Asinara Island, separated from Porto Torres – on the mainland – by a short tract of sea, is a typically Mediterranean wild land. Although being scarcely populated, it is an increasingly more demanded destination of tours, thanks to the presence of enchanting bays and beaches, and of low mountains with a charm of their own. This is, in fact, a mainly montainous area, its coastline stretching more than 68 miles (110 km). There is hardly any vegetation.
Among the most beautiful bays which have always attracted tourists from all over the world we can mention:
Cala d’Arena, reputed to be the most beautiful beach in the island, is one of the essential destinations of every tourist because of its everlasting allure. Among its peculiarities, an Aragonese tower dating back to the XVII century;
Cala Sant’Andrea, where a pearl-white beach entwines an immaculate sea, is accessible to the tourists only when accompanied by a Park guide due to its environmental importance;
Cala Sabina is no less than the others: a shimmering sea that only waits for the tourists, to give them unforgettable emotions. This is one of the few bathing beaches;
Cala Trabuccato, its rich undersea life and the low hills covered in the Mediterranean scrub are the main peculiarities of this one of a kind bay. Even if bathing is forbidden, you can reach the place by boat;
Cala Reale, the perfect starting point to explore the island for hikers and average tourists;
Cala d’Oliva, its small port hosts the docking points for boats departing from Stintino and Porto Torres.
Asinara Island: The Facts
Taking its name from the Latin sinuara – meaning sinuous and in reference to its shape – Asinara hasn’t always been an uninhabited island, and the abandoned buildings and leftover prisons are there as proof! Asinara has been many things. It was once a community of shepherds and fishermen, a maximum-security prison facility, and even a sanatorium for lepers. During WWI, Asinara was where 20,000 prisoners of war were held; 7,000 died of illnesses, leaving mass graves and ossuaries scattered around the island.
With such a colored history, Asinara was referred to as the Italian Alcatraz. In the 20th century, it held famous criminals, including more than a few mob bosses.Asinara was finally (metaphorically and literally) put to rest in 2002 when the island was officially made into a national park (Asinara National Park). It threw open its doors and welcomed visitors to enjoy its stunning natural beauty and curious wildlife, including albino donkeys.
Now, without further ado, let me tell you about the many things to see and do on the island.
Things To See And Do In Asinara
In my humble opinion, hiking is definitely the best way to get to know the island of Asinara. With a wide variety of hiking trails that span all the difficulty levels, the trails in Asinara will always lead you to beautiful places and lovely views.
Curious about the Asinara’s hiking trails? I’ll walk you through the best ones.
Sentiero del Granito is a circular-loop trail that begins in Fornelli, which is where ferries dock from Stintino.
Sentiero del Castellaccio, which also originates in Fornelli, will take you all the way to a medieval castle that offers hikers sweeping views of the island. The hike takes around three hours and is moderate in difficulty. The hike up to the castle itself is the hardest part!
Sentiero dell’Acqua is another circular-loop trail starting at Fornelli and follows the coastline. It will bring you past a tiny lagoon that gives you a great bird watching opportunity!
Sentiero della Memoria trail begins at Cala Reale, where ferries from Porto Torres dock. It is one of my favorite trails as it brings hikers to some of the most historically significant locations on Asinara. Luckily, it’s another loop trail that will take you up to Campu Perdu, a prison that surprisingly grew vineyards.
Sentiero dell’Asino Bianco begins at Cala Reale and goes all the way to Trabuccato, where you will find an Aragonese watchtower. From the watchtower, you can soak up some truly marvelous views.
Sentiero del Leccio brings you to the tallest peak on Asinara. It begins at Cala d’Oliva and goes to the Punta della Scomunica peak at 408 meters above sea level.
Sentiero del Faro is my favorite hike by a long shot! After approximately one kilometer, you’ll hit Cala Sabina, the most beautiful (accessible) beach on the island. You’ll continue on the trail to Cala d’Arena, then on to the lighthouse. The views on this trail are unparalleled!
If you want to join a guided hike instead of taking to the trails yourself, local companies are happy to provide a guide. I recommend the company La Nassa.
