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And suddenly there is Cagliari: a naked town rising steep, steep, golden-looking, piled naked to the sky …

So wrote DH Lawrence in 1921 on sailing to Sardinia. Almost 100 years later the city that made the writer “think of Jerusalem” is just as impressive.

The Phoenicians had a trading port here in the eighth century BC, and the city was later fought over by Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Spanish and Piedmontese. How these various invaders felt about sunshine, white sand and turquoise sea is not recorded, but they could get them all at Poetto beach, five miles of palm-lined splendour a 15-minute bus ride from the centre (route PF or PQ, €1.20).

Get off at Via Gorgona for toddler-friendly shallow sea, or stay on three stops to 16th-century Torre Spagnola: beyond here there is a couple of miles of “free beach”. The seafront path is well-used by joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists; there are also diving and sailing clubs, beach volleyball and more.

Poetto is long enough not to feel too crowded even in August, and the water stays warm well into autumn. On summer evenings it’s buzzing as city workers hit its bars and fish restaurants. Behind is Molentargius natural park, with lagoons, flamingoes and bikes to hire.

For a break from the beach, or for those who don’t want to lie in the sun, Cagliari has more cultural offerings than might be expected from a city of 150,000 people. The former Royal Arsenal is now the Citadel of Museums, home to the national art gallery (good for contemporary Sardinian artists) and museum of archaeology plus an Asian gallery, an ethnographic museum and a startlingly graphic museum of anatomical waxworks.

Nearby, Cagliari’s Roman amphitheatre (€3) is being restored: there is talk of a Unesco listing, though for now it’s still untidy and crumbling. Below it, the university botanical garden (€4) is cool and shady on a hot day.

The granite and limestone St Remy bastion, built in 1896, has curving steps to a vast terrace with benches and palm trees, home to a Sunday flea market. The covered promenade beneath has been restored as an art space. Behind it, steep Via dell’Università leads back several centuries into the medieval old town, Castello. Torre del’Elefante, built in 1307, with a little stone elephant carved into one side, used to guard its western entrance. Visitors can climb this and Torre di San Pancrazio on higher ground to the north, for amazing views (€4 each).

A short walk away, via alleys barely wide enough for a Fiat Cinquecento, is Cagliari’s 12th-century cathedral, with its striking pale gold facade of stacked arches. The old town hall across the square also holds contemporary art exhibitions.

The Guardian "Cities by the sea: six great beach towns in Europe"

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