Sardinian cuisine is not sea-based but land-based. Sardinia’s tumultuous history of invaders’ attacks on its coastline. The relative safety of its interior mountain ranges is reflected in traditional Sardinian dishes like cured meats, pasta, sheep cheeses, grilled vegetables, and the flat crispy bread eaten by shepherds.
For traditional Sardinian food in Cagliari, try the unpretentious Su Cumbido, where the adventurous can try tripe. The tried-and-true can stick with pasta and meat dishes, or its more modern companion, Sa Schironada, serving typical Sardininan seafood. About 20 Euros per person, off-season.
We especially loved the tiny quirky place with the odd name Dr. Ampex. There is no menu. Instead, whatever looked fresh at the fish and other markets that morning is served up in about 4 courses for 25 Euros per person. The friendly owner makes you feel like a guest in his home. Tiramisu at Dr. Ampex is the best I’ve tasted.
For artfully plated upscale dining in Cagliari (not fun for kids unless they are true foodies), settle in for 3-hours and devour the seemingly endless courses of the tasting menu at Ristorante Dal Corsaro. About 70 Euros per person, more if paired with wine, and perfect for lingering over conversation.
Traditional Sardinian sweets are a pleasure. Cookies use ingredients that indirectly reflect a Moorish influence filtered through Spanish invaders – almonds, orange, lemon, saffron. Other ingredients reflect the sheep farming central to Sardinian culture…like tiny cakes made from ricotta cheese.
In Cagliari, try the local bakery Durke, the Sardinian word for sweet. I learned even more about Sardinian food and culture by taking a pasta-making class.
Walk on Sardinia Beaches and Along the Harbor
The harbor in Cagliari is lined with a walking and bike path. Soak in the moment of feeling the sea breeze while gazing at the boats, water, and mountains beyond. A small playground might be fun for little kids. About 5 miles from the harbor, and easily accessible by bus, is the Poetto Beach and harbor/ Experience a lovely place for a walk even if you are visiting outside the swimming season of April – October.
Beautiful Sardinia Churches in Cagliari
Pisans conquerors built Cagliari’s Cathedral in the 14th Century and its simple limestone exterior contrasts with the lush Baroque marble interior of the church, built much later by Spanish conquerors. Don’t miss the crypt inside the Cathedral, with two Roman sarcophagi. For a view of the Cagliari harbor, climb the steps of the a different church close to water, Basilica Santuario Nostra Signora di Bonaria. Climb a little higher to walk around its pretty garden, with views of both the city and the sea.
Adapt to the Mediterranean Rhythm of Sardinia
It’s fun to experiment with a different rhythm of life. Sardinian businesses often close for a long lunch from about 1 – 4 pm, perhaps a legacy of hundreds of years of Spanish domination, then re-open for evening hours.
While cafes are open all afternoon and evening, Sardinians eat dinner late, between 8 pm – 11:00 pm, again like Spaniards. Since many restaurants do not open until 7:30 or later, kids (and adults) may need a nap before dinner in a restaurant. Or, if your kids like to eat dinner early (5 or 6), consider eating a late heavy lunch at 2 or 3, and just snacking at a café later.
Why go to Sardinia off-season? Visit Sardinia even if it’s too chilly to swim, and enjoy its food, architecture, ancient and medieval history, beaches, and its warm and unpretentious people – in any temperature.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD A GOOD EXPERIENCE TRAVELING SOMEWHERE OFF-SEASON? TELL US ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.