The Maltese Islands
Malta can very well be described as the best kept secret of the Mediterranean. With an area of just over 316 square km and a population of under 450,000, it is the smallest and least populated Member State of the European Union. Despite its minor dimensions, Malta has an extremely fascinating and rich history that spans well over seven millennia, and which is permanently framed in the country’s cultural fabric.
Maltese cuisine, architecture and language have been shaped by several prominent civilisations, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Knights of St. John, French and British. As such, tourists can expect to visit a country that will surely have elements that remind them of home.
While Malta’s history makes it a popular choice for prospective tourists, most people really visit the Islands for its beaches, hot weather and bustling summer vibe. With annual average temperatures of around 23°C and an impeccable 3,000 hours of sunshine, it is no surprise that over 1.7 million people visited the Maltese Islands in 2014.
Malta is the largest inhabited island of the Maltese archipelago that boasts a breadth of historical gems to discover, including Neolithic settlements in Ghar Dalam, the Megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, Roman Villas, and the fortified cities of Valletta and Mdina. These sites are perfectly complimented with striking natural features such as Ghar Lapsi, Buskett, and the numerous sandy and shingle beaches that pepper this island’s coast. Malta transforms into a music venue in summer, with numerous parties and events by big name performers that are attended by thousands of revellers.
Gozo is considered to be Malta’s tranquil sister island, that provides the perfect setting for a relaxing day or weekend tour. Attractions include the Cittadella in the capital Victoria, the megalithic temples of Ggantija, and the ubiquitously famous Azure Window. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie called Gozo home for some months, so you can retrace their footsteps with leisurely drives around this island, a visit to Mgarr ix-Xini Bay, and dinner at one of the many restaurants in top locations such as Marsalforn and Xlendi Bay.
The last of the inhabited islands of the Maltese archipelago is Comino, which only has a permanent population of less than ten people. The sentinel Saint Mary’s Tower dominates the island’s landscape, and also forms part of a walking trail that is very popular with locals and foreigners throughout the year. Comino reaches its peak during the summer months, where bathers and yachts flock to the Blue Lagoon; a stunning bay with pristine turquoise waters that is paradise on Earth.
Valletta is not your typical European capital city. Even though it does contain the country’s main judiciary, financial, economic and governmental institutions, it is literally a living and breathing museum. With most buildings dating back well over three centuries, Valletta is an antique city that still boasts a modern vibe and will surely make your stay one to remember.
Valletta was commissioned by Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette following the Great Siege of 1565 that saw the Maltese and the Knights of the Order of St John overthrow a large battalion of Ottomans. It was completed in 1571 and named after De Valette, who unfortunately died before its completion. Valletta is characterised by limestone fortifications consisting of bastions, curtains and cavaliers that perfectly showcase the Order’s military architectural prowess.
The city itself is adorned by numerous Baroque palazzos, churches and gardens, speckled intermittently with Mannerist, Neo-Classical and Modern architectural features. Valletta can be best experienced on foot, with high buildings framing narrow alleyways that provide a visual feast for its visitors.
Tourists are greeted to this magnificent city by the newly completed City Gate and House of Parliament, designed by world renowned architect Renzo Piano. At this stage, you can idle away through the various picturesque nooks and alleys, enjoy some retail therapy in Republic Street and Merchant Street, or simply grab some takeaway lunch or coffee and sit on the bastions overlooking the Grand Harbour next to Victoria Gate.
Visitors should also visit the Upper or Lower Barrakka Gardens, and after a quick selfie head down to the Valletta Waterfront by elevator for a laid back lunch. It is highly suggested that you also visit St John’s Co-Cathedral, which is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque in Europe. Expect to be blown away by this Cathedral’s ornate interior, with intricate marble work and gilded motifs that offer an unprecedented glimpse into the power of the Order of St John..
Discover the entertainment scene of Valletta during the day and the evening. Performances are regularly held in venues such as Saint James Cavalier, the former Royal Opera Theatre, and the Manoel Theatre. Visitors can also enjoy low key performances in bars and cafes around Strait Street, which is also home to several upscale restaurants and whiskey bars. Food in Malta is a particularly prominent social component, so you can always expect to mingle with friendly locals during your meal times! There is a wide variety of cuisine to choose from, with some trendy and you can also enjoy a lavish dinner on the seafront at the Valletta Waterfront or on the Marsamxett Harbour side.