In the past few years, Malta has been steadily growing in popularity as a summer holiday destination. And it is for a good reason that this beautiful little island is considered a hidden gem of the Mediterranean. Even though both its turquoise waters and plentiful historical sites attract a large number of tourists each year, it is not as crowded (yet) as the Amalfi coast or some of the Greek islands. Malta is one of the smallest European countries, with a total population of just over 420,000 inhabitants, but it is visited by over 1,6 million tourist each year!
After having been to Malta three times at various times of the year (mostly shoulder season), I can say this tiny European country has completely won me over. It doesn’t have spectacular sandy beaches, but what definitely makes up for that is the fact that Malta is pretty much one big open-air museum. It boasts three UNESCO inscribed sites, and it is filled with fascinating, complex history. If you’re ready to learn more about this beautiful island full of surprises, read on!
Day 1: Exploring the beauty of Valletta
Known as ‘Il-Belt’ in Maltese, Valletta is the smallest European capital. As is often the case, the best thing you can do to get a glimpse of this beautiful city is to just wander off in any direction, and get lost in the streets that all lead to the sea. That’s right! The fortified capital is located on a small peninsula, and its streets are organised in a grid similar to New York streets and avenues, so no matter where you walk, you’ll end up with breathtaking sea views.
That said, there are a number of places of interest in Valletta you don’t want to miss. Maybe the most famous tourist attraction is the incredible St John Co Cathedral.To avoid waiting in line, I’d advise you to head here the first thing in the morning, before it gets crowded. While deceivingly ‘normal’ from the outside, the interiors of the cathedral are literally covered in gold. Believe me, it is worth the €10 entry; besides its lavishly decorated interiors, you can admire one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces here, as well as the intricate marble floors (which are actually graves of the knights of the Order of St John).
In short, while you might think ‘it’s just another church’ when admiring its architecture from the outside, you need to go in o truly appreciate its beauty (as well as the wealth of the Order who established it). St John Co Cathedral is not the only impressive church you’ll encounter in Valletta, but by far the most popular one to visit. In fact, Malta is known to have one church for each day of the year – that’s right, there are at least 366 churches sprinkled over the islands of Malta and neighbouring Gozo. One more fun fact I’ve learned is that according to a legend, all clocks on churches across Malta are set wrong, in order to confuse the devil. If you pay attention to it, you’ll see it’s true – I haven’t seen a single clock on any of the church towers that would be showing the correct time!
For the best views of the city’s fortifications and the Three Cities across the Grand Harbour, you need visit the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Not only do the trees and arches provide the much needed relief from the sun; the gardens are an excellent place to catch a breath, relax and just soak in the grandeur and wonderful historical atmosphere of Valletta. The gardens were opened to public in 1824, and the entry is free.
If you find yourself near the Saluting Battery around either noon or 4 pm, you can experience the traditional firing of the canons. The origins of the Saluting Battery go back all the way to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, but they were still in use during the WWII. For those interesting in military history, you can still visit the war rooms under the barakka gardens. Valletta is often dubben ‘an open-air museum’, and you’ll quickly see why – centuries of wars and different foreign rules all left their mark on the face of the city.
For a more relaxed afternoon, you can head to the Lower Barrakka Gardens, which are located just a bit further on along the waterfront. They tend to be less crowded in the summer, but provide just as pleasant shade and glimpses of history. In a close proximity to the gardens, you can visit the Siege Bell War Memorial, overlooking the Great Harbour. This monument has been erected in 1992, to commemorate all those who lost their lives in the WWII siege of Malta. Every day at noon, the largest bell in Malta rings in memory of the dark times.
If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind evening activity in Valletta, then I’d definitely recommend watching a play in Teatru Manoel. One of the oldest Baroque theatres in Europe (built in 1731 and still fully functioning), Teatru Manoel offers guided tours by day, but the best way to experience its stunning interiors is to go to a play in th evening. I was lucky enough to get to see the performance of The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, and it was unforgettable. Needless to say, this particular performance was in English, but some of the plays might be in Maltese, so make sure to check their programme before you go (outbound link).
Possibly my favourite part of the performance was the interlude, when everyone just heads outside to grab a drink. The theatre itself is too small to hold the crowds, which is why the thirsty theatre-goers simply headed across the street to grab a beer or a glass of wine at the local café, and stood outside, happily chatting away before the bell called us all back in. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way of experience true Malta, and its laid-back, friendly inhabitants.
Valletta by night is, if possible, even more beautiful than by day. The busy streets, filled with street vendors and buskers, suddenly get quiet. The crowds disappear, but the beauty and grandeur of its architecture remains. But whether you decide to visit Valletta later in the day, to enjoy a a cup of coffe in one of its many hidden cafés, or during the day, making your way to one of the popular markets with an array of fresh food and Maltese specialties, one thing is certain – you won’t regret it.
