Malta is a tiny island of stone with a huge heart. Take thousands of years of history, and cultures from dozens of empires, and cram it all in a few square miles to create one of the most unique places you will have the privilege of visiting. This island nation will surprise you at every turn due to the extraordinary people, diverse food, and stunning beauty mixed into this multicultural wonder.
This is a hearty and robust nation built on the resolve and resilience it has created over countless conflicts. Even being one of the most heavily bombed countries in WW2, it still stands strong. Malta wears its scars from every conflict proudly as it continues to fight to keep its culture going into the next century. It has many crumbling buildings, trash, and poverty; what country doesn’t? Especially after some of the hardships, it has suffered. However, with all that, Malta’s true beauty shines through at every turn. Inviting people with a passion for food, art, and life all their own is the key to any strong nation, and the Maltese people have that in surplus. Malta is truly fascinating and inspiring. Let us explore the wonder that is Malta.
We found ourselves trying to pinpoint what the island reminded us of the most. Our first impression of Malta was that it is very Mediterranian but the stone, along with some of the architecture, has a Middle East or Northern African feel. But then you turn the corner and it reflects Italian European influences.
Don’t let the Maltese people hear you say any of this because they are uniquely and distinctively Maltese. They are a true and unique Mediterranean nation with a personality all their own. For centuries, they have been a central point for trade and strategic military might. A mark is left on the island’s soul with every passing occupation. As a result, Malta has become a beautiful and diverse nation of art, architecture, food, and deep faith.
Some quick facts about Malta
- Population: 514,564 (2019) Population grew 100,000 people since 2011.
- Capital City: Valletta
- Currency: Euros (EUR)
- Malta is only 121 square miles. It is 17 miles across. It is the tenth smallest country in the world.
- Malta has been inhabited since the early Neolithic period around 5900 BC.
- Population density is over 2000 people per mile and is the 4th most densely populated sovereign nation in the world.
- There are 168 miles of shoreline, including Malta, Gozo, and Comino.
- Malta became part of the European Union in May 2004.
- Religion: Roman Catholics more than 90%
Want to learn more about Malta,? Check out our Malta Travel Guide
Let’s start with some history
The history of Malta is a long and colorful one dating back to the dawn of civilization. Due to its strategic location, it has seen many occupiers over its history, including Napolean Bonaparte. The islands of Malta date back to the Neolithic period, which is evident in the ancient temples dedicated to the Goddess of fertility. Over the years, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and the Byzantines left marks on the islands.
In 60 A.D. St Paul shipwrecked on Malta while he was on the way to stand trial in Rome for being a political rebel. This was when Christianity arrived in Malta, and the strong faith remains today as a core value of its people.
In subsequent years Malta saw many conquerors. Arabs conquered the island in 870 A.D. Followed by the Normans, the Aragonese, and other conquerors that ruled Sicily and the Maltese Islands. Later ruled by Charles V, who bequeathed Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who ruled over Malta from 1530 to 1798. During this time, the Knights of St John took Malta into the Golden Age, in which they played a significant role in the cultural scene of 17th and 18th century Europe.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt. The French presence on the islands was short, as the English, who the Maltese requested to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800.
World War 2
During World War 2, Malta withstood bombardments from both Italy and Germany. The country sustained devastating losses that they are recovering from to this day. The Siege of Malta, as it is known, was a military campaign in the Mediterranean theater. From mid-1940 to late 1942, fights for this ideal strategic location of the British Colony of Malta pitted air and naval forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy against the Royal Air Force and Navy. Malta became a base for Allied attacks on enemy ships and supply routes to North Africa and the Italian air and naval bases.
In return, the Islands were under constant attack. There were 3,343 air raids over 2,357 hours, 15,000 tonnes of bombs dropped, and 10,761 buildings destroyed or suffered extensive damage during the war. Malta was left physically and economically devastated. Much of the Island was uninhabitable, which led to a massive exodus of Maltese to another British colony, Australia. To this day, the largest population of Maltese outside of Malta is in Australia.
