Malta offers a mix of ancient and medieval history, grand architecture, stunning natural beauty, delicious Mediterranean food, warm weather and genuinely friendly people. For a tiny island country of roughly 500,000 inhabitants, it’s packed with attractions. It comes as no surprise to me that big names such as Forbes and Lonely Planet have put Malta on their list of top places to visit in 2023. Some of the best things to do in Malta include swimming in crystal blue waters, hiking dramatic cliffs and visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites (including the oldest buildings on Earth).
My first impression: WOW
I spent 10 days in Malta during my career break. Right after landing at the airport, my taxi driver dropped me off at the Valletta Grand Harbor so I could catch the fast ferry to the island of Gozo, where I started my visit. My jaw literally dropped with the grandiose view. The contrast of sepia-toned medieval buildings, limestone fortifications and calm turquoise seas felt spellbinding.
Malta doesn’t feel like a secluded island, particularly in the busy capital, Valletta. Traffic outside the tourist areas is intense. However, you will find plenty of opportunities for both fun and relaxation.
- My first impression: WOW
- I. How many islands make up Malta?
- Best things to do in Valletta, Malta
- 1. Walk the historical city center
- 2. Soak in the panoramic views of the Upper Barrakka Gardens
- 3. Marvel at the St. John’s Co-Cathedral
- 4. Learn the history of the Knights of Saint John at the Grandmaster’s Palace
- 5. Visit Mdina, the old capital
- 6. Take a day trip to the paradisiac Blue Lagoon and Caves in Comino
- 7. Enjoy an afternoon refreshment at an outdoor café
- III. Best things to do in Gozo
- 1. Stand in awe at the Ggantija Temples
- 2. Surrender to the Cittadella
- 3. Wander in Dwejra Bay
- 4. Explore Xlendi and hike the splendid coastal trail
- 5. Glow in the sun in the red sands of Ramla Bay
- 6. Visit Calypso’s Cave, the home of a goddess
- 7. Delight your senses in San Blas Beach
- 8. Visit Ta’ Pinu National Shrine
- 9. See where salt is harvested in the Xwejni Salt Pans
- 10. Eat delicious food
- IV. Best things to do in Malta if you only have 3 – 4 days
- V. Frequently Asked Questions
Malta has three main islands
Three islands make up the country: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Plan to visit all of them.
- Malta: the largest island where 90% of the population resides and home to the country’s capital city, Valletta. There are many towns and villages, including Mdina, the capital from antiquity to the medieval period.
- Gozo: with only 34,000 people, Gozo is quieter and more rural. Most tourists only spend a day or two there, but the island is packed with historical and natural attractions. I spent six nights in Gozo in search of relaxation and introspection by the sea (achieved!).
- Comino: nested between Malta and Gozo, it’s the smallest island and home to the famous Blue Lagoon, a major (and gorgeous) tourist hotspot.
Island hopping is fast and efficient. The fast ferry from Malta’s Valletta Grand Harbor to Gozo’s Mgarr Harbor takes less than 45 minutes. Visit the Gozo fast ferry website. Many tour operators organize day trips to Comino. Another option is to catch a ferry either from several spots in Valletta or from Mgarr Harbor in Gozo.
Because you may be unfamiliar with Malta, these highlights are intended to get you up to speed:
Malta is part of the European Union and the currency is the euro
It’s also part of the Schengen Zone, so no need to go through immigration if you’re coming from the Schengen area.
Malta is a melting pot of Mediterranean influences
The country is located 50 miles (80 km) south of Sicily (Italy), 176 miles (284 km) east of Tunisia and 207 miles (333 km) north of Libya. Due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean sea, it’s been a major naval and commerce base, ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, The Knights of Saint John and the British, to name a few. To me, Malta felt like a blend of Italy and Greece with a Middle Eastern flair.
Maltese and English are the official languages
Maltese, a mix of medieval Sicilian Arabic, Latin and a few other gems, is the most beautiful language I have ever heard (no exaggeration here). To me, it sounds like when luminous daylight meets a happy song. Fun fact: it’s the only Semitic language written in Latin characters. There are many Maltese dialects spread out across the islands. The British Empire ruled Malta for over 150 years, hence the English influence (independence was granted in 1964). Almost 70% of locals are also fluent in Italian.
The food is fresh and delicious…and so is the wine!
