Things to Do in Malta
Originally designed in 1980 as the movie set for the Robert Altman film Popeye, starring Robin Williams, Popeye Village (also known as Sweethaven Village) has been preserved as a Popeye theme park. The popular family attraction not only lets visitors explore the purpose-built set, but hosts a range of fun and interactive activities for all ages.
The former capital of Malta, this historic hilltop settlement—known as the Silent City—features honey-hued palazzos and centuries-old buildings. The town center, a knot of shady and quiet streets, is shielded from the hubbub and traffic of the outside world by thick walls that date back to between the 16th and 18th centuries.
The most famous of Malta’s cave complexes, the Blue Grotto is a series of nine caves whose rocky sides glow green, purple, and orange according to their mineral content. Surrounding the caves are some of the clearest, brightest cobalt-blue waters imaginable. The natural wonder got its name from British soldiers stationed in Malta in the 1950s who thought the caves were reminiscent of the Blue Grotto off the Italian island of Capri.
Stretching along Grand Harbour, below the fortified city and opposite the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua, the beautifully restored Valletta Waterfront (Pinto Wharf) is the grand frontage of Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right next to the cruise port, it’s the gateway to Valletta and the rest of Malta.
Malta is famous for the lavish scale of its many scores of churches (there are 25 in Valletta alone) but Mosta’s Neo-classical parish church of St Mary stands out even among all this grandeur. Its eponymous, self-supporting dome measures 121 ft (37 m) in diameter and is 220 ft (67 m) high – bigger than St Paul’s in London – with every inch of the interior covered in gilt, frescoes and marble flooring. The church was designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé in the style of the Pantheon in Rome but built by solely by local parishioners and volunteers between 1833 and 1860.
The interior houses Malta’s biggest, most flamboyant organ, with 2,000 pipes, but the church is better known for a miraculous escape the congregation had in 1942 during WW2. On Sunday, April 9 the church was packed with 300 worshippers when three Luftwaffe bombs hit the dome. Two bounced off but one crashed through into the nave; amazingly it failed to explode, saving scores of lives. The legend of the miracle of Mosta Dome was thus born and a replica of the unexploded bomb can be found in the sacristy.
Situated on an abandoned WW2 airfield, Ta’ Qali Crafts Village occupies a series of seemingly ramshackle Nissan huts – plans to spruce up Ta’ Qali rear their heads from time to time, but so far no funding has been raised for the redevelopment. Don’t be put off by their tattiness as they hide the best selection of authentic Maltese crafts found on the island.
This is the place to find delicate filigree silverware, handmade lace, hand-blown glass, leather, linen and cheery painted ceramics, all created by local artisans. Expect to pay a little more for your purchases, but be happy in the knowledge that you are buying a genuine piece of Maltese treasure. Even if you don’t buy, there’s the chance to watch skilled craftsmen at work in their stores.
Two standout stores are the glassworks, Phoenician Glassblowers and Mdina Glass; both produce highly colored quality glassware. Another of Malta’s best buys is gold and silver work, and the making of intricate filigree jewelry is a national specialty. All Maltese silver and gold products should be certified and hallmarked. A design found across the island is the delicate interlaced Maltese cross, symbol of the Knights of St John who occupied Malta between 1530 and 1792.
San Anton Gardens are the most beautiful of the few public parks in Malta. They surround an ornate palazzo built by Grand Master of the Knights of St John, Antoine de Paule, as his summer residence in 1636 – it’s now the official residence of the Maltese President – and were bequeathed to the public in 1882.
A sweet-smelling citrus orchard lies at the heart of the walled gardens, a tranquil haven in the middle of busy Attard. They are landscaped in a formal Italianate fashion, dotted with elaborate follies, sculptures and fountains, dissected by shady paved walkways giving shelter from the mid-summer sun. Some of the trees here are more than 300 years old and the twisted trunks of ancient jacarandas, cypresses and Norfolk pines line the paths, palm trees soar upwards and flowerbeds blaze with color all year around.
A small aviary and a petting farm enchant children, while bubbling ponds are full of flashing koi and turtles; ducks, geese and peacocks wander the grounds at will and lizards dart through the undergrowth. The gardens are a summer venue for open-air theater, including a Shakespeare season every July, and host Malta’s biggest horticultural show in May.
Perched on eastern Valletta’s harbor walls, Upper Barrakka Gardens is one of the city’s top attractions. Created in 1661, the shaded gardens center on a fountain, statues, and colonnaded terraces that command views over Malta’s Grand Harbour.
Of the three villages of Cottonera — Senglea, Birgu, and Cospicua — Senglea is a true gem that should not be missed. From walks along the promenade to climbing the famous steps in this hilly town, it's a beautiful visit that makes visitors feel as though they're the first to discover this haven.
