Sardinia or Sicily – Where to Travel Next

Written by Rem Malloy, since 1995 Rem has been guiding and designing trips to Italy and all of Western Europe and is considered an expert in his field for over 30 years.

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Sardinia and Sicily are two of the most famous Italian island regions. They are both located in the Mediterranean Sea, both have distinctive cultures and thrilling histories, and both make ideal vacation destinations for those looking to explore a different side of Italy when they visit the country. 

But with so many similarities, choosing which place to visit is a tricky task. Each region has its own unique charm and outstanding features that will appeal to different kinds of traveller, but both are also outstanding destinations for a beach holiday and a chance to explore the Italian coast.

To help guide your decision, here’s our rundown on choosing between visiting Sicily or Sardinia.

HISTORY

Sardinia is an island region of Italy that lies on the west coast of the country in the Mediterranean Sea. Evidence suggests that there have been inhabitants on Sardinia since the Neolithic times, with traces of a Bronze-Age community still found on the island in the form of large burial sites and massive stone columns.

After prospering for many years as a Mediterranean trading destination, between the 8th and 9th centuries B.C Sardinia was visited by people from other countries and cultures who began to settle on the island and influence its status. First came the Phonecians, who were attracted to the farming opportunities on the island and quickly developed several colonies.

In the 6th century B.C, Carthaginians arrived in Sardinia and began an invasion that left them with all the power. After many years of struggle between the inhabitants of the island, the Romans took control of Sardinia in 238 B.C and ruled for the next seven centuries.

The next significant historical event in Sardinia occurred at the start of the 11th century when troops from Pisa and Genoa ended the rule of Arab colonies on the island and trading massively opened up between the area and other parts of the Mediterranean. After falling under Catalonian rule in the 1400s, Sardinia eventually joined the unification of Italy in the late 1800s, although Catalan is still spoken in various places around the island.

Sardinia suffered from being exploited for its natural resources after it became a part of Italy, but the region was granted autonomy over infrastructure in 1948 which helped the island recover and become the prosperous vacation destination it still is today.

Sicily is one of the best-known regions in Italy, characterised by the fact that it floats just off the ‘toe’ of the boot-shaped country. The island is the largest Italian region and has a long history that involves many different rulers and inhabitants that have all left their mark on the area.

The region was first significantly colonised by ancient Greek settlers in the 8th century B.C, building houses and temples that still partially remain around the island. In 212 B.C Roman troops invaded Sicily and took control of most of the region, ruling for six hundred years until the island was invaded again by Byzantine and then Arabic troupes.

Both of these cultures left lasting influences on the island’s inhabitants, with many examples of Arab and Byzantine art and architecture still found around Sicily today.

In 1071, Sicily experienced an era of political and economic prosperity after becoming an independent kingdom that was ruled by the Normans. This control lasted until the 17th century when the region was passed between several different countries and finally became a Spanish island right at the start of the 18th century.

After merging with Naples as a joint kingdom during Bourbon rule, Sicily joined the unification of Italy in the late 1800s. It was declared an autonomous region of the country in 1946, but still retains more Mediterranean and Greek influences than any other Italian location.

Both Sicily and Sardinia have a rich and fascinating history, with totally different backgrounds that make it hard to choose between the two. If you’re looking for classic historical sites and lots of Greek history then Sicily is the best option, whereas Sardina has much older examples of ancient monuments and has more Roman history than the other island.

CULTURE

The culture in Sicily is well known as being one of the most unique in the whole of Italy. This is due to the varied history of different inhabitants who have lived on and controlled the island over the past two thousand years, along with its position in the Mediterranean Sea. 

When it comes down to art, theatre and literature, Sicily has less of a cultural offering than many mainland Italian regions. There are a good array of museums, galleries and entertainment venues scattered across the island, but if you’re really after a cultural holiday then places like Rome and Florence have a lot more to see.

However, Sicily has a very distinct culture when it comes down to the way that locals live their life, combining elements of classic Italian culture with Greek and Mediterranean philosophy, food, politics and language. Religion is also an important part of life in the region, with celebrations around Easter and Christmas known for being particularly impressive.

Sardinian culture has also been influenced by its past inhabitants, along with a strong sense of autonomy from mainland Italy. Whilst Italian is the main language spoken on the island, the Sardinian language Sardo is still widely used, with different aspects varying between villages and towns.

There’s a strong sense of living life simply on Sardinia, so the island doesn’t have much of a cultural scene as past inhabitants tended to be farmers and traders who cared mostly about looking after the land. There’s a strong sense of pride in the island and the local culture however, with several cultural attractions in the larger towns and cities.

The Christian religion is also a big part of Sardinian culture, as it is across most of Italy, although many annual festivals and celebrations have an edge of pagan influence that stems from the island’s past as an agricultural destination.

Neither location stands out when it comes to things like art, theatre, music and literature, although Sicily is probably the better choice because it is the larger location and has more on offer in its cities. Both regions have their own unique culture and fierce pride about their islands, so you’ll find a different experience of Italian life whichever you visit.

ARCHITECTURE

The architecture of Sardinia is varied, with traces of all past inhibitors still found around the island. One of the most notable architectural highlights is the Nuraghe defensive buildings that are over a thousand years old and thought to have been built in the Bronze Age. There are around 7000 nuraghi to be found across Sardinia, in various states of preservation.

As in many Italian locations, Sardinia is home to a variety of churches built in Byzantine and Romanesque styles that are lovely to visit for an afternoon. Romanesque architecture features heavily across the island, with castles and towers dotted around Sardinia as well as plenty of cathedrals and churches. 

There are also a lot of examples of classic coastal architecture in Sardinia, with many towns consisting of pastel-coloured houses built up the cliffs and hills. 

