Malta and its sister island Gozo are so much more than beautiful beach destinations. This is a country drenched in history, with Roman ruins, medieval castles, walled cities and atmospheric forts dotted all around. The islands’ rugged landscapes also give lots of scope for outdoors activities, including boat trips, diving, hiking, mountain biking and horse-riding.
Once seen as a destination for retirees, Malta is hip, lively and brilliant for romantic escapes, family holidays, girls’ getaways, LGBTQI travel and almost every type of trip you care to imagine. Packed with alfresco terraces, indulgent beach clubs and hedonistic nightspots, it also has a huge array of choice when it comes to places to stay, from tiny independent properties oozing character and authentic charm to large luxury resorts. The capital Valletta stands out for its boutique properties and romantic boltholes, St Julian's for larger luxury properties, and Gozo for a few days of peace.
As well as the sights in the following pages, don’t miss Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – seen as the cradle of Maltese history for having provided a refuge for almost all the settlers who came here. A five-minute ferry ride from Valletta, they’re one of the best places to see local life in action, especially on a holy day or festa. The Three Cities were the first homes to the Knights of St John, so their palaces, churches, forts and bastions are much older than Valletta’s. They also have gorgeously restored townhouses, a glamorous marina filled with super-yachts, and superb waterside restaurants. The best way to see the Three Cities is by electric self-drive buggy with a pre-programmed GPS.
When to visit
Malta and Gozo are wonderful year-round: great for winter sun from December to February, lovely in spring (February-April) for those who want a bit more breeze, not so much heat and lots of greenery, and hot and sunny in summer. They bathe in more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
Also taking place throughout the year are Maltese festas – big religious feasts/festivals integral to local culture and tradition, honouring parish’s patron saints with religious elements as well as featuring regional food sold from stalls and street carts and music by local bands. You might happen upon one at any time of year while exploring Malta or Gozo; some are national holidays, including the Feast of Santa Marija in mid-August. Another big festa is the harvest festival of Mnarja at the end of June.
Malta also hosts one of Europe’s biggest free summer festivals: the annual Isle of MTV organised by MTV Europe, now in its 14th year.
The most heavily bombed country during World War II, Malta was awarded the George Cross Medal in recognition of its population’s struggle and bravery. Visitors intrigued by Malta’s wartime experiences shouldn’t miss the Lascaris War Rooms with their subterranean tunnels and chambers that housed the war headquarters.
Gozo’s Ġgantija Temples are the oldest free-standing structures in human existence. Built between 3600 and 3200BC (hence, before Stonehenge), and rediscovered in the 19th century, these UNESCO-listed monuments are said by Maltese legend to have been created by a race of giants.
The Maltese love their fireworks, with the craft of pyrotechnics handed down the years since the Order of the Knights of St John Malta held special displays to celebrate important feasts. Malta’s International Fireworks Festival each April is a glorious seven-night affair.
As well as a medieval citadel, folklore museum, archaeology museum and baroque cathedral, Gozo’s capital Victoria (also known as Rabat) has a 16th-century prison where you can see graffiti left by errant Knights of St John who had to do a spell here.
Gozo is also home to some unique boathouses converted from natural caves and ledges at the bottom of the cliffs at Daħlet Qorrot, a small bay in the north of the island where the soft limestone is studded with fossils.
Explore this UNESCO World Heritage site
A UNESCO World Heritage site, charming walled Valletta was built on a grid plan and is both pedestrian-friendly and tiny – perfect for ambling around at your leisure. Established in the 1500s on a peninsula by the Knights of St John, it's packed to the rafters with grand churches, palaces and museums.
Visit the St John's Co Cathedral
St John's Co Cathedral in Valletta is a must-visit. As well as the resting place of all the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta, it’s home to the only signed Caravaggio in existence, The Beheading of St John the Baptist – which represents a key period in the artist’s development, and indeed in religious painting as a whole.
