48 Hours in: Cagliari

Early summer is the best time to join the Sardinians as they eat, drink and relax in their 'living room' on the sand, says Frank Partridge


High summer in the southern Mediterranean can be too hot and humid even for Italians, although hundreds of thousands decamp from the mainland in July and August, attracted by Sardinia's splendid array of fine beaches. In early summer, the climate in the island's capital is more comfortable, and the streets and sights less crowded.


Fly from Gatwick with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or from Luton with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com). The tour operator Holiday Options (0870 420 8372; www.holidayoptions.co.uk) has a flight-only option on its summer charters from Gatwick and Manchester. Just Sardinia (0120 248 4858; www.justsardinia.co.uk also has flight-only deals, with any-day arrival, length of stay or departure. Elmas airport is six kilometres from the city centre, with a half-hourly bus service to Piazza Matteoti (1) on the waterfront. The fare is €1.50 (£1); the taxi fare for the same journey is around €14 (£9.50).


Cagliari is spread across 10 low hills between a flat plain and the wide, sheltered Golfo degli Angeli, and boasts one of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. It is best viewed from sea level, where the medieval bastion wall and watchtowers loom over the elegant, palm-lined thoroughfare, Via Roma (2), where the ferries and cruise ships dock. The main tourist information office (00 39 070 669 255; www.comune.cagliari.it) is handily placed in Piazza Matteoti. Open every day between 8.30am-8pm, its helpful staff provide visitors with accommodation lists, timetables and excellent free maps.


There are fewer business travellers than tourists in the hot summer months, so holidaymakers can benefit from lower seasonal prices in the business hotels. The most stylish of these hotels is the T Hotel (3) (Via Dei Giudicati; 00 39 070 4740; www.thotel.it), a high-rise steel and glass landmark north of the city centre, where some double rooms are being offered this summer at €125 (£89), including breakfast. Next to the seafront, the Hotel Mediterraneo (4) (Lungomare Colombo 46; 00 39 070 342 361; www.hotelmediterraneo.net) is unappealing from the outside, but surprisingly swish within. B&B starts at €165 (£118). And in the heart of the action, on one of the narrow streets in the Marina district, Hotel Italia (5) (Via Sardegna 31; 00 39 070 660 410; www.hotelitaliacagliari.com) is comfortable, with B&B from €90 (£64).


Take a lift or climb the steps to the medieval fortress of Bastione di San Remy (6) for superb views across the city, lagoon and curving coastline. From here you can appreciate at close quarters the sturdy defences constructed by the Pisans, who conquered and rebuilt the city during the 11th century. Curiously, the area is known as Castello, although no castle was ever built here.


Start on the piazza outside the Cathedral (7), and work your way down the hill through the narrow lanes of the former artisan's quarter, threading between the five-storey medieval buildings on either side. An archway leads to the lovely Vico Dei Genovesi, paved with granite slabs with cobbles down the middle. Emerging at Via Santa Croce, with its panoramic terrace overlooking the port, continue eastwards along via Universita, through one of the two surviving Pisan watchtowers to the Bastione (6), where wide steps lead to the shopping streets and to the seafront beyond.


Rushing your food is against the Sardinian nature, but if time is pressing visit any bakery for a traditional panadas - a round pie filled with meat, seafood or vegetables. Places to buy quick snacks and take-away pizzas are in plentiful supply along the Via Roma, and for a cheap, sit-down meal at a bargain price, you won't do better than Pizzarei il Porcile (8), at 9 Via Porcile, where bread, a pizza, a glass of beer and a coffee will cost you just €10 (£7).


The Castello boasts an entire museum complex - Cittadella dei Musei - on the Piazza dell'Arsenale (9), so you can choose between antiquity, archaeology and art, not to mention fine collections of Siamese treasures and, bizarrely, anatomical waxes. Multi-level walkways link the main buildings, of which the Museo Archeologico (00 39 070 655911) is by far the most important, containing a collection of bronze figurines that provides clues to the mysterious Nuraghic culture, which prevailed on the island between 1800BC and 300BC, but of which no written record has survived. The museum is open every day except Monday between 9am-7.30pm.


