Malta Travel Guide
Malta lies about 60 miles (97km) south of Sicily and 160 miles (257km) north of Libya, a strategic position in the Mediterranean that has made the islands a crossroads of history. The last occupiers were the British, who granted Malta independence in 1964, but the biggest and most unique influence was left by the Knights of St John, to whom the island was donated in 1530. The Knights reigned supreme over the island for 270 years, building magnificent churches and monuments. Malta has truly ancient mysteries too, primarily in the form of 30 prehistoric sites boasting massive Neolithic temples, considered to be the oldest freestanding stone buildings known to man.
Malta and its little sister island, Gozo, are not stuck in a time warp, however. The islanders enjoy life to the full, and the calendar is liberally sprinkled with summertime festas, with fireworks and revelry in every little parish in honour of the village patron saints, as well as the major carnival in early spring every year. The capital, Valletta, besides offering some awesome Baroque buildings and fortifications as its main sightseeing attractions, is bursting with restaurants and cafes. The island's compact size is also a plus for visitors; it takes no more than an hour to drive between any two points on the main island, and there is very little open space. The dense population means that the island is virtually one large urban area, with buildings occupying every inch. Malta is blessed, however, with a rugged and appealing coastline boasting secluded bays and sandy beaches hidden between rocky outcrops, which attract travellers at least as much as the historical sightseeing.
St Johns Co-Cathedral
Valletta's magnificent medieval cathedral is famous for the
painting by Caravaggio, which hangs in its oratory, and the 369
inlaid mosaic marble tombstones that cover its floor. Each
tombstone depicts the lives of the Grand Masters of the Order of St
John, who are buried beneath. The façade is rather severe and
militaristic, but inside the cathedral is lavishly splendid in the
grandest tradition of high Baroque, with every inch of wall covered
by carving, while the vaulted ceiling sports paintings depicting
the life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights. The
cathedral benefitted greatly over the centuries from many donations
from the Knights and their Grand Masters, and some of the most
impressive works of art in the church were gifts from the
It is still an active place of worship with frequent services, and is also used as a beautiful venue for cultural events. Travellers should be sure to check the website for visiting hours to avoid disappointment. The stunningly ornate cathedral is an amazing sight and a must for tourists in Malta; the experience is greatly enriched by taking a guided tour or renting an audio guide.
Palace of the Grandmaster
The Grandmaster's Palace, built around 1571, today serves as the
office of the President and seat of the Maltese Parliament. When
parliament is not in session the palace and its State Rooms are
open to the public. The palace is a treasure house of art, from the
unique collection of Gobelin Tapestries to frescoes depicting the
Great Siege of 1565 by Perez d'Aleccio that cover the walls of the
Halls of St Michael and St George. The Knights decorated the palace
richly and elaborately, conscious of showing off their wealth and
influence, and exploring splendid chambers like the Hall of the
Supreme Council of the Knights is thrilling. Visitors can also view
the Armoury and state apartments, which are adorned with friezes
depicting the history of the Order of the Knights of St John. The
Armoury is perhaps the greatest attraction of the palace and it
boasts one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.
Malta has a tumultuous history and the Armoury holds the assorted
weaponry of centuries of invasions, sieges and battles, making it a
paradise for military history buffs. Guided tours of the palace are
available and there is a wonderful audio guide which gives
National Museum of Archaeology
The archaeological museum on Republic Street, Valletta, is
housed in one of the inns of the Knights of St John, the Auberge de
Provence. The museum's focus on Malta's prehistory includes
displays such as the reconstruction of prehistoric remains found at
Hypogeum. Items such as pottery, sculptures, statuettes, stone
implements and jewellery from the prehistoric, megalithic and
temple-building periods are featured, as well as some Punic and
Roman tomb furniture. All the exhibits were found on excavations
across the Maltese islands and the age of some of the artefacts is
staggering. It is fascinating to see the various items recovered
from the ancient temple complexes in Malta, and a visit to the
museum nicely contextualises these ancient attractions. It is a
small but impressive museum, although its wonders will only be
fully appreciated by those interested in archaeology; those who are
easily bored by ancient artefacts, like young children, can
probably give it a skip. The collection is well-maintained and
labelled and the exhibition is in chronological order.