The range of historical architecture in Sicily is outstanding, particularly when you consider that the island is relatively small in size. There are ruins from a wide range of eras including Byzantine, Arabic, African and Norman design, but the most impressive historic architecture is the ruins of Ancient Greek and Roman buildings.

An architectural highlight for many visitors to the island is The Valley of the Temples; a huge archaeological park that is home to numerous preserved ruins that were once ancient temples. Other must-see sites include the Sicily Archaeological Park, Roman ruins in Tindari, the acropolis ruins at Selinunte and the Taormina Amphitheatre.

When it comes down to architecture, Sicily is the best choice for a brilliant array of Greek and Roman ruins. Fans of Romanesque design will find a lot more to enjoy in Sardinia, and the famous Bronze Age structures are also a highlight if you have an interest in very early human history.

FOOD

You’ll find plenty of classic Italian dishes around Sicily, but the region does have its own distinct cuisine that is heavily influenced by its geographic position and climate. On the coast you’ll find a delicious array of seafood, and elsewhere there is an emphasis on light flavours and vegetables, rice-based dishes like arancini, along with both mains and desserts that feature ricotta cheese as their signature ingredient.

Sicily is also known as being one of the best vineyard regions in Italy thanks to the incredibly fertile soil around Mount Etna, so if you’re a fan of fine wine then this is an excellent place to visit.

Sardinia has a similarly distinct cuisine that again has been influenced by the Mediterranean climate enjoyed by the island, its history of inhabitants and its proximity to other countries like France and Tunisia. As a past agricultural haven, the ingredients produced on the island are exceptional and many dishes focus on local produce like fish, cheese, fruit and bread. The seafood along the coast is excellent, and the wine produced in the region is also renowned.

Both Sicily and Sardinia offer a refreshing alternative to classic Italian cuisine if you visit either island, along with being excellent places for local wine.

SHOPPING

If you don’t mind a lack of large, high-street brands then Sardinia is actually a relatively good place to go shopping whilst you’re on vacation. In big cities like Caligari, you’ll find a range of big shops selling everything from clothing to souvenirs, but in the coastal towns there are a great number of boutique places to buy plenty of items, particularly in fashionable Porto Cervo.

Sicily’s size means that it has a bigger range of shops suitable for all budgets, although you won’t find the same selection of boutique and designer brands as in larger and more fashionable locations like Rome, Milan or Naples. Neither location is a stand-out shopping destination, but both have their hidden gems and well-stocked shopping malls.

COST

Sardinia is a particularly popular vacation destination with the rich and famous because it is beautiful, relatively small and doesn’t see as many tourists as places like Rome, Venice and Milan. For this reason it has a bit of a reputation for being expensive, but you shouldn’t let this put you off coming to visit.

Whilst you can enjoy a luxurious holiday splashing your cash in Sardinia, it’s no more expensive than many other regions in Italy. Some areas are more exclusive and expensive than others, but there are plenty of coastal and central locations that have dining, activities and accommodation options suitable for all budgets.

When it comes down to cost, Sicily is a brilliant holiday destination if you are looking to try and save money when you are visiting Italy. If you’re after luxury then you have plenty of options for high-end hotels and self-catering properties, but there are also numerous budget-friendly hostels and holiday apartments that cater to everyone.

It’s also quite easy to find free or cheap things to see and do in Sicily, thanks to the wide range of beaches around the island and the variety of nature reserves and green spaces that are great for walking, cycling or other activities. You also don’t have to spend a lot of money on food if you cook for yourself and visit smaller, locally-owned restaurants, although again there are lots of options for higher-end dining if you want.

If you want a wider variety of budget-friendly things to do and places to stay, Sicily has the better choice out of the two islands. But neither is an exceptionally expensive destination, despite Sarfina’s reputation as a holiday spot for the rich and famous.

THINGS TO DO

Sicily is a brilliant destination choice if you like your vacation locations to offer a really wide variety of different things to see and do. There’s plenty of sightseeing opportunities, beaches, sites with a fascinating history and lots of wild scenery to explore, along with the option to take day trips across to mainland Italy or other nearby islands.

Sardinia is known as being a top beach destination, so if you’re looking for an Italian vacation destination where you can spend all your time, swimming, sunbathing and soaking up the coastal atmosphere, this region is perfect. The beautiful landscape makes it a great place to enjoy outdoor activities on your holiday, whether you’re hiking, sailing, horse riding, cycling or exploring some of the historic sites around the island.

BEST FOR…

Sardinia is the best choice for the two locations for couples and travellers wanting romance or a bit more privacy on their trip, as it’s a less-touristy destination that has several exclusive holiday resorts and is known for attracting celebrities. It’s also the better choice for beach holidays, as many people believe the coast of Sardinia to be some of the most beautiful in all of Italy, with plenty of beaches and seaside towns to choose from.

If you’re looking for a jam-packed holiday itinerary then Sicily is the best choice for a destination that offers a range of things to keep you busy, whether you enjoy hiking, swimming, ancient history or wine tasting. Sicily’s distinctive culture gives visitors a different experience of Italy than other, classic locations and gives you the choice to spend time in cities, the countryside, the coast or a mix of all three.

If you’re thinking about a vacation to Sardinia or Sicily and would like the help of an expert to plan a unique trip to one of these Italian islands, get in touch with Italy4Real for friendly advice and bespoke itineraries.

About the Author

Rem Malloy started Italy4real back in 1995 with his mother, Deborah de Maio.

He specialises in Italian tours as well as customised tours to France, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Spain. He was also featured in the Travel Channel show Mysteries at The Museum in 2016.

Rem has family in Italy and his mothers home town is Cava di Terrani, near the Amalfi Coast. The family has a street named after them in Sorrento, Via Luigi de Maio; a relative who was mayor of Sorrento.

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