Malta’s size makes it a breeze to get around, so it’s possible to base yourself in one place and visit all the top attractions as a series of day trips. Here are our suggestions for the 10 finest ways to spend your days in Malta.
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 for it 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. Internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano’s recent additions to the city’s architecture (the first for hundreds of years) include a new city gate, parliament building, and an open-air theatre that rises phoenix-like from the ruins of the WWII-bombed Opera House.
2. 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 colour seems to have been cranked up a few notches. It’s a fantastic place for swimming and snorkelling, 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.
3. The Three Cities, Tarxien Temples and Hypogeum
Facing Valletta across the royal-blue Great Harbour are the small fortified towns known as the Three Cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Take a boat across the water for the best approach. The most interesting of the three is Vittoriosa, with its maze of streets, Inquisitor’s Palace, Malta at War Museum, and some fine traditional Maltese restaurants. Next stop is Malta’s most amazing site (book several months ahead), the ancient Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, in nearby Paola. 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.
Brightly painted fishing boats bob in the harbour, their reflections spilling colour across the water, while the shore is a mass of stalls and hubbub. Every Sunday Marsaxlokk hosts Malta’s biggest fish market, with everything on sale from baby sharks to oysters. Intensely colourful and vibrant, it’s the ideal inspiration for a feast at one of the harbourfront restaurants. But it’s also worth visiting the town on other days of the week, when it is much more tranquil and you can see the fishermen fixing their nets in the harbour.
5. Mdina and 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-seeming doors, and restaurants perched on the city walls make for a spectacular lunch stop. Rabat, meaning ‘suburb’, is the name of the small town outside Mdina’s fortifications. With a much more local feel, it has an impressive excavated Roman villa and a spooky array of catacombs.
6. Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, plus the Blue Grotto
Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra have the most astounding location of all 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.
Malta’s neighbouring island of Gozo encompasses storybook scenery, dizzying cliffs, and notable restaurants. It’s even smaller than Malta, so you can see many of its prime sights in a day. It’s also easily accessible via regular ferries from Ċirkewwa on Malta. Highlights for a day trip are its hilltop walled capital, Victoria, the extraordinary rock formations of Dwejra and the lovely small town of Xagħra, 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.
8. Sliema and St Julian's
For a bit of Maltese glitz and buzz, head 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 skimpy beaches around the coast so you can dip your toes in the water, but this area is really about shopping, eating, partying, and sipping cocktails. Paceville, a small area in St Julian’s gets thronged with bar hoppers on summer nights, but if you’re over 25, you’re likely to feel pretty ancient.
9. Golden Bay
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, who’ll take you to visit sea caves and hidden beaches, and even over to Comino island.
10. Dingli Cliffs
At Dingli Cliffs, Malta’s landmass suddenly drops 220m into the water. This is a fabulous place for a windswept walk: a narrow road runs along the top of the cliffs. You can also lunch on Maltese staples such as rabbit stew at local favourite Bobbyland, overlooking endless views from a former Nissen hut. After lunch, you can explore the mystery that is 'Clapham Junction', deep prehistoric scores that look like cart ruts in the wide sloping limestone pavement, 1.5km inland from the cliffs.
Car hire rates in Malta are among Europe’s lowest, and UK drivers will find it reassuring that the Maltese also drive on the left. Malta Public Transport (www.publictransport.com.mt) run the local buses, with services all over Malta and Gozo (day ticket €1.50). Hop-on, hop-off tours are another option on Malta or Gozo (day ticket €17). There are also regular car ferries and water taxis between the islands.
Last updated in August 2017.