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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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 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.