The Mediterranean island country of Malta is an archipelago of three inhabited islands and several small ones. Malta is the main island, followed by smaller Gozo and tiny Comino. Inhabited for millennia and a prize for military and mercantile powers seeking to control the Mediterranean, the country offers a mix of historic and prehistoric sites, seaside resorts and watersports, and lively nightlife. Here are 15 of our favorite things to do in Malta.
Go for Baroque in Valletta
Valletta, the capital and largest city of Malta, has an ornate historic center built mostly in the Baroque style. The current city core was constructed after 1565, when the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta, settled on the island and built Valletta as their capital. Their rule lasted more than 200 years, and their artistic and architectural influence permeates the city. Baroque highlights include the St. John Co-Cathedral and the Grandmaster's Palace, and the style is evident on facades throughout the city center.
To call Valletta's St. John's Co-Cathedral "ornate" is a gross understatement. It's a riot of high Baroque style, with every inch of its elaborate interior covered with carved, gilded arches, painted vaults recalling John the Baptist's life, and marble floors covering the tombs of hundreds of the Knights of Malta. The cathedral's masterpiece is without a doubt Caravaggio's "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist," a huge canvas that typifies the chiaroscuro (dramatic contrast between light and dark) effect for which his work is known.
Go Back in Time at Mdina
Once the capital of Malta and its noble families' home, fascinating Mdina, called "the silent city," is a world away from the rest of the island. Entirely enclosed within ancient stone walls, the nearly car-free city comprises of narrow alleyways and small piazzas lined with mansions, many of them still in splendid condition. Come here in the early evening, when the lamplights start to glow, and it really feels like you've stepped back in time. Dine inside the walls or in adjacent Rabat, with its lively bars and restaurants.
On the southeastern end of Malta, a sheltered bay protects one of the prettiest sights in Malta—the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. The present town, mostly built after the 1850s on a site inhabited for millennia, wraps around the harbor, where traditional luzzu fishing boats moor. The boats are beloved for their colorful paint jobs, including a painted eye on each side of the prow—said to protect the boats and fishers from bad luck. This is a great place to eat fresh seafood at any number of outdoor restaurants along the harbor. Seventy percent of Malta's fishing fleet is based here, and on Sundays, a lively fresh fish market takes place.
The monumental temple of Ħaġar Qim and the nearby Mnajdra temples form, collectively with other megalithic temples on Malta and Gozo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They earned this designation for being the oldest freestanding stone structures in the world—older than the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and Ireland's New Grange. At Ħaġar Qim, a visitor center explains the temple complex's history and contains artifacts found during excavations.
Tour The Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua)
For as busy and crowded as Valletta can be, just across the Grand Harbour, a quiet, historic respite awaits. Known as The Three Cities, the side-by-side towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua offer a perspective on Malta in sharp contrast to Valletta. The Knights of Malta first settled the combined area before they built Valletta and contains historic bastions, churches, and palaces. The cities also contain narrow residential streets pleasant for walking—and a lot of Airbnb-type vacation rentals are located here.
Ride a Dgħajsa Across Grand Harbour
Malta's equivalent of Venetian gondolas, dgħajsa boats are colorful rowboats that ply the waters of Valletta's Grand Harbour and carry passengers back and forth between Valletta and The Three Cities. And the best part, unlike the pricey gondolas of Venice, a ride on a dgħajsa costs just 2 euros one-way.
There's a lot to see on Gozo, the second-largest island in the Maltese Archipelago, and tooling around in an open-air, motorized tuk-tuk may be the most fun way to see it all. The colorful tuk-tuks of Yippee Malta seat up to six passengers for guided tours of the island's top sights, including its notable churches, archaeological and historical sites, the ancient salt flats, and its spectacular sea cliffs and rock formations.
Dive into Comino's Blue Lagoon
At just 3.5 square kilometers, tiny Comino might be easily overlooked by tourists were it not for its spectacular spots for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. And the Blue Lagoon tops the list. Thanks to a combination of white sand, clear turquoise water, and a protected inlet, the lagoon draws boaters, swimmers, and kayakers. You can get there via ferry from Cirkewwa or Marfa on Malta or private boat tours from both Malta and Gozo. You can also kayak there (see below).
Paddle Around Gozo
The coastlines of Gozo and nearby Comino are mostly rugged and rocky and interspersed with impressive sea caves carved from millions of years of pounding waves. Most are inaccessible on foot, but they can be explored by kayak. Gozo Adventures is one of several outfitters on Gozo offering escorted full- or half-day kayaking tours of Gozo and Comino, including instruction for beginners and guide with you at all times. Swim in sea caves and hidden coves, and discover a side of these islands that can only be seen from the water.
Kick Back at Golden Bay
Sandy beaches are a rarity on Malta, and this crescent of sand on a wide inlet is one of the most popular places on the island to pitch a sun umbrella. Though it gets crowded in the summer months, Golden Bay has a large beach area. Families favor it for its accessibility and amenities—including umbrella and lounger rentals, watersports rentals, food concessions, and lifeguards on duty.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, usually just shortened to the Hypogeum, a labyrinth of underground, rock-cut burial chambers built between 3600 and 2500 BCE. It's set in the town of Paola, not far from Valletta. Artifacts retrieved from the three-level complex have offered great insights into Malta's earliest inhabitants. Note that to visit the Hypogeum, it's best to plan ahead. To keep the site's microclimate intact, only a limited number of visitors are allowed in each day, so reservations are strongly recommended.
Stay Out Late in Sliema, St. Julian’s and Paceville
Valletta's bars and restaurants get busy after dark, but for nightlife, Maltese and tourists alike know to head to the trio of developments in the Northern Harbour District—Sliema, St. Julian’s, and Paceville. A long seaside promenade, scores of modern dining and shopping complexes, mixed with an air of wealth, make this area north of Valletta the place to spend one's disposable income—whether for seaside dining, designer shopping, or late-night revelry. And it's all just a short taxi ride from Valletta.
Jump Into St. Peter's Pool
Near Marsaxlokk on the southeastern side of Malta, St. Peter's Pool is among the most stunning of the country's many natural sea pools. The wave-carved pool is surrounded by a "beach" composed of flat rock slabs suitable for spreading a towel. Daredevils jump into the crystal blue-green waters below, but there are also ladders to access the pool. Snorkeling is popular here, though the area is not well-suited for small children, thanks to both difficulty accessing it and the depth of the water in the pool.
Act Like a Kid at Popeye Village
This small, whimsical theme park was first constructed as the stage set for the 1980 Robin Williams film, "Popeye." The set remained after filming was completed, and the storybook fishing village was converted to a tourist attraction. Today, there's a lagoon for swimming and watersports, plus costumed characters from the Popeye cartoons, who pose for photos and put on periodic shows. The park's scale makes it a good bet for little kids who need a break from touring historical sites.