Malta draws a lot of visitors for its year-round sunny climate, crystal-blue seas, and reputation as something of a party spot. But there's more to this tiny Mediterranean island nation than sun and fun. With thousands of years of history, a strategic role in countless regional and world conflicts, and a rich culture all its own, Malta also has a diverse and interesting selection of museums.
From ancient art to modern warfare, here are our picks for the top museums in Malta. Note that most of these are operated by Heritage Malta, the national entity in charge of museums and cultural heritage.
Located in the former palace of the Knights of St John, the National Museum of Fine Arts (recently renamed MUŻA) has a collection covering everything from the Renaissance to contemporary eras. The museum features pieces by artists from Malta and other European countries, and allows rising stars unique opportunities to display their work. Multimedia and interactive installations can be found next to centuries-old pieces, providing striking food for thought. There's a café and restaurant onsite.
The Neolithic peoples who inhabited Malta and nearby Gozo left behind a rich trove of artifacts, and the temples they built are the oldest freestanding stone structures in the world—older than the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge in England. The National Museum of Archaeology has a stunning collection of these artifacts, ranging from carved female figures to pottery to stone tools. In all, the collection spans from 5,200 BCE, when humans first arrived on Malta, to 2,500 BCE. A visit to this museum perfectly rounds out a trip to one of Malta's astounding Neolithic sites, such as the Ħaġar Qim temple—part of a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site—or the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum underground burial site.
The Inquisition—the period when the Catholic Church used torture, murder, and intimidation to purge alleged heretics—is a dark chapter in history, and it cast its shadow on Malta as well. Located in Birgu, across the Grand Harbour from Valletta, the Inquisitor's Palace functioned from 1574 to 1798. Today, it maintains rooms and relics from that period, including courtrooms and prison cells. There's also an ethnographic museum onsite that focuses on the role of the Inquisition in Maltese society and of religion in forming Maltese cultural identity. The building itself is significant in that it documents centuries of additions and remodeling, as well as changes in architectural style.
A privately-owned museum, Casa Rocca Piccola is the palace of a longstanding Maltese noble family who still live there today. Twelve rooms of the 16th-century palace are open for public tours, including dining rooms, bedrooms, and colorful salons filled with antiques that really do seem fit for royalty. The house also has a network of tunnels carved into the bedrock under Valletta. They are one of the most popular stops on the tour, having been used as everything from storage space to bomb shelters during WWII air raids. There's a fragrant walled garden, too—a shady, verdant surprise in the middle of Valletta's densely built-up old town.
Part of the Grandmaster's Palace, the Palace Armoury has an amazingly robust collection of armaments. Most of the collection recalls the glories of the Knights of Malta, but several rooms are dedicated to Islamic and Ottoman armor. Moreover, the collection is in the original Armoury of the Knights, making it all the more unique. Aficionados of military history will delight with a visit here, but there's also enough to keep casual visitors engaged.
Dating back to the Neolithic period. Malta's military history is long indeed. The National War Museum, part of the Fort St. Elmo historic site, presents a detailed collection of military artifacts and memorabilia, ranging from Neolithic weapons to WWII fighter planes. There's a heavy emphasis on the Knights of Malta period and the Great Siege of 1565, when Fort St. Elmo fell to the Ottomans. FDR's Jeep, nicknamed "Husky," is a highlight of the collection. Like the Palace Armoury, this place is popular with history buffs, yet interesting enough to keep non-historians entertained. Within walking distance of Valletta's historic center, this, together with a tour of the waterfront fort, offers a nice half-day excursion.
One of Malta's newest museums, the Malta Postal Museum celebrates 500 years of postal history in the island nation. What might seem like a dry topic is artfully handled here, with displays and artifacts chronicling both Maltese history and the role the post office has played in it. Philatelists will surely be delighted here, but the old photographs, historic documents, and interesting objects related to the postal service have universal appeal. There's also an excellent gift shop selling stationery, gifts, and—you guessed it—stamps.
During WWII, Malta was part of the United Kingdom. Always strategically important as a military base in the southern Mediterranean, it became even more so as the war expanded into North Africa. For more than two years in the early 1940s, the island was bombed relentlessly by Axis forces in what became known as the Siege of Malta. More than 30,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, and at least 1,300 civilians were killed. The Malta at War Museum in Birgu memorializes this period of history, with a focus on everyday civilian life, suffering, and resilience during the Siege.