There is a lot that draws visitors to Malta – it’s an idyllic island destination with a favourable Mediterranean climate, it’s easily accessible from mainland Europe and most residents speak English, as it’s one of the country’s two official languages. But what most travellers don’t yet realise is that Malta is an attractive, enthralling holiday destination because of its interesting history, an abundance of culture, and the people’s amiability. Renowned for their hospitality, kindness and geniality, the country’s traditionally kind-hearted folk know precisely how to make visitors feel right at home.
Enviably positioned in the passageway between Africa and Europe, the Maltese archipelago includes several islands, with only the three largest – Malta, Gozo and Comino – inhabited. Spanning an area of just 316 square kilometres, it is one of the smallest archipelagos globally, yet there is so much to discover. Its small size also means its best spots can be visited with short travelling times, so you can get even more out of the time spent in the country.
With its history dating back 7,000 years, Malta has been inhabited since the Neolithic era. As such, its temples are some of the oldest in the world and they tell the stories of the nation’s intriguing past, which has seen it play host to the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Normans, the Crusaders, the French, the Knights of St. John, Napoleon and the British Empire.
The concentration of historical sites in Malta is unparalleled, making it the perfect destination for history lovers. A visit to the country’s stunning fortifications to admire their striking architecture is a must. As is a tour of Malta’s capital, Valletta, which has held UNESCO World Heritage site status since 1980.
Due to Malta’s sought-after position in the Mediterranean, it has been considered as a strategically significant naval base since its discovery, and up until as recently as World War II. This makes the country particularly intriguing as around every corner, unique artefacts and mementoes of its past unveil themselves. Walking through its towns and cities is like a journey through time, from the prehistoric era to the modern day.
The Maltese stand swollen with pride for their beautiful country, an understandable emotion when one considers the deep-rooted traditions and varied culture within its borders. Churches, palaces, gardens, theatres, museums and impressive forts punctuate its landscape, each boasting a distinctive personality and story.
One of Malta’s most popular cultural attractions is the grandiose St John’s Co-Cathedral, which overflows with ornate riches, including Mattia Preti’s intricate stone wall designs as well as a painted vaulted ceiling and side altars. Two masterpieces by Caravaggio are housed here, one of which is the Beheading of St John the Baptist, one of Europe’s most famous artworks. The church’s museum also showcases an impressive collection of Renaissance woodcut and copperplate prints and lithographs by the German artist Albrecht Durer. Coins, silverware, religious vestments and even Egyptian amulets are also kept here.
A block away, the Grand Master’s Palace glitters as the armour-suited guards line its marble corridors. Adorned with dazzling tapestries portraying exotic wildlife of the New World, visitors will be delighted with this show of beauty and artisanship.
Another palace worth visiting is Palazzo Parisio. Described as a miniature Versailles, this magnificent palazzo showcases Maltese and Italian craftsmanship from the turn of the 19th century. Lavishly decorated ceilings, murals, frescoes, fine stucco work and extravagant gilding find pride of place here. The palace is surrounded by lush, classically Baroque walled gardens that are among the finest in Malta.
Other architectural wonders that showcase the nation’s cultural richness include the Maltese theatres and opera houses. The Manoel Theatre is the most important performing arts venue in Malta. It is a historical monument of immense cultural value that dates back to 1731. It was built based on the request from Grand Master Fra António Manoel de Vilhena, from which its name originates. Small but pristine, this magnificent theatre – with its pale blue trompe-l’oeil ceiling, impressive central chandelier and perfect acoustics – can be found right in the heart of Valletta in Old Theatre Street.
The Astra Theatre, located in the heart of stunning Victoria on the island of Gozo, is also a worthwhile theatre to visit. It has been a hub of theatrical activity for over 50 years and features ornate Baroque motifs and a majestic Greek-style façade. Also on Gozo island is the stunning Aurora Opera House, which boasts acoustics and Baroque splendour that is second to none not only in the country, but around the world. Both venues have yearly opera productions.
Diving further into the arts scene, visitors can head to the MUŻA museum in the Auberge D’Italie in Malta’s capital. A community art project founded in 2018, MUŻA boasts an incredible collection of art spanning from the 16th century to the present day.
Another expedition not to be missed is a visit to the ancient capital of Mdina, known as the ‘Silent City’. Perched atop a plateau with panoramic views of the neighbouring towns, Mdina is one of Europe’s best examples of an old walled city. Its narrow streets are framed by an eclectic mix of medieval and Baroque architecture.
FOOD & DRINK
Malta’s culinary offerings have been influenced by each civilisation featured in its past. This, blended with Mediterranean produce, has created a diverse cuisine on the islands. From Michelin-starred establishments to casual eateries serving local specialities, there is something to suit every taste in Malta.
Traditional Maltese food is rustic and reflects the seasons. Some examples include lampuki (fish) pie, rabbit stew, braġioli (beef olives), kapunata (Maltese ratatouille), and widow’s soup served with a small round of ġbejniet (sheep or goat’s cheese). Bigilla, a thick broad bean and garlic paté is served almost everywhere. Some of the local snacks that must be sampled include ħobz biż-żejt, a round of bread dipped in olive oil, rubbed with ripe tomatoes and filled with a mix of tuna, onion, garlic, tomatoes and capers, and pastizzi, a flaky pastry parcel filled with ricotta or mushy peas.
To get an idea of the local produce, head to Marsaxlokk fish market on Sunday morning to look at the fresh catch offered up by the Maltese waters. From scorpion fish to red mullet, tuna, octopus and squid, each season brings with it a fresh and individual array of seafood delights that feature in both casual and fine-dining fare on the islands. For our best pick of fine-dining restaurants in Malta, view our restaurant diary feature here.
For those who appreciate a good vintage or two, Malta holds its own in presenting some great wines. It may not be as famous for its wines as its Mediterranean counterparts like France, Italy and Greece, but this hasn’t stopped the Maltese wineries from winning several accolades at international competitions. Along with the typical Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grape varieties, some indigenous varieties such as Ġellewza and Girgentina are also grown on the islands. Take a local winery tour to taste some of these unique wines that boast a distinct body and flavour.
With a Mediterranean climate and over 300 days of sunshine per year on average, Malta is, of course, a paradise for sea lovers. Most of the here beaches are lauded with Blue Flag status, meaning they have exceptional water quality, accessible facilities and services, and are managed sustainably.
The northern and western shorelines of the island of Malta boast some of the nation’s most popular beaches, namely Mellieħa Bay (the island’s largest beach), Golden Bay and Għajn Tuffieħa – which has dramatic cliffs and splendid swimming. Gozo also offers excellent beach-going and swimming opportunities such as at Ramla Bay with its distinctive red sand.
The crystal-clear waters of Comino and its Blue Lagoon make this island the perfect place for a yacht trip. In fact, the Maltese islands have become a very popular yachting destination due to their good sailing weather, strategic position, and world-class marinas. Both Grand Harbour Marina and Manoel Island Marina have great repair facilities, excellent slipways, and tip-top dry docks which all make Malta a favoured homeport for yachts.
Those visiting Malta, via yachts or flights, can enjoy various other activities on the islands too. Hiking, biking, rock climbing, paragliding and windsurfing are all among the nature-imbued adventures offered up by Malta. Scuba diving is very popular here too, because of the warm and clear waters. There are also lots of interesting underwater sites to be seen in the Maltese waters, so it’s easy to see why Malta is consistently voted one of the best diving destinations in the world!