Located south of Italy, north of Libya and east of Tunisia, is an archipelago of islands in the middle of the Mediterranean that is smaller than the five boroughs of New York City. Malta is one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries (covering about 120 square miles with a population of less than 450,000), and has a rich array of options for the traveler seeking local gems.
Known mostly as a sun and sand destination for many Europeans, Malta’s waters reflect shades of turquoise, majorelle blue and cobalt, making it nearly impossible to resist as an island getaway destination. But Malta has more to offer than just beaches and sunbathing. The island’s history dates back further than what archeologists know of the Egyptian pyramids, and today, Malta combines its rich past with newer gems and celebrations that breathe a fresh and radiant life into the island.
An island representing a melting pot of history
Malta’s history reaches back to 3600 B.C., with historic sites older than Stonehenge that have been kept in extraordinarily good shape. The sites are some of the most awe-inspiring attractions of Malta, and between the Megalithic Temples of Malta, the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, and Għar Dalam, history buffs will not be disappointed in Malta’s offerings.
A glimpse into Malta’s prehistory
There are seven Megalithic Temples of Malta that are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and these were built between three distinct periods from 3600 B.C. and 700 B.C. Each temple is unique, but was built based on a similar structure, with stone slabs arranged in an elliptical court in front of a concave facade. From the masonry that remains, historians believe the monuments had corbelled roofs, a feat that was remarkably sophisticated for its time.
The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, also known as simply the Hypogeum (meaning underground in Greek), is the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world. The Hypogeum is made up of three underground levels, and historians believe the Hypogeum was originally used as a sanctuary and later became a necropolis. Another underground attraction is Għar Dalam, a cave where the earliest evidence of human settlement in Malta (from more than 7,000 years ago) was found, along with dwarf elephant, hippopotamus and bear deposits.
Influence from the surrounding countries
Throughout the years, Malta has been a much-fought-over prize due to its geographical location in the center of the Mediterranean. Malta’s history reflects a rich mix of European and northern African influence.
Malta’s capital, Valletta, was built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, and is the southernmost capital of Europe. Valletta is built on a grid system up with streets that stretch up and down a peninsula, the total size of which makes up only 1 kilometer by 600 meters. A UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to 320 monuments, Valletta is one of the most concentrated historic sites in the world and has been ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, the Order of the Knights of St. John and more.
Valletta is made up of fascinating historical buildings that have incredibly intricate details such as carefully placed votive statues and niches within buildings. The narrow side streets are filled with tiny shops and hidden gems, and the main streets are much wider and livelier with larger stores and energetic bars that make up the buzzing energy.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral is located in the heart of the city, and with its stunning Baroque design and calm atmosphere, offers visitors a reverent escape from the bustling city streets. The cathedral acts as a museum and houses many precious works of art, including masterpieces by Caravaggio.
At the tip of the city are the Upper Barrakka Gardens and Lower Barrakka Gardens, a pair of spectacular gardens in Valletta that offer stunning views of the Grand Harbour. The gardens are a perfect excuse to relax and take in the cityscape, and also contain several historic statues, including monuments to public figures such as Lord Strickland. Another scenic spot in Valletta is the Hastings Gardens, dedicated to the British governor of Malta named Lord Hastings. This spot is known for its views of Manoel Island.
On the other side of the island from Valletta is Mellieha, a small town popular for its beaches today. Mellieha’s design was developed under British rule, and as such, one of the most stunning destinations to visit is the Mellieha Parish Church. Considered by many to be one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture on the island, the church has sweeping ceilings with intricate paintings that will take your breath away.
Beautiful both inside and out, the parish offers visitors breathtaking views as well — as it’s perched atop a cliff with scenic ocean stretches. The parish is the starting point for the Mellieha Village Festa, a celebration that marks the victory of the Knights of St. John in 1565, and involves feasts, music, fireworks and more.
The Mellieha parish and its accompanying role in the festival is just one example of Malta’s unique ability to act act as both a historic and celebratory destination.
Island life that meets a modern lifestyle
The Maltese love to celebrate, and find plenty of reasons to embrace and enjoy life — a fact that’s evident through their festivals, celebrations and nightlife scene.
Year-round reasons to celebrate
No matter what time of year you visit Malta, you’ll find a variety of festivals, celebrations and other special events. Celebrations range from music and art festivals to religious holidays and feasts. The predominant religion in Malta is Roman Catholicism, and as such, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are widely celebrated.
Locals are also enthusiastic about religious holidays dedicated to local saints — in August there’s the Feast of Santa Marija and, in June, the Festival of Mnarja. The most important events are the festas, celebrations that honor individual villages’ parish patron saint.
Modern festivals are also a big draw for international crowds, and events such as Isle of MTV, the Malta Jazz Festival, Malta Arts Festival and the Malta Fireworks Festival attract tourists from all over the world.
The impressive calendar of events is complimented by Malta’s nightlife scene. Full of concert halls and theaters, Malta’s live shows range in scope from classical to jazz, folk, rock and house music. Classical music concerts are often played at historic venues and churches. An atmospheric place to see plays is the Manoel Theatre, one of the oldest active theaters in Europe.
Newer venues like the Aria Complex, which feels like a combination of a converted warehouse and a greenhouse, offer the perfect space for some of Malta’s biggest parties. Paceville is abundant with bars and clubs, and is your best bet for the clubbing and DJ scene. And for those looking for a somewhat more relaxed night at a bar with friends, options like Cafe del Mar Malta are great for soaking up the view for sunset, and gems like the 1930’s Carpentry Wine Bar and Cork’s Bar in Balluta Bay appeal to locals and travelers alike.
Unwind during the day
After history lessons and a night on the town, the cherry on top for an escape to Malta is soaking up the sun at one of the island’s striking beaches. The island’s landscape is made up of contrasting rocky coasts and limestone cliffs that bend and curve around bodies of clear, sparkling water and hidden beaches.
Mellieha Bay, also known as Ghadira, is Malta’s largest and most popular beach. This beach, on the main island of Malta, is great for swimming as well as water sports such as kayaking, windsurfing and waterskiing. But for those looking for a more off-the-beaten-path place to cool off, head over to St. Peter’s Pool.
Since this area is a bit harder to access, it’s much less crowded than some of the other beaches, and offers visitors a chance to have a bit more privacy. The beach juts out from limestone cliffs and has several great spots for jumping off the rocks into the water. Gnejna, located on the west coast of Malta, is another great hidden gem.
The neighboring islands of Gozo and Comino are easy visits from the main island of Malta and are perfect day-trips. A must-see in Comino is the Blue Lagoon, a gorgeous inlet that is one of the pearls of the island, but since it’s mostly a tourist destination, opt to spend more of your time at some of the smaller beaches. Xlendi Bay, on the island of Gozo, is a small beach known for its dramatic cliffs and caves. The reef formations make this an excellent spot for diving as well as swimming and snorkeling.
Malta is filled to the brim with interesting things to do, from historic sightseeing to parties until the sun comes up, yet remains laidback and easy. Combine sightseeing with celebrations and relaxing on the beach and you have the perfect island getaway.