Malta may be well-known for its sun and sea, but the island's real USP is its extraordinary history (and pre-history) and the fabulous sights this has left behind. Dotted with unique stone-age temples, Malta has been owned or coveted by many of Europe’s leading powers from the Phoenicians and Romans, Arabs and Medieval monarchs, to the Knights of Malta and the Ottoman Turks, the Axis powers and the British. Each has left its mark here – some very beautiful – giving Malta more historic sights per square mile than any other country.
Read on for more detail about what to see and do while in Malta and here's what you can do for free, while here are guides devoted to spending a weekend in Valletta, Malta's best hotels, the island's finest restaurants, most attractive beaches and the best of the bar scene.
Take a turn around one of Europe’s most important harbours
At the heart of Malta’s history – and Europe’s too – is the Grand Harbour, which lies between the towering bastions of the nation’s fortified capital, Valletta, and the first waterside "city" in the country, Birgu (Vittoriosa). The perfect way to see it is from a traditional bright-striped Maltese harbour taxi, a dghajsa (seats six), rowed standing up – now with the aid of a motor.
Insider tip: Take a half hour tour of the harbour, starting at Customs House, Valletta and ending in Birgu to explore the historic Three Cities, then take an inexpensive ride in a water taxi directly back across the harbour.
How: Pick up a water taxi at Customs House, across the road from the Barracca Lift, where they wait (close to the Three Cities ferry stop). Taxis and tours are available at any reasonable time of the day or evening
Discover Second World War secrets deep beneath Valletta
Once slave quarters of the Knights of St John, the Lascaris War Rooms became the secret HQ of the Allies in the Mediterranean. It was from here, deep inside the bastions of Valletta, that Eisenhower commanded the invasion of Sicily. The map room, bunks and much of the communication system remains to be seen on a fascinating audio guide or human guided tour.
Insider tip: The Lascaris War Rooms lie hidden beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens, so they make a good double bill visit. Alternatively combine with other WWII sights on a money and hassle-saving combo ticket with transfers between sites – available to book in advance on the website.
Enter the former heart of Malta’s government
Home to the increasingly princely Grand Masters of the Knights of St John from the construction of Valletta in 1570 until the knights were booted out by Napoleon in 1798, the Grand Master’s Palace became HQ for the British administration and then home to Malta’s parliament until 2015. State rooms, portraits, paintings, arms and armour reveal much of the nation’s history in the last 450 years.
Insider tip: Check the palace is open before you head to visit. Restoration and renovations are ongoing, and it is still used by the President of Malta for formal state occasions so may close at short notice.
Be dazzled by an extravagant baroque church
The outside of St John's Co-Cathedral is plain and austere, but don’t be fooled. Within is one of the most lavish baroque interiors anywhere, all coloured marble floors, painted ceilings and golden walls. This was the church of the Knights of St John (the Knights of Malta) and they did themselves proud. Don’t miss the oratory which houses two Caravaggio paintings including his largest and only signed work.
Insider tip: There is a tiny staircase tucked away to the side of the main door (the tourist exit) leading up to a little gallery affording close-ups of the wall paintings and fabulous views the length of the church.
Visit the Fat Ladies of Malta
Fat ladies, animals, altars, even an “architectural model” – the National Museum of Archaeology houses the unique statuary and furniture of Malta’s temple culture that thrived here in the fourth and third millennium BC. Upstairs galleries cover the Phoenician period and Bronze Age – and do take a peek into the Great Hall of the Provencal Knights, later renovated by the British and now used for temporary exhibitions and concerts.
Insider tip: The model and excellent short video about Malta’s mysterious cart ruts will set you up for spotting these intriguing marks in the landscape – and provide you with the best guess as to what they are.
Be the guest of Maltese aristocrats at Casa Rocca Piccola
Take a tour around Casa Rocca Piccola, a 400-year-old Valletta palazzo that's still home of the Marquis de Piro. It's full of history, paintings, and objects d’arts including exceptional Maltese lace, a Knights’ sedan chair, and possibly the oldest surviving pieces of Maltese furniture. Beneath Casa Rocca Piccola is the family’s WWII bomb shelter and in the pretty courtyard garden you can say hello to the family’s talkative parrot. You can also stay here in suite-sized rooms full of de Piro character.
Insider tip: Ask about the chess sets – one is a 'celibate' Knights’ set with no queen. And don’t miss what is probably the last remaining complete set of silver surgical instruments from the Sacra Infermeria, the Knights’ hospital.
Climb to the top of Fort St Elmo
Right on the tip of the Valletta peninsula, guarding the entrance to the Grand Harbour, stands the recently-restored star-shaped Fort St Elmo. Take in the panoramic views from the ramparts before ducking inside for an informative and engaging walk through Malta’s history in the National War Museum – history in which this castle played a central role.
Insider tip: Don’t miss Malta’s George Cross medal awarded to the entire population by George VI in WWII (and featured on the national flag), Eisenhower’s jeep ‘Husky’ and the table on which the deal was signed handing Malta to the British in 1800.
