Tucked beneath the Italian island of Sicily, just south of Tunis and east of Tripoli, is the island nation of Malta.

The country’s prime Mediterranean location has interested conquerors for several millennia. Everyone from the Romans to the Normans to the British have stuck their flags in Malta’s arid soil.

Today you can still taste the influence of the North African Arabs who occupied 1,000 years ago, and still see the 16th century architectural mastery of the Knights of St John.

But the less than 450,000-strong nation of Malta retains an identity all its own.

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The walled city of Valletta is the capital of Malta.

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A street in Valletta. Do you see the sea in the distance?

Visitors may be surprised to find a country that’s more orderly and logical than its Mediterranean neighbors. Here the bus comes when it says it will. Sidewalk waiters take the hint when you ignore their menus. And the men drinking beer in the corner stores simply nod and wish you a good evening before resuming their conversations in Malti, a language that sounds to the untrained ear like a duel between Arabic and Spanish.

Maltese Food and Drink

The history of Malta is most evident on the dinner table. On the same block you’ll find restaurants serving spicy pizza from Sicily, lamb marinated in Middle Eastern spices, and vinegar-soaked fish and chips.

Rabbit is a popular ingredient here, whether it’s crumbled in pasta sauce, fried in oil, or baked in a pie. High-end restaurants serve rabbit pate on toast; in the countryside families celebrate special occasions with a hearty rabbit stew.

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In the kitchen at Te French restaurant on the Maltese island of Gozo.

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A new take on mushrooms from the team at Guze in Valletta.

And let’s not forget the wine. Local vintners are making a big splash on the international wine scene. The Maltese winemaker Emmanuel Delicata won two gold awards last year at the 10th International Oenological Competition in Italy. The boutique winery Meridiana, which grows its grapes in a former World War 2 airfield, can hardly keep up with local demand.

Malta Sites

When it comes to sites, Malta packs a big punch for such a small island. The country is home to some of the world’s oldest freestanding structures, stunning cliff sides, and ancient walled cities, all within a half hour’s drive from each other.

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The Blue Grotto on the main island of Malta.

Malta-25.jpgA group of men gather at a church on the Dingli cliffs, the highest point in Malta.

Welcome to Malta

Of course all of Malta’s culinary and cultural riches have been popular for years with the British, who ruled Malta until 1964. Pubs and Britain’s iconic phone booths still dot the streets of Malta’s capital. The country is also a popular pit stop on multi-city Mediterranean cruises.

But for most Americans this island has flown under the radar, mainly thanks to a lack of flights between the USA and Malta.

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Late afternoon on the main drag in Valletta, Malta’s capital.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Part of the charm of visiting Malta is the feeling that you’ve discovered something new.

A version of this story appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. We partnered with Visit Malta for parts of this trip. All opinions expressed here are our own.

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