Lascaris War Rooms
Valletta suffered a great deal of damage in bombing raids during
World War II and the island has always had a strategic military
importance far out of proportion to its size. The Lascaris War
Rooms are housed in a 17th-century underground complex of tunnels
and chambers that once housed the secret War Headquarters from
where the defence of Malta was conducted during the war. Some of
the most famous battles fought in the Mediterranean during the war
were coordinated and planned from this headquarters.
The complex has been restored and now acts as a museum, with displays including charts, models and dioramas; a paradise for anybody interested in military history. It is fascinating to see all the old wartime paraphernalia and explore the once Top Secret military operating rooms. The guides are enthusiastic and well-informed volunteers who greatly enrich the experience. Tours are conducted in English and include a short film. The tour takes about 75 minutes and visitors are usually allowed to wander around the complex at their leisure afterwards.
A dramatic presentation that illustrates the history of Malta,
from Neolithic to modern times, can be enjoyed at the Mediterranean
Conference Centre at St Elmo's bastion in Valletta. The building
itself has been impressively restored, having been built by the
Knights in the 1500s as a hospital. The wards, which are great
sweeping halls with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, now serve
as exhibition areas. A modern theatre has been added where the
Malta Experience audio-visual show is offered in 17 different
languages. The show is a sweeping expose of 7,000 years of history
covering the original stone-age inhabitants, the Phoenicians, the
Romans, the Knights of St John and the nation's modern history. It
is as entertaining as it is educational. In fact, the Malta
Experience is a great way to begin a holiday in Malta as it
provides an overview of the archipelagos' dramatic history which
greatly enriches the sightseeing to come, particularly as not all
of the impressive ancient sites on the islands are provided with
detailed information for tourists. The documentary also offers
great insight into the Maltese culture and people. The show is
immensely popular and more than four million visitors have seen it
since its opening; it is about 45 minutes long.
Mdina, known as the noble city, was the original capital of
Malta before the arrival of the Knights of St John in the middle
ages. It was originally a Phoenician town but spent periods under
Roman, Arabic and Norman occupation. The elegant walled city,
including the ancient suburb of Rabat, can trace its origins back
more than 4,000 years, although today all that remains is the
medieval town, which has been largely restored.
Mdina is situated on a rocky outcrop about nine miles (15km) west of Valletta. At the heart of Mdina is its landmark Baroque Cathedral of St Paul. Mdina has a conservative atmosphere, in keeping with its noble past. While the Knights reigned over Malta the city became the home of the Maltese nobility, who lived there under autonomous rule, not being deemed worthy to be invited to join the Order of St John. The descendants of some of these families live here still. Mdina and Rabat not only offer some fascinating and valuable sightseeing opportunities, but the old city is particularly inviting at night when it is lamp lit and visitors can enjoy the ambience of restaurants tucked away in its bastions and palace courtyards. Motor vehicles are strictly not allowed inside the city walls, and pedestrians have free reign to walk the streets and take in a glimpse of life in the middle ages.
Malta's main maritime towns have merged into a fortified
conglomerate known as the Three Cities, resting on the promontories
opposite Valletta. Vittoriosa is the oldest town in Malta after
Mdina. It features plenty of historical architecture, including
several of the Inns of the Knights of St John, as well as a
hospital built by the Order in 1672, which is still a Benedictine
convent inhabited by devout nuns. Fort St Angelo, the oldest
fortified part of Vittoriosa, dating from 1274, stands at the tip
of the promontory, and the Museum of Maritime History is also well
worth a visit. The youngest of the Three Cities, Cospicua, dates
from 1717 and features some interesting churches, while Senglea,
designed by Grandmaster De La Sengle in 1551, is an important place
of pilgrimage. Senglea's parish church contains a statue of Christ
the Redeemer that is said to have miraculous powers.