One thing I want to mention is the temperature! Asinara can get seriously hot, so if you want to clock in some hours on the trails, I wouldn’t do it in the scorching summer months of June, July, or August. The rest of the year, you should be fine, though.
Enjoy the Beaches
Asinara is home to stunning beaches with powdery white sand that almost seems like spun sugar. The water is crystal clear and unbelievably unpolluted. You’ll swear you can see a thousand shades of blue covering all that spectrum of color has to offer.
Since Asinara is an uninhabited island, that affords the beaches a particular level of privacy and isolation. Even in the peak of high tourist season, you won’t be surrounded by swarming crowds of tourists with toddlers and colorful beach towels at any of the beaches in Asinara. Breathe. You’ll love it.
Cala Sabina is one of the top beaches in Asinara as it’s easily accessible, just a 15-minute walk from Cala d’Oliva. The walk itself is fun to do! On the beach, there are tables, benches, and a gazebo to enjoy if you need a break from lying on the sand.
Cala dei Detenuti is another of my favorite beaches. It’s a tiny cove with an abundance of trees offering plentiful shade. There’s also a constructed platform to allow you easy access to the water. There isn’t that much sand as the beach is quite small, but it’s private, isolated, and downright spectacular.
Lastly, I’ll mention Trabuccato beach; it’s my top swimming spot in Asinara. To find Trabuccato, head towards the bridge near the ossuary.
Keep in mind that not all of the beaches in Asinara are accessible to visitors. Some of them are heavily guarded and protected as they are important marine life areas. While it may sound tempting— don’t break the law! Allow those sweet marine creatures some peace. Cala Arena and Cala S. Andrea are officially off-limits to the public.
Sail Around the Island
Who doesn’t love the opportunity to get on a sailboat? Even if you’re not a skipper or a die-hard boat lover, sailing around Asinara is a memorable experience— guaranteed! There are quite a few sailing companies that will depart from Stintino and take you all around the island. You can expect sailing trips to cost approximately €100 per person. The sailing trips will generally include lunch and stop along the way for snorkeling and swimming.
Are you thinking that 52 square kilometers is a bit too far to explore on foot? I hear you! The entire island of Asinara is filled with extraordinary views and landscapes. If you don’t want to miss any of it, I recommend exploring it by bike.
Some of the hiking trails are too intense or gritty to be suitable for bikes, while other trails are perfect. Asinara does have a paved road meandering along the island that you’re welcome to bike on as there are basically no cars on the island.
This is quite a hilly island, which means the views are gorgeous, but you can expect some ups and downs on the trails. If you’re not comfortable riding a regular bicycle on hilly terrain, I recommend renting an e-bike. There are quite a few charging stations sprinkled throughout Asinara, so it’s a great way to explore without getting the extreme workout.
Diving and Snorkeling
Are you a diving pro, or is snorkeling more your style? You’re in luck! Asinara is one of the top diving and snorkeling spots in all of Sardinia. As Asinara is a protected area, the marine life is flourishing. You’ll see a stunning variety of Mediterranean fish and even some coral.
There are guided diving trips held on the island. The diving school is located in Cala d’Oliva and goes by the name Cala d’Oliva Diving. If you want to do a fun dive and aren’t certified, no problem! You’re welcome to join in for a fun dive. However, if you want to get officially certified in scuba diving, Cala d’Oliva Diving is happy to train and certify you.
If you’d rather opt for a snorkeling trip to Asinara, make sure to bring your own snorkeling gear. You’ll be able to just pop into the water wherever you want – except in those restricted areas.
Admire Local Wildlife
Unsurprisingly, as a protected nature preserve, Asinara is famous for its unique wildlife. Of course, you won’t see a lion, tiger, or bear. And this isn’t Thailand either with monkeys and elephants… but there are plenty of beautiful animals to see in their natural habitat. No bars, fences, or chains. These animals are roaming free and living their lives, and I positively love that! The wild donkeys are particularly fun to watch; they are everywhere! And did you know the island is famous for its albino donkeys?
There are plenty of wild boars, goats, and mouflons that you can see around the island as well. In the skies, you can spot gorgeous birds like peregrine falcons.
Visit the Prisons
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Asinara was once the location of a maximum-security prison that was considered the Italian version of Alcatraz island. There are a total of ten prisons on the island!
