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  • Writer's pictureDeborah

Top 5 things to do in Malta

The view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Maltese views

With an average of 300 sun-filled days per year, Malta boasts an asset many travellers are looking for in a holiday destination. Its ideal location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea also makes it attractive as it is relatively near other destination hot spots. Aside from these convenient perks, Malta is a country that offers an exciting package, with a vibrant culture, interesting History, delightful cuisine and fun waterborne activities. An all-round crowd pleaser, this is a destination that has seen an increase in international tourism since 2014 but is only just reaching its potential. So if you have been looking forward to an exciting island escape, look no further. Let's delve in!

1. Wandering around Valletta

The island's capital city, Valletta is a great place to start your journey in Malta. With its beautiful honey-coloured buildings, a plethora of restaurants and bright blue skies, walking around is a real treat. Often referred to as an "open-air museum", Valletta may be the European Union's smallest capital city but it holds a staggering 320 monuments of historical significance.

On your first day, I highly recommend you walk around this mesmerizing city. From the Valletta city gate, walk down Republic Street. Here, you will wander past the famous St John's Co-Cathedral. You'll also walk through the lively St George's Square, surrounded by the Grandmaster's Palace. Continuing down to the very end of the street, you'll come face to face with the impressive St Elmo fortress. From here, walk along the sea, past the National War Museum, and all the way to the Barrakka Gardens for gorgeous views of the island. This walk is easily done in an hour or so and gives a good sense of the island's vibes.

On either side of Republic Street are many smaller steep streets, filled with shops, restaurants and bars. Malta has a rich culinary heritage, and you'll walk past many Maltese pastry stalls. The pillowy ricotta-filled pastizzi are delightful, and a light and cheap option for lunch. Otherwise, let your nose guide you; The enticing smell of local favourites such as rabbit stews and lampuki pies fill the air from midday onwards, and will have you sitting at a sunny terrace in no time!

2. Learn the island's History in Valletta's top attractions

The rich history of the island is marked by a common denominator: everyone wanted this strategic land for themselves. Its mix of cultural and religious influences, from the Romans to the Arabs, has left its mark in more than one way on the island and its people (architecture, language...). Most famously, Malta's golden age is mainly attributed to the Knights of the Order of St John, who settled on the island in the 16th century. In more modern history, Malta has also been under Italian, French and British rule before becoming independent in 1979.

This interesting history explains why, for example, the Maltese language has Arabic and Italian influences, or why there are British red telephone boxes on the streets! In a way, travelling to Malta is akin to visiting multiple places at once! As such, it won't come as a surprise that some of Valletta's top things to do include visiting attractions of varied heritage.

The view over the harbour of Malta
The harbour

The top attraction here is of course St John's Co-Cathedral. A Roman Catholic Church, it was built by the Knights of St John. The interior is extravagant, with gilded ornaments, marble sculptures and priceless master paintings. A true testament to the power and influence of the Knights at the time. I have visited many breathtaking religious landmarks, and I can confidently say that St John's Co-Cathedral is one-of-a-kind. If you only have time for one visit in Valletta, make it this one. Tickets are best purchased in advance (here) to avoid long queues.

To sample a different side of Malta's fascinating history, visit the Lascaris War Rooms. This underground complex was the British War Headquarters during World War II. Here, you can walk the same corridors as war heroes and see how they worked on a daily basis. The rooms are set up as they once were, with 20th-century machinery, maps detailing battleship positions and air raid planning boards. Audio guides are complimentary, and the visit can take up to 2 hours.

3. Cross over to the Three Cities

Comprised of the cities of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa, the Three Cities are a glimpse into a more authentic Malta. Visiting the Three Cities is a great option to spend a leisurely day. You can cross over from Valletta by traditional fishing boat or Luzzu, a very pleasant and unique way to reach the Three Cities. However, finding these picturesque boats is not easy unless you research them. To make things easy for you, I've pinned their location on Valetta here. And, while cheap (2 euros per person per crossing or 8 for a half-hour harbour cruise) be sure to bring cash!

