Last updated on April 19, 2023 by Wandering our World
Famed for its distinctive culture and gorgeous landscapes, the island of Sardinia is a dreamy vacation destination with so much to see and do. And, if you’re planning a trip to Sardinia, Olbia and Cagliari are two cities you might consider staying at.
Olbia is the second-biggest city on the island, and it’s one of the key tourist bases, thanks to its proximity to the fabulous Costa Smeralda beaches, while also boasting its own ancient Roman ruins and other interesting sights to see in the surrounding area.
Cagliari, meanwhile, is the island’s capital city. It’s the point of arrival for most tourists, and a key transport hub, with rail and road links all across the island. The city is also a hub of culture and history, a busy and bustling melting pot of everything that makes Sardinia so special.
Choosing between these two cities isn’t easy, as they both have unique advantages and stand-out features, like Olbia’s beautiful beaches and Cagliari’s fascinating museums.
Fortunately, if you’re hesitating between Olbia and Cagliari, we’re here to help!
Below, we’ll take an in-depth look at these two cities, exploring their beaches, activities, nightlife scenes, and may other key factors to help you decide which one is right for you. By the end we’re sure you will know which one to choose!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Has The Best Shopping?
- Which Is Better For Hiking?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Better For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples & Honeymoons?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview: Olbia vs Cagliari
Olbia: A Quick Overview
Olbia is a city in the northeast part of Sardinia. With a population of over 60,000 people, it’s the second most populous city on the island, and the population gets even bigger during the months of June, July, and August, as travelers arrive here from all around the world.
Like many cities on Sardinia, Olbia has a long and storied past, believed to have been first settled several thousand years ago, by either the Nuragics or Phoenicians – travelers can explore Olbia’s past by visiting the city’s ancient ruins and structures, like nuraghes and dolmens.
Olbia has always been a key city for Sardinia, but it was in the late 20th century that this place really started to boom, with a huge influx of tourism.
This is mainly due to the establishment of the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) touristic area, famed for its white sands and fabulous resorts – it’s also one of the most expensive places in Europe in terms of average house prices.
As for the city itself, Olbia is a relatively simple place, a far cry from the bustling hub of Cagliari or touristic havens, like Alghero.
There aren’t too many famous landmarks or things to do in the city itself, but it’s one of the best bases for those want to tour the Costa Smeralda or other parts of northern Sardinia.
Cagliari: A Quick Overview
The capital city of Sardinia, Cagliari, is situated in a central position on the island’s southern coast.
It’s by far the biggest city on the whole island, with its population of around 155,000 making it feel much livelier and hectic than Olbia. Most travelers to Sardinia also arrive here, as Cagliari has a busy cruise port and large airport.
There’s a lot of history in this city, and various people have laid claim to it throughout the ages, from the Phoenicians, who founded the city under the name of Karaly, to the Romans and Spanish.
History lovers can therefore have a field day here, as Cagliari is home to all sorts of amazing ruins and centuries-old buildings.
The city is split into four main historic neighborhoods – Castello, Marina, Stampace and Villanova. Castello is arguably the best-known and most-visited, taking the form of a medieval hilltop citadel, filled with old buildings and home to the city’s fabulous cathedral.
There’s also a more modern side to the city, and it’s a great place for shopping and live entertainment.
In regard to its vibe and atmosphere, Cagliari is an exciting, animated, almost chaotic city, with countless travelers passing through its busy streets.
It also stands out for being one of the greenest cities on the entire island, with a number of large parks to go along with its other touristic landmarks, museums, and attractions.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
With over 1,100 miles of coastline, Sardinia has so many breathtaking beaches for sunbathing, splashing in the sea, and sunset strolls.
You can find a lot of popular beaches near Olbia and Cagliari, but which city works best for beach lovers?
Well, Olbia visitors will undoubtedly want to tour the legendary white sand beaches of the nearby Costa Smeralda. Here, you’ll find some of, if not the prettiest coastal spots in all of Sardinia.
It’s a true paradise, developed to the highest standards, with jet-set vibes that somehow blend effortlessly with the scenic natural surroundings.