Via Roma has the smartest shops and department stores, which cater for the cruise ship day-trippers as much as the locals, but the two most interesting and rewarding shopping streets are the traffic-free Via Manno (10) and Via Garibaldi (11).


On the edge of the old town, Piazza Yenne (12) is a popular meeting place with several bars and cafés, and there are numerous options on the higher ground of the Castello district. Caffe Libarium Nostrum (13) (Via Santa Croce 35) shuttles customers up and down the hill with a free ride in a black London cab, while Ritual's Caffe (14) (via Universita 33) occupies a cavity in the chalk rock face, possibly dug out by the Romans. Alcoves, candles and energising music enhance the dramatic surroundings.


Locally caught fish and seafood is Cagliari's main culinary attraction, and many restaurants helpfully display their daily catch at the entrance. In the Marina district, Via Sardegna (5) has more eating places than the average large town, from cheap and cheerful (Trattoria Lilliccu, at No 78) to smarter and pricier (Al Porto, at No 44; 00 39 070 663 131 - reservations are essential). Elsewhere, there are two contrasting establishments on Viale Regina Margherita (15): the menu at highly formal Dal Corsaro (No 28; 00 39 070 664 318) mixes Sardinian with nouvelle cuisine, while at No 18, the very trendy Next Door (00 39 070 672058) extends across several rooms, and includes a sushi bar. The owner comes from the nearby island of San Pietro, which is famed for its annual tuna catch: not surprisingly, the seared tuna fillet is sensational.


Cagliari's "Duomo" is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria (7) at Piazza Palazzo. Started by the Pisans in the 13th century, it has had two major facelifts - the most recent in the 1930s - and the builders are in again this summer, so its opening hours and services will be affected. Call 00 39 070 663 837 or ask at the tourist office for up-to-date information. Normally, you can visit between 8am-12.30pm and 4-7pm. The cathedral's most memorable feature is a gigantic pulpit, sculpted in stone around 1300, that had to be cut in half to fit the available space.


If the sun is shining, everybody heads to Poetto Beach (16), within easy reach of the city centre, and fringed by an endless assortment of restaurants, refreshment stands and cafés. The renowned Poetto speciality is ricci - sea urchins with pasta and red peppers.


Choose your card from one of the street-stands on Piazza Yenne, order an exot ic ice cream from the legendary l'Isola del Gelato (at No 35), and find a table on the terrace to watch the world go by.


Monte Urpinu (17), one of the highest of the 10 hills, lies north-east of the centre and offers a 360-degree view of the city, sea and the saltwater lagoon where pink flamingos settle in spring and autumn. Open from dawn to dusk, a stroll along Viale Europa is enhanced by the surrounding pine trees and small lakes, some of which have been colonised by turtles.


Blue ARST buses leave hourly from Piazza Mateotti to the south coast town of Pula, from there it's a three kilo-metre walk along the shore to the ruins of Nora, the first recorded town in Sardinia, founded by the Phoenicians about a millennium before Christ. Later, it was developed by the Carthaginians, and briefly became the Roman capital of the island after their conquest in 238BC. Gloriously situated on a promontory connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, the site has been partially submerged by the sea. The waves also uncovered some 7th-century Punic tombs during a fierce storm in 1889. Among the mass of rubble, several key buildings and features have been well preserved, including Carthaginian warehouses, and Roman temples, baths (with well-preserved mosaics) and columns. Best of all is the beautiful Roman theatre, still used for drama and musical presentations during the annual summer festival. The site is open 9am-8pm in summer; 9am-6pm in winter, and the entry fee of €6 (£4.30) includes admission to the excellent museum at Pula, where local archaeological finds are on display.


Few cities are blessed with a vast and picturesque beach within a few minutes of the centre, and the locals take full advantage of Poetto Beach (16), frequently abandoning their offices for an extended lunch-hour or an afternoon swim at the place they call il salotto (the living room). The beach, extending for nearly 7km, is rarely crowded, and yellow buses (marked PQ and PF) leave every five minutes from the city centre. A day ticket for the bus costs €2.30 (£1.60).

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