Castelsardo: forgotten glory in Sardinia
Meet Castelsardo, a lush-looking medieval town located on the northern coast of Sardinia. This town lies on and around a rock and is situated in the middle of the Gulf of Asinara. What does that mean? Well, a spectacular view of the azure blue sea (and on Corsica on a clear day)!
Besides that, Castelsardo has several interesting highlights. Such as a visit to the 13th-century ancient castle, a stroll around the maze streets of the old town to watch women basket weaving, and a remarkable landmark in the shape of an elephant.
On top of that, this medieval town has many tasty restaurants where you can enjoy traditional seafood pasta or simply sip on a drink while relaxing at one of the nearby fine sand beaches with crystal clear water.
What can you expect during your visit to Castelsardo?
Castelsardo is a town and comune in Sardinia that has a handful of historic landmarks for you to explore. The town is small, there are about 6000 inhabitants, which means you can easily visit all of its highlights within one day.
This charming town is suitable when you’re looking to add a peaceful, but scenic visit to your Sardinian itinerary. Ever since its castle is open for tourists, the town did receive a small increase in tourists. Still, it never felt too crowded when we visited in June.
Walking is the best way to discover the cozy cobblestone alleys of Castelsardo. But be aware to do a little bit of climbing to reach this wonderful town. Therefore, I would suggest wearing comfy shoes and bringing enough water with you.
Highlights of Castelsardo
The highlights of Castelsardo include:
- A hilltop castle Castello dei Doria (a 13th-century castle surrounded by a green valley)
- The Museo dell’Intreccio del Mediterraneo (a small basket weaving museum)
- The Cattedrale di Sant’Antonio Abate (a cathedral with a stunning terrace including artworks in the museum)
- The Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie (a medieval church)
- The old town of Castelsardo (atmospheric streets where you can find traditional homes as well as restaurants)
- The Roccia dell’Elefante (a rock that looks just like an elephant)
- The Nuraghe Paddaggiu (last remnants from the Bronze Age)
Castello dei Doria
The castle, that proudly watches over Castelsardo, has quite a rich history. It was built in the 13th century by the Doria family (hence the name of the castle) from Genoa. One Doria family member, Eleanora of Arborea, is still well-known in Sardinia. She was one of the most powerful judges and Sardinia’s most famous heroine.
Originally, the castle was part of a defensive line of Anglona until it got overtaken by the kingdom of Spain who renamed it Castello Aragonese. Then, it was reconquered by the Savoy and the castle received its original name back. Nowadays, the castle is free from catapult bullet points and a safe, but above all, picturesque sight to visit!
The walk up towards the castle is breathtaking because you get stunning view of the dazzling blue coastline of Castelsardo! On the pedestrian path, you are surrounded by a green valley filled with blossoms (of course, this depends on the season). Let’s say you don’t need a princess dress to feel like royalty around here!
Along the way, you will notice some plants (and weeds!) have taken over the pedestrian path. Also, the road is a little bumpy. However, when you wear comfy shoes you should have no issues reaching the castle.
Oh, and make sure to bring enough water with you, especially, on a hot summer day. There is barely any shade on your way up which can make you feel muggy.
Before (or after) you visit the castle, follow the pedestrian route that leads you down to the beautiful rocky coast line. This path guides you to a green lawn from where you have an amazing view of the Gulf of Asinara. And during a clear day you might get a glimpse of the mountains of Corsica. The ideal place for a picnic if you ask me!
One of the best parts of the castle is its terrace with views of the town and the sea. And, you can spot an old catapult that was used to defend the fortress. Stop and stare? You will be doing it pretty frequently while visiting the castle. I mean I could have sat here for hours just day-dreaming while listening to waves of the sea!
Opening hours and admission
Visiting the castle is free and it’s open 24/7.
Museo dell’Intreccio del Mediterraneo
Basket weaving is a popular social and family activity in Castelsardo. This ancient skill is even passed on to new generations in town. So don’t be surprised to see basket weavers when visiting the old town as we did! Watching locals weave the most impressive patterns is quite fascinating. They made it look so easy!
After we visited the old town, we bumped into the museum dedicated to basket weaving. But, in all honesty, it didn’t appeal to us that much. Most reviews pointed out the static museum provides little information. I think this is a missed opportunity because the craft itself is truly unique and deserves more (international) attention.
