Cagliari is the capital of the island of Sardinia, which lies some 188km off the west coast of mainland Italy. Since the Sixties when the Aga Khan turned a small stretch of the north-east coast into an exclusive retreat for the rich, most holiday-makers who come to the island have headed for the glitz of the Costa Smeralda, while Cagliari has kept a lower profile down on the south coast. It's one of the most ancient settlements in the Mediterranean with a name thought to derive from the Phoenician word karel, meaning City of God. Something in the atmosphere tells you immediately that for centuries the Sardinians have been inward-looking island folk, more cautious in their approach to life than the people of the mainland.
First, head for Piazza Yenne, the geographical and spiritual heart of Cagliari. Once the site of the Porta Stampace when the old city walls still stood, this is the point where the oldest and most interesting quarters meet. As you look back down to the sea, to your left is the mainly residential Villanova; to your right Stampace with its Roman remains, grand villas and the main tourist office a short walk away at Via Mameli 97 (0039 070 664 195; be warned that opening times vary greatly according to the season); above you stands Castello on its fortified hill; and below you the broad and busy Carlo Largo Felice leading down to Marina and its working harbour on the Golfo degli Angeli (Gulf of Angels).
Most of the places to stay are in the Marina district but accommodation here hasn't kept pace with trends in the rest of Europe; not a destination boutique hotel in sight. Typical of the four-star hotels the city has to offer is the modern Hotel Regina Margherita (Viale Regina Margherita 44; 0039 070 670 342; www.hotelreginamargherita.com) which is comfortable but desperately bland (€170/£121 for a double, with various special deals at weekends).
Unexpectedly, Cagliari has a wide range of excellent B&Bs. The family-run Terrazza sul Porto (Largo Carlo Felice 15; 0039 070 658 997; web.tiscali.it/laterrazzasulporto) is quiet at night and has a pleasant roof terrace for chatty breakfasts with the English-speaking hosts. Prices start from €35 (£25) for a single room. A hop and skip up the road is Sardinia Domus (Largo Carlo Felice 26; 0039 070 659 783; www.sardiniadomus.it), with singles at €45 (£32) and doubles for €70 (£50). It's a lot more chi-chi but less personal, and frequently booked up well ahead.
Book yourself into the Villa Cao (via O. Bacaredda 126; 0039 070 401 269; www.villacao.it) for its colourful courtyard garden, carved out of what were once the lawns of an aristocratic villa, and the location. It is a short walk to the lively covered market, the Mercato di San Benedetto (Piazza San Rocco) - the best place to find local fish and produce on sale daily, except for Sundays. Prices are €46 (£33) for a single and €70 (£55) for a double room, reductions for longer stays.
If you've spent a lot of time in Italy, then you can't fail to appreciate this chance to discover a city without hordes of other travellers around you.
Your first impulse will be to head up to Castello, so save your energy for climbing one of the Pisan defensive towers, either the Torre San Pancrazio (summer opening times Tues-Sun 9am-1pm and 3pm-7pm; admission free) or the Torre dell'Elefante, distinguished by a carving of an elephant on one of its sides (Tues-Sun 9am-4.30pm; admission free). Take a ride in one of the three free outdoor lifts that run 24 hours a day from the base of the fortifications to the top (one from Santa Croce and two along Viale Regina Elena) - a stroke of genius on the part of the local council, which has kept Castello, now filled with trendy clubs and cavern bars, alive at night.
Alternative transport is provided by the Trenino Cagliaritano, a miniature theme park "train", so out of place that you can't help but forgive it. It takes a 45-minute circular route seven times daily from the main train station in Piazza Carmine via an ironwork stop in Piazza Yenne, taking in the most notable monuments of the city along the way. There is even a commentary in English ( www.trenino.it; tickets available on board.)
The breeze-filled summers here seem to last forever, with temperatures averaging 26C. On Sundays everyone heads out of town for the beach. Starting from the Spiaggia del Poetto, the further you go from the city, the fewer other sunbathers you'll find on the broad white sands, until you hit the resort of Villasimius 50km to the east. Beach bars have been set up almost continuously along the strand. En route past the Molentargius lagoon, look out for the gente rubia, or pink folk, the locals' affectionate name for the flamingos which arrive in spring to inhabit the saltwater lakes on the city's periphery.
