Malta is a small island country, but its modest size only adds to its potential as the perfect spot for adventure lovers and history buffs. It’s easy to dig deep into the corners of this ancient archipelago—finding charming cafes on winding streets, diving into rocky caves full of marine life, or wandering through historic stone temples. To achieve the perfect Maltese vacation, take on each of these five extraordinary experiences.
STROLL HISTORIC STREETS
Once a quiet town, the historic city of Valletta is now the center of art, culture, and dining in Malta. In the evenings, diners pop into hip cafes and restaurants to enjoy the now-bustling nightlife. During the day, visitors walk along the stone streets, stop at one of the town’s many shops, and peek into St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The Cathedral is a stunning image of Baroque architecture and is home to the only signed Caravaggio painting in the world—“The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” The work, which was completed in 1608 and restored in the 1990s, was painted specifically for the Co-Cathedral while Caravaggio was living in Malta.
Just a short water taxi from Valletta across the Grand Harbour, travelers can wander the streets of Malta’s Three Cities—Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. The towns once served as military posts, marketplaces, and dockyards for Maltese citizens, including the once-ruling Knights of St. John. When the Order first landed on the island, they made Vittoriosa, previously known as Birgu, their first home. Though the area’s popularity had previously dwindled with locals, today it is home to winding, refined neighborhoods—all maintaining the historic integrity of the original architecture. Fitting for a perfect afternoon stroll, the streets are lined with traditional door knockers, window planters filled with greenery, and colorfully painted entryways.
EXPLORE ANCIENT RUINS
Malta is home to three UNESCO-protected World Heritage sites. In fact, the entirety of its capital city, Valletta, has been deemed a protected cultural site by the organization. Since it is strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has been occupied by a succession of nations and empires, and developed layers upon layers of history and cultural artifacts throughout the centuries. A visit to the walled-city is an opportunity to step back in time and experience the impact of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Order of the Knights of St. John. While the city did suffer damage during World War II, the monuments and surrounding neighborhoods remain mostly intact.
Digging even further into the nation’s past, Malta is home to seven Megalithic Temples, spread throughout Gozo and the main island and constructed between 4,000 and 3,000 B.C. Protected by UNESCO as a whole, each one of the well-preserved temples is unique—built differently and it seems, focused on a distinct practice. Visitors can walk inside many of the temples, peek through holes carved into the large stone slabs, and inspect the intricate engraving on temple walls.
The final protected site, Ħal Saflieni Hypgeum, is an ancient cemetery cut deep into the limestone of a Maltese hill. Though at one time the underground system may have been used as a sanctuary, it became the site of around 7,000 complicated ritual burials. Strikingly, the carved architecture of the three-level structure mimics much of the above-ground construction of its time, similar to the Megalithic Temples. The site also features the only prehistoric wall paintings found in Malta.
Only the three largest islands in the Maltese archipelago are inhabited, but that still leaves plenty for visitors to explore. Luckily it’s easy to move between Malta, Gozo, and Camino—the islands where Malta’s approximately 417,000 residents live.
Frequented by both residents and travelers, the 25-minute ferry between Malta and Gozo runs all day and night and leaves each port about every hour and a half. Peaceful and tranquil, Gozo is thought by some to be the mythical island Ogygia, the spot in Homer’s The Odyssey where the nymph Calypso holds Odysseus for several years before Zeus intervenes. The simple trip from the main island is well worth it, offering visitors the chance to see the Azure Window before it collapses, take in a show at one of Ir Rabat’s two opera houses, or bike along the island’s growing coastal cycling routes.
It’s just as easy to step foot on the country’s least inhabited island—Camino. Locals claim the island is home to only two residents, but that may be a bit of an exaggeration. What is certainly true is that it’s tiny and relatively unpopulated. Camino has only one hotel, a few food stands along the beach, and a small police station. That doesn’t mean it’s deserted. When the weather’s warm, which is nearly every day, visitors and locals jump on a boat and venture to the Blue Lagoon to lay out on the rocks and dip into the clear water. Travelers will find it easy to hop on a local ferry or rent a private boat and driver to cruise them over to the bright, popular cove.
BECOME A HOLLYWOOD STAR
Malta’s unique landscape, historic architecture, and excellent weather has made it a popular destination for Hollywood directors and producers. For decades, the international community has come to the island to find the perfect film set.
Now a trendy tourist stop, Popeye’s Village was once just that—the site of Robin William’s musical-comedy Popeye. Still just as colorful, the resort offers visitors the chance to meander through the same buildings used in filming. Ticketholders can interact with Popeye characters, jump into the bay’s warm waters, or enjoy a treat from the Seafarers snack bar.
More recently, Malta served as the set of many Game of Thrones scenes during its first season. The ancient architecture and unsullied landscapes of Malta supplied an ideal backdrop for the television program’s dramatic storylines. Filming spread throughout the small Mediterranean nation, from Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding at Gozo’s Azure Window to the stone buildings of King’s Landing in historic Mdina. Fans will be happy to learn that both sites are open to visitors, making it easy to walk in the footsteps of their favorite stars.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Malta also played a part in the 2016 film Assassin’s Creed. The movie follows a man back in time as he lives out the actions of one of his ancestors, and Malta’s historic cityscapes provided the remarkable set for his adventure. Walking down the narrow streets of Valletta, visitors can look up and imagine Michael Fassbender’s character acrobatically swinging from one stone ledge to another.
SWIM IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
It would be near-criminal to visit Malta without dipping a toe in the Mediterranean Sea. While most locals swim only in the summer months, visitors hop into the sea during the spring, summer, and fall. Even in the winter, adventurous swimmers clad in wetsuits will venture off the shore. It’s no wonder why: the water is clear, calm, and relatively warm.
Many of Malta’s coasts are rocky, but that doesn’t deter visitors, who sunbathe on the warm stones before jumping into the blue water. On Camino, swimmers leap from short jagged cliffs into the stunning Blue Lagoon, while others swing their feet over the edge of rocky archways. There are sandy beaches as well, like Golden Bay on the main island or Ramla I-Hamra on Gozo. Both destinations are popular with snorkelers, but the first, located on the northwest shore of the island, also provides one of Malta’s best sunset views.
Malta also has plenty to offer visitors who’d like to look below the water’s surface. On Gozo, scuba divers push deep into the Blue Hole near the Azure Window. The limestone terrain along the coast separates a few salty pools from the sea and hides a small cave for divers to investigate. Casual swimmers shouldn’t be intimidated by their presence, though—the spot is an easy place for a quick dip and a gorgeous photo.
More experienced divers will want to investigate the conservation areas that the country has developed around submerged wrecks. Dives can be taken right from the shore or from a reserved boat trip. On either trip, visitors are bound to witness the colorful marine life Malta has worked diligently to protect.