Only after we returned home (and I was researching the museum again for this blog post), I found out there are guided tours available. If we had known that before, I think we would have stopped by!
For now, I used Google to give you an insight into what to expect when visiting this museum.
The museum is located in the Castello dei Doria. This seems like an ideal location that goes along with this ancient craft! Each exhibition room has its own theme and displays local woven products for various applications – fishing, harvesting, religious functions, and daily life.
Along with the exhibition halls, the museum features the work of popular local artist Eugenio Tavolara. With his innovative designs, he was able to create more attention to the craft of basket-making in Sardinia. I can imagine, without innovation, this craft may have disappeared over the years…
Next Eugenio teamed up with architect Ubaldo Badas to set up the Istituto Sardo Organizzazione Lavoro Artigiano (ISOLA), a Sardinian Institute for the Organization of Crafts. Thanks to those efforts, the traditional Sardinian art forms, especially basket making, weaving, and intaglio, now represent the island of Sardinia.
To make your visit more interactive you could join a guided tour (available in English, French, German, and Spanish language). The museum website doesn’t provide any further info on this, so it’s best to head inside and ask when these tours take place.
Once you’ve finished the museum, and can’t get enough of this interesting local tradition, then you may want to pick up an item at the bookshop. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out if their collection includes any English items. Also, their website doesn’t reveal the answer.
Cattedrale di Sant’Antonio Abate
This cathedral, that best known for its bell tower, must have the best view in town! It sits upon a rock and overlooks the far-stretched blue waters of Sardinia. It was built in 1586 and dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great. Today, the cathedral still plays an important part in Castelsardo during religious festivals, such as Holy Week.
The inside of the church is a mix of Renaissance and Baroque elements. Although I’ve seen larger cathedrals, this one is simple but elegant. The highlight is the 15th-century altarpiece designed by a mysterious artist Maestro di Castelsardo.
If you are curious to see more of this artist, whose identity remains unknown, then head towards the Museum Ampuriense! In the crypt, you will find some Maestro di Castelsardo’s best work. Sadly, the museum was closed when we visited, so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it or not. Nonetheless, the overall reviews on TripAdvisor seem positive.
Opening hours and admission
- Visiting the cathedral is free
- The opening hours are from 7 am to 1 pm and from 3-8 pm
- The museum costs €4.
- The opening hours of the museum vary. It’s best to check them before your visit on the official website.
Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie
At first, we didn’t recognize the church because it has no façade on the outside! By accident, we saw a few tourists coming out of a mysterious door and then we realized it was a church, oops. And not just any church, it’s one of the oldest churches (built in the 1300s!) in north Sardinia.
The church is worth a peek inside because it has three gorgeous limestone arches, an impressive neoclassical altar, and beautifully decorated areas. Furthermore, it’s 14th-century is one of the oldest in Sardinia. It was said the crucifix helped Castelsardo to beat an attack by a French fleet back in 1527.
I promise I didn’t touch the crucifix in order to get its powers (I was tempted though!).
Opening hours and admission
- Visiting the church is free
- The opening hours are from 9 am until 7 pm during the summer (shorter hours during the winter).
The old town of Castelsardo
Exploring the old town of Castelsardo is like stepping back in time (although I feel like I say this for every town in Sardinia so far!). I mean this town has a castle from the 13th century, a church built in the 14th century, and the palazzo La Loggia, which served as City Hall is from 1111! Ancient it is, right?
Additionally, I’m not used to seeing women basket weaving every day! That must have contributed to ancient vibes I got while strolling through the town. I couldn’t help admiring this lady and watching her completing the woven basket. It definitely takes patience to finish a piece. That’s probably the reason I couldn’t do it, lol!
Excited to get yourself (or someone else) a woven present? The best option is to buy from the locals. They surpass the quality of the ones you will find in the tourist shops. Apart from that, supporting a local craft is more sustainable and better for the local economy. Prices can vary. The bigger, colorful baskets range anywhere between €20 – €40.
Are you a plant-lover like myself? Then you will love the charming streets of Castelsardo! Most alleys are richly decorated with plants and flowers. In other words, I wished our home had that many (alive – my biggest issue) plants!
Aside from the plant-mania, the pedestrian paths are a little bumpy. Thus, is doesn’t hurt to pay attention (note to self – especially when your camera is glued to your face) to avoid tripping over a flower pot.
