The Island of Malta is often overlooked, by those in the U.S., as a destination spot. In fact, when you ask anyone where their top 5 dream destinations would be, and then you suggest Malta, chances are, you’re going to be met with a funny look, as most aren’t too sure where Malta is even located. I certainly was one of those people, until this cruise. And now, it sits in one of the top 5 locales I want to revisit in my lifetime.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to an island that literally had everything – remote beaches, natural diving caves, Medieval architecture, Baroque architecture, Neolithic remnants, tons of shopping, charming towns, beautiful people, and more than an abundance of sunshine.
The Island of Malta is about 316 square miles, or a little less than twice the size of Washington, D.C. with a population of roughly 405,000. Although the official language is Maltese (a Semitic language), almost everyone speaks English and/or Italian. In addition, with heavy British influence over the centuries, horse racing, cricket, and polo have become very popular on the island, which has attracted a more affluent rank of people to its land (as evident at the marina alone). To learn more about Malta, click here.
If you never wanted to get your certification in SCUBA, you would totally change your mind after seeing this natural wonder. The Blue Grotto is a natural arch that plunges into some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. And, if you look closely enough, you will see a natural cave that swimmers, snorkelers, and divers alike can explore. The only way to access this is by boat, so make sure to check with charter and diving companies for more information. Otherwise, the sweeping views of the Mediterranean from the top of the cliffs is astoundingly beautiful!
Not many think that an archaeological site is the most exciting thing in the world. However, I can’t say I regret visiting the Hagar Qim while on my Malta tour. It is said that about 7,000 years ago, the Phoenicians erected temples to the Summer Solstice with rooms for sacrifices, entertaining, and receiving. Archaeologists believe that a tsunami wiped out the people and buried much of the temple. While much of the temple today looks like gigantic limestone rocks, there are some artifacts that clearly demonstrate cultural traditions of that time. It was a very cool thing to see for an hour in the morning.
Mdina is one of the most history-rich towns in Europe and in my top two, for wanting to spend a week in. Stand on any square in the town and you will see no less than 5 different eras of architecture, including Phoenician, Greek, Medieval and Baroque. To get into this fortressed town, you must pass over a bridge and under a gate, narrow enough to only allow one car at a time. Once in, you want to get lost down every alleyway and every street to see the rich colors of the shutters and heavy iron doors. In the plaza square, you can’t help but want to step into St. Paul’s Cathedral, to see the Baroque-era design of the interior. Larger-than-life paintings, gilded, hand-carved wood work; and rich red draperies adorn every nook and cranny of this Cathedral. We were even treated to a performance from the boys’ choir. (GoT fans note: This town serves as King’s Landing’s “double”.)
Mdina also offers the best views of Malta from atop the fortress walls.
Finally, note that Mdina glass is very sought-after and also a bit pricey. There are shops all over Mdina that sell it, and they are willing to haggle. Best bet: Look for the smaller shops in some of the alleyways – they tend to be a bit more inexpensive, and are definitely willing to work with you!
Our last town on our tour was Valletta – a very walkable town that’s a bit more modern with definite remnants of previous eras. Valletta is known mostly as a port town, where ships pass in and out. While you’re there, check out Upper Barrakka Gardens – a gift by an Italian Knight in the 18th century.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
But the “crown jewel” of Malta comes in the form of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Erected in the mid-1500s as a “celebration” of peace by the Knights of St. John, it is one of the most ornate and visually stunning Cathedrals I’ve ever seen.
What makes it so unique is that more than 400 Knights are buried in its floors, each with a large marble tombstone, inlaid into the floor. Each tombstone is different, as it helps to visually depict that Knight’s life and death, while defending his country.
Caravaggio Room – St. John’s Co-Cathedral
While wandering around on your audio tour, check out the Caravaggio room. Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio, as he was called) was an artist who lived a “turbulent” life full of violence, fleeing, and painting. While in Malta (prior to fleeing to Sicily), he painted many notable works, including the depiction The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
Out of all the pieces the collection displayed in this room, St. John’s beheading is the only one that is signed by Caravaggio – the rest of his works were not. And, to add interest to it, he painted the face of his mother in there (the one with her head in her hands), as a witness to the beheading, almost as a peace offering for the decades of pain he put her through. It definitely captures your emotions.
There’s no way you can leave this island without heading to Cordina Cafe for some ice cream or other homemade treats. Having been around 178 years, this cafe is still a huge favorite of the Maltese. Be sure to eat inside though to take in the historical, rich decor – including the hand-blown Mdina glass chandeliers.
- I could spend 4-5 days in Malta and still feel like I haven’t seen everything – definitely make this a vacation spot!
- To visit any of the Cathedrals on the island, women’s shoulders and knees must be covered at all times. I wore a maxi dress and a scarf.
- Mdina glass is very sought after and can be pricey, depending on where you shop. The best places to get the best pricing are the smaller shops in the center of town – not the touristy areas. Definitely haggle too!
- Although I didn’t get to try it, Xara (pronounced Zara) Palace is a great lunch spot – it’s also one of the best hotels on the island, and comes highly recommended from well-traveled friends.
- Knights Hospitallers Museum is another spot to check out in Valletta – it’s the historic site of the Knights’ hospital.
- The Pub (also known as Ollie’s Last Pub, since Oliver Reed drank himself to death there), near St. John’s Co-Cathedral is a must-not-miss if you have the time.
- Fort St. Elmo – If this fort could talk, it would take a lifetime to hear its stories of its many invasions.
- Sliema Creek – It’s a 20 minute ferry ride to see the other side of the citadel and all of the islands in between.
- Fontanelle Tea Garden – If you look at my panoramic picture of Malta, from the Mdina fortress walls, the tea garden is right next to this picture. Although we didn’t have time to stop in, this is definitely on my list for next time!