The people of Malta’s courage and resilience did not go unnoticed on the world stage. On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) “to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1943 presented a United States Presidential Citation to the people of Malta on behalf of the people of the United States. In part, it read: “Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone and unafraid in the center of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness – a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.”
British rule in Malta lasted until 1964 when Malta became independent. The Maltese adopted the British system of public administration, education, and legislation. Malta joined the European Union in May 2004 and the Eurozone in January 2008.
The People of Malta
The first word that comes to mind when we describe the people of Malta is resilience. This tiny island nation has been through conflicts and horrors that span millennia. Through endless occupations and wars, the people of Malta have remained strong, of deep faith, persistent, and determined.
The battle is not over either; the island is still recovering from the ravages of World War II. So much beauty to see, yet the scars of the past remain as they rebuild. Amid renovation and glory, there is still so much broken. You may ask then, will that negatively impact my visit. However, it is the opposite; it has you spellbound and captivated as soon as you arrive. It is a living dichotomy that keeps you engaged and intrigued.
You may imagine that such a storied and tragic history would harden the citizens of Malta, making them bitter and angry. That did not seem to be the case. There was joy and energy on this island. A community that appeared to be tight-knit and caring for each other. There was laughter in the air, whether in the cafes or residences. It was poignant and heartwarming. The best way to describe the Maltese people; is lovely, but also kind, welcoming, and full of life, whether young or old.
The Captivating Maltese Balconies
The Maltese balconies are spellbinding, colorful, enclosed wooden structures found on almost every building. They are a staple of the architecture throughout Malta. The Maltese refer to them as Maltese balconies in English. In Maltese, they are gallarija, which translates as ‘gallery.’ You would expect that after hundreds of balconies, they would fade into the streetscape background, but they only get more fascinating over time. We could never take enough pictures of them.
There are varied stories about the origin of these balconies. Small-scale wooden balconies appeared in Valletta during the mid-eighteenth century and gradually gained popularity. This might have been influenced by the construction of the two grand wooden balconies of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta. They spread so quickly that eventually, they were referred to by the misleading name of La Maltijja (the Maltese) as if they originated in the country.
Of the different stories, the most likely was that these balconies were from North Africa, primarily Moroccan prototypes derived from the Arabic Muxrabija (look-out place). At one time, Malta was home to a considerable number of predominantly Turkish slaves (Barbary pirates captured Europeans and sold them to the Ottoman Empire, which occupied North Africa). Some were master craftsmen who may have introduced the wooden balcony to Malta.
What are the Maltese Balconies used for?
We saw every possible use for these balconies. The look-out aspect, where residents watch the world go by while staying out of sight, we observed frequently. Some ladies would sit on a stool while discretely gazing down to the street below from a slightly opened window. We saw some beautifully decorated ones, many with religious items and some decorated for the holiday (Halloween when we were there). Many have laundry hanging from them. Some were even being used for storage and were packed full! Though there was mild weather when we were there, Malta gets hot, and the balconies can provide a nice place to enjoy the breeze.
Traditionally the colors of the balconies cover the gamut, from red to navy to bright purple, expressing the homeowners’ individuality. However, the green you see in many places of Valletta is known to reflect a “status” color brought to Malta by the British.
These balconies are so important to Malta that the country launched a balcony restoration project. It is part of an ambitious urban regeneration program. It provides financial support for people who restore the wooden balconies. Some are absolutely intricate and beautiful, at times, even better preserved than the building itself. As discussed in Malta’s history, there is still much restoration needed in this country. The success to date is evident, but there is a long way to go. The incentive provided by the government will only make it even more possible.
Take a photo tour of what is quintessential Malta
Did you know English is one of the official languages of Malta?
The last occupier of Malta was the English. They had been in Malta for over 100 years until the island gained independence in 1964. With the British presence for such an extended period, English remained one of the official languages. You will often hear Maltese spoken among the locals, but they immediately switch to English without a hiccup. Their English is easy to understand and excellent. Due to this, as an American, it did make traveling around the island a lot easier. All the signage on the roads to the restaurants and museums are in English. But we can assure you there is nothing else about this country that feels English.