Capriccioli Beach, for example, is a prime example of what the Costa Smeralda can offer, with pristine sands and calm, shallow, family-friendly waters.
Principe Beach is another gem, which has been ranked among the most beautiful beaches on the planet and offers Caribbean-style conditions in the heart of the Mediterranean.
Liscia Ruja Beach, also known as Long Beach, because of its length, is another amazing spot with pink hues among the sand and emerald waters.
And there are other great Olbia beaches outside the Costa Smeralda region, like Cala Brandinchi – nicknamed ‘little Tahiti’ – or Pittulongu, which is the closest beach to the city and often visited by locals.
In Cagliari, there’s a big beach within walking distance of the city center.
It’s called Poetto Beach, and it runs for close to five miles, providing plenty of space for locals and tourists alike to have fun and relax. This beach also gets pretty lively in the evenings, with nearby clubs and parties into the night.
For something more quiet and romantic, travelers can head over to places like Cala Fighera – this tiny cove is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers – or Calamosca Beach, which has super fine, white sand and crystal clear swimming waters, as well as views over an old lighthouse.
Sant’Elia Beach is another popular spot with some great coastal walking trails to enjoy, while Mari Pintau is a huge beach with stunning scenery and special waters with so many blue hues – the name of this beach means ‘Painted Sea’ in English, because it’s so beautiful, it looks more like a painting than reality.
Overall, when it comes to beaches, Cagliari has the convenience factor, with Poetto beach being really close and easy to access. However, Olbia takes the win for sheer beauty, as the beaches of the Costa Smeralda are simply unmatched.
Which Is Best For Activities?
Beaches will undoubtedly take up some of your time in either Olbia or Cagliari, but there are several more things to see and do in and around these Sardinian cities.
Let’s take a look at some of the main attractions and must-see landmarks for each location.
Olbia: The Activities
Olbia may not have as many landmarks as Cagliari, but there are still some pleasant sights to see here, starting off with the Basilica di San Simplicio.
This ancient church may look relatively simple on the outside, but once you step through the doors, you’ll find beautiful art and a huge, hidden necropolis, which can be explored on a guided tour.
San Paolo Church is another pretty place to visit, with various relics and paintings inside, and the Olbia Archaeological Museum is the perfect place to learn about the city’s past – remains of ancient Roman ships can be admired here.
Just outside the museum, you might like to take a ride on the Olbia Ferris Wheel, which stands some 118 feet tall and enjoys awesome views.
Simply strolling around Olbia’s historic center is a nice way to spend a few hours, and the main street – Corso Umberto – is where you can browse local boutiques and admire some of the oldest and most interesting buildings in the city.
Or, you can leave Olbia behind to visit surrounding landmarks, like Pedres Castle and the Giants’ Tomb.
Olbia also tends to liven up at certain special times of year for festivals and celebrations, and you might like to time your visit to coincide with one of these special occasions, like the San Simplicio celebration in May or the boat procession of San Giovanni e Madonna del Mare in June.
Cagliari: The Activities
Compared to Olbia, Cagliari has many more landmarks, museums, and typical tourist attractions to check out.
There are some spectacular archaeological sites and ancient ruins, like the city’s very own Roman amphitheater, as well as beautiful religious buildings, like the awe-inspiring Cagliari Cathedral.
Most travelers will spend a lot of time roaming around the medieval Castello, which sits on a hill, overlooking the city, and boasts old fortifications, like large walls and towers.
However, the other historic districts, like Marina and Villanova, are also perfect for exploration, with churches and monuments of their own to uncover.
The Citadel of Museums is a great place to spend a day, with a collection of museums and galleries.
And Cagliari also has lots of pretty parks to explore – Monte Urpinu Park is the largest, with lots of walking paths and dense forests to help you feel a million miles from the big city, and Terramaini Park is super for spotting local wildlife, including flamingos.
Like Olbia, Cagliari also has several fun festivals that you might like to experience, depending on the dates of your trip.
The Feast of Sant’Efis is the most exciting date on Cagliari’s calendar, with thousands of locals dressing up and parading through the streets. Other options for live entertainment include theater shows and football games of the Cagliari Calcio team.
