A small chain of islands floating between Sicily and Northern Africa, Malta has somehow avoided mass tourism. Despite being the smallest member of the European Union, the country offers a diverse array of activities. Its 7,000 years of history, delicious cuisine, stunning natural beauty, and more than 300 annual days of sunshine are also top draws. Historians believe that the islands have been inhabited since the early Neolithic era. As a result of numerous power transfers, Malta has Greek, Italian, Arab, Spanish, French, and British influences. Today, visitors can explore storied cities or laze on gorgeous beaches -- or both. But before you go, check out our list of the best things to do in Malta.
1. Get cultured in the capital of Valletta.
Malta’s capital city, Valletta, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980. Once a quiet town, the walled city now acts as a living, open-air museum to the country’s multifaceted past. Colorful Baroque buildings and symbols from the Knights of St. John share the stone streets with red British-era postboxes and quaint cafes. The European Commission even named Valletta a Capital of Culture in 2018. Visitors shouldn’t miss a seeing the delightfully over-the-top St John’s Co-Cathedral, complete with original Caravaggio paintings. A few steps away, you can see the famed armor and tapestries inside the Grand Master’s Palace. For those who would like to catch a play, opera, or dance performance, Valletta is also home to one of the oldest working theaters in Europe, the 286-year-old Manoel Theatre. Meanwhile, a guided tour around the star-shaped Fort Saint Elmo provides insight into the city’s Grand Harbor, which is regularly described as the most magnificent in the Mediterranean. To see the ritzy side of the city, board a sightseeing water taxi that takes you across the harbor to Malta’s Three Cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. Italian architect Renzo Piano has masterminded the city’s modernization, remodeling the City Gate and designing an innovative new Parliament building. The 1860 covered market was reopened in January, complete with new stalls, bars, restaurants, and cultural spaces. If you want to plan your trip around some of the city’s celebrated cultural events, head to the . Standbys like the International Fireworks Festival in April and the Isle of MTV in June are joined by gallery openings, special exhibitions, and one-time celebrations this year.
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2. Meander through Mdina.
While Valletta holds the title now, it . Before it was built, the city of Mdina served as Malta’s capital for centuries. Located on a scenic hilltop in the middle of the island, Mdina has several nicknames. Its lack of cars and peaceful atmosphere earned it the epithet the “Silent City,” while the wealth of its former residents have led many to call it Citta Notabile, or the “Noble City.” Formerly home to dignified families of Norman, Sicilian, and Spanish heritage, Mdina now has a population of about 300. The city and its encircling fortifications remain largely unchanged from the 16th century, so you can expect to be transported back in time. Thanks to well-preserved -- but often empty -- churches and abandoned palaces with forbidding doors and iron-barred windows, parts of the city even feel like a ghost town. Mdina’s top attraction is the Baroque St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is flanked by bell towers and packed with marvelous marble work. The gilded semi-dome, stained glass, and altar paintings by Mattia Preti are especially noteworthy. The Cathedral Museum inside the adjacent Palazzo de Piro houses even more art and artifacts. Head to the National Museum of Natural History for more information on the local ecosystem, the Wignacourt Museum if you’re hungry for more religious relics, and St. Paul’s catacombs to walk among fourth-century cemeteries. Our last stop on the tourist trail? The Domus Romana ruins just outside the city walls, which present an impressive display of mosaics.
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3. Explore the underwater offerings.
Given that Malta is comprised of three islands, it’s no surprise that it has over 155 miles of craggy coastline. Luckily, the country also boasts spectacular weather. That said, it would be foolish to visit during the spring or summer without dipping your feet into the sea. Some visitors, however, are eager to dive in during the country’s notably mild (with a wetsuit of course). In addition to clear, calm, and relatively warm waters, Malta’s portion of the Mediterranean offers intricate caves, underwater drop-offs, and several natural and artificial reefs. These conditions lend itself to a strong scuba culture. There are even multiple professional diving schools here. Some of the best dive spots offer a glimpse of shipwrecks, like the HMS Maori destroyer from World War II and the Um El Faroud fuel tanker that operated between Italy and Libya. Another great natural dive site is the Blue Grotto, a series of sea caverns on the main island’s southern coast. The sunlight shines through the caves at just the right angle to illuminate the phosphorescent marine life below. For more blue hues, don’t miss a trip to the very photogenic Blue Lagoon on the smallest island, Comino. It’s a haven for scuba divers, snorkelers, rock climbers, and nature lovers.
