With over 1,000 tiny palm-fringed islands and sandbanks surrounded by turquoise waters, the Maldives is truly a paradise on Earth. Scattered like a necklace of jewels in the vast Indian Ocean, this archipelago is actually the smallest country in Asia, and the lowest-lying country on earth.
Straddling the equator, the Maldives offers all the sun, sea, and sand you may dream of, and surprisingly diverse experiences. From world-class wildlife encounters with manta rays and whale sharks to magical swimming in a bioluminescent bay and cycling through wetlands, it’s difficult to get bored here.
Though the Maldives is often associated with luxury, it’s worth keeping an eye out for top travel deals – as these can be a lot more affordable than you might think. So whether you’re a nature lover or want to kick back with a cocktail and a beach read, there’s hopefully a package for you.
If you’re intrigued by what the Maldives has to offer, here are nine things to do and places to visit.
1. Mingle with manta rays and whale sharks
Clear glass-like water and around 2,500 coral reefs with an abundance of marine life makes the Maldives a world-class spot for year-round diving, snorkelling, and spotting whale sharks.
These gentle giants are the world’s largest fish and can grow up to 12 metres long – but don’t worry, they feed on plankton!
The marine park of South Ari Atoll is a whale shark hotspot, due to its rich supply of plankton. There are guaranteed sightings year-round, although the peak time to see them is August to November.
Another fantastic place to spot whale sharks is Hanifaru Bay; a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in Baa Atoll. From May to November, the South West Monsoon causes a massive build-up of plankton. This also draws in the largest gathering of manta rays on the planet.
Meanwhile, a must-visit is Maaya Thila in North Malé Atoll, which has been named one of the top 10 dive sites in the world and offers fantastic night dives. Here, you’ll also spot white tip reef sharks, turtles, tropical clownfish, parrotfish, and frogfish.
Have an unforgettable underwater adventure
2. Explore local life
For a dry adventure, why not visit one of the Maldives’ inhabited ‘local islands’, which have kept their small-island feel?
You can walk or cycle the narrow streets of Maldivian villages, lined with colourfully painted houses. Or, to get a sense of island life, pop to the quayside to haggle over the price of fish; try hedhikaa (a savoury snack version of afternoon tea) in a local cafe; and watch the crowds heading to the mosque, following the call to prayer.
There are around 200 inhabited Maldivian islands – with the most popular and easy to get to being those near the capital, Malé. These include Huraa, which has a lively surfer vibe; Maafushi, where you can stay in a family-run guesthouse; or laid-back Fulidhoo (pictured), where you can learn to dive.
Another way to experience local life is by island hopping on a traditional sailing boat (or dhoni), where you’ll visit remote fishing hamlets and stop at stunning reefs for snorkelling and swimming.
3. Try Maldivian cuisine
Inspired by its neighbours, India and Sri Lanka, the distinctive Maldivian cuisine centres on the limited ingredients produced here.
Fish (mainly tuna) and coconut appear in many dishes. Fish curry is a staple, but there are various takes on it, such as mas huni – a cold dish of chilli, grated coconut, onion, and shredded smoked tuna with a rounded flatbread (roshi).
For a fishy snack, you can stop at a local cafe and try mas roshi (tuna and grated coconut cakes), spicy fish pie, or Bis Keemiya — a spring roll stuffed with tuna, egg, and sauteed onions and cabbage.
Other crowd pleasers are fish soup and rice, served with lime and chilli, and chicken curry, while more exotic is banana flower salad. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll be spoilt for choice, as Maldivian desserts include cassava coconut cake, sago pudding, and sweetened sticky rice with chilli fish – which is traditionally served during festivals or on special occasions.
Visit foodie heaven
4. Visit a bioluminescent bay
The marine equivalent of The Northern Lights is the ethereal nocturnal light show of bioluminescence.
This spectacular phenomenon is due to aquatic microorganisms or phytoplankton radiating tiny flashes of blue light under the sea when moving or disturbed — causing them to glow in the dark. It’s thought that bioluminescence is used as a defence mechanism to disorientate and surprise predators.
Although you can see this anywhere in the Maldives, given the right conditions, Vaadhoo Island in Raa Atoll is famed for its spectacular ‘sea of stars’ – which looks like a twinkling sky. Any movement in the water, even the natural rhythm of the waves, causes the ‘stars’ to glow, and they linger on the beach as the wave retreats. A night swim in the bioluminescent bay is truly magical!
The best chance of seeing this incredible light show is between June and October – when the skies are darker, the waters are warmer, and there’s more plankton in the sea. This also coincides with the low season in the Maldives, with cheaper prices and fewer tourists.
5. Explore the capital, Malé
Spread across just six square kilometres, The Maldives’ pulsing capital, Malé, is one of the smallest yet most densely populated cities.
Referred to as the ‘King’s Island’, it was chosen as the residence of ancient royal dynasties due to its central location. History buffs can see royal antiquities – from manuscripts and ancient armour to centuries-old jewellery and costumes of kings and queens – alongside Buddhist and Islamic treasures at the National Museum in Sultan Park.