There are many great restaurants and bars in the Three Cities and the marina area is becoming increasingly popular. The best way to explore the area is on a walking tour, following which it is wonderful to just wander around the older areas seeking out unexpected treasures. Apart from the rich history, the Three Cities are famed for their residents' enthusiastic celebration of holy days and festas, the most exciting of which is the Easter procession, when statues of Jesus Christ are carried at a run through crowded streets.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Hypogeum, just southwest of the Three Cities in the suburb
of Paolo, is a labyrinthine complex of man-made chambers hewn out
of limestone, extending about 36ft (11m) below the surface. Experts
believe it was used as a burial site and temple by Neolithic man,
who used antlers and stone picks to carve out the labyrinth in
semi-darkness more than 5,000 years ago. It is comprised of several
interconnecting chambers on three distinct levels and was used over
a span of many centuries, with the oldest remains at the site
dating back to about 4000 BC. The site has been declared a UNESCO
World Heritage site.
Archaeologists have recovered numerous statues, amulets, figurines and vases, many of which are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. The remarkable site has been open to the public since 1908 and the droves of visitors have unfortunately had a negative impact on the ancient environment, so that now only eight tours a day are conducted and only 10 people are permitted in each tour. Tours are often booked up weeks in advance so tickets should be booked well in advance to avoid disappointment. The tours are about an hour long and audio guides are provided.
St Marys Church
The centre of every Maltese town and village is occupied by a
beautiful church. One of the most impressive of these is St Mary's
in the central Maltese town of Mosta, also known as the Rotunda of
Mosta or the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which has a
glorious blue, gold and white dome. The unsupported dome is one of
the largest in the world and the design is visibly inspired by the
Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the church began in May 1833 and
it was completed in the 1860s.
St Mary's Church is regarded as having been the site of a World War II miracle: in 1942, while 300 people were praying in the church, a bomb penetrated the dome and landed on the mosaic floor, but did not explode. A replica of the bomb is today displayed in the church sacristy. This famous miracle draws many pilgrims and curious tourists to the church, but the stunningly ornate interior is reason enough for a visit. The church has a fine collection of religious art, including one of the largest collections of paintings by the famous Maltese artist Guzeppi Cali.
The church is still an active place of worship and visitors are welcome to attend services. Entry to the church is free but donations are welcome. The church is usually closed between 12pm and 3pm.
The prehistoric temple complex discovered in 1839 at Hagar Qim,
in western Malta, dates from about 3,800 BC, and boasts some of the
oldest known human structures in the world. The Hagar Qim and
nearby Mnajdra ruins are close to the village of Qrendi, about nine
miles (15km) southwest of Valletta. The megalithic temple complex
carved from giant limestone slabs is adorned with carved animals
and idols, sacrificial altars and oracular chambers, all fashioned
with flint and obsidian tools. The largest megalith is 23ft (7m)
high and weighs about 20 tons. The complex was built during the
late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago. It should be noted that
although the ancient ruins of Malta are generally called 'temples',
very little is actually known about the purpose of these buildings.
Many of the relics recovered from the Hagar Qim site, including the
famous 'fat lady' statues, are on display in the National Museum of
Archaeology in Valletta. Unlike some of the other temples on Malta,
Hagar Qim has an impressive Visitor's Centre that offers plenty of
background information through interesting interactive displays.
There are shelters over the complex to provide protection from the
elements, but this hardly detracts from the otherworldly experience
of exploring the ruins.
A good place to begin exploring Gozo is the Citadel, or
Citadella, a historic castle or fortified village right in the
centre of Victoria. The area that is now the Citadel was first
fortified around 1500 BC and was later developed by the Phoenicians
and then the Romans. Up until the 18th century it was the only
fortified refuge against attack for Gozo's inhabitants. From the
ramparts of this fascinating place visitors can admire sweeping
views of the whole island. The Citadel houses a number of
attractions and makes for an exciting visit.
The Gozo Museum of Archaeology, found just inside the walls of the Citadel, in a 17th-century building that was originally the Town Hall, provides great insight into the history of the island. The museum illustrates the cultural history of Gozo from prehistoric times to the early modern era, with a collection presented chronologically which covers the Neolithic Period, the Phoenicians, the Romans, Medieval times and the emergence of the Knights of St John. The Citadel also houses the spooky Old Prison, which is also now a museum. One of the Citadel's greatest treasures is the beautiful 17th-century Baroque cathedral.
The Citadel could easily keep tourists occupied for a few hours; the views alone justify a visit.