The central prison is the one located at Fornelli. In the 1970s, Fornelli was where people accused of acts of terrorism were kept, as well as members of the mafia.
At the time of writing this, Fornelli prison is closed to the public for restoration. However, you can still try to see it from the outside – it’s quite shocking in its size and stature!
The other prison I would recommend visiting is Trabuccato, which was erected right after WWI for the sole purpose of detaining dangerous criminals. Interestingly, the prisoners were forced to tend to a nearby vineyard. Sadly, no remnants of the vineyard are seen, and no grapes are produced on Asinara anymore. If only there were a way to sample Asinara wine!
The prison of Campu Perdu was also founded directly after WWI; however, the buildings had already been built for other purposes, and Campu Perdu simply commandeered them! The prisoners at Campu Perdu also used to tend to the fertile land that encompassed the prison.
Another prison worth mentioning is situated in Cala d’Oliva. There are actually two very different sides to this prison. The prison was divided so it could hold two mafia bosses separately and ensure that no communication could take place between them. The prisoners at Cala d’Oliva were also able to farm and take care of the land.
In total, prisons existed on Asinara for 112 years. The prisons held thousands of people. Of those thousands, only one prisoner escaped: a man by the name of Matteo Boe escaped the island in 1986. While he wasn’t a high-profile criminal, he certainly will go down in history as the only man to successfully flee the prisons on Asinara!
Asinara is also where Italian public prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino spent months to prepare the trial against mafia bosses. They were both tragically killed.
Walk Around the Cala d’Oliva Village
I want to be clear that Cala d’Oliva is the only real village on Asinara; however, it has been uninhabited since 1885, when Asinara became a maximum-security prison. In recent years, Cala d’Oliva has opened a few services that are seasonally kept open for the tourists.
There is a hostel, a coffee shop, a diving shop, and a ranger station. There are also a couple of historic buildings to see, like a church and a school. Keep in mind that the village of Cala d’Oliva will only take about 30 minutes to explore (not including two prisons), yet it is a spot that shouldn’t be missed!
The village of Cala d’Oliva faces the Mediterranean Sea. A 17th-century Aragonese watchtower stands like a sentinel, proudly watching the village and ocean.
Admire the Aragonese towers
As I just alluded to, there are three Aragonese watchtowers erected on the island of Asinara. The first tower was constructed in 1609 in Trabuccato and can be toured from the inside. The second was built in 1611 in Cala d’Oliva. The third was also constructed in 1611 at Cala d’Arena. These conical towers are a stunning feat of architecture. They’re not to be missed!
Walk up the Ossuary
Not too far away from Campu Perdu, there is a lovely swimming spot. Next to that swimming spot is an ossuary. Perhaps you’re not familiar with the word ossuary? An ossuary is a building – or a well or container – where bones are stored.
This Ossuary in Asinara was constructed in 1936 when so many prisoners of war were dying from illness on the island. It is estimated that the bones from 7,000 bodies are stored in this ossuary.
Shop for Locally Made Products
Given that Asinara is such a small island, it probably comes as no surprise that there is only one shop where you can find local products. This shop goes by the name Farmasinara. It is a teeny-tiny building tucked behind the restaurant in Cala Reale. Inside Farmasinara, you will swoon over the charming products and items they sell. Whenever I visit, I always stock up on their hand-made, high-quality cosmetic products. Need a new lip balm or lotion? Farmasinara is the place to go.
How to Get to Asinara
Since I’ve probably pumped you up about your trip to Asinara, it’s high time that I explain how to actually get there! The best way to travel to the island of Asinara from mainland Sardinia is by ferry.
During the summer, in peak tourist season, Delcomar has three daily ferries departing from Porto Torres and docking at Cala Reale. The departure times are 8:15 am, 11:30 am, and 4:30 pm. The trip duration is approximately 90 minutes and costs €15 one way or €20 for a round trip ticket. The departure times from Cala Reale heading back to Porto Torre are: 9:45 am, 1:00 pm, and 6:00 pm.
There is another ferry option: the Linea del Parco / Ausonia ferries leave the tourist harbor of Stintino and head directly to Fornelli. Two ferries make the trip each day, at 9:30 am and 10:30 am. The duration of the ferry ride is only 30 minutes. The ferry from Fornelli to Stintino leaves the port at 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm.