If you'd rather stick to Castello, it's worth plunging into the frothy pink marble interior of the Duomo or 13th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria di Castello (daily 8am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm) in Piazza Palazzo. Once you get used to the riotous mass of decoration, you will start to pick out such gems as the superb sculptured friezes on the 12th-century pulpits by Guglielmo da Innsbruck or an an elegantly simply Aragonese gothic side chapel which once contained a thorn from Christ's crown (the relic is now kept under lock and key). The Museo Diocesano (on via Fossario) containing all the cathedral's treasures is currently closed but is due to re-open soon; check, as it's worth seeing the luminous tryptich attributed to 15th-century Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. The work was abandoned here in fear of eternal damnation by a Spanish soldier on his way home from stealing it from Pope Clement VII's bedroom during the Sack of Rome.
Stroll to the northernmost point of Castello and you'll come to an arch leading into the Cittadella dei Musei, a large complex on the site of the old Arsenale incorporating the city's main museums which include the National Art Gallery (Pinacoteca Nazionale; 0039 070 670 157; open Mon-Sat, 8.30am-5.30pm; from €4/£2.90) with displays devoted to folk history as well as fine art, and the National Archeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale; 0039 070 655 911; open Tues-Sat 9am- 2pm, 3pm-8pm, and all day on Sundays 9am-8pm; €4/£2.90). If you decide to do only one cultural thing while in Cagliari, then it has to be a visit to this museum. A journey from the island's earliest cultures to the late Medieval period, the collection includes finds from Sardinia's unique prehistoric Nuraghic culture, fertility figures with their abundant curves, and a range of everyday artefacts and jewellery, all imaginatively displayed (although all labelling is in Italian only.) And, it's unlikely you'll have to share viewing space with more than a couple of other visitors at a time.
TOP FIVE: FOOD AND DRINK
The Taverna della Marina (via Sardegna 49; closed Wednesdays) was opened a couple of years ago by an enthusiastic young restaurateur who has been run off his feet ever since. Both the excellent food and the cosy, unpretentious ambience are a modern take on the sailor's restaurants that once filled this district, as implied by its alternative name - Su Culu Infustu, "the soggy bottom". Expect to pay around €25 (£18) a head for three courses and wine.
Four generations of the Deidda family later, al Corsaro is still one of the finest restaurants in Cagliari. It's terribly grand, with stiff damask tablecloths, silver champagne buckets, and elegant couples murmuring at each other across the floral arrangements. The food, however, is so outrageously delicious that you'll be hard pressed not to re-enact that scene from When Harry met Sally. If you manage to resist trying out every wine in their well-stacked cellars you'll probably come away €100 (£71) poorer for the two of you.
Just along the same street the food at Trattoria Lillicu (via Sardegna 78; 0039 070 652 970; closed on Sundays) is fairly unremarkable, but come here for the atmosphere alone. Unchanged since it opened in 1943, you'll find yourself seated wherever there's space at marble tables without cloths, enjoying some of the best people-watching in town. Prices around €25 (£18) a head.
De Candia (Palazzo Boyl, Bastione di S. Remy; 0039 070 655 884; open 7pm-2am daily) is at first glance a reasonably stylish Italian bar like any other, until you realise that for a terrace it has the southern spur of Castello's defensive walls. Packed on a summer's night, the food is good and includes excellent Florentine steaks.
The Antico Caffe (Piazza Cosituzione, 10/11; 0039 070 658 206; open 7pm-2am daily; www.anticocaffe1855.it) is straight out of a Victorian children's novel, a haven of steaming, gleaming copper and brass, piles of beautifully packaged sweetie treats, waiters in penguin suits, displays of pastries and homemade icecream. If nothing else does, memories of your Sunday breakfast on the terrace looking up at the towering Bastione di San Remy will draw you back to Cagliari again.Reuse content