Address: Temples Street, Xaghra Gozo
Two massive megaliths were carved into temples by the
pre-Phoenician Gozitans somewhere between 4,100 and 2,500 BC, and
now stand on the island as mysterious monuments to a bygone age.
Legend has it that they were transported to the island by a
giantess called Sansuna, hence the name of the site, Ggantija,
which means 'giant'. Large stone balls in the area, however, have
led archaeologists to conclude that the massive blocks were rolled
into place atop these. The two temples have a common facade but
each has a separate entrance; one is larger than the other. It is
believed both originally had roofing made of wooden beams, and that
sacrifices of animals were made in the temples during rituals.
The temples, along with other similar temples on the main island of Malta, have been documented as the oldest free standing structures in the world. The Ggantija Temples are a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are very impressive, but the site is not equipped with as much information as some visitors might desire; it is best to do some research beforehand or to join a guided tour as the experience is greatly enriched by some knowledge. A Visitor Center is under construction which should solve this slight problem.
Caves of Xaghra
The alabaster caves at Xaghra feature amazing stalactites and
stalagmites, and at least one of them, Calypso Cave, has an
important place in Greek mythology. Calypso Cave overlooks the red
sand of Gozo's best beach, Ramla Ihamra. The grotto is believed to
be the one referred to in Homer's Odyssey as being where the
beautiful nymph, Calypso, kept Odysseus as a 'prisoner of love' for
seven years. A visit to Calypso Cave affords visitors fantastic
views over the bay and below the cave are the remains of a
fortification built by the Knights of St John as a defence bastion,
which may also interest some.
Two other caves worth visiting at Xaghra are Xerri's Grotto and Ninu's Grotto, both more impressive geologically than Calypso, but lacking the love story and the phenomenal view. Xerri's Grotto and Ninu's Grotto were both discovered by local families when they were digging wells on their property and visiting the caves requires knocking on their doors and descending to the caves through their houses; the families are very friendly and happily show visitors around. Children enjoy exploring the caves and as attractions they are particularly recommended to those travelling in Malta with kids or to anybody interested in the geology of the region.
Also known as Sweethaven, Popeye Village is the actual set that
was used for the 1980s musical of Popeye that starred Robin
Williams and Shelly Duvall. Since then the set has grown into one
of Malta's major tourist attractions and it is a must for those
travelling with children in Malta. Kids can wander around the
authentic wooden buildings such as the bakery, post office and
school house. There are lots of fun activities for the whole family
to enjoy including meeting famous cartoon characters, boat rides,
water trampolines, sun bathing decks, and lots of educational and
creative games. The park also now boasts the Popeye Comic Museum,
which showcases more than a hundred original comics dating back to
1936. For adults there is a winery that offers free wine tastings
and the chance to learn something about filmmaking from the
animation crew that gives tours of the set. There are various
places to get food and drinks. There is also a small park with a
number of rides designed for young children. Popeye Village hosts
fun events for kids but also organises adult events like team
building exercises upon request.
The little village is gorgeously situated and quite charming. The opening times and activities vary according to the season so it is best to check the official website listed below for information before visiting to avoid disappointment.
One of Malta's most picturesque sites, the Azure Window is a
distinctive rock formation that forms a large arch over the
brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Formed when several
enormous caves collapsed, the arch has been featured in several
films, including the 1981 Ray Harryhausen epic Clash of the Titans,
the 1997 miniseries The Odyssey, and the 2002 film The Count of
Monte Cristo. Located in Gozo, near the tourist village of Dwejra,
the Azure Window is a popular scuba diving site in Malta, although
tourists are no longer allowed to walk across the arch due to
erosion. In fact, the site is considered in danger of falling apart
altogether, in which case the laid-back Maltese are prepared to
rename it the Azure Pinnacle.
This stretch of coastline also boasts many secluded pebbled bathing pools and crystal clear water; swimming here is exciting because the strange rock formations have formed lovely little pools. It is known as the 'inland sea' and provides the enjoyable experience of diving into the 'blue hole' near the Azure Window. It's most famous formation is Fungus Rock, which was apparently heavily guarded during the era of the Knights of Malta because a special plant with healing properties grew upon it; stealing the plant was liable to earn the thief the death penalty.