Where can you find the perfect balance of historic sites and blissful beaches? The tiny island of Malta, with its Knights and prehistoric sites, offers amazing historical treasures. And the gorgeous beaches along the Mediterranean will soothe your soul.
With a sister-in-law that lives in a house dating from the 17th century, I knew we were in for an amazing historical journey through the small island country of Malta. Lucky for us, our kids also love history. Especially lucky for us, our Maltese family proved to be perfect tour guides, showing us both the famous historical sites and the local, hidden-from-tourist beaches. Our family quickly filled our week’s itinerary with the most fabulous things to do in Malta!
Where in the World is Malta?
I know what you’re thinking: where the heck is Malta? It’s the question I’m asked all of the time. Malta is a tiny island approximately 50 miles south of Sicily. In fact, when people refer to “Malta,” they tend to include all three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Thankfully, the exotic location is filled with English speaking citizens. Both Maltese and English serve as Malta’s official languages. (Note the British English spellings for locations throughout Malta.)
Beware, however: driving in Malta is not for the faint-hearted. Narrow streets (where we needed to flip in the car’s side mirrors to squeeze through) are common, and when another car approaches – good luck. Like the English, Maltese drive on the left hand side of the road, and roundabouts make life…interesting.
Let’s just say: I spent a good deal of time with my eyes closed while my husband navigated Malta.
1. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Visit Valetta
Once we arrived in Malta, we headed straight to Valetta for a quick overview. The tiny capital of Malta, built by the Knights of St. John, resides on a narrow peninsula filled with heritage sites. In fact, when granting its World Heritage Site status, UNESCO declared Valetta to be “One of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.”
From the iconic Renzo Piano-designed city gate that welcomes visitors to the city to the modern Parliament Building completed in 2014, which incites quite a disparity of opinions (our Maltese family refer to it as a “cheese grater”), the city impresses.
Valetta: A City of Monuments.
On most city corners, statues or monuments watch over visitors, or niches are carved into walls (which makes for fun photo ops with kids). Thank the Knights of St. John, who issued regulations that each corner would feature niches or statues. (Word of wisdom: don’t try to take photos of every statue you see, because your family eventually will abandon you while they move on to the next site.)
Our first visit to Valetta involved a quick walk-through. The city requires a full day—or even longer—to see and do everything. We were thrilled when our teen nephew decided to join us on our return trip a few days later. After all, he’s more likely to go clubbing in Valetta than to explore the Grand Master’s Palace. I think he found our enthusiasm over the Maltese sites amusing, since buildings from the 1600s surround him daily.
2. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Grand Master’s Palace, Valetta
Once the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John, the stark exterior of the Grand Master’s Palace conceals the stunning, ornate inner rooms. Until 2015, when it moved to the new Parliament Building, the Grand Master’s Palace served as the seat of Malta’s parliament.
We spent much of the time looking up. The intricate artwork on the ceilings prompts amazed comments like, “Didn’t the artist’s neck get sore?”
Of course, while I gazed out the windows at the lovely courtyard (my Garden Geekiness in overdrive), my family excitedly steered me to the Armoury.
3. Grand Master’s Palace: Armoury
Housed in the former stables of the Grand Master’s Palace, more than 5,000 suits of 16th-to-18th century armor reside here. When a Knight died, his armor became property of the Order. (Sadly, during Napoleon’s occupation of Malta, his crew pilfered armor from the original collection of 25,000 suits.)
We spent time posing for silly photos next to Knight mannequins, while also wondering about the Knights who wore the armor—especially curious to know whether they survived when they last wore the armor, as some of it showed serious evidence of battle.
(Really, with the dents and dings, it looked like the poor Knights incurred serious bodily damage.)
4. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: St. John’s Co-Cathedral
For an amazing display of opulence, St. John’s Co-Cathedral provides breathtaking interiors. Designed by architect Gerolamo Cassar and built between 1573 and 1578, the Knights gathered for communal worship at St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
Why is it called a “Co-Cathedral”? In 1816, the Pope elevated St. John’s status to that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina—the official seat of the Archbishop of Malta. Thus, the term “Co-Cathedral” tells of St. John’s enhanced status.
Here, we stood in awe of the enormous Caraviggio painting, Beheading of John the Baptist. It’s one of the most amazing treasures (among the many pieces of artwork), I found myself unwilling to leave the painting. The detail, the scope of the project, the time period in which it was painted—I’m always slightly overwhelmed by magnificent art, but the painting truly left me in awe. (Even my kids, who haven’t quite learned art appreciation, as we live in South Carolina, were impressed.)