Get your fill of Maltese art
The sixteenth-century Auberge d’Italie, once home to the Italian branch of the Knights of St John, now houses Malta’s new National Art Museum, MUZA. Browse galleries ranging from Mattia Preti (the baroque Italian master who spent 40 years in Malta) to Victor Pasmore (the British abstractionist who lived and worked here) before enjoying a coffee in the courtyard beneath the triumphal arch.
Insider tip: If you don’t have time for a full visit, or art isn’t your thing, you can drop in for a look around the auberge, a meal or a coffee, without buying a ticket.
Step inside one of the island’s largest underground shelters
Beneath the Knights-period fortifications of Birgu (Vittoriosa) lies a labyrinth of tunnels, hand-cut into the rock, where hundreds of people huddled through some of the most intense bombing of the Second World War. Visit the Malta at War Museum, watch a fascinating propaganda movie (voiced by Laurence Olivier), then explore the shelter’s tunnels – complete with bunk beds, hospital and birth room.
Insider tip: Nicholas Monserrat’s novel, The Kapillan of Malta, has a vivid description of what life was like in these shelters. It’s a great read and will really bring the place to life.
Lord it over the Grand Harbour from Malta’s oldest fortress
A microcosm of Maltese history, Fort St Angelo, is the nation’s oldest castle. First built in medieval times, it was the Knights headquarters through the Great Siege, and home (for more than 150 years) to the British military in Malta. There is something of each period to be seen here, and the view from the top is a fabulous 360-degree panorama.
Insider tip: Where the little café now stands on the ramparts was once earmarked as a swimming pool for a luxury hotel. This project of Maltese PM Dom Mintoff did more damage to the castle than 60 direct hits in WWII – all thankfully now restored.
Mdina and Rabat
Meander a maze of Roman-Byzantine tombs
The ground that surrounds Malta’s first capital, Mdina, sits on a honeycomb of roman-Byzantine catacombs, best explored at St Paul’s Catacombs. Descend the steps to find tombs from simple holes in the wall and floor to arched windows and four-poster specials. Discover the Maltese Roman way of death complete with rare round stone tables at which the funerary meal was taken.
Insider tip: Some of the smaller catacombs are well worth a visit. Don’t miss no. 3 with its well-preserved stone tables and hefty plug-stone carved with medical instruments. There are a few Jewish tombs too, on the other side of the road.
Spy a secret peephole
Malta’s original cathedral (St John’s only became its co-cathedral after the Knights had gone), Mdina Cathedral is the baroque heart of the nation’s first capital, the tiny Medieval fortified town of Mdina. Said to have been built over the tomb of Roman governor St Publius, ‘his’ skull is in the next-door museum along with some stunning silver, coins from Carthage to our age, Grand Master’s swords and an unlikely and remarkable set of Durer prints.
Insider tip: To the right of the Cathedral sanctuary, up by the organ, is a small oval hole (not visible if the festival damask is hung). This was the bishop’s peephole. From his home next door, he could spy on his priests and congregation.
Take an extraordinary subterranean trip
Descend beneath an ordinary suburban house to enter the funerary world of the Temple people who occupied Malta more than 5,000 years ago. A unique tour leads you through the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an extraordinary three-storey subterranean labyrinth cut into solid rock, ending up at the Holy of Holies, a curved room carved to look like the above-ground temples and supremely well preserved. Not to be missed.
Insider tip: Book well in advance. Only 10 people per hour are allowed into the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum for conservation reasons. Two tours a day are sold the day before in Valletta but they are a nuisance to get and much more expensive.
Price: £££ (but worth it)
Admire ancient stones
Tucked between modern housing, the Tarxien Temples were at the heart of this community some five millennia ago. Now Unesco World Heritage sites, they are the stone temples of the people who buried their dead at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (just 10 minutes’ walk away). Monumental doorways, stones carved with spirals and animals, the largest of Malta’s Fat Lady statues, stairs and altars…this is a great place to appreciate the skills of our ancient ancestors.
Insider tip: The furniture and statuary here are almost all copies. They are placed where they were found, but the originals can be seen in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. One exception: the giant bowl (now full of lose change).
Discover Malta’s unique Neolithic temples
Older than Stonehenge and architecturally much more sophisticated, the Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim are walk-into wonders of Stone Age construction. Built of limestone blocks up to 20 tonnes in weight with rooms, paving, curved once-plastered walls, altars and statuary, these Unesco World Heritage sites sit in typical coastal countryside little changed since the temples were built some 5000 years ago.
Insider tip: Start at Mnajdra, 500m along the coast, to understand typical temple layout, then come back to Hagar Qim – which is fascinatingly different and repays walking all the way round outside as well as in.
Around the islands
Dive on wrecks and dramatic seascapes
Many regard Malta as offering the best diving in Europe and tens of thousands of people a year come here to dive. Clear waters cover numerous wrecks, marine wildlife and dramatic seascapes from cathedral-like caves to towers and holes. Shore and boat dives offer plenty for all skill levels and there are licensed dive centres providing kit and courses across all three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino.
Insider tip: To make the most of your dive time, head for Gozo with its plentiful shore dives and short distances. You can get from one side of the island to the other (including away from any wind) in just minutes’ in a car.
Contact: Click here for a list of licensed dive centres