Overall, it’s clear that Cagliari is by far the livelier and more action-packed destination, with lots more cultural activities and things to keep you busy for a whole week or more.
Olbia, meanwhile, can mostly be seen in just a couple of days and is best-used as a base for visiting other places, like the Smeralda Coast.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
If you’re the sort of person who likes to stay out late and party into the early hours at clubs and bars, you’ll love Cagliari.
There are lots of great nightclubs and lively bars, especially down in the Marina district, near the water.
Poetto Beach has some energetic beach clubs, too, and there’s no shortage of great places to drink, dance, and mingle with the locals.
Over in Olbia, the nightlife scene is much more subdued.
Most of the locals and tourists who want to party actually leave the city behind and head along the coast to San Teodoro, which has quite an impressive array of nightclubs and beach parties.
But Olbia itself is pretty lacking in this department and tends to feel quite quiet in the evenings.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
When it comes to shopping on Sardinia, there are lots of souvenirs you can buy to take home with you, like locally-made ceramics, cork products, jewelry, or wine.
You can also find big-brand European stores and Italian designer clothing for sale on the island, but which city offers the best shopping between Olbia and Cagliari?
Well, there’s not much of a contest in this category. While Olbia has some high-end and cheaper shops and souvenir stores along the Corso Umberto, it’s not really a shopper’s paradise.
Cagliari, meanwhile, is one of the very best places to shop on the whole of Sardinia, with everything from upmarket boutiques to antique emporiums.
There are lots of great places to shop in Cagliari, from the La Rinascente department store to the modern outdoor mall in Villanova.
Streets like Via Garibaldi are lined with independent boutiques for budget-friendly treasures, and you can also find recognizable designer names along the Via Sulis.
Which Is Best For Hiking?
If you love to get out into nature and spend hours hiking along trails and admiring the scenery, Sardinia is an idyllic destination for you.
No wonder too as there are lots of great trails to try, including the famous ‘Path of 100 Towers’, which runs around the island’s entire coastline, passing by more than 100 towers – it’s the longest trekking trails in all of Italy.
The Path of 100 Towers starts and ends in Cagliari, and it’s the most famous route to try if you happen to be staying in the capital. Given that Cagliari also has many large parks, there are also plenty of other places to walk here without even needing to leave the city limits, like Monte Urpinu and Monte Claro.
The Molentargius – Saline Regional Park is quite close to Cagliari, too, giving you even more trails to check out, and the Sella del Diavolo – or Devil’s Saddle – is a short and simple trail that pretty much anyone can accomplish, offering super sea views over the Gulf of Cagliari – you can reach this trail from Poetto Beach.
Olbia has some spectacular hiking trails of its own, from the challenging Via Sole Ruiu to the breathtaking Sentiero delle Due Signore – this old pilgrimage route connects two churches and passes through some of the prettiest landscapes in the region.
Of course, the Costa Smeralda is also a super spot for hiking enthusiasts. There are some amazing trails passing along the coastline, and you can visit villages like San Pantaleo for long coastal walks or head inland to the likes of Monte Limbara for thick forests and rugged mountain views.
Overall, it’s tough to choose a winner here, as both cities are great hiking destinations. Cagliari is quite convenient, thanks to its local green spaces, while the hikes around Olbia have the benefit of usually being quite quiet and tranquil.
Which Has The Best Food?
When it comes to food, you can’t really go wrong in Sardinia, as all of the big towns and cities – including Olbia and Cagliari – have great restaurants serving up the island’s specialties, with locally-grown ingredients and delicious, flavorful dishes.
With that said, you’ll find it easier to enjoy stunning meals in Cagliari.
It’s a bigger place with way more eateries and lots of different options. It’s also got some of the best seafood on the entire island, with incredible fish dishes and some sublime local wines, like Giro.
Olbia has a few top quality restaurants, too, and is particularly well-known for its mussels – there’s even a Mussels Festival here, once a year. You can find excellent pastries and soups in Olbia too, but Cagliari still takes the win.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
If you’re heading to Sardinia as a family, you may find it tricky to choose between Olbia and Cagliari.