Make a Game Plan
Though Malta is a small country, there is a ton to see. An itinerary is a must; otherwise, it can become overwhelming. Our time in this island nation was limited, with only four days to travel to and from Malta. We made the most of every moment. Ideally, it would be perfect to give Malta an entire week. If you can, you will truly enjoy what this amazing country has to offer.
Malta is a country that is ideally seen by car. The public transportation system is cumbersome and slow. We found driving relatively easy though the roads can be pretty beat up in some spots. Signage is all in English, which aids in navigation, but they drive on the left side of the road, which we recognize can be a challenge for some. Taxis are available but are pretty pricey. There was no Uber or Lyft when we were there. There is a service called Ecabs on Malta, but we have heard mixed reviews.
Map of Malta
The Wonders of Malta: Our Must-Do List
Valletta is the walled capital city of Malta and a sight to behold. The city and the surrounding area is the perfect first stop when visiting Malta. Small, vibrant, and bustling, Valletta is magnificent. The entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only .5 square miles, but it feels much larger and is packed with life. Every street leads to the sea.
This is old Malta, with its 16th & 17th-century townhouses alongside renovated buildings and lively nightlife. There are galleries, a Palace, incredible restaurants, packed cafes, high-end shopping, huge squares, and art spaces. St John’s Co-Cathedral is stunning and is one reason we returned for a second visit. The architecture alone is striking, and then there are those incredible Maltese Balconies. There is no more fabulous showcase for them than in Valetta.
Enter through the Renza Pianos city gate and begin your journey into this remarkable city.
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Directly southeast of Valletta, before the Three Cities, there is one of the most important sites on the Island, Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. This is an underground prehistoric burial site. It was discovered in 1902 during construction in the area.
The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a complex of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels. The complex was used for many centuries, with the earliest remains dating back to around 4000 BC and the more recent remains found dating to the Early Bronze Age (ca 1500 BC). It makes a unique and mysterious experience giving you a glimpse into this ancient world.
**Tickets need to be secured months in advance.** Entry is very limited due to the small space, and guests must be part of a tour to visit.
Before proceeding to the Three Cities, don’t forget to visit Addolorata Cemetery with the Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel. Close by is also the Chinese Garden of Serenity for those who want to relax without flying to China. There is also the Marsovin Winery if you need a nice splash of wine at lunch.
The Three Cities
This area comprises Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu), Senglea, and Cospicua. Vittoriosa is much like Valletta but around a third the size. This area’s main feature is Gardjola Gardens, a nice fortified area with a small garden and amazing views of the east side of Valletta and the west side of Cospicua. Don’t forget Knisja Maria Bambina or Fortifications of Senglea on your walk.
On the south end of Senglea is Cospicua. This area features a large fortified wall that protects the land side of the three cities with well intact sites like Notre Dame Gate and Cottonera Lines. Another internal line of fortifications features St. Helen’s Gate, St. Helen Bastion, Sta Margherita Bastion, and St. John Almoner Bastion. Take the time to visit St Paul’s Church and the stunning Knisja Immakulata Kunċizzjoni while winding your way through the streets heading to the center of Cospicua.
The fortified city of Cospicua has several sites to see. You can start with the inland fortifications with Malta at War Museum, Birgu Ditch Gardens, and Bastion of Castile. The sites are daunting as you make your way into the city. Inquisitor’s Palace is an excellent first stop before heading further into the city.
While in the area
The beautiful Knisja ta’ San Lawrenz church overlooks the harbor. Casa Normann, an 18th-century palace surrounded by beautiful homes is free to visit. On the city’s northern tip, you will find Fort St. Angelo. An impressive medieval fort with incredible views of Senglea and Valletta. There is an arched stone bridge you walk to get to the fort. Once inside, you can take in the views while walking through these mighty fortifications. Visit the Nativity of the Virgin Mary Chapel before you leave.
We extended our stay into the early evening and wandered the streets of these lovely Three Cities, the waterfront and harbor. There was something special that evening as many locals were out and about and seemingly no tourists but us. It was as if we had been invited to see a personal and authentic glimpse of Malta’s life. It is a strong and friendly community.
