While Covid-19 had put paid to holidaying for the past year or so, the world is – albeit slowly – just starting to open up once again to foreign travel.
And with so many itching to get away from it all one location that is sparking a good deal of interest with European travellers is that of the island nation of Malta.
The country itself is made up of three islands; Comino, Gozo and, the largest being its namesake; Malta. Before the pandemic, thousands of tourists would flock to the country to enjoy its warm climate and easy access to the sea while also absorbing its history-filled landmarks.
a treasure-trove of interesting sites and stunning views
The island is, after all, a melting-pot of historic intrigue having been populated for thousands of years. Nowadays it is also home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites; one of which is the entire capital city of Valletta.
But with so much to offer, how can any traveller looking to spend two or three nights on this island paradise ensure they are getting the best bang for the buck?
Well, the simple answer is planning and using this blog, I’ll guide you through some must-see places that no first-time visitor to the islands should leave without seeing.
Uncover the highlights Malta has to offer
A first stop on the roster needs to be in capital city of Valletta. At just 0.8 square kilometres, Valletta holds the title of being the smallest capital city within the European Union.
But don’t let its size be deceptive. Inside the walled streets lies a treasure-trove of interesting sites and stunning views.
The architecture of Valletta’s streets and piazzas is stunning and there is a wide range for visitors to admire; from mid-16th century Baroque to a more modern, clean-cut finish. The city is the island’s principal cultural centre meaning it has a unique collection of churches, palaces and museums within its boundaries.
Valetta itself is built across numerous levels. The further to the edge one goes, the more slopes or steps they’ll have to descend to get to the water’s edge. During a walk around the capital’s perimeter it’s easy to find quiet spots by the water – with numerous located just off Mediterranean Street; on the north-east side of the city, near the Siege Bell War Memorial. In this quiet harbour area visitors can enjoy the sun, take in the view across the Grand Harbour and dip their feet in the sea to cool off.
There is also the National War Museum at Fort St Elmo at the far end of the city which is worth a look if time allows.
Just to the east of Valletta is a historian’s dream The ancient site of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.
This a Neolithic subterranean structure – located in Paola – dates back to between 3,300 and 3,000 BC. It is often simply referred to as the Hypogeum, literally meaning underground in Greek. The Hypogeum is thought to have been a sanctuary and necropolis, with the remains of more than 7,000 individuals documented by archaeologists. It’s the only prehistoric burial site that is open to the public.
Inside visitors will walk through, and see, a variety of chambers including the room carved in stone, the Holy of Holies and the room decorated with original red ochre. Treading the stones as you make your way through the tour will see you standing in places some of the island’s original inhabitants did thousands of years ago! It’s a breath-taking experience!
A short 25 minute drive from Valletta stands the ancient fortified city of Mdina.
So while Valletta is a meld of the old with the new, Mdina gives the feel of stepping into another time. The stone streets have a feel of years’ gone by; untouched by modern society.
Tourists enter this stone city by the Mdina Gate. An archway dating back to the 1700s. Inside it’s very easy to enjoy spending hours wandering the city’s winding streets, taking in the views and enjoying the tranquillity on offer.
To make the most of a trip to Mdina, visitors should ensure they spare enough time to head over to St Paul’s Cathedral to take a look at the magnificent architecture on display.
While the cities of Malta offer visitors a variety of activities it’s important to also experience the quieter side of island life. A great place to do this is in the South Eastern Region of Malta in the village of Marsaxlokk.
The name of Marsaxlokk itself is extremely literal and means Port to the South East. A small, traditional fishing village seconds as a tourist’s dream thanks to its stunning views, fishermen bringing in their daily catch and a wealth of history to boot.
Yet it’s only in the recent past that this area became populated with the first mentions of this being in 1890 when it was recorded that some 210 people lived there.
To start with, the village was kept as a place for holidaying with a large number of people from distant towns and villages choosing to spend the summer there. However, over the years, people who only came for the summer ended up staying all year! According to the 1961 census the population reached 778 people and by the year 2006 the population had risen to 3,200!
