From walled cities to ancient temples, superb natural monuments to quiet island villages, Malta contains a surprising number of sites for such a tiny country. Take a day or two to explore the capital of Valletta, and then hop in a car, ferry or fisherman’s boat to travel to these Malta must-sees.
Come at sunset when the day trippers have left and you’ll have this ancient walled city all to yourself. Mdina was founded in 1000 BC by the Phoenicians and subsequently built up by the Romans and later the Arabs. Once the playground of Malta’s aristocracy, today Mdina is home to just 300 or so residents, a few restaurants, and several historic buildings. Winding along the massive walls after dark and you’ll see why Mdina is called Malta’s Silent City.
Centuries of persistent waves have left their mark on Malta’s coastline. Case in point: the Blue Grotto, a 100-foot stone arch that shelters a series of caves. If weather permits, hop on a boat at the port of Wied iz-Zurrieq for a 25-minute ride to the grotto. Your best bet is to arrive early in the day when the weather is likely to be calmer and the light hits the water just right, making the elements in the in the rock and sea sparkle.
Unfortunately it was too windy when we visited to take a boat into the grotto’s caves.
Life moves at a slower pace on the island of Gozo, just a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland. With its megalithic temples, superb dive sites, and charming hilltop villages, some visitors spend the majority of their trip in Gozo. Plan to stay at least two nights to give yourself plenty of time to take in all the island has to offer.
Built nearly 1,000 years before the pyramids, the Ggantija Temples on Gozo are believed to be one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. The site consists of two considerably well-preserved temples dating back to 3600 BC. A small interpretation center houses some of the relics uncovered in and around the site, including cow toe bones carved with human faces and small limestone figurines. The country has several temple sites, but Ggantija is the most impressive.
The Azure Window
Another fantastic natural arch carved into the country’s cliff sides, the Azure Window is an obligatory stop when visiting the island of Gozo. A short hike over fossil-studded limestone rocks takes you to an observation point where you can soak in dramatic views of the Azure Window and the steep cliffs nearby. In the rocks below the window is the Blue Hole, an 80-plus foot deep underwater vent that connects with the Mediterranean. It’s a popular dive site. Nearby is the Inland Sea, a tiny lagoon surrounded by cliffs and sleepy fisherman shacks. To supplement their income, the fisherman charge tourists a small fee for a boat rides through a tunnel into the cliff side.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
Make your reservations weeks in advance to visit this underground burial chamber carved into the island’s bedrock more than 5,000 years ago. (Trust us, we waited too long and missed the opportunity to see the Hypogeum.) The resting place of nearly 7,000 bodies is a window into the world of Malta’s ancient inhabitants. Discovered in 1902, the subterranean halls and chambers were closed to the public in 1990 after it was discovered the carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors was wreaking havoc on the delicate limestone. The site reopened about 15 years ago with a strictly controlled microclimate and a new policy limiting groups to just 10 visitors at a time.
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.