How to Explore Asinara
Sorry, folks! Exploring Asinara by car isn’t an option. Given that this is such a tiny island, to really soak up the beauty, it’s best to do so by bicycle or on foot. If you do happen to see a car, it’s likely a police car or a singular van. This one van belongs to the hostel and is permitted on the island for errands and various sundry tasks. No other cars are permitted on Asinara!
The best way to explore Asinara and appreciate its marine beauty is by boat. However, as this is a national park it can be tricky knowing where stopping and docking is allowed, so you may want to opt for a boat tour. The best ones are usually catamaran tours. They depart from Stintino tourist harbor, include lunch and stops for swimming and snorkeling in various places, plus a couple of hours in Cala d’Oliva to explore the village and the jail.
As I’ve already mentioned, the best way to get the most out of your Asinara trip is on a bicycle. There are bicycle rental companies in Fornelli or Cala Reale. You can also rent bicycles at Porto Torres or in Stintino right before boarding your ferry. You’re welcome to bring a bike on the ferry; however, there is an additional fee.
There are electronic bicycles available to rent too – please take note that the ferry ride from Stintino is more expensive if you carry a bike. As the island is very hilly and biking can be quite challenging, I wholeheartedly recommend opting for an e-bike.
By Electric Car
Okay, maybe I was a bit of a tease earlier. If you don’t feel like biking or walking, there is a car option out there – an electric car! There are two-seat and four-seat electric cars available to rent for around 100 euros per day. These cars are available for rental at Fornelli or Cala Reale. Definitely reserve your car in advance! For reference, the electric car rental company’s number is +39 079512290.
By Train on Wheels
Surprisingly, there are a couple of trains in Asinara. While there aren’t railroads or anything, these trains will take you around the island on wheels. You can expect the train ticket to cost around €45 to €55 for the whole day, with discounted tickets for children. The train does stop around the island so passengers can get out and explore!
On a Jeep Tour
While there are many ways to explore Asinara, if you’re on a time crunch, I recommend taking a jeep tour. As soon as you get off the ferry, you can hop right on a jeep tour! The maximum number of people per jeep is seven, and the cost is between €60 and €120 depending on the duration and departure point. Jeeps do have to be booked in advance, though.
In my opinion, the public bus is basically a myth. It hasn’t been up and running for the past two years, but if it magically starts running again, I’ll update you here and share the good news.
When to Visit Asinara
My favorite time of year to visit Asinara is the springtime, between March and June. These months afford Asinara warm yet mild temperatures, perfect for hiking and swimming. You won’t be dripping hot, and you won’t be cold enough to avoid the sea. Plus, in the spring months, wildflowers coat the land; it’s positively stunning to bear witness to.
How Long to Stay in Asinara
Most of the people who visit Asinara choose to do so on a day trip. However, I advocate that you consider staying for a couple of nights, if possible. Since the island has a hostel and a hotel, you can find accommodation there as well as meals. The seclusion of the island makes it a magical place.
Asinara comes alive at night in the silence. The sky blooms with stars, and the winds whisk soft animal sounds to your ears paired with the swishing of the waves. Need a moment of peace? Asinara is where you can find it.
Where to Stay and Eat in Asinara
Asinara has a rather simple hostel located in Cala d’Oliva. It offers guests the choice of dorms and private rooms. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price, yet are not of the highest quality. The meals are more like school-cafeteria food and less like delicious Italian meals. That being said, it is a relatively budget-friendly option.
The more luxe way to go is the recently opened hotel called La Locanda del Parco. It is exclusive as it only has a total of six rooms! However, they are enormously comfortable and have more design flair. Plus, they have an in house restaurant that is known for locally sourced fish and seafood dishes.
There are only two other options on the island of Asinara to get a bite to eat. There is the restaurant in Cala Reale, as well as a quaint little coffee shop. There’s also a restaurant in Cala d’Oliva called Asino Bianco. I haven’t tried the restaurant in Cala Reale, but I love the sandwiches at Asino Bianco; it’s a cozy restaurant where you’ll feel right at home.