Malta may only measure a compact 27km by 14km (17mi by 9mi), but this tiny island nation is crammed with compelling sights.
Explore 5000-year-old megalithic temples, swim in spine-tinglingly beautiful lagoons, and stroll around the glorious 16th-century cityscape of Valletta. To make the most of a visit to Malta, here are our 10 essential highlights of a fascinating destination at the heart of the Mediterranean.
Valletta is full of architectural gems and historical wonders
Europe’s first planned city, Valletta is Unesco World Heritage listed thanks to its extremely high concentration of historic monuments. Built in the 17th century as a grid of streets on a narrow peninsula, there was never any space to sprawl messily outwards, and the architecture has remained remarkably untouched. St John’s Co-Cathedral is the fantastically gilded jewel in the crown, alongside the sumptuous Grand Master’s Palace and the treasure-packed National Museum of Archaeology. Designed by internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano, 21st-century additions to the city’s architecture (the first for hundreds of years) include a leviathan city gate, a modern parliament building, and an open-air theatre that rises phoenix-like from the ruins of the WWII-bombed Opera House. Housed in the historic 16th-century Auberge d’Italie, MUŻA opened in late 2018 as a spectacular and innovative showcase for Malta’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Cross the harbor in a water taxi to visit The Three Cities, Tarxien Temples and Hypogeum
Facing Valletta across the royal-blue Grand Harbour are the small fortified towns known as the Three Cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Catching a traditional wooden dgħajsa water taxi is the best way to approach them. The most interesting of the three is Vittoriosa, with its maze of streets, the Inquisitor’s Palace, Malta at War Museum, and excellent traditional Maltese restaurants.
Fort St Angelo’s centuries of history include 1565’s Great Siege and almost seven decades as the naval headquarters of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet from 1912 to 1979. Near the Three Cities is Malta’s most amazing site, the ancient Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in nearby Paola (book several months ahead). These extraordinarily well-preserved subterranean caverns were carved out of the rock over 5000 years ago. Complete your prehistoric odyssey in the similarly ancient Tarxien Temples, a few blocks away.
Dine on the city walls in Mdina and descend into catacombs in Rabat
Great golden-stone walls encircle the narrow lanes and piazzas of hilltop Mdina, an Arabic-feeling citadel where majestic mansions and convents are hidden behind unassuming doors. Restaurants perched on Mdina’s city walls make for a spectacular lunch stop, and the beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral is one of Malta’s finest churches. Nearby Rabat, meaning “suburb”, is a small town just outside Mdina’s fortifications. With a much more local feel, it has an impressive excavated Roman villa, a spooky array of catacombs, and an emerging fine-dining scene courtesy of innovative restaurants including Root 81 and Townhouse No 3.
Learn more about prehistoric Malta at the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, then on to the Blue Grotto
Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra have the most astounding location of all of Malta’s prehistoric temples, set atop sea cliffs, gazing out towards the islet known as Filfla (from filfel, the Arabic for peppercorn). There’s an excellent small museum to put them into context. A short bus or car ride away is Wied iż-Żurrieq, the launching point for the Blue Grotto, with regular boat trips across the dark, sparkling Mediterranean to a series of sea caves, which glow with a thousand luminescent shades of blue. Visit the grotto in the morning, and then ease into a leisurely seafood lunch at nearby Il Corsaro.
Glitz and glamor await you in Sliema and St Julian's
For a bit of Maltese glitz and buzz, head across the harbor by passenger ferry to the elegant grid of streets that make up Sliema, its uber-mall, the Point, and the bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants of St Julian’s. There are postage-stamp-sized beaches around the coast so you can dip your toes in the water, but this area is really about shopping, eating, partying, and sipping on cocktails. Paceville, a small area in St Julian’s, gets thronged with bar hoppers on summer nights.
Enjoy incredible seafood in Marsaxlokk
At Marsaxlokk, brightly painted fishing boats bob in the harbor, their reflections spilling color across the water, while the shore is a mass of stalls and hubbub. Every Sunday, the town hosts Malta’s biggest fish market, with everything on sale from baby sharks to oysters. Intensely colorful and vibrant, it’s the ideal inspiration for a feast at one of the harborfront restaurants. It’s also worth visiting the town on other days of the week when it is much more tranquil and you can see local fishermen fixing their nets in the harbor. Around 5km (3mi) to the southwest, the seafood restaurants of nearby Marsaskala are also popular on weekends
Golden Bay is one of Malta's most popular beaches
If you’re in search of soft sand, Golden Bay is one of Malta’s peachiest options, a north-coast golden arc overlooked by one huge hotel, with multiple restaurants in case of peckishness. You can windsurf, go boating or waterski from the beach, but it’s also a great place to pick up a boat trip with Charlie’s Discover Speed Boat Trips. Options include exploring sea caves and hidden beaches, and even cruising over to Comino island.
Dingli Cliffs are the perfect spot for a clifftop walk
At Dingli Cliffs, Malta’s landmass suddenly drops 220m (722ft) into the water. This is a fabulous place for a windswept walk – a narrow road runs along the top of the cliffs. Lunch on traditional Maltese dishes such as rabbit at Diar il-Bniet, a farm-to-table restaurant in nearby Dingli village, or join one of their cookery classes to learn about Malta’s cuisine influenced by centuries of cultural interaction. After lunch, explore the mystery that is “Clapham Junction”, deep prehistoric scores that look like cart ruts in the wide sloping limestone pavement, 1.5km (a mile) inland from the cliffs.
Take a day trip to gorgeous Gozo
Malta’s neighboring island of Gozo encompasses storybook scenery, dizzying sea cliffs, and notable restaurants with stellar Mediterranean views. The island is accessible via regular car ferries from Ċirkewwa on Malta’s northern coast, or on the new fast ferries – foot passengers and bikes only – traveling from Valletta to Gozo’s Mġarr Harbour. Rent a car, e-bike or scooter at the harbor and explore Il-Kastell, the towering citadel crowning Gozo’s walled capital, Victoria, and the extraordinary coastal rock formations of Dwejra. The lovely small town of Xagħra is ideal for lunch in the main square and is also home to the gigantic-by-name-and-nature Ġgantija prehistoric temples. Gozo is also perfect for long leisurely rambles, bike rides through the back roads, and swimming from hidden coves.
Discover unspoiled beauty with a visit to Comino and the Blue Lagoon
You know those postcards that show too-blue-to-be-true water? The Blue Lagoon actually looks like that. A wide-open lagoon with a base of white sand and rock, it’s so fiercely aquamarine that the color seems to have been cranked up a few notches. It’s a fantastic place for swimming and snorkeling, and it lies alongside the picturesque, undeveloped island of Comino, which is good for a leisurely amble and pretending you’re Robinson Crusoe. There are plenty of tours here from both Malta and Gozo, and you can also go independently by taking a water taxi from either Ċirkewwa (Malta) or Mġarr (Gozo) port. During the height of summer, the Blue Lagoon does get (very!) busy. Consider visiting later in the day when day trippers are leaving. At the time of writing, the island’s only hotel was closed for redevelopment.
Getting around Malta
Car hire rates in Malta are among Europe’s lowest, and a good option to explore beyond the busy urban conurbation framing Valletta, Sliema and St Julian’s. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, the same as in the UK and most Commonwealth countries. Malta Public Transport operates the local buses, with services all over Malta and Gozo (single-journey ticket €2/$2.10). An Explore Card (adult/child €21/15 | $22.18/15.80) offers unlimited bus travel for a seven-day period. Car ferries and passenger ferries run between Malta and Gozo, and Valletta Ferry Services link Valletta to the Three Cities and Sliema.