Explore Malta

Malta Travel Guide

It has been said that the Maltese islands are the 'open air museum of the Mediterranean', offering 7,000 years or more of history to explore with numerous unique cultural and historical sites. The islands boast prehistoric ruins older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, and are steeped in the legacy of the medieval order of the Knights of St John, who used the islands as their stronghold for defending Christendom.

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.

The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, non-EEA passengers to Malta must hold return/onward tickets, the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, and sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country. For visitors who are visa-exempt, extensions of stay are possible, by reporting to the Police Headquarters in Malta, no later than one week prior to the expiration of the period of visa exemption. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.

St Johns Co-Cathedral

Address: Valletta

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 order.

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

Address: Valletta

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 comprehensive information.

National Museum of Archaeology

Address: Valletta

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

Address: Valletta

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.

Malta Experience

Address: Valletta

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

Address: Valletta

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.

Three Cities

Address: Valletta

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

Address: Valletta

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

Address: Valletta

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.

Hagar Qim

Address: Valletta

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.

The Citadel

Address: Gozo

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.

Ggantija Temples

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

Address: Gozo

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.

Popeye Village

Address: Valletta

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.

Azure Window

Address: Gozo

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.

There are no health risks associated with travel to Malta, and water and food is generally safe for consumption. Travellers coming from recognised infected areas require a yellow fever vaccination certificate to enter Malta. A reciprocal health agreement exists between the United Kingdom and Malta and as a result British citizens receive emergency medical treatment on the same terms as Maltese nationals on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Visitors should, however, take out adequate medical and travel insurance in case medical evacuation or further treatment is required. Medication should be available in Malta but those requiring specific prescription medication should take it with them, in the original packaging and accompanied by a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what the medicine is and why it is needed.

The wearing of skimpy clothing away from the beaches should be avoided, and dress should be conservative when visiting churches.

A gratuity of about 10 percent is expected in hotels and restaurants if a service charge is not included in the bill. Most services are tipped about five to 10 percent (including taxi drivers).

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