The village boosts a simple way of life which tourists can find quaint, yet welcoming. The sea remains Marsaxlokk’s most prized possession as the majority of livelihoods are married to it in one form or another.
Marsaxlokk is also famous for the national boats (the Luzzu and the Kajjik) which are deployed for fishing near the shore.
The vast majority of Malta’s fish supplies are caught by fishermen coming from this port; with around 70% of the Maltese fishing fleet being based here. Swordfish, tuna, and ‘lampuki’ are caught in abundance between spring and late autumn. On weekdays, the catch is taken to the fish-market in Marsa, but on Sundays, fresh-fish is sold by fishermen directly on the quay.
While the main island of Malta has many more things to offer, it’s also vital that first time visitors make their way – probably by taking the ferry from far west-side port of Cirkewwa,– to the country’s second largest island of Gozo.
Victoria remains the largest settlement and the de-facto capital of Gozo. Yet, while there are a number of sites in the area that are worth a look, there is one that draws visitors to it with its impressive stone-built fortifications and medieval feel. The Citadel – or Cittadella as it’s known – rises high above Victoria to the north-west, and is a quiet and welcoming place with an impressive number of sites to see here including the Cathedral of the Assumption, the old prison and over 20 other churches! Visitors can make their way through the streets up to the highest point available for some stunning views. Staring out from the cities wall, tourists get a phenomenal view across, not only the entire Citadel, but also to the edge of Gozo.
To the south of Victoria is the oldest village on Gozo; Xewkija Village and is perhaps best known for the Rotunda of Xewkija; the circular church at the centre of the village that is visible from across much of the island. For visitors arriving at the village they’ll be able to see the remains of a Knights-period windmill erected in the time of Grand Master Perellos (1697–1720). This is a unique mill in Gozo because the ground floor is built in an octagon shape, which shows the eight principal wind directions.
Also worth a visit here is the chapel known as Madonna tal-Ħniena (Our Lady of Charity) which is dedicated to St Bartholomew and the tower – and newly restored chapel – of St Cecilia that lie on the edge of the village. The St Ċeċlia chapel is the oldest in Gozo.
Nearby, on the coast, lies the beautiful and unspoilt Mġarr ix-Xini Valley. This idyllic location combines the tranquillity of spectacular views with fantastic access to the peaceful Bay of Mġarr ix-Xini; popular with tourists and locals as a place to swim, snorkel and dive.
To one of the furthest points west on Gozo, sits the welcome retreat of the secluded Dwejra Bay.Showcasing dramatic coastal formations with sea spilling and crashing over the rocks the bay is an enchanting attraction. Visitors eager to get into the inviting water can swim in the spectacular deep sea of the bay, in the calm shallows of the inland sea or in the foamy waters around the Blue Hole – one of Gozo’s best dive-sites. The bay is also the home of the Fungus Rock or, as it is locally known, “Il-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral”; General’s Rock and is named in remembrance of the Italian General who – centuries ago – sadly fell to his death while supervising quarrying in the area.
Just north of Dwerja Bay, visitors will find the former home of the Azure Window; a 28m tall natural archway off the San Lawrenz coastline. This archway used to see tourists flock to the area to look at, walk over and sail under it.
However, due to its exposed position to both the sea and the wind, the Window suffered a long, slow process of erosion. Between the 1980s and early 2000s large chunks of rock fell away from the arch, into the sea, making the Window more and more unstable.
The whole Window finally fell apart in March 2017, after a period of heavy storms inflicted the fatal blows to the unstable column holding the archway up. Once it fell, all parts of the archway disappeared under the water; gone forever!
Nowadays, visitors can drive up to where the arch was. No longer can tourists witness what was one of the most impressive sights this beautiful island had which has now been reclaimed by nature.
These are just a handful of must-sees, but it’s fair to point out there are many more great sights to take in. The joy of Malta is that – for such a small country – it offers great variety at an affordable price.
With so many locations all within a short drive of one-another, Malta remains a dream location that will keep drawing visitors back to its stunning shorelines for many years to come.