Since you are in the area, you can drive a little farther northeast, where Fort Ricasoli, Fort Rinella, and Forti Santu Rokku are located. You will get to see Forts from a different period that gives you some insight into Malta’s vast and, at times, turbulent military history.
The Silent City of Mdina is a powerful and intriguing place. It will leave an impact on you as it has on the surrounding area. The ancient city is simply striking. Standing high on a rocky outcrop, watching the town of Rabat below, is an impressive sight.
Even more fascinating is that it is a fully functioning fortified town in impeccable condition. There is no doubt why this was the original capital city of Malta. If you have the time, visit the town of Rabat, which is just outside the city walls of Mdina. It is an up-and-coming culinary destination and has great things to see close to Mdina’s gates, such as a Roman Villa and Catacombs.
We first visited Mdina in the evening, and it truly lives to its name. There is a deep silence in the streets while you feel its long, illustrious history speak to you. It captured our imagination. We enjoyed our visit so much that we returned to see it during the daytime. It is an entirely different experience with many places open to visit where we became even more immersed in Malta’s history.
Gozo is an excellent day trip if you are willing to start early. Take the ferry over to the second largest of the islands. It is free in this direction, which we did not know when we arrived. The ferries depart every 30 minutes, and all you have to do is drive up to the waiting area. On the return to the main island, you will drive through a toll booth to pay.
One of the biggest attractions on Gozo island is the city of Victoria and its Citadel. Like Mdina, it is an impressive fortified town sitting high on a rocky mound. Most of the buildings inside are just foundations of what once was there. However, the walls, church, and a few other aspects survive. There are incredible expansive views from the Citadel, which sits on the edge of cliffs. The Citadel is fun to wander and has several museums. Follow your visit to the Citadel by visiting the surrounding town and the beautiful St George’s Basilica.
Other wonderful things to see on this island are the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, Ġgantija, which are two well-preserved limestone neolithic temples among the world’s oldest monuments. Or you can circle the island to see a variety of beautiful cliffs, beaches, and other rock formations.
Comino is the smallest island of the three and is virtually inhabited. You can get boat rides to the island and see the famous Blue Lagoon. Not to be confused with the famous thermal spa in Iceland of the same name. This is a section of water between the Island of Comino and many other tiny islands and rocky outcrops. There are many caves and unique rock formations to visit while there. Excellent Snorkeling and swimming in the area draw many tourists. It is gorgeous but can be very crowded during the peak season as it is a top destination in Malta. We found several companies at the ferry dock to Gozo Island offering boat tours to the Blue Lagoon.
Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples
The temple of Hagar Qim, on the south end of Malta Island, stands on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the islet of Filfa. At the bottom of the hill, only a short distance away, one finds the remarkable temples of Mnajdra. Both sites are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. First excavated in 1839, dating suggests its origin between 3800 – 2200 BC, a period known as the Ġgantija phase in Maltese prehistory. Malta’s Seven Megalithic Temples are older than Stonehenge. Just like Stonehenge, these temples have an energy about them that stays with you. There is a great museum to visit before visiting the Temples. The Temples are on a bluff near the water and offer gorgeous views.
These sites are very popular, and there is quite a bit of walking involved to see both. Even though we were there in late fall, it was hot that day. We suggest you take a bottle of water with you and don’t hesitate to pay one euro to take the golf cart ride back up the hill.
Over different periods, many Watch and Defensive towers were built around all three islands to protect them from invaders. Thirteen of the Towers built by the Grand Master de Redin between 1658 and 1659 are still standing and can be seen in towns or near more significant destinations.
If we had more time, we would have spent an entire day circling the shoreline of the main island and hitting all the towers on the way. You can see a lot, not to mention various beaches, cliffs, and other stunning rock formations such as caves and natural bridges.
Other Worthwhile Stops
Malta has a lot to offer, and narrowing down your many options may be difficult. Here are the top sites we would recommend visiting as well as the must-dos above.
