Cagliari, Sardinia’s largest city (population 150,000), is attractive and pleasantly sleepy. Founded by the Phoenicians around 1000 B.C., it later became Roman, Spanish and finally, Italian. When D.H. Lawrence visited in 1921, he wrote: “The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal.” More prosperous than in Lawrence’s time, it is otherwise little changed.
Many visitors first encounter the city while strolling along its pretty lungomare (seafront), paved with diamond-shaped blocks of black volcanic stone and planted with shaggy palm trees lit from below at night. The cafés in the long arcade of the Via Roma, which runs parallel to the port, are busy at breakfast, quiet in the afternoon and lively again at the hour of the passeggieta, when the locals strut their finery and stop for an ice cream or an aperitif before going home for dinner.
Despite these Mediterranean rhythms of life, Cagliari’s character, like that of Sardinia itself, is eternally Punic (North African), not classical, Renaissance or baroque as elsewhere in Italy. Even though Sardinia became part of the Roman Empire, the Latin softening that occurred in other obscure colonized corners of the Mediterranean remained relatively superficial. At least, this is what I learned from a visit to the excellent Museo Archeologico Nazionale in the Castello district, which is built on a fortified plateau overlooking the rest of the city, and is best reached by tourist train or via one of the municipal elevators, since the climb by foot is arduous.
Cagliari is not a great hotel town. The city’s best address is the Hotel Regina Margherita, a well-run, centrally located property that caters primarily to business travelers. Though sufficiently comfortable, it lacks signature charm. Otherwise, summer visitors might consider La Villa del Mare, which offers easy access to Cagliari’s pretty beach at Poetto. The cafés and beach clubs that line the sands are notably lively from May through September. Elsewhere, the THotel Cagliari is a trendy and inconveniently located establishment with uncomfortable Philippe Starck furniture, while the boutique Hotel Miramare is noisy, overpriced and decorated in dubious taste. These two properties inexplicably top the lists of user-generated hotel-review websites. Both are best avoided. Two good places for a drink in Cagliari are Caffè degli Spiriti, the city’s most stylish cocktail bar, and Fra Diavolo, a wine bar that serves good Sardinian wines by the glass.