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Malta packs glorious variety into its small archipelago. You'll find prehistoric temples, fossil-studded cliffs, hidden coves, thrilling scuba diving and a history of remarkable intensity.
The Deep Blue Sea
Malta's landscape contrasts rocky stretches of coast that end in dizzying limestone cliffs with sheltered bays that hide gin-clear water and red-gold beaches. The islands' many marinas jostle with boats, and you can take to the water in sky-blue traditional craft, stately yachts or speedboats. Snorkellers and divers have much to explore underwater as well, a world of caves, crags and wrecks. Above the water, walking tracks negotiate view-filled pathways linking isolated coves and surprising historical structures. Even for the short-term visitor to Malta, a simple ferry journey across Grand Harbour in Valletta is a magical experience.
A Mediterrean Cocktail
Malta is staunchly Roman Catholic but is also home to a beguiling mix of cultures that has stewed together over generations. Traditional Maltese food mixes Sicilian and Middle Eastern flavours, while making use of local ingredients such as rabbit and honey. The Maltese people are warm and welcoming: if you ask for directions, it's likely a local will walk with you to help you find the way. Plenty of 21st-century sophistication can be found, but there are also pockets where you feel you’ve gone back in time, especially on Gozo, where mammoth churches tower over quiet villages.
Historic & Contemporary
Malta's geographical location in the centre of the Mediterranean made it an alluring and much-fought-over prize, and the islands are full of majestic above- and below-ground defences. The capital, Valletta, built by the Knights of St John, is a harmonious grid, Mdina and Victoria are fortress-like hilltop towns, and watchtowers dot the coast. Even Malta’s fishing boats resonate with the past, their prows painted with eyes, just like the boats of their Phoenician predecessors. Following Valletta's stint as a European Capital of Culture in 2018, the country's capital is also a re-energised centre of contemporary design and architecture.
Malta and Gozo’s astounding prehistoric sites were constructed by sophisticated-seeming temple builders, who also left miniature figurines and mammoth sculptures of ‘fat ladies’, which have survived millennia and are housed in Malta's fascinating museums. Out in the open, gigantic temples and towers from many different eras stand proud, continuing their endless watch over the sea. The most extraordinary site of all lies underground: Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5000-year-old necropolis carved from the living rock. Elsewhere throughout the islands, smaller prehistoric sites are more subtle in their impact across the centuries, but still provide profound insight into the civilisation's legacy.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Malta.
St John's Co-Cathedral, Malta's most impressive church, was designed by the architect Gerolamo Cassar. It was built between 1573 and 1578, taking over from the Church of St Lawrence in Vittoriosa as the place where the Knights would gather for communal worship. The interior was revamped in the 17th century in exuberant Maltese baroque style, and it's an astounding surprise after the plain facade. One of its greatest treasures is a huge painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. The nave is long and low and every wall, pillar and rib is encrusted with rich ornamentation, giving the effect of a dusty gold brocade. The floor is an iridescent patchwork quilt of marble tomb slabs, and the vault dances with paintings by Mattia Preti that illustrate events from the life of St John the Baptist. Beyond here, the Oratory contains two paintings by Caravaggio. Scheduled to reopen in 2020 after an extensive and impressive remodelling, the Cathedral Museum houses the beautiful 16th-century Graduals of L-Isle Adam, illuminated choral books and a magnificent collection of 17th-century Flemish tapestries based on drawings by Rubens. A new feature is an excellent exhibition on the life and times of Caravaggio. St John's was raised to a status equal to that of St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina – the official seat of the Archbishop of Malta – by a papal decree of 1816, hence the term 'co-cathedral'. Visitors should dress appropriately for a house of worship. Stiletto heels are not permitted, to protect the marble floor.
The Hypogeum (from the Greek, meaning 'underground') is a subterranean necropolis, discovered during building work in 1902. To visit is to step into a mysterious and silent world. Its halls, chambers and passages, immaculately hewn out of the rock, cover some 500 sq metres; it is thought to date from around 3600 to 3000 BC, and an estimated 7000 bodies may have been interred here. Note that prebooking online is essential; try to book around three months before your visit. The ancient workers mimicked built masonry in carving out these underground chambers, and exploited the rock's natural weaknesses and strengths to carve out the spaces by hand and create a safe underground structure. Carbon dioxide exhaled by visiting tourists did serious damage to the delicate limestone walls of the burial chambers, and it was closed to the public for 10 years up to mid-2000. It has been restored with Unesco funding; the microclimate is now strictly controlled and visitor numbers to the site are limited (10 per tour and eight tours per day). A few last-minute tickets for the noon and 4pm tours are available the day prior from Fort St Elmo in Valletta or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. A 20-minute audiovisual presentation is also available at the Hypogeum. This does not need to be booked in advance but does not include access to the Hypogeum itself. For health and safety reasons, children under the age of six cannot visit the Hypogeum.
The megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim ( adge -ar eem; 'standing stones') and Mnajdra (mm- nigh -dra) are the best preserved and most evocative of Malta's prehistoric sites, with an unparalleled location atop sea cliffs. Permanent tentlike canopies have been erected over the temples to protect them from the elements. There's an informative hands-on visitors centre to explain the background to the structures, a children's room where kids can build a temple out of blocks, and an atmospheric if not all that informative 4D film introduction. Ħaġar Qim is the first temple you reach after the visitors' centre. The facade, with its trilithon entrance (two upright stones with a third across the top as a lintel), has been restored, and gives an idea of what it may once have looked like. The temples were originally roofed over, probably with corbelled stone vaults, but these have long since collapsed. Before going in, look round the corner to the right – the megalith here is the largest in the temple, weighing more than 20 tonnes. The temple consists of a series of interconnected, oval chambers with no uniform arrangement, and differs from other Maltese temples in lacking a regular trefoil plan. In the first chamber on the left is a little altar post decorated with plant motifs, and in the second there are a couple of pedestal altars. The 'fat lady' statuettes and the 'Venus de Malta' figurine that were found here are on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. Mnajdra, a 700m walk downhill from Ħaġar Qim, is more elaborate. There are three temples side by side, each with a trefoil plan and a different orientation. The oldest temple is the small one on the right, aligned towards the southwest and Filfla Island. The central temple, pointing towards the southeast, is the youngest. All date from between 3600 and 3000 BC. In the right-hand apse there is a separate chamber entered through a small doorway, with an 'oracle hole' to its left. The function of this is unknown. It has been claimed that the southern temple is full of significant solar alignments. At Ħaġar Qim at sunrise during the summer solstice, a sunbeam enters a circular opening in the back of the right-hand apse in the left rear chamber. Around the summer (June) and winter (December) solstices and the spring (March) and autumn (September) equinoxes, Heritage Malta (www.heritagemalta.org) organises special guided tours to experience these alignments at the Mnajdra Temples (€25 per person). There are some waymarked nature trails in the area surrounding the temples, which allow for splendid views out to sea. On the cliff top to the southeast of Mnajdra is a 17th-century watchtower and a memorial to Sir Walter Congreve (Governor of Malta 1924–27), who was buried at sea off this point. You can hike west along the cliffs to Għar Lapsi. The tiny uninhabited island Filfla, 5km offshore, is clearly visible.
The stern exterior of the 16th-century Grand Master's Palace conceals a sumptuous interior. This was once the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St John. From Malta's independence until 2015 the building was the seat of Malta's parliament, before it moved into the new Parliament Building. The Armoury is housed in what was once the Grand Master's stables. Originally, the armour and weapons belonging to the Knights were stored at the Palace Armoury (the Great Hall), and when a Knight died these became the property of the Order. The collection of more than 5000 suits of 16th- to 18th-century armour is all that remains of an original 25,000 – Napoleon's light-fingered activities, over-enthusiastic housekeeping by the British and general neglect put paid to the rest. Some of the most interesting pieces are the breastplate worn by la Valette, the beautifully damascened (steel inlaid with gold) suit made for Alof de Wignacourt, the captured Turkish Sipahi (cavalry) armour, and reinforced armour with bullet marks (the development of guns marked the beginning of the end for armour). There are also displays of some beautiful weapons, including crossbows, muskets, swords and pistols. In the State Apartments, five rooms are usually open to the public, although special one-off exhibitions mean some rooms may be closed. The Grand Master's Palace remains the official residence of the Maltese president, so rooms are occasionally closed. The long Armoury Corridor, decorated with trompe l'œil painting, scenes of naval battles and the portraits and escutcheons of various Grand Masters, leads to the Council Chamber on the left. It is hung with 17th-century Gobelins tapestries gifted to the Order in 1710 by Grand Master Ramon de Perellos. They feature exotic scenes of Africa, India, the Caribbean and Brazil, including an elephant beneath a cashew-nut tree; an ostrich, cassowary and flamingo; a rhino and a zebra being attacked by a leopard; and a tableau with palm trees, a tapir, a jaguar and an iguana. Beyond lie the State Dining Room and the Supreme Council Hall, where the Supreme Council of Order met. It is decorated with a frieze depicting events from the Great Siege of 1565, while the minstrels' gallery bears paintings showing scenes from the Book of Genesis. At the far end of the hall a door gives access to the Hall of the Ambassadors, or Red State Room, where the Grand Master would receive important visitors, and where the Maltese president still receives foreign envoys. It contains portraits of the French kings Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great and several Grand Masters. The neighbouring Pages' Room, or Yellow State Room (despite the abundance of greenish tones), was used by the Grand Master's 16 attendants.