Don't miss the gardens out on the peninsula; the Church of our Lady of Victories, which took 200 years to complete construction; the imposing walls of this formerly fortified town, which looks straight out of Game of Thrones; and the massive Church of St. Paola, whose silver domes can be seen from a distance.
Behind the misleadingly plain baroque facade of St. John's Co-Cathedral (Kon-Katidral ta' San Gwann) hides one of Europe's most spectacular churches, built by the Knights of St. John following their defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Today, this important religious site is one of Malta’s most visited attractions.
More Things to Do in Malta
The Malta National Aquarium is one of the most popular attractions in Malta. Designed and built in the shape of a starfish, the aquarium features 26 display tanks, many of which showcase Mediterranean fish found in the waters around the island country. All of the tanks are designed to imitate a natural underwater environment, but also feature historical artifact replicas famous to Malta, such as a Roman shipwreck or wreckage of wartime planes.
The aquarium houses nearly 200 various species of fish, many of which are featured in the main tank. Travelers can wander the main tank's walk-through tunnel to experience the feeling of being underwater while also getting close-up views of many Indian Ocean species, including the black tip shark. Visitors can also check out the interactive touch pool and view a short film about the aquarium's offerings.
As with the other sacred temples on Malta, Hagar Qim predates most of the world's most treasured sacred structures. Dating back well over 5,000 years, the circular shape of the temple complex reveals its loyalty to what is considered the “Goddess” era of Malta.
Visitors can learn the history of the temples in the interactive information center before heading to the main temple, the niche, the women's chamber, and the dwelling houses. If on Malta during the summer solstice (June 21), the Hagar Qim is a must-visit at sunrise, when an altar inside on of the chambers is alight thanks to a perfectly designed hole in the exterior wall.
Built about 5,600 years ago on the island of Gozo, the Ggantija Temples are one of the most popular destinations for visitors – and one of the world's oldest manmade religious sites still in existence today. They are astonishing not only for their age, but also because they were constructed at a time when neither metal tools nor the wheel had yet been known on the island. Just one of seven megalithic temples on Gozo and Malta, they were excavated in the early 19th century based on local knowledge of the site based on folklore.
The Ggantija Temples complex includes an altar, receptacles for fire and ceremonial flames as well as water offerings, and there is evidence that animal sacrifices were performed on site. While mythology posits that a giantess built the temple, today it is thought that a type of ball bearing feature was used to move the enormous stones into place – thus its name, which translates to “Giant's Grotto.”
Malta’s prettiest fishing village sits around a bay on the south coast of the island and has starred in thousands of postcards and many a film. Marsaxlokk’s (pronounced marsa-schlock) chief attractions are twofold: the buzzing daily market and the fishing boats. The latter comprises a large fleet ofluzzus (pronounced ‘lut-sues’) bobbing in the bay. These traditional, cheerily painted and wooden Phoenician-style fishing boats have become symbolic of the island – most of them are red, yellow and sky-blue, with eyes painted on their prows to ward off evil. With fishing the staple livelihood of this photogenic little town, there is small wonder that it is one of the best – and cheapest – places on Malta to eat the very freshest of fish. Chose from any of the outdoors restaurants for a fine seafood feast.
Marsaxlokk’s fresh produce market runs daily and sprawls along the quayside under brightly striped awnings; get there at 8am to avoid the crowds an admire the piles of seasonal fruit, vegetables and freshly caught fish. Proceedings reach a crescendo on Sundays, when visitors pour in from all over the island to snap up anything from exquisite locally hand-made lace, linen tablecloths and delicate filigree jewelry to gourmet relishes and Maltese honey – but you’ll have to delve among piles of tatty souvenirs and cheap household goods. Be prepared to barter but expect handcrafted lace to be expensive; if it is not, then it simply is not handmade.
The Knights of St. John became the toast of a grateful Europe after their triumph in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, in which they repelled Ottoman invaders. Valletta’s magnificent Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta reflects the knights’ heroic standing and the wealth lavished upon them. Construction began in 1571 on the palace to house the supreme head of the Knights of St. John.
These romantic, landscaped gardens have recently been revamped and sit prettily on the edge of Valletta’s ramparts. They offer wonderful birds-eye views east to the entrance to the Grand Harbor and south to Fort St Angelo and the Three Cities of Vittorioso, Senglea and Cospicua and their more famous counterparts, the Upper Barrakka Gardens, are a few minutes’ stroll away on the south-west point of the ramparts. Among the flowers, splashing fountains and palm trees providing solace and shade in the gardens is a Neo-classical monument to Sir Alexander Ball, the first British Governor of Malta, who was appointed in 1813. A number of commemorative plaques mark the walkways, celebrating – among others – the 50th anniversary of the European Union in 2007 and the Prague Spring of 1968.