Step on a Crack…or Crypt.
I laughed as I watched our youngest son try to avoid walking over the elaborate marble tomb slabs that decorate the floor of the Co-Cathedral. His efforts were pointless, however, as most of the floor is an intricate maze of tombs. (Make sure to wear appropriate shoes – stiletto heels are not permitted here.)
Wherever we looked, gold glistened: on the walls, on the fixtures, on the furnishings. We felt like we fell through a portal into the Maltese Baroque period. The Co-Cathedral’s interior did undergo a makeover in the 17th century, with the richness and excess of Baroque influences incorporated throughout the cathedral. With eight chapels within, we found ourselves slightly overwhelmed, trying to take in the vast amount of art and sights.
Don’t miss the choral books (yes, I’m also a book geek), as well as the Flemish tapestries. Then, as you look at them, remind yourself of the lack of automation back in that era to produce such exquisite works. I’m always amazed by the time and talent involved in ancient works like book making and tapestry crafting.
Important Note: Dress Code.
Remember, when you enter a cathedral in Europe, dress appropriately, or you might not be allowed entry. (I carry a sweater or scarf if I’m wearing a sleeveless top. I learned the hard way when visiting the Duomo in Milan, Italy – and had to spend precious time shopping for a more appropriate top rather than touring.)
5. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery
Even with family living in Malta to guide us away from touristy sites, sometimes it’s fun to check out tourist attractions, anyway.
We strolled through the Barrakka Gardens, located high above the Grand Harbour. Created in the late 16th century, the gardens served as a retreat for the Knights. The gardens also provide an amazing view of Malta.
6. Saluting Battery Gun Show
Located on the lower terrace, the Saluting Battery offers unrivaled views of the Grand Harbour and the surrounding fortified towns. It’s also one of the oldest saluting batteries still operating today. While the battery previously served to defend against naval attacks, the guns also welcomed visiting dignitaries or celebrated anniversaries. The cannons fired at noon each day to help shipmasters calibrate their chronographs, a device which helped find longitude at sea. (Who knew how important cannons could be for telling time and directions?)
Twice a day, visitors gather for the firing of the cannons. Yes, it was crowded with tourists (as Valetta is a stop for many cruise ships.) Yes, people crammed together to try to get the best view. But it was really fun and worth playing tourist. The kids, especially, enjoyed the ceremony. (OK. Maybe I liked it even more than they did.)
7. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Royal Opera House
Wandering through Valetta, make sure to take a moment to see the Royal Opera House. Built in the 1860s, the Royal Opera House serves as a reminder of war. Destroyed by the Germans in 1942, today the remains provide the basis for the open-air performance space designed by Renzo Piano. Seating rises above the ruins, and concerts can be found here, especially during the Arts Festival.
We walked along the exterior and admired the remains and the rebirth of the opera house, but performances weren’t scheduled during our visit. (Drat.)
8. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: The Three Cities
For local atmosphere, the “Three Cities”—Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua—provide picturesque views, with narrow streets that seem hidden from tourists. I found myself taking many photos of lovely container plantings that perfectly matched doorways, as well as marveling over magnificent, towering vines that grow out of tiny bits of soil.
The village-like atmosphere of the Three Cities provides the perfect destination for wandering. Weave through the streets, stumble upon ancient buildings, marvel at the views of the Grand Harbour from Vedette (Watchtower), which is decorated with carvings of eyes to symbolize watchfulness. The Three Cities provide the antithesis to tourism—here, wandering among the locals gave us a sense of the authentic Malta.
The Three Cities can be reached easily by a ferry, which leaves from Valletta waterfront.
9. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Blue Grotto
As we headed off in search of sensational snorkeling beaches, we detoured to see the touristy Blue Grotto. I’ll admit: I wish we hadn’t played it cool here. I’m sad that we didn’t take the touristy boat outing through the Blue Grotto. It’s one of my (few) regrets from the trip, and when we return to Malta, I’m spending too much money on this tourist trap and making my family join me on a boat ride through the Blue Grotto.
Instead, we viewed the Blue Grotto from a platform beside the main road, just east of the turn-off to Wied iz-Zurrieq. The huge natural arch in the cliffs is impressive—but I imagine cruising through the Blue Grotto must be even more spectacular.
Next time! Next time, I will be in a boat, in full tourist mode—and my Maltese family can laugh and laugh at me!
10. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Snorkeling
Our kids love to snorkel, and my sister-in-law recommended the best, least crowded places where we could relax on the beach while they explored marine life. Malta is home to gorgeous beaches and fantastic coves, and the crystal-clear water made for terrific wildlife spotting. Check out our favorite hidden beaches here.
11. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Hagar Qim Temples
When I say that Malta offers many historic sites, I mean it literally; some of the world’s oldest sites are located on these tiny islands. In fact, the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, located near Qrendi, date from 3600 to 3000 B.C., older than the Egyptian pyramids, and even older than Stonehenge (2500 B.C.)
I’m a huge history lover, and the idea that my family and I stood among massive prehistoric structures boggled my mind. Constructed atop sea cliffs out of the locally found limestone, the temples suffer the effects of the elements; weathering is definitely a problem with the soft limestone. However, in efforts to preserve the sites, huge tent-like canopies cover the temples, making it tough to get a great photo, but a definite necessity to preserve history.
Hagar Qim offers a charming visitors’ center, which walks guests through the history of the temples. It also provides information about the findings in the temples. There’s also a cute kids’ room, where children can build a temple out of blocks.
Touring the Temples.
The largest megalith at the Hagar Qim temple weighs more than 20 tons. While originally covered, the roof collapsed long ago. The temple consists of a series of interconnected, oval chambers. The detailed, patterned designs impress, considering the lack of tools or metalwork in prehistoric days.
Also discovered at Hagar Qim are the “fat lady” statuettes and the “Venus de Malta” figurine that now reside in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta. Archaeologists speculate that these figures may represent fertility goddesses.
A short walk from Hagar Qim is another temple, Mnajdra, which you may want to check out. We ran out of time during our outing and only visited Hagar Qim. Next visit to Malta—we’re there!
12. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Marsaxlokk Fishing Village
One of the most famous sites in Malta is the fleet of authentic, colorful fishing boats embellished with the watchful “Eyes of Osiris” on the bows, designed to ward off evil spirits. The ancient fishing village of Marsaxlokk is the perfect place to watch the boats bobbing in the harbor, while enjoying the freshest seafood found among the many outdoor restaurants that line the waterfront.
Marsaxlokk Bay is filled with history. As Malta’s second natural harbor, the Turkish fleet moored here during the Great Siege of 1565, and Napoleon’s army landed in the bay during the French Invasion of 1798.
Most importantly, though, it’s a perfect place to enjoy the view of the fishing boats while dining on delicious, fresh seafood. Many restaurants offer open air dining along the harbor, which I highly recommend.
13. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Malta National Aquarium, St. Paul’s Bay
Wherever we travel, we visit the local aquarium. Whether it’s the Sea Life Center in Germany, The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, or the Seattle Aquarium in Washington, our family loves a good aquarium.
The Malta National Aquarium serves as a perfect destination for kids, particularly if they’re beginning to fade from too many historic sites and churches. Here, kids will discover ocean life of the Mediterranean waters that surround Malta. Huge tanks and tunnels showcase the marine life, while providing information about the various species found locally.
Best of all, kids can enjoy a playground to release some energy before resuming the historic tours again! (Even our kids, who really like history, appreciated a break for some animal viewing.)
14. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Mosta Dome
In Mosta, miracles happen—at least, according to local legends. As a visitor to the Mosta Dome, I found myself hearing the stories and thinking that yes, perhaps, miracles do exist.
The beautiful Parish Church of Santa Maria, also known as the Mosta Dome, stuns with its blue, white, and gold interior. Designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé and built in 1833-60 using funds raised by the local people, the church should not be standing today.
Mosta Dome: A Place of Miracles?
In 1942, as 300 parishioners gathered for mass, a bomb dropped into the dome—but failed to detonate. Visitors can see where the bomb entered the dome. All 300 parishioners survived the bombing.
As one of the world’s largest domes, the Mosta Dome rises 61 meters in height, with a diameter of 39.6 meters and can be seen from most parts of Malta.
(Trying to take a photo of the enormity of the dome proved tricky—I had to cross the street and stand on a bench! It’s a beautiful, impressive site. And it might make you believe in miracles.)
15. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Roman Villa
Malta is an island with many previous rulers, and the Roman Villa located in Rabat depicts how the Romans lived when occupying Malta.
Discovered in 1881, the Roman Villa seemed surreal to us. We’re standing in a Roman villa, looking at intricate mosaics dating from the first century B.C! Holy cow! As an American, I tend to get a little overly excited about ancient places, and the Roman villa doesn’t disappoint.
The Roman House was constructed around the Villa in the 1920s to incorporate the excavated remains of the villa. With the addition of a small but interesting museum, where we saw Roman glass perfume bottles, bone hairpins, and marble statues, the Roman Villa is a history lover’s dream.
16. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Mdina Ditch Garden
Perched on the hilltop away from modern Malta, Mdina’s quiet streets and serene pace make the city an ideal break from tourists.
The fortified city began as long ago as 1000 BC, when the Phoenicians created a protective wall around the area, calling the settlement Malet, or “place of shelter.” Along came the Romans, who built a large city, renaming it Melita. When the Arabs arrived in the 9th century, they named it a form of its current name: “Medina,” which means “walled city” in Arabic. They also dug a deep moat between Mdina and the surrounding suburbs.
The Mdina Ditch Garden, which I was eager to see, is a tad…austere. Because a tangle of ivy and vegetation began to deteriorate the walls and the jungle-like plantings of hundreds of citrus and a few olive trees became overgrown, the garden underwent a major renovation, completed in 2015. Now, lawn is the focal point, with small trees in containers.
It’s tidy, but not necessarily somewhere to linger on a hot, summer day. I’d prefer the jungle of citrus trees.
(Still, we managed to find an excellent ice cream vendor near the garden.)
17. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Wandering the Silent City of Mdina.
Mdina is the antithesis of touristy. Its narrow, quiet streets provide the perfect place to stroll and wander, which is exactly what we did. We turned down tiny roads, admired the architecture, wondered about the cloistered nuns that reside in St. Peter’s Church, and enjoyed the luxury of few people.
18. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: President’s Residence/San Anton Gardens
Of course, wherever we roam, I need to find the gardens. After the less than exciting Ditch Garden, my expectations weren’t high for San Anton Gardens, which surrounds the President’s residence.
However, the Garden Geek in me loved the San Anton Gardens!
The amazing use of geraniums planted en mass provided a spectacular, colorful display throughout the garden. In the U.S., we tuck a few geraniums in window boxes—and that’s it. In San Anton Gardens, the landscapers use thousands of geraniums—wisely, because geraniums can perform well during Malta’s dry spells.
Ponds and fountains entertained the kids as they cooed over ducklings and counted turtles, while I wandered the paths and checked out the plantings.
We especially enjoyed the peacocks, particularly once our son found the male peacock call on his iPhone! The peacock began showing off for the nearby female, thinking, I suppose, that he might have competition lurking about.
Sadly, the one time it rained during our trip was in the San Anton Gardens. Boo!
19. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Ta’Qali Crafts Village
If you’re looking for souvenirs in Malta, you’ll want to experience the famous Maltese arts of glass blowing and filigree creation. (Malta is also famous for lace, and I purchased a beautiful handmade lace tablecloth during my first trip years ago.)
The arts and crafts village of Ta’Qali looks a little rough—the workshops are located in old huts on a former WWII Royal Airforce Base—but we enjoyed seeing the skilled craftspeople create their art firsthand.
We all enjoyed watching the glass blowing, but honestly, the artists didn’t interact with us at all. The process of glassblowing is fascinating, but we stood in a (very hot) building, watching the artisans smoke and blow glass, so we moved along.
The silver artist we visited, however, introduced us to the delicate art of filigree. He discussed his techniques, demonstrated how he created different pieces, and answered my (many) questions.
Our daughter purchased her souvenirs from him, taking a necklace home for her best friend. (Not only was he an excellent artist, he was a good marketer, too!)
20. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Watch Out for Hedgehogs!
OK, perhaps hedgehog spotting might not be high on your list of things to do on vacation. However, if you have animal crazy kids like we do—especially one with an obsession for hedgehogs—then you need to visit Malta.
Where we have deer crossing signs in the U.S., the Maltese place hedgehog crossing warnings along the roads. Hedgehogs roam wild in Malta. The Maltese also kindly feed stray cats, leaving bowls of cat food outside for them, which is an excellent place to find hedgehogs snacking, as our girl did one evening. She was in heaven!
21. Fabulous Things to Do in Malta: Hop a Ferry to Gozo.
What is it about ferry rides that make everyone happy? We thoroughly enjoyed the short ride to the sister island of Gozo.
Gozo is a beautiful island with amazing natural rock formations, beautiful swimming coves, and incredible historic sites. We spent the day exploring the island and loved every minute—but because this post is already a novel, look for an upcoming post all about Gozo!
Plan to set aside a day during your trip to visit Gozo. We all agreed it was one of our favorite days on vacation.
So, whether, you’re looking for an island paradise filled with gorgeous coves for snorkeling, an amazing historical destination with sites from prehistoric days, or a haven for hedgehogs, Malta provides a bit of bliss for your travel desires.
We’ll be knocking on my sister-in-law’s door again soon, I hope! We can’t wait to return to Malta.