The reason to head to Birżebbuġa is to see the Għar Dalam Cave & Museum, 500m north on the main road from Valletta. Għar Dalam (aar-da-lam; the name means 'cave of darkness') is a 145m-long cave in the Lower Coralline Limestone. It has yielded a magnificent harvest of fossil bones and teeth. The lowermost layers of the cavern, more than 500,000 years old, yielded remains belonging to dwarf elephants, hippopotamuses, micro-mammals and birds. The animals are all of European type, suggesting that Malta was once joined to Italy, but not to northern Africa. It's also where the first signs of human habitation on Malta, from 7400 years ago, have been discovered, with remains including pottery dating back to 5200 BC and Neanderthal teeth found in the top layer. The museum at the entrance contains an exhibition hall with displays on how the cave was formed and how the remains of such animals came to be found here and their development in response to local conditions, as they evolved in different ways to such creatures elsewhere. In the older part of the museum are display cases mounted with thousands and thousands of bones and teeth. Beyond the museum a path leads down through gardens to the mouth of the cave, where a walkway leads 50m into the cavern. A pillar of sediment has been left in the middle of the excavated floor to show the stratigraphic sequence.
The National Museum of Archaeology is housed in the impressive Auberge de Provence. Exhibits include delicate stone tools dating from 5200 BC, Phoenician amulets and an amazing temple model from Ta' Haġrat – a prehistoric architectural maquette. More impressive still are the beautifully modelled prehistoric figurines that were found locally. Best is the Sleeping Lady, found at the Hypogeum, which is around 5000 years old. It shows a recumbent woman with her head propped on one arm, apparently deep in slumber. The 'fat ladies' sculptures, found at Ħaġar Qim, have massive rounded thighs and arms, but tiny, doll-like hands and feet. They wear pleated skirts and sit with their legs tucked neatly to one side. The so-called Venus de Malta, also from Ħaġar Qim, is about 10cm tall and displays remarkably realistic modelling. There are also beautiful stone friezes from the Tarxien Temples. Upstairs displays showcase the coarser pottery from the Bronze Age, animal figurines and jewellery, as well as information on the island's mysterious cart ruts.
The cathedral is said to be built on the site of the villa belonging to Publius, the Roman governor of Malta who welcomed St Paul in AD 60. The original Norman church was destroyed by an earthquake, and the restrained baroque edifice you see today was built between 1697 and 1702 by Lorenzo Gafa, who was influenced by the Italian master Borromini. Note the fire and serpent motifs atop the twin bell towers, symbolising the saint's first miracle in Malta. Echoing St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, the floor of St Paul's is covered with the polychrome marble tombstones of Maltese nobles and important clergymen, while the vault is painted with scenes from the life of St Paul. The altar painting The Conversion of St Paul by Mattia Preti survived the earthquake, so too did the beautifully carved oak doors to the sacristy on the north side, and the apse above the altar, featuring the fresco St Paul's Shipwreck.
Perched on the crest of the hill to the south of Xagħra, the awe-inspiring megalithic Ġgantija Temples command soaring views over most of southern Gozo. As the name implies ( ġgantija – dje-gant-ee-ya – means 'giantess'), these are the largest of the megalithic temples found on the Maltese Islands – the walls stand over 6m high, and the two temples together span over 40m. The site has a wonderful visitor's centre, with displays putting the temples into context and showcasing many of the extraordinary carvings discovered here, including the famous 'fat ladies'. Along with Ta'Ħaġrat and Skorba in Malta, the Ġgantija Temples are thought to be Malta's oldest, dating from 3600 to 3000 BC. Both temples face towards the southeast, and both have five semicircular niches within. The south temple (on the left) is the older, and is entered across a huge threshold slab with four holes at each side, thought to be for libations. The first niche on the right contains an altar with some spiral decoration – there was once a pillar here with a snake carved on it, but the pillar now lives in Victoria's Archaeology Museum. The left-hand niche in the inner chamber has a well-preserved trilithon altar; on the right is a circular hearth stone and a bench altar. The outer wall of the later north temple complex is particularly impressive in scale. The largest of the megaliths measures 6m by 4m and weighs around 57 tonnes, and the wall may originally have stood up to 16m tall – it's incredible to contemplate how these huge stones were put in place. The exterior walls were built of harder-wearing coralline limestone, while the interiors were built of the lighter globigerina limestone – brought here from around a kilometre away.
St Peter's Pool is a fantastic swimming spot, a natural lido in the rocks with large areas of flat slab for sunbathing between swims. Follow the narrow road out towards Delimara Lighthouse until you are just past the power station chimney (about 1.5km from the main road), and you'll see a low building on the left with 'St Peter's Pool' signposted on it. A rough track leads down to a small parking area – if you meet a car coming the other way it'll be a face-off over who'll back up. Don't leave valuables in your car.