Fort St Angelo
Fort St Angelo

Walking along the picturesque Vittoriosa Yacht Marina is lovely on a sunny day, and will lead you to Fort St Angelo, which is a must-see. This structure, which has evolved through time to become the Fort we can admire today, has been in use since the 13th century. The Sicilians, the Knights of St John and the British all used it to protect their interests in Malta. The views from the Fort are breathtaking, especially over the Marina below and Valletta on the other side of the harbour. It's also worth visiting if you are interested in the History of Malta, specifically in the many conquests that took place on this land; There is an excellent video display explaining all of this inside.

Other top things to do on this side of the Three Cities include: The Inquisitor's Palace, which houses the Civil Tribunals and was home to the High Inquisitor of Malta during the Knights' rule; The Malta Maritime Museum and several significant Churches.

Walking along the Marina towards Senglea, you'll reach the Gardjola Gardens. Though small, they offer yet another vantage point from which to admire Malta in all its splendour. The watch tower - "the eyes and ears of Malta" - is a cool observation deck and a fun photo-op!

The watch tower in Senglea
The watch tower in Senglea

4. Explore the Mdina

Located inland, the ancient walled city of Mdina is easily accessible from Valletta, and not to be missed on your Malta itinerary. The citadel used to serve as the island's capital city from antiquity until medieval times and is a testament to Malta's fascinating History.

Mdina is quite small and is easily walked in a couple of hours. The highlight for me was walking past the city gates and wandering through the quiet cobbled streets. It truly felt like walking around King's Landing (Mdina was a filming site of King's Landing for season 1 of Game of Thrones). The ramparts also offer a viewpoint over the surrounding countryside. On a clear day, one can see all the way to the glittering sea.

There are a few visits to do in and around the Mdina. St Paul's Cathedral is the main attraction and well worth a visit. Another interesting visit is the Palazzo Falson, a gorgeous mansion and home to an incredible amount of antiques and collectibles.

For a lesson in Dark History, visit The Mdina Dungeons Museum; This underground venue displays animated rendictions of tortures, executions and important insurrections that happened on the island. Out of all the visits we could do in Mdina, this was our top pick as it was different, quirky and offered another perspective into the island's History.

In the nearby city of Rabat, you can also explore St Paul's and St Agatha's Catacombs. You can step down into these ancient chambers and walk around the maze of teeny-tiny dug-out corridors. Whilst this venue has Historical significance, we personally felt a little letdown and probably would not recommend it as a must-do.

5. Marvel at the azure waters in Gozo

A trip to the nearby island of Gozo is definitely a top thing to do while in Malta. The Valletta-Gozo ferry links the islands and is very convenient with multiple departures per day and a short cruising time (only 45mn with the Fast Ferry).

Gozo is much smaller, quieter and more rural than Malta. Its capital, Victoria, is worth a stop. The citadel, which towers over the city, is the top thing to do here. Walking along the massive stone walls will give you a unique perspective of the island.

A stroll around town takes you through winding alleyways, past small cafes and along many churches. There is also a daily open-air market that sells arts & crafts, perfect to shop for a souvenir to bring home.

Gozo is most famous for being the site of the Blue Hole, which is essentially a rock pool with an underwater cave. A popular site for swimming and diving, it's very beautiful to see from above, standing on the limestone cliffs.

Gozo is also renowned for boasting some world-class shipwrecks and diving sites. If you'd rather work on your sun-tan while enjoying sea views, Gozo also has some lovely albeit small beaches on offer: Ramla Bay, Hondoq ir-Rummien and Mġarr ix-Xini are some of the top-rated beaches on the island. Although if you ask me, I'd probably recommend hopping on a catamaran and cruising along for a more intimate and unforgettable experience. Some cruises like this one add on a visit to the Blue Lagoon in Comino.

In essence, a vacation in Malta can be as full-on or as relaxed as you'd like. With so many options, it is definitely a crowd-pleaser and worth considering as your next destination in Europe!

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