At the 17th-century Friday Mosque, you can also admire intricately carved coral panels, decorative ceilings, and stunning Maldivian lacquer work. And, if you like fish, a trip here also isn’t complete without a visit to the lively Fish Market, where the catch of the day is hauled from the nearby harbour.
Plus, nowhere in the Maldives is far from the beach, and the capital is no exception – so when you’ve had your fill of history and culture, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for relaxation. You can take a bus to the beautiful Hulhumalé Beach, where sparkling turquoise waters and delicious seafood stalls will lure you in.
6. Spot dolphins on a sunset cruise
Did you know that the Maldives is among the top five destinations for dolphin watching in the world? Most abundant is the spinner dolphin, which feeds offshore at night and rests during the day by slowly swimming back and forth.
While some resorts house a large pod of spinner dolphins right on their doorstep, taking to the water allows you to watch these amiable aquatic mammals in the wild. On a sunset cruise, you have a good chance of spotting a pod of these playful creatures alongside your boat as they pass through these channels in the late afternoon – perhaps even corkscrewing out of the water.
Although any wildlife watching needs a dose of luck, the best time for dolphin watching in the archipelago is the dry season, between January and April. And one of the best dolphin-watching spots is Muli Channel in the Meemu Atoll, where there’s an 85% chance of seeing them.
If you’re keen to spot whales, dolphins, and many other tropical species, you could join a multi-day cetacean-watching cruise on a live-aboard ‘safari’ boat, which also has air-conditioned cabins and good food.
7. Cycle through the wetlands
The Addu Nature Park on Hithadhoo, the most southerly island in the archipelago, is home to the country’s second-largest wetlands. It’s a haven for the 28 bird species – as well as many migratory birds – that live here and also has serene sandy beaches.
You can take a guided nature tour through the park and along wooden boardwalks, which extend out to gleaming lakes and lush mangroves. There are also scenic cycling routes through the lush vegetation of the wetlands if you prefer to explore by bike.
Visitors may want to go canoeing in Bedhi Bay, too, which is famed for its red mangroves, baby stingrays, and sharks.
Explore the wetlands
8. Go surfing
Did you know that the Maldives has some of the best waves in the world (especially from March-May and September-November), making it ideal for surfing? Being in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it benefits from the southern swells, which reach shoulder-to-head height — offering intermediate surfers the chance to enjoy barrels and long rides.
Most surf spots are close to each other and can be reached by boat from the international airport. A popular spot is the eastern rim of North Malé Atoll, which has consistent waves and some of the longest rides in the country.
Meanwhile, the remote Huvadhoo Atoll in the Southern Atolls is considered the coolest surf spot in the Maldives, but because you can only reach it by chartered boat, it’s a pricier choice.
If surfing isn’t for you, there are also plenty of more relaxed alternatives. Why not try stand-up paddleboarding in the calm waters off beautiful Baa Atoll or kayaking in glass bottom boats off Vilamendhoo Island? Or, for a birds-eye view of this pancake-flat paradise, you could try parasailing – taking in the peaceful view as you glide over turquoise-rimmed atolls.
9. Dine at an undersea restaurant
For a surreal gourmet dining experience, why not eat at an undersea restaurant in the Maldives? There are five to choose from, all with glass roofs so you can take in 180-degree panoramic views of the surrounding Indian Ocean – with tropical fish swimming by as you dine.
The world’s first all-glass undersea restaurant was Ithaa at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, which opened 16 feet below sea level in 2005. Today, it’s still considered one of the best and has caviar and Maldivian lobster on the menu!
However, the largest all-glass undersea restaurant is at the five-star Hurawalhi Island Resort. The exotic 5.8 Undersea Restaurant offers mouthwatering breakfast, lunch, and sunset dinner menus (at rather eye-watering prices). Indulge in king crab, scallops, lobster, or a trendy vegan menu.
From Niyama Private Islands Resort, it’s a short boat hop to the popular Subsix – the island’s first underwater restaurant and nightclub, 20 feet below sea level. Enjoy a lavish dinner at a reasonable price in its seascape-themed interior, with a shell-shaped bar, coral-like chandeliers, ocean-blue lighting, and chairs which look like sea anemones.
Dine beneath the surface
If you’re dreaming of winter sun or planning the trip of a lifetime in 2024, the Maldives may well be on your bucket list.
With some of the world’s most spectacular resorts featuring overwater villas and even underwater restaurants on small uninhabited islands, the Maldives are perfect for a ‘flop and drop’ holiday.
But there’s also a surprising amount to do here if you have a taste for adventure – from bucket-list-worthy marine life encounters to soaking in history and culture in the capital city.
For more inspiration for your next trip, why not check out our article; 10 beautiful islands for a slice of paradise?
Looking to book your next getaway?
Have you visited the Maldives – or has our article inspired you to think about booking that trip? We’d love to hear about your holiday plans in the comments below.