We visited Castelsardo in June and the cozy streets make up for a cool refreshment. Though, during the winter, I think these streets can get dark and gloomy.
Overall, the old town is a very pleasant visit! It might be small, but at least you won’t get knocked over by other tourists (unless a packed tourist bus arrives – but we didn’t see any).
Usually, I’m a little hesitant when it comes to rocks where people ‘see’ things in such as a Lion’s head or an entire family with their dog (you know what I mean, right?). The same goes for when I first heard about the Roccia dell’Elefante (Elephant Rock) that’s located about 10 minutes driving from the center.
To my surprise, we arrived from the direction the photo below was taken of, the rock did remind me of an elephant. Over the years, it seems Mother Nature did a good job using rain and wind to sculpt one of the Big Five.
Back in the day, inhabitants of Sardinia used the rock as a place of worship. Nowadays, it’s a traditional symbol and well-known landmark. As a result, quite a few tourists pulled over pretty frequently while we visited (there’s free parking across the road).
Along with the rock, there are two Neolithic tombs in the hollow interior of the elephant. When we left, the ancient tombs acted as a hiding place during a hide-and-seek game. Oh well, I bet the elephant is happy to get some company since there are no other ‘animals’ around here!
Nuraghe Pa…? Is that part of Harry Potter spell? Nope! The name (of which origin is not completely clear) represents one of the last nuraghe built by the Nuragic people (who lived from the Bronze Age until the 2nd century BC). Today, all that’s left is two towers (only one is recognizable). These are the last remnants of an ancient Sardinian civilization.
Looking at it, I can barely process how old this is. I wonder what it was used for? Did people sleep here? Wikipedia tells me the exact function of nuraghes is unknown which makes this place even more mysterious…
Other than the tower (and lush green landscape), there is not much to see! Personally, if you’re on a tight schedule, I wouldn’t go all out to squeeze this one in. We passed by Nuraghe Paddaggiu only briefly by car (it’s a 10-minute drive from Castelsardo). There is no parking available, so you have to pull over on the grass for a quick snap.
Where to eat in Castelsardo?
Tasty lunch or dinner tips in Castelsardo are:
- Al Castello (review on TripAdvisor): friendly owner Luciano and his staff (which speak multiple languages – also English) serve tasty traditional Sardinian dishes.
- Il Cormorano (review on TripAdvisor): the staff makes you feel at home while serving delicious seafood and wines.
- La Trattoria da Maria Giuseppa (review on TripAdvisor): cozy atmosphere where you dine in-between locals and can eat excellent affordable pizza’s.
- Ristorante Pizzeria Excalibur (review on TripAdvisor): go here to try tasty pasta’s, pizza’s, and seafood served by a friendly staff.
- Mediterraneum Caffe (review on TripAdvisor): delicious platters, especially the seafood, and you’re eating with an amazing view on Castelsardo.
For a quick refreshment, head over the Bar Caffe Casu Vincenzo or to the View Sunset Lounge Bar.
The first place is located in the old town (and has a free restroom). The second bar is more hip and modern and situated just outside of the old town (there are no restrooms).
Both have a stunning view on Castelsardo and the sea! A beer and a soda at both places cost about €6 in total.
Beaches nearby Castelsardo
Marina di Castelsardo
A small, sandy beach in Castelsardo. The water is see-through which makes it ideal for snorkeling or scuba diving.
Spiaggia di Lu Bagnu
This idyllic beach is a 5-minute drive from Castelsardo. It’s a small beach that has fine sand and crystal clear water.
Spiaggia Cala Ostina
A gorgeous beach featuring dark golden sand. The water is transparent and looks blue/green. Cala Ostina is the perfect place for a quiet dip as well as hiking along the rough coast!
How to travel to Castelsardo?
From Alghero Airport
When you arrive at Olbia Airport it takes 1,5 to reach Castelsardo by car.
From Cagliari Airport
From Cagliari Airport, it’s about a 2 up to 3 hour drive to reach Castelsardo by car.
Is there public transport available from one of the airports to Castelsardo?
Yes, but it will take you forever. There seems to be no route under 3 hours.
Where to park your car in Castelsardo?
You can park your for free just before entering the walls of the old town. We parked our car right here (before the bend – after the bend it’s not free) on the Vicolo Nazionale. From where we parked, we only walked 200 meters before reaching the castle and the rest of the old town.