Day 2: The Three Cities
After having explored everything that Valletta has to offer, it is time to venture a bit further. Taking the road less taken, so to speak, you’ll find yourself immersed into a different world – the much quieter, yet equally beautiful streets of the Three Cities.
In order to get here from Valletta, the easiest way is to take the Barrakka Lift. This ultra-modern glass structure will bring you from the Upper Barakka Gardens all the way down to the harbour, where you can either catch one of the traditional boats (more fun) or the regular ferry (less choppy) to Vittoriosa on the opposite side of the Grand Harbour.
The Three Cities all have their local names, which might be a little confusing at first, so let’s take them one by one. First, there is Senglea, often reffered to as L’Isla by locals, which is a fortified town offering wonderful views of the Grand Harbour.
Right next door to Senglea, you’ll find Vittoriosa (locally known as Birgu), which is not only beautiful to walk through, but also offers you the possibility to visit the Fort St. Angelo. This fortress was established by Arabs as early as the 7th century. Later on, the knights of the Order of St. John developed it into a proper fortress, including a hospital and massive walls around it. It was after the Great Siege of 1556 when they found out that the opposite side of the harbour would have been a more advantageous place, and started building Valletta, which became the capital in 1571.
Lastly, you can spend the rest of the day exploring the fortified walls of Cospicua (aka Bormla), which is the inland part of the Three Cities. Sadly, Cospicua was almost completely destroyed during the WWII. That said, the three cities all have their own charm, and a largely preserved atmosphere, unspoilt by the tourist. Once you give yourself time to explore the crooked streets of Birgu, explore the Fort St. Angelo or head over to Cospicua, you’ll understand while Malta so often serves as a filming location (amongst other blockbusters, Troy and Game of Thrones have famously been filmed here).
Day 3: Trip to Gozo
One of the experiences you should not miss when visiting Malta is exploring is sister island, Gozo. This smaller, yet equally beautiful island is known for its own character and it is a home of a number of impressive churches, as well as a fortified city called Victoria. Game of Thrones fans will definitely recognise a number of filming locations around here!
Catching a ferry to Gozo makes for a perfect day trip, but it takes a little preparation to know where you’re going. There is a regular ferry leaving from Cirkewwa (Malta) to Mgarr (Gozo) about every hour. The crossing takes about 30 minutes and the ticket you’ll have to buy upon your return from Gozo will costs you less than 5 euros for pedestrians, and a bit over 15 euros for a car. Compare this to the average price of an organised group tour (anywhere between 35-50 euros), and decide for yourself.
Once you’re made your way to Mgarr harbour, you can continue your way inland, either by bus or by car. One of the stops I’d recommend is the famous rotunda in Xewkija. Its towers offer a stunning views of the unique countryside of Gozo.
Continuing your way to Gozo’s capital, Victoria (also known as Rabat, or Il-Belt Victoria), you can easily spend the day exploring the beautiful Citadel, Gozo’s fortress with yet another set of breathtaking views, and subsequently getting lost in the small, charming streets.
If you head back to Malta in time, you can combine your trip to Gozo with a stop-over at Comino, the smallest of the three Maltese islands. Be prepared to experience the bluest waters you’ve ever seen here, though; forget all the Blue caves you’ve been dragged to on your trip to Greece or Italy; the Blue Lagoon at Comino will take your breath away. Trust me, if the weather allows, you want to go for a swim here.
While usually crowded during the summer months, the Blue Lagoon is an amazing place to relax when you come here during shoulder season. I didn’t go for a swim (even though there were people still swimming here in October!), but I absolutely don’t regret taking the detour on our way from Gozo and stopping here for about an hour. There is not much else to see on the island, so unless you’re planning to spend a day at the beach here, a short visit will be enough to give you a glimpse of the bluest waters you might ever see.
Uncovering Malta‘s hidden gems
Of course, during a 3-day visit to this beautiful Mediterranean island, you will only scratch the surface of what Malta has to offer. If you’re planning to spend a few extra days exploring the island, then the silent city of Mdina (GoT fans alert!), the colourful fishing village of Marsaxlokk or the turquoise blue St Peter’s Pool should definitely be on your list. Of course, history lovers should not miss the opportunity to discover the megalithic temples in Hagar Qim or Tarxien.
Malta, despite its size, has something for every type of traveller. It may not be famous for golden beaches (even though you’ll find a couple of them, too), but its rugged cliffs and historical sights are equally impressive. I fell in love with this beautiful island upon my first visit, so much so that I’ve returned twice ever since – and I still have the feeling that I haven’t seen it all! The best tip I can give you is to go and see for yourself!