For years Malta was the destination of choice for English holidaymakers looking to escape for warmer weather. The island had formed part of the British Empire up until it gained independence in 1964 (it became a republic a decade later) so many of the early visitors had been stationed on the island and appreciated that the locals were so fluent in English.
The British are still among the most frequent visitors but with tourism now a major industry, more people are getting to know of this island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Here’s a checklist of what those who do choose to visit should look out for.
1. Golden Bay
Malta’s reputation for sun and sea is well earned with a number of sandy beaches all within easy driving distance. The largest and most popular of these is Ghadira Bay in Mellieha but this tends to be a bit overcrowded. A better option, then, is Golden Bay, which takes its name from the golden hue of its sand and is actually the bigger in a string of three bays. Located on the Northwest coast of the island, its cliff offers a scenic backdrop. While less crowded then Ghadira, this is no secluded beach; there are cafes surrounding the beach as well as plenty of facilities for those looking to sprinkle their trip with a bit of adventure in the form of water sports. Golden Bay is also the ideal location for a romantic evening picnic or barbecue, with an unobstructed view of the setting sun as it drops over the horizon, painting everything in pink and red as it does so.
2. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra
There is something quasi-magical about the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, the two megalithic stone temples in Qrendi in the Southern part of Malta. Built more than 5,000 years ago, they were discovered in 1839 and were designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1992. Both temples are significantly complex structures that are split into different rooms and used to be covered thanks to an ingenious layering of stone slabs. Such ingenuity, as well as the size of the stones making up the temple, is the source of marvel; it is hard not to feel a sense of wonder at how such stones were cut up and transported to the site given the limited technological means of those who built these temples.
Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty
There is a lot to see in Valletta, particularly in the form of museums, that is an undisputable fact of the city built by the Order of St. John in the middle of the 16th century and which will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the city is by walking through its streets to take in the architecture. This is, after all, the place about which former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe.” If the bustle gets to you—Valletta is the capital of Malta and, on top of that, a lot of locals visit for their shopping needs—then visit the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens that provide some respite, a bit of shade, and beautiful views of the port.
4. Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Almost every church in Malta (and there are over three hundred of them across the island) is filled with priceless work of art, but none can match the majesty of Caravaggio’s masterpiece that is in the Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The story of how Caravaggio himself came to Malta is interesting in itself; with the master painter fleeing from Rome and justice after killing a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni. The Knights of St. John granted him hospitality and eventually inducted him as a Knight of Grace primarily because of the work he did for them. They would come to regret that decision as he ended up in jail after another fight but once again Caravaggio managed to evade justice, fleeing this time to Sicily. Before he did so, however, he produced this magnificent painting that is an imagination of the biblical story of which it bears its name. The sheer size of the painting—the five figures it shows are effectively life size—is in itself impressive but it is the artist’s use of light and shadow as well as the level of detail that truly mesmerizes visitors.
For those coming to Malta in search of nightlife, Paceville is the place. The whole town is made up of streets that are dotted with restaurants, lounges, bars and gentlemen’s clubs that awaken in the night. Dragonara Casino provides a wild night but Bugibba is a little less hectic.
The pace of life in Gozo is slower than Malta and, barring the capital city of Victoria, there is little of the bustle of modern life. That is not to say that there is little to do or see. For a start, the ferry ride to Gozo is in itself a charming experience. Then there are natural landmarks like the Azure Window (pictured at top) in Dwejra (which Game of Thrones aficionados might recognise from the Dothraki wedding), historical gems such as the Ggantija Temples that date back half a millennium, and Gozo’s own list of sandy beaches that are topped by Ramla l-Hamra. No trip to Gozo, however, can be complete without an evening visit to Xlendi for refreshing ice cream by the sea whilst watching another day come to an end.
7. Popeye Village
Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty
The live-action musical version of Popeye, starring Robin Williams, was shot entirely in Malta and the set that was built for this purpose still stands. Actors portraying characters from the Popeye stories roam the streets of Popeye Village where there are also puppet shows as well as a number of other interactive shows. If the weather is good enough, a boat trip around Anchor Bay is recommended as it provides a different perspective of this scenic valley. Any Williams fan or kid at heart will feel at home in the brightly colored houses.
8. Wied iz-Zurrieq and Ghar Lapsi Diving Sites
Visiting Malta for its sea is nothing new. Over the years a number of boats have been scuttled in order to provide more sites for divers to visit along with other wrecks that ended on the seabed in more tragic circumstances. The most famous of these is the HMS Maori that can be found off Valletta and which was sunk toward the end of World War II. However, for beginners the best sites to visit are probably Wied iz-Zurrieq and Ghar Lapsi, both of which offer natural reefs, plenty of marine life and, in the case of the latter, a navigable cave.
9. Village Feasts
The Maltese love to party and they best exhibit this in the way they celebrate the feast of their town or village’s patron saint (or saints). Throughout the summer months there is at least one feast somewhere across the island every week where even the smallest of villages put on exuberant spectacles. The fireworks throughout the week, which culminate with hourslong shows, are the most spectacular aspect of these celebrations. But there are also processions—another unique aspect of Maltese life is that every village has at least one philharmonic brass band and these are often at the core of the celebrations—and the elaborate festoons put up to decorate the streets.
10. Blue Lagoon
Not to be confused with the movie that launched Brooke Shields’ acting career, this Blue Lagoon can be found between the island of Comino (the third island in the Maltese archipelago) and the islet of Cominotto. Given its location, visitors need to take a small ferry to get there but, once they do, they can enjoy swimming in the beautiful cyan tinted sea as the white sands of the area reflect the sky’s color. And, whilst it did not serve as the location for Shield’s movie, it has been the setting for a number of films, the most recent of which was Helen of Troy.
Malta’s one time capital city is also known as the “silent city.” This is partly because of the way that this walled city is built with narrow, winding roads that seem to dampen whatever noise is made but it is also down to the fact that no cars are allowed in. The latter helps to considerably boost visitors’ illusion of being transported back in time as they take in the beautiful baroque architecture of the villas and palaces that make up Mdina. Other than the tranquillity and the architecture, the other main reason to visit Mdina is the great view of the island that you can enjoy from its fortifications.
Paul Grech is a Malta based freelance sports and lifestyle writer.