Malta sits between Sicily and the North African coast.
It’s actually an archipelago of three islands. Most of the population lives on Malta, while the second largest, Gozo, is known for its beaches and scenery. Comino, the smallest island, is just 3.5 square kilometres. There’s no cars and only one hotel, which means it’s quiet and unspoiled. Malta’s got about 7000 years’ worth of history under its belt, good weather, and beaches. That means it’s an excellent place for a lazy holiday, or a cultural city break.
To make sure you don’t miss out on the country’s best sights, sounds and flavours, here’s our guide to the best things to do in Malta.
1. Stroll through the beautiful capital city
Malta’s capital city is Valletta. It’s very small, covering less than a square kilometre. Which makes it very easy to explore on foot.
Valletta’s streets are distinctive. They’re filled with historic buildings, baroque-era architecture and houses with colourful balconies. You don’t even have to walk around Valletta to take it all in. You’ll get a great view of the city and its harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
There are several fascinating museums around Valletta. The best place to go to find out about the country’s history is the National Museum of Archeology. The museum’s collection includes items dating back to 5000 BC, and is housed within one of the city’s most beautiful historic houses.
2. Set sail for the Three Cities
A regular ferry service to three equally historic cities operates from Valletta’s harbour.
Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa), Senglea and Conspicua are collectively known as the Three Cities, and were founded in the Middle Ages. But their origins go back much further than that. They’ve been the main entry point to Malta since the days of the ancient Greeks.
Even less modernised than Valletta, if you wander through these cities’ streets you’ll experience a more traditional way of life. Especially during the lively festivals that take place throughout the year.
3. Explore historic forts
Fort St Elmo overlooks Valletta’s harbour. It played a major role in defending Valletta during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, and again in the Second World War. These days, they stage military reenactments in the grounds, and the National War Museum is housed here.
However, you’ll also find historic fortifications all around the Maltese islands. In the 17th century, a series of lookout towers were built all around the country’s coastline. Although some were demolished over the centuries, many of them are still standing. Some are even accessible to the public.
4. Hit the beach
Being in the Mediterranean, April to October is the best time to go if you’re visiting for the beaches. All three of the islands have some truly spectacular beaches, and the water’s particularly clean for swimming in.
On the main island, the most popular beaches include Għajn Tuffieħa and Golden Bay – both found on the north-west coast. Gozo’s beaches are popular with divers and sailors. The island’s Ramla L-Hamra beach is particularly worth a visit, to see its red sands.
5. Get out and admire the scenery
If you’re not bothered about sunbathing, Gozo is particularly good for nature walks. Head there during the winter months when it’s still warm, but the peak tourist season is over. You’ll have the islands’ countryside to yourself.
That said, all three islands have excellent climbing and abseiling spots. More than 1300 of them, to be precise. Both Malta and Gozo have rock climbing clubs and adventure tour operators who can help you arrange a trip.
6. Swim at the blue lagoon
Just off the coast of Comino, the extremely photogenic Blue Lagoon is the country’s most popular spots. It’s on the route between Malta and Gozo, so sailing boats from both islands regularly stop in the lagoon’s shimmering turquoise waters. There’s not much of a beach around the area, so the sands can get very busy. Avoid the crowds by going either early morning or late afternoon.
7. Explore the blue grotto
Another one of Malta’s most beautiful natural sights is the Blue Grotto. It’s a series of sea caverns on south coast of the main island – great if you’re sailing or scuba diving.
The best time to visit the Grotto is during the morning – up until about 1pm – as that’s when the waters are at their most brilliantly blue. The vibrant blue colour is caused by sunlight shining through the caves at the right angle to illuminate the phosphorescent marine life under the water.
8. See the silent city of Mdina
Mdina is a perfectly preserved walled city found on a hilltop in the north of the main island. Very few cars are allowed there, which has earnt it the nickname of “the Silent City”.
Up until the mid-16th century, Mdina was the country’s capital, and home to many of the Mediterranean’s most wealthy people. After the capital was moved to Birgu (and then Valletta), Mdina went into decline. It’s remained largely unchanged since its heyday, so there are some fascinating historic houses and palaces to explore.
Just outside the city walls, you’ll find the remains of a Roman villa. Not much survives of the house itself, but there are some beautiful, and largely still intact mosaics which are well worth seeing.
9. Explore Malta’s beautiful churches
Churches are found all around the islands. There are more than 360 of them in total – that’s more than one every square kilometre.
There are two particularly famous churches: the domed Rotunda of Mosta, found in the north-west of the main island, was inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. And Valletta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral,which is often named as one of the most beautiful Baroque buildings in Europe. It dates back to the 1570s, and was founded by the Knights of St John. The cathedral’s impressive art collection includes famous works by Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens.
Many of the churches celebrate feast days, dedicated to their own patron saint. So you might even stumble across a traditional festival or two.
10. Head underground
Some of Malta’s most fascinating landmarks are hidden deep underground.
The town of Rabat is famous for the St Paul’s and St Agatha’s Catacombs. Dating back to the days of the Roman Empire, they’re among the oldest Christian landmarks in the country. Despite being more than a thousand years old, you can still see some impressive murals in the catacombs.
The Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta were originally built as slave quarters in the 16th century. Then the network of tunnels were turned into a base for the allied forces during the Second World War.
11. See temples older than the Pyramids
Ġgantija temple complex on Gozo, which was built around 3600 BC. That’s older than both Stonehenge and Egypt’s Pyramids.
On the main island, the Ħaġar Qim temples are almost as old. And the island is also home to the Tarxien Temples complex. Dating back to around 3150 BC, the ruins feature some incredibly detailed carvings.