Maltese cuisine resembles what you may find in Italy, with a variety of pizzas and pastas. Seafood is plentiful and always fresh. The national dish is stuffat tal-fenek, a rabbit stew. In Gozo, you must try ftira, a delicious local version of pizza. The traditional cheese is Gbejniet, made of sheep or goat’s milk. Local Maltese dry white wine is refreshing and bright, a perfect pair for lighter fare dishes (I miss that € 4 bottle of La Valette Blanc!).
Historical and mythical figures are connected to Malta
St. Paul brought Christianity to Malta in 60 AD, after surviving a shipwreck that took him to the Maltese coast. The wreck site is known as St. Paul’s Island and includes a statue commemorating the occurrence. The Italian artist Caravaggio and Napoleon Bonaparte also spent time in Malta. Gozo is known as the home of the Greek goddess Calypso.
Malta is a dream location for movies
Ancient and medieval architecture and plenty of natural beauty make Malta a Mediterranean Hollywood. More than 150 movies have been filmed there since 1925, including blockbusters such as Gladiator, Troy, Popeye and Game of Thrones.
From Europe, it’s very easy to reach Malta by air
There are many nonstop daily flights from European hubs into Malta International Airport (MLA). The airport is located in Luqa, just southwest of the Maltese capital Valletta. There is a water ferry to-from Sicily, though not very common.
Best things to do in Valletta, Malta
I spent a total of 10 days in Malta and of these three days/three nights in Valletta. The following travel tips include only places and activities that I experienced during my stay.
1. Walk the historical city center
Consider taking this 3-hour Complete Valletta Walking tour that I found on AirBnB. You don’t enter any monuments, but you gain a better understanding of the history and assess the sites that you may want to explore later on your own. Highlights include the city walls, monument to Jean de la Valette (Grand Master of the Knights of St John and also who the city is named after), the Parliament House, Teatru Rjal (open air theater built in the ruins of the Opera House), the outskirts of Fort St. Elmo and the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
2. Soak in the panoramic views of the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Built in the 1560s, the Upper Barrakka Gardens provide breathtaking views of the Valletta Grand Harbor and the Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, fortified villages in the heart of the historical center). The gun salutes are a 500-year old tradition and take place daily at noon and 4pm from the neighboring Lower Barrakka Gardens. The spectacle is free of charge.
3. Marvel at the St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Built by the Order of St. John (AKA the Knights of Malta) in the 1570s, the Co-Cathedral is a prime example of Baroque architecture. It’s grand, impressive and a must-visit attraction located in the heart of Valletta. Art lovers will rejoice seeing Caravaggio paintings (‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ and ‘St Jerome Writing’). Visit the official St. John’s Co-Cathedral website for hours and ticket prices. It’s worth spending extra for the audio guide.
4. Learn the history of the Knights of Saint John at the Grandmaster’s Palace
Unfortunately the Palace was under renovation during my visit, but the Armory was open. I enjoyed the exhibit. As per the official website, “it’s an outstanding display of military opulence.”
5. Visit Mdina, the old capital
Small and charming, the old capital known as the Silent City has fortified city walls and an architecture that mixes medieval and Baroque styles. Plan to spend at least a half day there. I arrived late in the day and missed important landmarks (more reasons to return!). Highlights: St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Catacombs, Buskett Gardens, the Malta Experience, Fontanella Tea Garden.
Getting there: from the Valletta bus station (located just outside the city walls), hop on bus 51. For only a couple of euros, you’ll arrive in Mdina in less than 30 minutes.
6. Take a day trip to the paradisiac Blue Lagoon and Caves in Comino
Your trip to Malta cannot be complete without a day trip to this paradisiac spot surrounded by turquoise waters, stunning caves and unforgettable horizons. Once there, take an easy hike to the 17th century Comino Tower (also a film location for The Count of Monte Cristo). If the water is warm, make sure to bring a swimsuit. Be aware that this is a major tourist hotspot and the area is busy even in the off-season.
Getting there: many operators offer day tours from Valletta and other locations on the main island. If you’re in Gozo, the ferry from Mgarr or Hondoq Bay takes only 15 minutes to reach the Blue Lagoon and you can arrange to be picked up later in the day.
7. Enjoy an afternoon refreshment at an outdoor café
After a busy day sightseeing, stop to relax, people watch and sip a refreshing drink at one of the many outdoor cafés. Aperol Spritz cocktails are super popular during happy hour. I ordered two and experienced a very interesting encounter. Read my post “The woman in the gray blazer.“
Best things to do in Gozo
These travel tips include only places and activities that I experienced during my seven days and six nights in Gozo.