- Sliema and St Julian’s
- Fort St Angelo
- Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum
- National Museum of Fine Arts
- Melliehas Beach
- Popeye Village
- Dingli cliffs
- Ghajn Tufflieha Bay
- St Agatha Crypt, Catacombs & Museum
- Winery and Brewery Tours
- Mellieha Air Raid Shelters
- Maltas National Aquarium
- Fish market in Marsaxlokk
- St Peter’s Pool
Top Activities on the Island
Scuba diving, Malta is one of the top destinations in the world
Water skiing and wakeboarding
When to go to Malta
The best time to visit Malta is June-August. The weather is ideal then, with daily temperatures around 88°F (31°C). Not surprisingly, this is also the busiest time of the year, so expect crowds and higher prices.
Keep in mind that many locals leave for their summer holidays in August as in much of Europe. Many shops and restaurants close, crowding the remaining open places. That said, the weather is nice if you are not bothered by the heat, and most tourist attractions stay open.
The shoulder months of April-May and September-October offer decent weather and fewer crowds. Expect temperatures around 77°F (25°C). We felt the weather was perfect during this time.
The winter in Malta is chilly, with temperatures dropping to 48-60° F (10-15° C). Aside from attractions closing for Christmas, everything is open though some bus schedules change to reflect the lower number of visitors in the country. In short, it’s a perfect time to visit as long as you are not planning to hit the beach and don’t mind some windy, cooler weather.
Where to Stay
There are many choices on the island for accommodations, from elaborate hotels to small apartments for rent. During our research, we tried to find a central location to see the island while also having many restaurants to choose from while being in a lovely setting. If driving ourselves would have turned out difficult, we wanted a place to pick up public transportation quickly.
We chose St Julians/Portomaso, and it worked great for us. Other locations near the water that would also work well would be Valetta and the Three Cities. Inside the island would be Mdina/Rabat area.
Our Favorite Hotel
We feel, in the end, we picked the best hotel. Our hotel was the Hilton Malta Resort in the St Julians’s/Portomaso area. The hotel is located on the ocean with gorgeous Mediterranean views. The hotel is lovely with wide-open areas, a top-notch fitness center, four indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, tennis court, beach club, restaurants, bar, and more.
They have 24-hour room service, an expansive executive lounge, and an outstanding concierge service. The rooms are large by European standards, well detailed, and modern. It seemed an excellent place for families as well. The brunch was exceptional while enjoying gorgeous views.
Though an urban area, the hotel provides free parking next to the hotel! What we enjoyed the most was the staff, who were so attentive and helpful. They indeed seemed to want to make everyone’s stay perfect. We can’t recommend it enough. Here is the Expedia link to the Malta Hilton.
Portomaso and St Julians Area
Portomaso/St Julians is a modern upscale and fast-growing area where there is always bustling activity, and it feels safe at all hours of the day. It was packed with restaurants and bars. It had a lovely harbor that was lovely to stroll around. Watersports are available in the area. There was a large casino nearby on the waterfront. The area is full of young professionals who live and enjoy the vibrant night scene.
For all accommodations on Malta check at either of these two links.
What and Where to Eat
Malta has a unique and diversified palate. That is due to its occupiers’ many varied cultural influences throughout history. Culinary influences include a mixture of Italian, French, and North African cuisines. Local, fresh, simple, and seasonal; are four words that capture the essence of Maltese cuisine. Maltese food is also influenced by its proximity to Sicily and North Africa as well, yet it still maintains its individuality with its own unique twist. You’ll find an array of Mediterranean flavors emphasizing seafood, vegetables, pasta, meats, bread, cheese, and lots of olive oil.
Malta’s most traditional dish might surprise you, it is Rabbit Stew. They do love their rabbit! Cheese is huge in Malta; Gbejniet is a typical, extremely versatile Maltese cheese made from goats or sheep’s milk. It can be found in 3 forms; fresh, dried, or cured, and flavored with pepper or plain.
Pastries are a favorite in the Maltese diet, especially pastizzi, which can be filled with many different ingredients, but the two traditional pastizzi contain ricotta cheese or mushy curried peas. We enjoyed fresh pastizzi’s with cheese every morning at breakfast!
