Did you know that Malta is actually just one of three islands that make up the Maltese archipelago? Not everyone does, yet the lesser-known islands of Gozo and Comino are enchanting islands that deserve more recognition as islands in their own right, and you should definitely aim to explore all three islands if you’re ever in the area.
Malta gained independence from the British in 1964, and there are sure telltale signs that it was once a British colony if you keep your eyes open. The history of Malta, however, is a rich and colorful one, with not only British but also French, Sicilian, African, and Arabic involvement, making it a great destination for history lovers. This mixture of influences is evident across the islands – in the food, architecture, and even the language (Maltese is mainly based on Italian/Sicilian but also Siculo-Arabic and English).
As well as being rich from culture, you’re never too far from the coast in Malta – it is an island state, after all – and the emerald waters surrounding the islands have long attracted visitors from around the world. Whether you’re into swimming, diving, snorkeling, or just good old fashioned boat rides, you’re going to fall in love with Malta’s spectacular turquoise waters.
With tonnes to offer, both on land and at sea, it’s easy to see why Malta is such a popular tourist destination. So, let’s take a closer look at what has made it so famous among people from around the globe.
Valetta Old Town
With less than 7,000 inhabitants, Malta’s capital city, Valetta, is one of Europe’s smallest capitals and is truly wondrous to behold. So much so, in fact, that it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1908. But what is it that makes this capital city so special? A large part of it comes down to the impressive Baroque character of the city. Valetta is home to more than 300 historic buildings, and you’ll encounter these, with their many lavish touches, such as fountains, statues, and their classic domed rooves, no matter what route you take through the city.
A few places of note, however, are Saint Johns Cathedral, which has a particularly spectacular interior, the Fort St Elmo National War Museum, which is great for learning about local history, and the Triton Fountain, which is hard to miss as you pass through the city gate. Oh, and don’t forget to check out Valetta’s gardens either – they’re fairly urban affairs with plenty of infrastructure, but the greenery combined with the building work makes for a very pleasant break as you stroll around the city. Our personal favorite is the Upper Barracca Gardens thanks to the fantastic view over the harbor, but there are loads of others to check out too.
Food: Rabbit, Pastizzi, and Imqaret… And So Much More
Ask most people who’ve never been to Malta what Maltese food is like and they’ll probably have no idea. Ask them again after just the shortest of visits, however, and they’re bound to reel off streams of unexpected delights they’ve encounter while in Malta.
Adding its own personal touch to recipes inspired by Sicilian, British, Arabian, and French cuisine, Maltese food is a true blend of cultures, which means you’ll definitely find something for you while you’re there. The dish that Malta is most famed for around the world is its rabbit, which tends to be marinated in garlic and wine then slowly stewed to bring out its rich flavor.
For anyone into their savory snacks, you’re going to love the Maltese pastizz, which you can pick up from almost any coffee shop, bakery, and street stall. Typically filled with ricotta, or sometimes with peas, these oval-shaped filo-pastry-bound bundles of goodness are highly addictive – be warned! Homemade bread (or hoba biz zeit) is also extremely popular and often served before meals (try not to overeat on the delicious bread and ruin your meal like we did!). Also, being an island state, the Maltese are big into their fish, with grilled swordfish and Lampuka (also known as Mah-Mahi) being two firm favorites.
Maltese food is certainly hard to summarize but, with such a range of influences, it’s definitely one of the most interesting cuisines you’ll find in the Mediterranean.
Diving (Around All Three Islands)
Thanks to its abundance of coastline, interesting underwater topography, and famed clear-blue waters, Malta is a popular choice for scuba divers from around the world. All three islands have a range of dive sites that are worth checking out, although you’ll find more dive centers on the larger island of Malta.
Ċirkewwa is a diving area of note and is situated off the north coast of Malta. Here, beginner divers here can expect to encounter two impressive natural arches, and even an underwater Madonna statue swarming with scorpionfish, while more advanced divers can head further out to explore two wrecks in deeper water. Comino, the smallest of the islands and practically uninhabited, also offers some interesting dives, with the Santa Marija Caves and sunken P31 patrol boat being the highlights.
Finally, if you want to experience the most famous dive site of the Maltese archipelago, then you should head over to Gozo and dive the Blue Hole. The circular hole was formed naturally and is surrounded by rock on all sides, which protects it from currents experienced elsewhere. It has a depth of around 16m and a 5m x10m diameter and, once you’ve descended in the hole itself, you’ll encounter a window at around 7m that forms an arched gateway to the open ocean. More advanced divers may also be keen to explore the cave at the bottom of the hole, but make sure you take a dive torch with you as things can get pretty dark down there.
As well as the spectacular topography, you can expect to come face to face with heaps of friendly Mediterranean Parrotfish, starfish, moray eels, groupers, and even jellyfish. To reach the hole, you’ll have to walk over the limestone clifftop at Dwerja Point on Gozo’s west coast and descend down the steps that have been chiseled into the cliff itself. This area is also famed for the Azure Window, a spectacular archway in the rocks, but it sadly collapsed during heavy storms in 2017 – any Game of Thrones fans out there might be interested to know that, prior to its collapse, this impressive archway formed the backdrop of Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding.
