Malta might be small, but this Mediterranean island is gloriously diverse – boasting stone-age temples, fossil-adorned cliffs, secret coves, a remarkable history, and all the sun, sea, and sand you could possibly wish for.
If you’re intrigued by what Malta has to offer (as well as its neighbouring island of Gozo), here are 10 things to do and places to visit.
1. Explore Valletta Waterfront
As Malta’s grand and historic capital, Valletta is chock-full of beautiful buildings and intriguing nooks and crannies.
When UNESCO named Valletta a World Heritage site, it was described as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world”. And because it’s so small (only 1km by 600m!), it won’t take long to walk around it. Though, to get the most out of this spectacular city, you don’t want to rush, as admiring its 16th-century elegance is something worth taking your time over.
While the Renzo Piano-designed City Gate, Parliament Building and Opera House are all popular sites in Valletta, the historic waterfront is especially lovely to explore. Also called Pinto Wharf, it once housed maritime warehouses, but today it’s been turned into a tourist hub that’s full of restaurants, cafes, and bars housed in stately buildings.
Pinto Wharf is a great place to enjoy a leisurely walk on the promenade, where you can admire views across the bright blue water, or just take an outside seat in a cafe or restaurant and watch the world go by.
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2. Visit St John's Co-Cathedral
Another one of the must-see places in Valletta is St John’s Co-Cathedral. While the outside might not be much to write home about, inside you’ll find an incredibly lavish and ornate baroque interior, with marble floors, painted ceilings, and gleaming golden walls.
The church was built by the Knights of St. John (a medieval Catholic military order who were based in Malta) and 400 monuments can be seen honouring them on the marble floor – with angels, skulls, and coats of arms dedicated to each knight.
Art enthusiasts should know that the cathedral is also famous for its collection of Caravaggio work – and the oratory is home to two Caravaggio paintings including his largest (and only signed) painting.
Keep an eye out for the decorative frescoes, which depict important scenes from the Bible, and be sure to head up the tiny staircase by the main door, as this leads up to a small gallery where you can admire gorgeous views of the church as it unfolds beneath you.
3. Lose yourself in the streets of Mdina
Mdina is the ideal place for anyone wanting to explore unique cultural and historical sites at a relaxed pace.
Before Valletta, Mdina was the original capital of Malta. It was called ‘Citta Notabile’ – the ‘noble city’ – and today it’s still surrounded by imposing fortifications and impressive palaces.
It wasn’t until the Knights of St. John arrived that the capital was changed to Valletta, because the knights wanted to be close to their ships. And today Mdina retains much of the grandeur and charm it would’ve had in the Middle Ages.
Losing yourself in the pretty, labyrinth-like streets is one way to pass the time, but make sure you don’t miss the historical monuments too, like St. Paul’s Cathedral and its museum, and the 18th-century Vilhena Palace.
Beneath the ground, there’s also a network of Roman-Byzantine tombs that are well worth exploring. Climb down the steps to marvel at the tombs that range from small holes in the wall to elaborate four-poster tombs with arched windows.
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4. Stroll through Barrakka Gardens
If you enjoy strolling around lovely gardens and taking in sensational views, then a visit to the Barrakka Gardens should definitely be on your Malta to-do list.
Located beside the Valletta waterfront, Upper Barrakka Gardens is one of the most popular spots in the city, and offers breathtaking views across Malta and out to the Grand Harbour. You might find yourself coming back repeatedly just to sit on the bench and admire the panorama.
The upper gardens have lovely colonnades, and while the lower gardens are much smaller, they have a beautiful temple.
From the upper gardens, you can reach the Saluting Battery, which is an artillery battery built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century and used to salute foreign ships. It was also used by the British as an artillery battery after the Second World War – and is still working and in use today. If you’d like to see it fire, make sure you visit at noon or 4pm.
5. Visit Lascaris War Rooms
If you’re interested in history, you might like to visit the Lascaris War Rooms.
During the Second World War, the Lascaris War Rooms were used as the top-secret British War Headquarters, and it was here that the allies came together to draw up plans for defending the Mediterranean region. In these underground rooms, Eisenhower gave his orders to invade Sicily, and today, they remain a powerful monument to the role Malta played in the war.
Visitors can explore the map room and the bunks, and admire the two wartime tanks that are on display – a ‘Matilda’ and an ‘M3 Stuart’. The communication system that was used during the war is still in place, and you can learn all about it with an audio guide or a guided tour.
Though the war rooms are 150ft underground, you don’t have to worry about breathing in stuffy air, as the ventilated air system that was used during the war still works today!
6. Go diving
Malta is known for being one of the best places in the Mediterranean to scuba dive. Beneath its crystal clear azure waters are plenty of mysterious wrecks and cathedral-like caves to explore – not to mention fascinating marine wildlife.
One of the most popular shipwrecks with divers is the HMS Maori (found below Fort St. Elmo in Valletta); a destroyer that was sunk by the Germans during WW2 and now lies on the seabed, 14 metres below the surface. Due to its shallow depth and easy access, it’s a great site for beginners to explore.