Olbia has the benefit of some nearby water parks, with a quieter and calmer atmosphere and world-class beaches, while Cagliari can offer many more tourist and cultural experiences, with its museums and medieval monuments.
Overall, the right choice will depend on what your family enjoys the most, as well as the ages of your children.
Those with young kids might prefer the calmer, resort-like vibes around Olbia, with lots of beaches for fun in the sun.
Meanwhile, older children and teens will surely prefer the more dynamic and diverse destination of Cagliari, and it’s much better-suited to longer trips.
Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
For couples, there are pros and cons to both Olbia and Cagliari.
If you’re looking for romance and relaxation, Olbia is a lovely place to base yourself.
The Caribbean-like Costa Smeralda beaches are fabulous for couples who want to simply soak up the sun, and there are some charming ways to spend your time, like boat rides to the nearby Tavolara and Molara islands.
Cagliari is a little less classically romantic, but it’s still an awesome place for couples to spend some quality time together.
It’s especially appealing for active couples who want to pack their days with activities, with so many museums to wander around, historic buildings to admire, and parks to while away the hours, hand-in-hand with someone special.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
If you’re heading to Sardinia to do some backpacking, Olbia isn’t necessarily the best location to choose.
It’s more expensive than Cagliari and local public transportation leaves a lot to be desired, making it pretty difficult to get around. You may also struggle to find much to do in this particular city.
In contrast, Cagliari is arguably the best city in all of Sardinia for backpacking.
It’s got lots of hostels to pick from where you can sleep cheaply and mingle with other travelers, and there are excellent transport links to places all over the island, allowing you to explore to your heart’s content.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Luxury: The five-star Palazzo Tirso Cagliari MGallery is one of those hotels we all want to stay in at somepoint in our lifetime. Alongside celebrity treatment you’ll also enjoy their fantastic outdoor pool. See photos and rates!
Which Is Cheaper?
Cost is another big factor to think about when planning your Sardinian getaway, and one of the general rules of thumb to follow for this island is that the northern part tends to be more expensive than the south.
So, in terms of costs, Cagliari is definitely the cheaper option.
There’s not a huge difference between the two, but since Cagliari is bigger, you’ll have a wider choice of accommodation options and places to eat, which makes it much easier to save money and travel on a budget.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
One of the best things about visiting Olbia or Cagliari is that both of these cities have their own international airports, with plenty of direct flights all over Europe.
However, you might find it a little easier to access Cagliari over Olbia.
The reason for this is that many of the flights to Olbia Airport are seasonal and don’t run all-year long. So, if you happen to be visiting Sardinia outside of the peak touristic season, it’s much easier to get to Cagliari, with its bigger airport and wider range of flights.
However, if you’re flying to the island in summer, there’s really not much difference at all, and both cities are easy to access, with comparable flight prices.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
When it comes to getting around, you may have some big decisions to make, like whether or not you need to rent a car.
In Cagliari, a car probably won’t be needed, as there are so many public buses, trains, and other transportation systems to take you where you need to go.
However, in Olbia, while the city itself is very compact and easy to walk around, most people will want to visit nearby places like the Costa Smeralda beaches. For that, having a car is a big advantage, as it gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want.
There are some public buses in and around Olbia, but service is pretty limited, and it can be tricky to figure out the right routes and times.
Fortunately, Cagliari has no such problem and is generally an easy city to get around, despite being quite large.
Olbia vs Cagliari: Which Is The Better Choice?
So, when it comes to Olbia vs Cagliari, which city comes out on top? Well, the clear winner here has to be Cagliari, with the capital city winning in most of the key categories throughout our guide, from shopping to nightlife.
There’s simply so much to see and enjoy in Cagliari. It’s much more of a genuine touristic destination than Olbia, thanks to its many museums, parks, and beautiful buildings, and it has a lively nightlife scene and some super food to make it even more appealing, along with low average prices and easy accessibility.
In contrast, Olbia as a city isn’t particularly interesting, with only a few notable landmarks and a relatively subdued nightlife scene.
However, it is a good base for exploring the northern part of the island, and if you want to see the Costa Smeralda, this is definitely the right city to choose, with pleasant, romantic vibes and breathtaking local beaches.