4. See the stars.
Blockbuster films like “Gladiator,” “Troy,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “The Spy Who Loved Me” all feature scenes shot in Malta. Even the HBO series ”Game of Thrones” used the landscape here in some of its reels. Yet, it’s a failed musical feature film that made the biggest mark on the country. That’s because locals reclaimed the abandoned 1980 “Popeye” set and repurposed it into a theme park. As soon as Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Robert Altman, and the rest of the cast and crew headed back home, the country took advantage of the magical and largely intact Sweethaven Village. A 250-foot breakwater was even erected to protect the set from the sea. Though it’s an destination in the northwest corner of the country, tourist numbers continue to surge. Actors dressed in character wander the streets, performing live shows. There’s also a movie theater, winery, toy shop, comic museum, souvenir shop, bakery, and snack bar in addition to several aquatic activities, like water trampolines and sea kayaking. Plus, the colorful ramshackle buildings are built into a beautiful cliffside, making for picturesque views.
5. See temples that are older than the pyramids of Egypt
The prehistoric megalithic temples of Malta are remarkable sites due to their unique architectural plans, form, and decorations. Each one was constructed differently and used for a distinct practice. Built between 3,600 and 700 B.C.E., they rank among the oldest free-standing monuments in the world -- older than both the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. Seven of these temples are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Located throughout Malta’s main island and the slightly smaller Gozo, these temples welcome visitors inside. Many of the temples’ names refer to the areas they’re built in or stones they’re built from. For example, the Maltese word for boulders (ħaġar) is seen in both Ta’ Ħaġrat and Ħaġar Qim. Ġgantija translates roughly to “giant’s tower,” which seems fitting when you hear how heavy the megalithic limestone rocks are. These two temples are recognized for their enormous Bronze Age statues. Meanwhile, Tarxien temples took their title from the word Tirix, which also means “large stone.” They’re known for hosting an eight-foot stone statue that honors an earth goddess. And Skorba temples can be traced back to Malta’s first settlers and there’s evidence that Tas-Silg was re-used by Phoenicians. At the three Mnajdra temples, you’ll want to witness the secret rooms hidden in the thick walls. However, the subterranean Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum may be most impressive of all. This temple complex consists of three levels, the last of which reaches nearly 40 feet into the earth. A spiral staircase leads visitors inside, and prehistoric paintings adorn the passageway walls. Experts say it may have been part of a sanctuary before converting to a burial chamber and funeral hall.
6. Taste the local flavors.
Much like the nation’s culture, the cuisine here is a blend of Sicilian, French, Arabic, and British influences. The hippest restaurants offer a mix of old preparation and new flavors. Pasta and pizza are always easy to find, but make sure to try the culinary staple stuffat tal-fenek, a rich rabbit stew made from red wine, tomato pulp, and fresh vegetables. Braised bragiolibeef rolls are another local favorite, as is the mild ġbejna cheese made from sheep milk. Expect restaurants to serve all of these dishes with local capers and olives. Seafood is also very popular, best exhibited in torta tal-lampuki (white fish pie) and aljotta shellfish soup. The town of Marsaxlokk, on the main island’s southeast coast, is especially famous for its fresh fish. Visiting the fish market here is a real treat. Speaking of treats, the pastizzipastry is a must-try. Available at pastizzeriasand street vendors in every town, these pockets of flaky crust are usually stuffed with either ricotta cheese or mushy peas. For a sweeter version, try an imqaret with date filling. Need something to wash it all down? After years of importing from Italy, the island’s local wine is having a moment. Indigenous grapes Girgentina and Gellewza make for fruity wines; the former is a light white and the latter is a prune- and cherry-flavored red. Girgentina is often added to chardonnay for depth, while Gellewza is commonly used in rosé and sparkling pink blends. If beer is more your thing, be sure to sample the locally brewed Cisk lager. Grappa and limoncello are also popular bar beverages.
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