This unique craft is one that the Maltese have perfected over the years, and it dates back the final century BC. In the craft villages, you’ll be able to browse incredible glass sculptures to your heart’s content (they make a great souvenir… if you can get them home in one piece) and most are sold from small workshops where you can often catch the glass being blown.
Alternatively, Mdina Glass is a Maltese glassware company based in Valetta that lets visitors watch the glassmakers at work as well as showcasing some high-end glass pieces available for purchase. The art of glassblowing is somewhat mesmerizing, and you’re unlikely to forget watching as an artist uses but a simple pipe to gently blow and create a spectacular sculpture.
Comino (And Of Course, The Blue Lagoon)
Comino’s Blue Lagoon is on the hit list of most holidaymakers in the area. It’s well-known for its incredibly clear waters, offering visibility up to 40m, making it an idyllic spot for swimming and snorkeling. To reach Comino from Malta, catch the ferry that departs from Ċirkewwa (the area we mentioned earlier for its great dive sites) and arrives at Comino’s San Niklaw Bay. It will only take you half an hour or so to get there, and it costs just €10, and boy is it worth the trip. For anyone heading over from Gozo, head to the Mġarr Harbour for your even shorter ferry trip.
Despite being just 3.5km² in size, Comino has a lot to offer aside from its Blue Lagoon. The Santa Marija Caves, as well as providing awesome topography for scuba divers to explore, are much-loved among free solo climbers who can appreciate the majestic views as they climb. The coastline all around the island offers incredible views and it’s definitely worth hiking your way around the island.
If you’re more of a water baby, however, kayaking is a great way to soak in the sights (not to mention you can take a dip when you get hot and sweaty). There are tonnes of boat and kayak tours around the island, so you’ll be able to find on that floats your boat (literally). There’s even an old historical tower (St Mary’s Tower) that was previously used to imprison knights who had misbehaved themselves. The views from the tower are awesome and it’s donation only so doesn’t have to break the bank.
Films And Series
Ever watched Game of Thrones, Gladiator, or Troy? If you have, you’ll probably recall that all three of these major productions feature dramatic landscapes and ancient buildings that look fairly similar. Very similar, in fact, as all of them were partially filmed in Malta. Its historical architecture and picturesque scenery make for the perfect setting for film or series set in times gone by, so it’s not surprising Malta has become a filming hotspot.
Gozo: Saltpans, Hikes, And History
As we said earlier, if you’re in the neighborhood, you really should try and visit all of the Maltese islands. Gozo is the middle sibling of the three islands and offers more rustic, laidback vibes than its older sibling, Malta, yet is larger and has more going on than its little sibling, Comino. We’ve already mentioned that it’s home to some great diving, it was the site of a classic Game of Thrones wedding, and it used to be home to the world-famous Azbut there’s loads more you get can get up to on the islands of Gozo.
The Marsalforn salt pans on the north coast make for an unusual yet captivating landscape. The saltpans are carved into the rocky coastline and extend out into the sea. They’ve been used for sea salt production for hundreds of years and, although their hay day has long gone, salt is still occasionally gathered from the pans.
Gozo is also great for coastal hiking (check out this website for some free routes) and has loads of historical buildings to check out along the way, including Ta’Pinu Basilica, one of the finest examples of Malta’s outstanding architecture. The Ta’Pinu Basilica is actually a shrine and, although visitors are welcomed (it’s a huge tourist attraction as well as a place locals go to pray) you need to be respectful – men shouldn’t wear shorts and women need to cover their shoulders.
Great Weather (Especially For Europe)
With highs of around 27°C in July and lows of 13°C in January, you’ll never be too frosty in Malta, especially compared to elsewhere in Europe. But it’s not just the temperature that makes the weather so good, it’s also the brightness. Malta is lucky enough to experience around 300 days of sunshine per year, so you’re pretty much guaranteed some rays on your stay. On top of that, the sea temperature reaches up to 27°C in August, which is far warmer than other European countries that experience similar land temperatures, such as Portugal and the Canary Islands – no wonder it’s so popular for diving.
With an abundance of historical attractions, charming Baroque architecture, miles and miles of stunning coastline, and crystal clear waters, it’s not surprising that Malta receives more than 2.5 million tourists a year. It’s one of those rare countries that has as much to offer on land as it does on water, and the temperatures of both are pleasing all-year-round.
Even its capital city has retained a sense of historical wonder, and you really will feel like your on a film set as you make your way through its winding streets (and, with Malta being a much-loved filming destination, you might find that you actually are). Each island in the Maltese archipelago has its own unique charm, and you’ll most likely find that you need more than a week to really experience all three islands in their glory – don’t say we didn’t warn you!