Tiny Mediterranean archipelago filled with historic sites is a traveler’s paradise
By Abby Deering
Photos courtesy www.viewingmalta.com
Little known fact: there are over 200 islands in the Mediterranean, but a staggering 90 percent of tourists stay on just 10 percent of these. The archipelago of Malta, just 50 miles south of Sicily, is far and away the unique hidden gem in the Mediterranean.
The Maltese Islands are comprised of the main island of Malta, its bohemian sister island, Gozo, and Comino, a former pirate hideout, and uninhabited paradise. Fringed with colorful beaches, azure coves, stunning coral reefs, and quaint fishing villages tucked away in secret bays, Malta is both a natural wonder and a historical treasure trove.
Malta may be one of the world’s smallest countries, but it’s brimming with history. Home to 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, there’s evidence to suggest civilizations have been living on Malta since 5000 BC.
Over the past two millennia, eleven foreign rulers — including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, French and British, among others — have laid claim to Malta, each leaving an indelible mark on the islands. Vestiges of the nation’s rich past dot the landscape, and traversing Malta is like a choose-your-own-adventure story — one that unfolds into an incredible, anachronistic explosion of history, architecture, and culture.
An absolute must-see is Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground necropolis excavated around 2,500 B.C. For conservation reasons, only ten people per hour can visit, but there’s a way to ditch the waiting list if you ask for last-minute or unwanted tickets at The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
Taking a stroll
Malta’s capital, Valletta, is Europe’s first-ever planned city. Built in 1556, the city remains a cultural hub to this day and will host the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018. It is an enchanting place filled with grand palazzos and churches, beautiful limestone buildings with brightly painted shutters, and coats of arms high up on parapets. Narrow side streets leading down to the sea are brimming with quaint shops and cafes, while the main streets are lined with high-end fashion brands for some serious retail therapy.
Pass through the new City Gate, designed by architect Renzo Piani (famous for London’s Shard and Paris’s Centre Pompidou) and head to St John’s Cathedral, an elaborately adorned Baroque church built by The Knights of Malta and home to world-famous masterpieces by Caravaggio and Mattia Preti.
Next, grab a pastizzi (a flaky, savory filled pastry) at Caffe Cordina in St George’s Square, with the National Library as your backdrop and the The Grand Master’s Palace to the side, before taking in the panoramic views of the Grand Harbor from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a lush oasis of palms, plants and stone arches. A 200-foot glass-sided elevator descends to a waterfront promenade that leads to the Bridge Bar, offering up Aperol spritzes, free cushions and live jazz to the crowds who fill the steps outside its door.
Another city perfect for ambling is Mdina, also known as The Silent City. The ancient walled city is perched on the highest point of the island, providing breathtaking views across the terraced countryside and to the sea. Cars are not allowed on its narrow cobbled streets, so wandering through this pristine city is like stepping back in time.
Malta is home to 365 churches — one for each day of the year — and the Maltese love raucous religious celebrations. Malta hosts local village feasts — festas — in honor of the town’s patron saint. These must-see events — colorful celebrations featuring fireworks, brass bands and processions — are a source of rivalry between villages, each vying for the most splendid display of briju (festivity).
Malta is also known for its fishing villages, and among these, Marsloxx is one of the most picturesque. Its harbor is a dazzling and reflective patchwork of luzzus, traditional Maltese fishing boats painted in bright colors. Skip the fish market on Sunday (known by locals as a tourist trap), and instead, head to a harbor-side restaurant serving up specialty dishes such as spaghetti rizzi (sea urchin) or aljotta, a local fish soup. Family friendly Ir-Izzu is a great pick.
Adventures of sand and sea
With more than 200 miles of coastline and some of the clearest, most brilliant blue waters in the world, the Maltese Islands beckon lovers of the sea. Opportunities abound for paddle-surfing, parasailing, snorkeling, swimming, and fishing. For the more adventurous, Malta is ranked one of the top scuba diving destinations in the world. From countless shipwrecks and WWII planes and tankers to underwater chapels and flourishing coral reefs, there’s a lifetime of treasures to discover in an underwater world teeming with fascinating and bizarre marine life.
For sun worshipers, there are dozens of beaches, each with their own unique appeal, such as San Blas, a secluded beach on Gozo known for its red sand.
There are also several natural “sea pools” — striking rock formations with deep tidal pools safe for swimming and flat rocks perfect for sunbathing. The most famous of these is St. Peter’s Pool, and despite its renown, it’s not uncommon to find virtually no one else there.
Island-hopping is an absolute must. Chartering a 55-foot sailboat, with skipper and food included, will cost a little over 200 USD per day. Set sail from Malta and head to Comino, fragrant with wild herbs and flowers. Explore its hidden caves, coves, and beaches before anchoring in the white sands of the Blue Lagoon, a beautiful inlet perfect for a picnic on the boat or the chance to snorkel the crystal-clear waters. Swim ashore and grab a drink from one of the thatched beach-side cafes.
Next, sail over to Gozo, where local Gozitans, known for their relaxed and friendly manner, run on GMT, “Gozo Maybe Time.” Breeze around the northeast tip of the island and take in two of the world’s most astounding geological wonders: The Azure Window, an iconic limestone arch that towers over the Mediterranean Sea, and just below this, The Blue Hole, a deep pool ringed by beautiful limestone rock, formed by a collapsed cave. These two sites will be familiar to movie buffs (Clash of the Titans (1981), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)) and fans of the TV series Game of Thrones.
It’s worth coming back and spending at least a full day on Gozo. The entire island is very walkable, with various nature trails along the dramatic coastline and crisscrossing the lush countryside. There are charming restaurants, bars, and open-air markets as well as plenty of important historical sites, including the massive Ġgantija prehistoric temples, some of the oldest freestanding structures on earth, and the fortifications of the Citadella in Rabat, Gozo’s bustling capital.
Private charter isn’t the only option for getting around the islands. There is a regular ferry service between the islands, water taxis, special cruises, and dedicated snorkel trips. For those with extra time on their hands, there’s also a 45-minute ferry service between Malta and Sicily, perfect for an overnight stay in Taormina.
Where to stay
the Xara Palace Relais and Chateaux
Mdina, Island of Malta
For those wanting to remain lost in Mdina’s reverie, the ancient city is home to one of Malta’s celebrity hideaways. Rooms starting from $145 USD.
Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz
San Lawrenz, Island of Gozo
Gozo goes glamorous at this luxury 5-star resort. Rooms starting from $90 USD.
Valletta, Island of Malta
A historic palazzo houses this chic boutique hotel, centrally located in the capital city of Valletta. Rooms starting from $200 USD.
Not only is Malta a fabulous destination in and of itself, it’s also a convenient launching point to other Mediterranean locations. Book your next European adventure with with Elysian Travel Partner Air Malta.