The second-largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia remains unique and enigmatic with its rugged coastline and white-sand beaches, dramatic granite cliffs, and mountainous inland tracts. Glamorous resorts lie within a short distance of quiet, medieval villages, and ruined castles and ancient churches testify to an eventful history. But although conquerors from all directions—Phoenicians,
Carthaginians, Romans, Catalans, Pisans, Piemontese—have left their traces, no outside culture has had a dominant impact. Pockets of foreign influence persist along the coasts, but inland, a proud Sardinian culture flourishes.
As a travel destination, Sardinia's identity is split: the island has some of Europe's most expensive resorts, but it's also home to pristine terrain untouched by commercial development. Fine sand and clean waters draw summer sun worshippers to beaches that rank among the Mediterranean's best. Most famous are those along the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), where the überrich have anchored their yachts since the 1960s. Less exclusive beach holidays can be had elsewhere on the island at La Maddalena, Villasimius, and Pula, and there are wonderfully intact medieval towns—Cagliari, Oristano, Sassari—on or near the water.
Apart from the glamorous shores and upscale locales found in the east, most of Sardinia’s coast is rugged and unreachable, a jagged series of wildly beautiful inlets accessible only by sea. Inland, Sardinia remains shepherd's country, silent and stark. Against this landscape are the striking and mysterious stone nuraghi (ancient defensive structures) that provide clues to the island’s ancient culture. Found only on Sardinia, these sites have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, described as "the finest and most complete example of a remarkable form of prehistoric architecture."