The best preserved of these ancient monuments is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. Although almost as old as Ġgantija, this underground burial complex has been protected from the elements, and was only rediscovered in the early 20th century. It’s worth booking in advance for a tour, as visitor numbers are strictly limited for conservation reasons.
12. Treat yourself to a pastizzi
Being so close to Sicily, there’s a definite Italian influence to Maltese cuisine. You’ll find pasta, pizza and other Italian classics in many of Malta’s restaurants (and in generous Italian-sized portions too).
Malta’s own national dish is stuffat tal-fenek, a rabbit stew. But if you only try one traditional Maltese dish during your trip, make it a Pastizzi. They’re easy to find. There are specialist “pastizzerias” in every town, and they’re also sold in bars and by street vendors. The small pastries are traditionally filled with ricotta cheese or mushy peas. If you have more of a sweet tooth, try an Imqaret, which is a similar snack, but with a date-flavoured filling.
13. Discover a new favourite wine
Malta’s big on grape-growing. But you won’t find many bottles of Maltese wine in your local supermarket.
Being so close to Italy, traditionally the Maltese just imported most of their wine. However, in recent years, a wine-making industry has started to emerge. Malta has a couple of its own unique varieties of wine. Girgentina and Gellewza grapes have been grown on the island since ancient times, and they create light, fruity-tasting wines.
14. Eat some very fresh seafood
You won’t go short on seafood on Malta. National favourites include lampuki (also known as dolphin fish or mahi mahi), which is often served in a pie. The best place to try Malta’s freshest seafood is in the village of Masaxlokk. Found on the main island’s south-east coast, the picturesque village hosts the country’s biggest fish market every Sunday.
15. Come face-to-face with colourful sealife
If you prefer to see fish in its natural habitat, good news – there are loads of fantastic diving spots in Malta.
Many Maltese seaside towns have their own diving schools. The country’s calm and clear waters are also generally very good for first-time divers. Close to the Blue Grotto, Ghar Lapsi is good for divers and snorkelers of all abilities.
More experienced divers can explore shipwrecks, including the Um El Faroud near Ħaġar Qim, and HMS Maori, which is just outside Valletta’s harbour.
16. Join the party at a festival
Malta has a packed festival calendar. The Malta International Fireworks Festival marks the country joining the EU, and happens in late April each year, in Valletta’s harbour and villages around the country.
In late June to early July, the Malta International Arts Festival brings concerts, theatre, film screenings and art exhibitions and performances to venues all around Valletta. And the Notte Bianca does the same for one night each October.
Valletta has also been named European Capital of Culture for 2018. There’ll be all sorts of events taking place around the city throughout the year.
17. Experience the local music scene
Malta’s own music scene is equally lively.
The best place to experience traditional Maltese folk music is at Għanafest in Valletta each June. It’s a the three-day festival featuring some of the best performers of the country’s own style of traditional folk singing, Għana.
Music is at the heart of many Maltese communities, with band clubs being an important source of local pride. Band clubs perform at local festivals, but also play a major part in a town or village’s day-to-day life. In towns with more than one club, a friendly football team-style rivalry takes place between them. At local festivals you can expect to see a band’s supporters wearing their club’s colours.
18. Go clubbing in Paceville
During the summer months, much of the nightlife action shifts to open-air clubs, which are found in towns around the main island. One of the most popular is the Bedouin Bar – a chill-out club which overlooks the sea in St Julians. Many of the area’s luxury hotels also have rooftop bars.
Malta also has a vibrant gay scene. It was named one of the best places in Europe for LGBTIQ rights. Paceville has several gay-friendly clubs and bars, and Valletta’s Pride Week takes place in early September.
19. Catch a show in one of the world’s oldest theatres
Valletta has one of the oldest working theatres in Europe. Opened back in 1732, the Manoel Theatre‘s auditorium has kept many of its original features. The venue regularly stages plays in English, including a traditional pantomime each winter. It’s also particularly popular with international opera and dance companies.
20. See stunning modern architecture
Valletta’s other major theatre is the open-air Pjazza Teatru Rjal. It’s one of several buildings in the city designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, the man behind London’s Shard. Piano also designed Valletta’s Parliament House and City Gate, which have quickly become local landmarks.
This modern theatre replaces the old Opera House, and is built on the foundations which were all that were left of the original building. Its mix of tradition and innovation (not to mention the beautiful surrounding views) make it a memorable place to see a show.
21. Visit a film set
Hit movies that have been filmed on the islands include Gladiator, The Da Vinci Code and The Spy Who Loved Me. Game of Thrones also shot much of its first season in Mdina.
However, a notorious flop has had probably the most lasting impact on the country. The Sweethaven village set from the 1980 Robin Williams-starring Popeye was left intact after filming finished. And it’s now been turned into one of Malta’s most popular family attractions. Tucked into cliffside on the island’s west coast, the Popeye Village park offers some picturesque views, as well as theme park-style live shows.
Flights from London to Malta take just over 3 hours. For the latest deals, take a look at our flights to Malta.
A bus service operates on Malta and Gozo. Malta Public Transport sell a selection of passes for bus travel (and some ferry services).
When to go
Malta has a Mediterranean climate, which means the country enjoys pleasant weather throughout the year.
Summers are generally hot, with temperatures peaking at 30 degrees in July. However, many locals take their holidays during mid-August, which means that smaller bars and restaurants may be closed, and the beaches a bit more busy than usual.
Winters are mild, with an average temperature of around 15 degrees. It might be a bit too chilly for sunbathing though.
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, and hit the beach, the best time to visit Malta is either late Spring (May) or early Autumn (September).
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Or do you have some tips for other things to do in Malta? Please share your recommendations in the comments.