Olbia is both a port and airport city in north-east Sardinia. Holiday makers on their way to nearby Costa Smeralda often leave without giving the place a second glance. After dropping a friend off at the airport, I decided to spend a few hours exploring Olbia and was pleasantly surprised by its atmosphere and history. There’s a lot more to this fascinating city than meets the eye. Here are my suggestions for things to do and see in Olbia if all you have is an afternoon or a few hours.

A view of Chiesa San Paolo in Olbia, Sardinia
The church of San Paolo in Olbia with its strikingly coloured domed roof. Photograph © Gda/Wikimedia

Olbia’s name is Greek in origin – meaning ‘happy town’. The first settlement here was established by the Phoenicians around 750 BC. Since then, the city has been a Roman port, the capital of a Medieval Sardinian kingdom, and an Aragonese colony (nothing is ever simple when Sardinia’s history is concerned). It has also changed names more times than some well-known pop artists (Phausiana … Civita … Terranova). With a history of conquest and uncertainty, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that modern-day Olbia began to take shape. The building of highways and a railway being the catalyst.

Today, Olbia is a capital of the Olbia-Tempio province. It is best known as an industrial centre and for its ferry, airport and railway connections. Look beyond this (as I did) and you will find Olbia to be an eclectic collage of piazzas, wine bars, boutiques and historical delights. I had a fantastic afternoon exploring the city centre and was won over by its subtle charm. So based on my experience, here are a few things you can do to make your visit a cracker …

A side street view with a local cafe in Olbia, Sardinia

Wine bars and cafes can be found hidden away down Olbia’s many colourful side streets

Visit the Museo archeologico di Olbia

The Museo Archeologico in Olbia.

Located at Olbia’s harbour and on its very own island, the Museo Archeologico’s concrete exterior is divisively ‘marmite’ in terms of taste. Upon entering though that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Inside, the museum ‘s multiple levels are smart and contemporary. The various displays and artefacts engage with Olbia’s local history from prehistoric to Roman times and beyond. The highlight for me was gazing upon the 2000 year old remains of a Roman cargo vessel uncovered from the ancient harbour! Easy to lose a couple of hours in here … and you’ll come away with a head full of facts. Free English speaking audio devices are provided.

Marvel at the basilica of san simplicio

A view of the Basilicia San Simplicio in Olbia, Sardinia

When I cast my mind back to seeing the church of San Simplicio … the word ‘iconic’ seems tame. It is a truly magnificent building. Located in the centre of Olbia, the basilica is just a short walk from Piazza Margherita. Arguably, this granite grandfather is the best-preserved example of Romanesque architecture in northern Sardinia. Constructed between the 11th and 12th Century, the Church is built on an ancient pagan temple-site and dedicated to San Simplicio – the patron saint of Olbia. Inside, can be found two Romanesque frescoes, stone inscriptions and statues of the Madonna and San Simplicio himself. Entry times can be a little random so my advice is to get there earlier than later!

Check out that funky dome at Chiesa San Paolo

The multi-coloured dome of Chiesa San Paolo in Olbia.

Just a gelato-cone’s throw from Corso Umberto (not a recommended activity) is a colourful surprise. At first glance, I imagined that such a feature could only have been created by psychedelically-induced hippies of the late 1960s. Alas, the Church of San Paolo’s multi-coloured polychrome dome was added around 1939. The building itself is constructed from granite and dates to the 18th Century. Its clever design appears cross-like with its central bell tower and two other peaks protruding from a rectangular frame. I discovered Venetian features, a marble altar, beautiful statues, and even a pair of 17th Century sandals inside! My tip … bring a camera! Photograph © Gianni Careddu/Wikimedia

Discover Olbia’s Souvenirs and Trading Past

Sardinian jewelry made from precious red coral

If local crafts and retail therapy are your thing, then Olbia’s boutique shops are definitely going to float your boat. As I explored Corso Umberto (with obvious euro signs in my eyes), I noticed an array of items made from a popular Sardinian export. Red coral. Artisans in Sardinia have been crafting fine jewelry and other commodities from this sought-after material since ancient times (6th Century BC). Its trade continued into the Roman era and thrived during the Medieval Period. Today, beautiful examples of red coral objects can be found all over Sardinia. Souvenirs in Olbia also come in the form of locally produced cork, perfume and clothing. Photograph © Marco Busdraghi/Wikimedia

Piazzas, espresso and people watching

A fresh espresso ordered at a cafe in one of Olbia's many piazzas

What struck me about Olbia’s centre is its lively atmosphere. There are shop-lined streets and piazzas galore to explore. Why not sit back and watch the world go by at Olbia’s central square Piazza Margherita. I was spoilt for choice in terms of outside spots to enjoy a freshly ground espresso (of course I prevailed in the end). If the afternoon sun is proving too hot to handle, then try the market square at Piazza Mercato with its shade-inspiring roof. Perhaps you would prefer the hum of bustling wine bars along Corso Umberto? Wherever you choose, Olbia’s streets and squares and alfresco cafes and bars are the perfect place to people watch.

Something to Ponder …

As the sun began to set, it was time to leave this understated city behind. I could easily have driven from the airport straight back to my apartment earlier on. Oh boy was I glad that I didn’t. My advice … don’t drive past Olbia, as you will be missing out on a place that has a surprising amount to offer. Why not explore? You may even stumble upon the last remaining section of Punic wall (near Piazza Mercato), or a stretch of ancient paving outside the town hall at Corso Umberto. Is it too cliche to say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’? By all means when visiting Sardinia enjoy the beaches of the Costa Smeralda, but spend an afternoon in the ‘happy town’. Visit Olbia.