If you’re more intrigued by the idea of swimming into underwater caves than exploring wrecks, you might like to head to Comino, an uninhabited island just off the coast of Malta where you’ll find many underwater caves that gleam with an otherworldly luminescence. The caves around Comino’s Blue Lagoon are also great places to spot marine animals like octopuses and barracudas.
Another famous diving spot is the Blue Hole, located on the West Coast of Malta’s neighbouring island of Gozo.
The sparkly blue sea pool is a unique geographical formation that offers an unforgettable experience for divers of all levels. The inland pool is about 10m wide and 15m deep and appears to be carved into the surrounding rocks. Seven metres below the surface of the pool is an archway that allows divers to head out into the sea to explore various different routes.
If you’d like to get scuba certified while on your holiday, you can check out licensed dive centres on the Visit Malta website.
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7. Explore Marsaxlokk, the fishing village
If you’d like to explore other parts of Malta and get out of the capital, then one of the best places to visit is Marsaxlokk, an authentic fishing village that’s located in the south of Malta.
The harbour, with its bright-coloured bobbing fishing boats and busy restaurants and bars, is a truly lovely place to spend the day. Keep an eye out for the menacingly glaring eyes that are painted on some of the prows of the boats – they’re meant to ward off evil spirits!
One of Marsaxlokk’s biggest attractions is its lively fish market, which is held every Sunday. Whether you like fish or not, the market is a must-visit, as you can pick up other everyday items here too.
It’s also a fun place to browse for unique souvenirs to take home. And of course, if you consider yourself a seafood aficionado, Marsaxlokk is one of the best places on the island to enjoy fresh fish.
8. Visit the Tarxien Temples
If you’re interested in ancient history, you can’t visit Malta and not visit the Tarxien Temples.
Located in the small town of Tarxien, to the south of Valletta, the Tarxien Temples are the largest temple complex on the island, and the four different temples here date from 3,300 – 2,400 BC. Once the heart of the ancient Maltese community, the temples are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits – rather strangely – between modern housing.
Some temples are dedicated to the ancient goddess of fertility, and others are the temples of people buried at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum – which is just a 10-minute walk away.
The temples will offer a fascinating insight into what life was like in prehistoric Malta – and admiring the huge doorways, stairs, altars, and ornate stone carvings of animals and people will give you a new appreciation of the skills of the ancient Maltese people.
9. Take a ferry to Ramla Bay
Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Malta is Gozo, the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago – and if you’re looking to enjoy a sense of peace on your holiday, you’ll certainly find that here.
With a population of less than 40,000 people, Gozo is much quieter than Malta – and it also happens to have most of the best beaches. One of the very best is Ramla Bay, a beautiful beach with red-golden sand that’s situated at the bottom of a valley in the North of Gozo.
The area around the beach is blissfully undeveloped, although there are a few cafes if you need some food or drink. Ramla Bay is an ideal spot to enjoy a day of swimming, snorkelling, and sunbathing, but there’s also plenty of compelling history to discover here too.
Roman remains lie beneath the sands, and on the Western side of the beach, you’ll find Calypso Cave – which, according to legend, is the cave featured in Homer’s The Odyssey, where the nymph Calypso detained Ulysses for seven years.
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10. Take a trip to the Victoria Citadel
In Gozo, all roads lead to the capital city of Victoria, which is located in the centre of the island.
Like Mdina, Victoria has its own citadel – the Citadella – which is perched atop a hill and visible from almost every part of the island. Though the citadel was built in the late medieval times, it’s been beautifully restored in recent years, and as you stroll past these fortified walls you’ll be able to admire beautiful Byzantine and Roman-style architecture.
If you climb onto the battlements, you can enjoy sensational views of the whole island. And don’t forget to check out the prison here, as well as the elegantly baroque Cathedral of the Assumption.
Once you’ve got your fill of architecture and history, be sure to explore the rest of the Victoria, which is the beating heart of Gozo. The bustling main market square, It-Tokk, is an exciting place to people-watch or pick up a few bargains, so make sure you leave plenty of time to check it out!
See some of Malta's best highlights in this one-minute clip...
Cathy Bartrop – friend of Rest Less and founder of travelguru.tv – has created a short video of some of Malta’s best highlights, which you can check out below.
Whether you’re looking to book a last-minute late-summer break, or you’re already dreaming of the trips you’ll take in 2023 and beyond, there’s no denying that Malta is an ideal destination.
With a flight time of just over three hours, the beautiful waters and sunny skies that Malta is so famous for are only a short trip away – and there’s so much here to keep you occupied.
Malta’s history is compelling and unique, so whether you’re fascinated by ancient temples, medieval knights, or WW2, there’s lots to learn about here.
Plus, Malta isn’t known to be one of the best diving destinations in the world for nothing. So if you’ve always wanted to learn how to scuba dive – or you’re already a convert and keen to get underwater again – you’ll be spoilt for choice.