Other favorites in Malta were fish soup, baked macaroni, Maltese sausage, bean paste, octopus stew, date cakes, Lampuki Pie, pizza, stuffed eggplant, and bread pudding. The most popular drink in Malta is Kinnie, a bitter-sweet soft drink.
We learned the hard way that eating out is a popular activity in Malta. It was the off-season when we were there. Almost all the restaurants on our list had no room, like none. It became frustrating after the tenth attempt. This was in Valetta, Portomaso, and the Three Cities. Our suggestion is to make reservations as soon you know where you want to eat. Though we did have enjoyable meals, we do not have set recommendations. Valetta has some wonderfully rated restaurants, and the setting there is magnificent. Malta’s restaurants are open quite late, as in much of Europe.
Getting to Malta
Malta is in the central Mediterranean Sea. The most practical way to reach it is via airplane. Most European airlines have options. Malta also has their own airline, Malta Air.
Malta is about 60 miles from Sicily, making it a quick flight and the perfect next stop. It was what we flew from Malta to Sicily. We had no issues and it was well priced.
Malta consistently ranks as one of the safest countries in the world. Crime is rare, though it’s always a good idea to keep your wits about you. Petty theft can still occur, so always keep your valuables tucked away. Be mindful of your personal belonging while on crowded public transportation or swimming at the beach.
When swimming, make sure you only swim in areas where other swimmers are around. Riptides are common, so it’s best to avoid secluded beaches unless you can be sure that it’s safe. Never swim when the sea is rough and never swim alone.
We found that Malta could be the perfect travel destination. You can find all you would ever want from Europe, and the Mediterranean, packed it into an island the size of a single county back in the states. It is beautiful with a rich and dramatic history. Whether on a hilltop, in the city, or on a beach, you will be immersed in a fascinating multicultural world that creates the perfect vacation adventure. From castles to churches, food to friendly locals, Malta will not disappoint. You can even indulge and treat yourself a bit because of its affordability. Malta surprised us consistently, and we know it will do the same for you.
Check out the Official Tourism site for Malta for more information
Tips for your Malta Travels
1. Rent a car and when you do rent a small one. The roads are narrow and old. You will note cars have many scratches and dents on them. Our rental car did. In the end, that was a good thing.
2. If you are hoping to visit the fascinating Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum buy tickets early!! Months early!
3. If you are interested in certain restaurants for dinner reservations or honestly eating at all, make reservations! We were turned away from many places as they were booked out the whole night, even into the wee hours. Places were packed, and this was during Covid!
Curious where we have traveled, check out our Destinations page here.
4. Public restrooms as a whole are hard to come by. We did not find them in gas stations or even small take-out places. Since it is a small country, there are no rest stops. Even charge open parks that get lots of visitors do not have facilities. If they are some, they are not well stocked with supplies.
5. For the most part, parking is free. But do not park where residents are only allowed. This island has a ton of cars and not much space. Park only where you are designated to park as a tourist, or the fines could be pricey.
6. Driving this Island was much easier than we expected. Our cell phone GPS was flawless. In the cities, if you stay patient, you will be fine. We did find Malta drivers a bit aggressive, but after we went to Sicily and Naples, in hindsight, it was pretty mild.
7. Visit the Official Malta Tourist Office for more info
8. This article by Nomadic Matt, one of the top travel blogs in the world, does an excellent job describing how his first impression of Malta, which was of concern, turned into awe and admiration. It will prepare you for what is in store for your visit.
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Travelpro takes the time to learn what travelers want and need, then builds it. The key factor for us is that it must be lightweight upfront and very resistant to rough handling. Their luggage is the best, and we could not recommend it enough. It is our go-to luggage.
Travel documentation made more accessible
iVisa.com is dedicated to providing customers with a simple, fast, and reliable way to get travel documentation for their journey. Their online application process makes getting visas, health declarations, or passport photos a breeze, all from your home’s comfort. As a leading independent company in the travel documentation industry, they take pride in making global travel more accessible for everyone. In the end, it is a simple and affordable travel resource to get the necessary entry documents complete for your international travel.
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