Malta is a small, island nation in the Mediterranean, that is a cultural and geographical stepping-stone between Europe and the countries of North Africa. The accident of its location has endowed Malta with a complex and interesting history. Although Malta is a name familiar to many, it is relatively unknown as a vacation destination outside of Europe. Malta, which is the most southern of the “European” countries joined the European Union with nine other new member states in May of 2004.
Located about 90 km from Sicily (50 miles) and about 290 km (175 miles) from the coast of Tunisia on the coast of North Africa, the nation of Malta is composed of three major islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino . Most of the Malta’s population (around 400,000) lives on Malta and Gozo. Comino is sparsely populated and there are three islets in the Maltese chain that remain unpopulated.
Malta is relatively dry and rain falls mainly in the winter. The islands moderate climate attracts visitors in all seasons, but spring and fall are most popular with tourists. The islands of Malta are attractive, somewhat hilly and loaded with beaches, bays and coastlines that invite exploration, but you often have to work to discover their treasures.
In addition, Malta is a place of enormous historical importance and is populated with stone megaliths and other monuments attesting to nearly 7,000 years of civilization. The island has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St. John. If any country deserves the reputation of a potpourri of cultures, Malta certainly is near the top of the list. More recently, Malta has become a popular cruise destination and we consider it to be a great “add-on” destination when touring the Mediterranean.
Malta, the largest, busiest and most developed of the country’s three main islands, has been an important settlement in the Mediterranean for millennia. In addition to its fine climate and gorgeous coastline, Malta is attractive to visitors due to its unique history. In particular, the role of Malta and the Knights of St. John in repulsing the Ottoman Empire is regarded as one of the turning points in Europe’s history.
- Valletta, the Capital of Malta, is the commercial, administrative, and tourist center of the country. Valletta’s history is closely intertwined with the Knights of Saint John (the Hospitallers) who were founded in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades. After being forced to leave Jerusalem and, then, Rhodes, the Knights of Saint John settled in Malta.
- In 1565, the Hospitallers and the citizens of Malta defended the city during an epic battle with the Ottoman Turks, marking a rare defeat in the Mediterranean for Suleiman the Magnificent (Suleiman I).
- In addition, the city is endowed with interesting architecture and a few good quality museums ( see Heritage Malta for information on what’s open and visiting times).
- Sliema and St. Julian’s are the two leading coastal resort areas on Malta, just to the northwest of Valletta. St. Julian’s, once a quiet fishing village, is the more scenic of the two areas and merges with Paceville, a popular area featuring of nightclubs, dancing and a number of good restaurants.
Mdina and Rabat
- Mdina, the historic capital of Malta, is a small, scenic, walled city given its name by the Saracens during their occupation of the Island starting in the 9th century. Vehicles are prohibited in Mdina, which is known as the “Silent City”.
- Mdina’s walkways wander through narrow canyons of interesting buildings. Reputed to have origins over four-thousand years old, Mdina seems perpetually frozen in another time. Most of the buildings date from a devastating earthquake in the late 17th century.
- Rabat is less interesting than Mdina, but be sure to see the beautiful Cathedral of St. Paul: legend has it that St. Paul was shipwrecked on the island during the first century A.D.
The island is filled with exceptional archaeological sites that evidence some of the oldest settlements in the world.
Be sure to visit Hagar Qim temple, which is over four-thousand years old, and one of several megalithic temples found on the islands of Malta and Gozo. Statues and other artifacts found at Hagar Qim are now housed that the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta (on Republic Street). Also, see the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a large underground structure, often called the “labyrinth”, that was excavated in 2500 B.C. and eventually converted to a necropolis. Both Hagar Qin and Hal Saflieni are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Although Malta’s climate is Mediterranean and somewhat arid, it provides impressive scenery, especially through its glorious seascapes.
- Take the ferry from Malta to Gozo, an agricultural island that can provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the busier main island. Gozo’s main attraction is a series of prehistoric megaliths and some of the best dive spots in the Mediterranean( see, especially the Blue Hole and Chimney at the Azure Window).
- Gozo is the place of legends, as it has been identified by some as Calypso, the “mythical” island in Homer’s Odyssey
- The smallest of the islands, Comino is another great place for snorkeling and diving. Be sure to see the famous Blue Lagoon where you can swim, snorkel, dive or wander to your heart’s content.
Visit Malta is the official tourism website of the Principality of Malta. The site includes additional details on our recommended best places to visit in Malta, as well as information on locations and attractions that did not make our list.
For country facts on Malta, as well as travel information related to visas, driving rules, safety, medical conditions, visas and other travel-related information, see this page on Malta Travel from the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. State Department. Regardless of your home country, we think you will find the information provided to be useful when planning a trip to Malta.