Accessible from Barriera Wharf along the seafront, the limestone colonnades of the Siege Bell Memorial stand just below Lower Barrakka Gardens. The 10-ton bronze bell commemorates the 7,000 people who died in the two-year Siege of Malta, which ended in 1942, and it was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 to mark the 50th anniversary of the siege. Her father King George V awarded the entire Maltese nation the George Cross – the UK’s highest military accolade – in honor of their bravery during the war.
Designed by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar in the mid-16th century and later extensively remodeled under Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca – who also commissioned the original warehouses that now form Valletta Waterfront – the Auberge de Castille has pride of place at Valletta’s highest spot and owns one of the most strikingly ornate Baroque façades in the city. It was built for the powerful Spanish and Portuguese members of the Knights of St John when they were constructing the fortified city of Valletta; it was customary to have separate lodging for each nationality within the order.
Following the enforced departure of the Knights of St John from Malta in 1798, the Auberge became headquarters to occupying French forces and then British troops. Symmetrical and well proportioned, the elegant façade was badly damaged during the bombing raids of WWII but has been beautifully restored; it now houses the offices of the Maltese Prime Minster, Joseph Muscat, and is beautifully floodlit at night.
An interesting town to visit on Malta is known in Maltese as Birgu, and in Italian as Vittoriosa (“Victorious,” named as such after the Great Siege of Malta). Situated on the Grand Harbor, it has a lengthy maritime history and home to the popular Maritime Museum. But the Fort St. Angelo is the real draw here, an unrestored fortress that is largely credited with helping Malta beat back invaders.
Other highlights include the Church Museum, which has a rag-tag collection of artifacts that gives visitors a sense of Birgu's past; the gorgeous St. Lawrence Church, a gorgeous structure with some astonishing art; and the main gate and walls of this previously fortified city. And Villetta is just across the harbor!
Tucked away in a former army barracks in Vittoriosa (also called Birgu), the Malta at War Museum narrates the story of Malta during the long-standing Siege of Malta of 1940-43 in World War II. Part of the fortified ‘Three Cities’ with Senglea and Cospicua, Vittoriosa was the home of the British Royal Navy until 1979 and thus was the premier target of sustained Nazi bombing during the onslaught. During the war, the barracks became the police HQ and a labyrinthine system of tunnels was carved out by hand below it to make air-raid shelters that saved the lives of hundreds of people. Together with the barracks, these now form part of the museum, which displays military uniforms, weapons and medals as well as personal testaments and news reels from the time. The mainstay of the collection is the original of the renowned propaganda movieMalta G.C., made in 1943 and narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier at the request of King George VI — who awarded the whole island the George Cross — to pay tribute to the people of Malta and the bravery they showed under constant bombardment from the Germans. Copies of the film can be bought in the museum shop.
Limestone is the 22 million-year-old rock on which Malta's history is built – literally. And it is this material that serves as the inspiration for an informative look at the history of the island, as well as a visit that is so much more than visitors bargain for.
Just outside of Siggiewi is the Limestone Heritage Park and Gardens, built in a quarry. A tour of the park takes visitors through the history of Malta via a walk through the limestone structures in the park. There are also limestone sculpting classes, a chance to observe masons at work, and even a petting zoo for families with children. When the location is not being used for private functions, there are Folklore nights featuring traditional food and music.
Tarxien Temples (It-Tempji ta' Hal Tarxien) are the largest of the major overground megalithic temple sites open to visitors on Malta, which combined, form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just south of Valletta, the four interconnecting temples were built between 3,600 BC and 2,500 BC in honor of a mother-goddess of fertility. Today they are oxymoronically surrounded by modern housing but remain of importance thanks to their iconic spiral decorations and the central temple which comprises six apses.
The ancient temples are covered with carvings of domestic animals and evidence of animal sacrifice has been found here, including blades and bones. Some of the altars are still intact but many of the artifacts remaining such as the pottery bowls and urns are replica, as is the curious 'Fat Lady' statue, appearing to consist of a skirt and two dumpy legs. The originals are now ensconced in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta for preservation. The spherical stones found in abundance at the site appear to suggest that the cornerstones of the temples were moved here on primitive rollers.
Set at the tip of Valletta’s old town, where it guards Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour, the star-shaped Fort St. Elmo earned its place in history during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Knights of St. John repelled Ottoman invaders. It withstood further attacks, notably during World War II, and now holds the National War Museum.
This grouping of three historic cities—Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua—look out to Valletta across the Grand Harbour. Originally enclosed by a line of fortification constructed by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, the dockside neighborhoods were the knights’ base from 1530 until the Valletta’s founding in 1570. Today, the cities provide a scenic backdrop to the Grand Harbour.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world, used between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, is remarkably well preserved. Located in the Maltese town of Paola, it’s the most impressive of the archipelago’s many Neolithic remains and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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