Enjoy astonishing views
Amazing views of the Grand Harbour and the daily firing of a cannon await those who head to Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens on the upper tier of Saints Peter and Paul Bastion, built in the 1560s. The ceremonial gun salutes occur twice daily: at noon and 4pm.
Relax at Ramla il-Ħamra
Quieter Gozo is seen as Malta’s countryside. Its best beach – and arguably the loveliest of these islands as a whole – is Ramla il-Ħamra (‘Red Sandy Beach’), with protected dunes said to cover Roman ruins, wonderful swimming and snorkelling, and a green and fertile valley as a backdrop.
Discover the Silent City
The Silent City of Mdina – King’s Landing in Game of Thrones – is one of the finest examples of an ancient walled city in all Europe. Once Malta’s capital but now with just 250 or so inhabitants, living in Norman and baroque homes lining the labyrinth of dimly lit streets, it’s most atmospheric in the evening, when it’s aglow with lamplight.
Enjoy some top tier cuisine
Malta has a magnificent dining scene, including six Michelin-starred restaurants (amazing given its size): Under Grain, Noni, ION Harbour, De Mondion, Bahia and Fernandõ. But there’s also wonderful food to be had in the countless fabulous bistros that line the cobbled alleyways of Valletta and other places.
Pastizzi are filo pastries filled with either curried peas, ricotta cheese or chicken, usually baked in family-run pastizzerija and in some places eaten by locals for breakfast. You can find them all over the islands, served by street vendors and in bars and cafés.
Fenek (rabbit) is considered Malt’a national dish, served fried or stewed. Don’t miss Stuffat tal-Fenek: marinated rabbit in a rich tomato and red wine stew, with recipes varying by family as variations are handed down through the generations. It’s usually served with roast potatoes with fennel seeds and crusty local bread.
Ġbejna cheese – made from sheeps’ milk, possibly in the past using seawater instead of rennet – is served in a variety of ways: plain, salted, peppered, pickled or herb-covered. A staple of Maltese cuisine, it appears on appetiser platters, in the traditional soup soppa tal-armla, in qassatat pastries and sometimes at breakfast with local bread.
Maltese wine can’t be found outside the island, so coming here is an excellent opportunity to taste something unique - the result of the island’s rich soil, light sea breezes and 300 annual days of sunshine. We recommend hiring a car to visit local vineyards and taste their award-winning wares.
The Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz Gozo, Gozo
Near iconic Dwejra Bay on Gozo, The Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz Gozo is a fabulous hideaway with not only a spa but an authentic Ayurveda centre – one of the largest in the region. Its three stylish restaurants offer Maltese and other Mediterranean cuisine. Rooms, suites and apartments with kitchens have up to three bedrooms – ideal for multigenerational holidays.
Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa, Gozo
Also on Gozo, Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa stands out for Il-Kantra, its gorgeous, fjord-like rocky beach in a secluded inlet, 2km from the main hotel. Other lures include family and adult-only pools, a spa with a heated indoor-outdoor pool, and three restaurants including Il Carrubo with its table under a 400-year-old carob tree.
Embassy Valletta Hotel, Valletta
The Embassy Valletta Hotel is a perfect base for immersing yourself in the history and culture of the Maltese capital, while on-site temptations include a rooftop cocktail lounge and deck pool with incredible city views, a cinema and a therapy room. There’s also dining in the intimate Courtyard with its great wine list, light bites and high teas.
Corinthia St George’s Bay, St Julian’s
With a private boat jetty, a lido with direct access to the sea, private yacht hire, an extensive spa and six swimming pools, the Corinthia St George’s Bay in St Julian’s is a wonderfully glamorous option. It also has five restaurants offering barbecue grills, salt-baked fish served aflame at your table, Italian favourites and more.
Iniala Harbour House, Valletta
Iniala Harbour House is spread over four Maltese houses and their ancient vaults, and its chic rooms and suites have picture windows, Maltese balconies and sometimes a private plunge pool on their terrace. Dotted with artworks, some based on the frescoes of St John’s Cathedral, it also has a Michelin-starred rooftop restaurant by farm-to-table chef Simon Rogan.