Located between Sicily and northern Africa in the Mediterranean Sea, the tiny island nation of Malta has a rich history, gorgeous coastlines, and an intriguing culture. It’s no wonder that movies and television shows are routinely filmed here! There’s no shortage of things to see and do in this beautiful part of the world. Here are some of them:
There’s a reason why Malta feels as layered as it does: It’s been ruled or governed over the centuries by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Knights of Malta, the French, and the British. Legend has it that Malta played host to Saint Paul when he was shipwrecked on the island in A.D. 60. Centuries later, the island was protected by the Knights of Saint John, an order formed in the 11th century to build a hospital in Jerusalem for pilgrims of any religion or race. The members came from royal Roman Catholic families of Europe and were dispatched to Malta in 1530. Now known as the Knights of Malta, members of the group still perform charitable work around the world. Malta gained independence from the British in 1964 and is now a member of the European Union. Everything on this incredible island -- the language, the food, and the lifestyle -- has a unique feel due to these many influences.
When the Knights of Saint John first arrived on Malta, they built the capital city of Valletta as a refuge in which to care for soldiers wounded during the Crusades. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the town was underwritten by Pope Pius V and King Philip II of Spain. Valletta was designed to be a walled city, fortified by bastions and moats. It’s still the center of power on the island: The president, prime minister, and House of Representatives all meet here to set policy.
While you stroll the town’s narrow, steep streets and explore its numerous shops and cafés, it’s easy to imagine the past that shaped this magical place. Be sure to take a moment to look at the street signs. While English is an official language here, so is Maltese, a linguistic mash-up of Arabic and Italian. It’s beautiful, but difficult to pronounce!
To see how the Knights fortified Malta and fought invaders, and also to learn more about the island’s key role in more recent wars, visit Fort Saint Elmo. This is where the Knights tried to hold the Ottomans at bay during the Great Siege of 1565. While the fort fell, the Knights ultimately prevailed, forcing the Ottomans out after a four-month series of bloody battles. Fort Saint Elmo was rebuilt again and again, thanks to its strategic position on the Grand Harbour. Today, the fort serves as a war museum that highlights Malta’s military role and strategic position over the centuries. The museum is open seven days a week; admission costs 10 euros.
Far above the Grand Harbour, the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer gorgeous views, lush lawns, and flower beds. It’s the perfect place for a picnic. Created in the 1600s as an exercise space for Italian knights, the park is frequented by both the Maltese and tourists. Palm trees, fountains, and bronze statues accent the landscape; a saluting battery is also still intact, where soldiers set off a cannon every day at noon and 4 p.m. If you don’t want to make the 200-foot climb up to the park from the Grand Harbour, you can take the Barrakka Lift for 1 euro. There is a kiosk located at the Upper Gardens where you can grab a quick snack: Consider a Maltese pastizz, a traditional savory pastry filled with pea purée or ricotta cheese.
With its centuries-long relationship with Catholicism, it’s no surprise that Malta has its fair share of churches. Some are grand, some simple; all are beautiful. Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, built between 1573 and 1578, has a rather plain exterior, but it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous on the inside, featuring gold leaf, extensive frescoes, and Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the only painting the artist ever signed. The Mdina Metropolitan Cathedral, also known as Saint Paul’s Cathedral, dates back to the Norman era. It was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, but it was later rebuilt. And then there’s the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, commonly known as the Rotunda of Mosta or the Miracle Church of Mosta. During a Mass there in 1942, a German warplane dropped a bomb on the church. It fell into the sanctuary, but it didn’t explode, and no one was hurt. A replica of the bomb is on display to remind everyone of the miracle that occurred during one of the island’s darkest hours.
To see firsthand exactly how ancient and mysterious Malta is, explore the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Located several miles from Valletta, and recently reopened to the public, this temple and funeral hall was carved into the limestone some 6,000 years ago. The complex, long forgotten, was discovered by construction workers in 1902, and tourists can stroll through the intricate chambers if they are lucky. In order to support preservation efforts and limit environmental dangers to the UNESCO World Heritage site, just 80 visitors are allowed inside the underground tomb each day. Tickets often sell out months in advance.
Easily accessible by taxi or bus from Valletta, Mdina is Malta’s ancient center. This is the place where Saint Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked, and it is where the archbishop of Malta still resides. A number of royals, including the then-Princess Elizabeth of England, have made this place their home. No cars are allowed inside the inner walls -- this is why Mdina is known as “the Silent City” -- and passing through the town gate, you feel as if you’re being transported back in time. The Knights of Malta Museum is here, and the Fontanella Tea Garden is worth a visit for a nosh with incredible views.
Located in the southeast part of the island, the fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced marsa-schlock) is one of the most picturesque parts of Malta and well worth a day trip. The village is known for its colorful lzuz, or traditional fishing boats. While you’re there, be sure to wander the fish market before enjoying the catch of the day at one of any number of restaurants on the harbor.
Marsaxlokk is also a wonderful place to hike. Be sure to check out the area's secluded, serene swimming spots, including Saint Peter’s Pool. Along the way you’ll likely see the imposing Fort Delimara perched above the sea. Built by the British a century ago, it’s now in danger of falling into the water due to erosion.
Just a short ferry ride away from Malta, the island of Gozo is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with great hiking, biking, diving, and rock climbing. While only 30,000 people live here, the island enjoys a robust arts scene, including two opera houses. Many tourists choose to take rooms in old farmhouses located in the countryside. Gozo is quiet, unspoiled, and the perfect place to get away from it all. Fun fact: Legend has it that Gozo is actually the Isle of Calypso described in Homer’s Odyssey.
There’s a reason why many Europeans choose to vacation in Malta: The seascapes and beaches here can’t be beat. The water is crystal clear and calm. Many of the coastlines are rocky, but don’t let that keep you from a visit and a swim. Most of the beaches have boulders large enough to sun on before your dip. If you must have sand, check out Golden Bay and its next-door neighbor, Ghajn Tuffieha.
Of course, you’ll want to go shopping, and there’s no better place to purchase souvenirs than the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village. The village is located on a former Royal Air Force field, and artisans now sell their wares in the Quonset huts abandoned by the British after World War II. Look for silver filigree jewelry (including Maltese cross pendants and earrings), lace, and handblown glass at fair prices. The village is currently undergoing a facelift financed in part by the European Union, which will add room for even more stores and shops.
With its rugged beaches and clear seas, Malta has served as the backdrop for many movies and television shows. One of the island’s major tourist sites is Popeye Village, the set constructed for the 1980 film starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. The village includes more than 20 wooden structures and took seven months to complete. Today, film buffs and families flock to this spot on the island’s northern coast to experience a bit of Hollywood history. Popeye Village is open year-round, and admission starts at 11 euros.