1. Stand in awe at the Ggantija Temples
Built between the 4th and 3rd millennium BC, the Megalithic Temples of Malta are prehistoric sites and the oldest structures still standing on Earth (older than Stonehenge and the pyramids in Egypt). Make sure to check out the museum exhibits to understand the importance of this archeological park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the Ggantija Temples website for hours and prices.
2. Surrender to the Cittadella
The Cittadella is an ancient fortified city (from 1500 BC) and majestic complex located in Gozo’s capital Victoria (Rabat in Maltese). The current site is mostly from the 15th century. The panoramic Mediterranean sea views are impressive. Start your tour at the Visitor Center and get acquainted with the history, geography and culture of the complex. Buy a ticket that gives you access to the top sites: Gozo Archaeology Museum, Nature Museum, Old Prisons and the Gran Castello Historic House. Learn more about the Cittadella here.
3. Wander in Dwejra Bay
With its massive rock formations kissed by jade-green and cobalt-blue waters, Dwejra feels magical and powerful. I arrived early in the morning, ahead of the tour buses, and felt serene while journaling and listening to the waves in the spectacular setting. Attractions nearby include Fungus Rock and the Blue Hole, rated as one of Europe’s best diving sites. No longer there: the Azure Window, a natural rock arch that collapsed during a storm in 2017.
4. Explore Xlendi and hike the splendid coastal trail
Xlendi is a small town in the South of Gozo. It feels a bit like an expat/vacation enclave with modern buildings popping out, but it was my home for three nights and where I would stay again in a future visit. My mind keeps going back to the monumental cliffs and kaleidoscopic sea colors outside my apartment. Xlendi offers tantalizing nature, swimming spots, beautiful hikes and delicious seafood in fabulous locations. The hike along the coastal trail is easy and also easily accessible from the main road.
5. Glow in the sun in the red sands of Ramla Bay
Ramla Bay is one of the few beaches in Gozo with actual sand. There are cafés and restaurants in the area. Once there, go up the hill to visit Calypso’s Cave.
6. Visit Calypso’s Cave, the home of a goddess
In Homer’s Odyssey, the Ancient Greek classic written in 7th century BC, the nymph Calypso lived on the island of Ogygia, in a complex of caves that run into the sea. Calypso fell in love with shipwrecked Odysseus and kept him captive in those caves for seven years. Many believe that this spot in Gozo is that precise location. With so much beauty around it, it’s easy to understand why an immortal would call that prime real estate home. The view is phenomenal.
7. Delight your senses in San Blas Beach
San Blas is a small, gorgeous and secluded beach covered in pebbles. I visited it in April, when the waters were still quite cold, but this is the spot where I fearless swam in the Mediterranean amidst bouts of joy and goosebumps. Be prepared to climb a steep hill on your way back to the parking lot.
8. Visit Ta’ Pinu National Shrine
This Roman Catholic Basilica was built on the site of a 16th century chapel. Tradition says that in the 1800s the Virgin Mary appeared to a local farm worker and many miracles followed, bringing an influx of pilgrims until the present day. The Basilica contains the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art. The outdoor / indoor mosaics are beautiful.
I had a special spiritual experience while praying in the basilica and will always hold Ta’ Pinu dearly in my heart. Visit the Ta’ Pinu Basilica website for more information about hours and masses.
9. See where salt is harvested in the Xwejni Salt Pans
Xwenjni is an intriguing seaside location where salt has been harvested for many generations. Look out for the shop that belongs to the family that has been making salt in the area since the 1860s. Nice swimming spots nearby. Located near Marsalforn, a popular resort town.
10. Eat delicious food
You will find nice restaurants all over the island, but these left me with a happy belly and great memories:
- Ta’ Karolina: not only is the food delicious, the location by the sea in Xlendi Bay is pure charm. Perfect for a romantic dinner (I was solo and toasted to my self-love!).
- Xerri Il Bukkett: great food and spectacular view. Located in Qala (central Gozo) and not too far from Mgarr Harbor.
- Ta’ Vestru: family-run restaurant in the Piazza of Qala (central Gozo). Simple, no frills, just plain good Italian and Gozitan food. The braised rabbit was fabulous. Outdoor dining is great for people watching.
- Mekren’s Bakery: “hole in the wall” establishment serving delicious wood-fired ftiras (Gozitan pizza) since 1899. Takeout only and a big line during lunch time. Well, there was one broken table was outside: it had three legs and I shared it joyfully with a baker during his smoke break. I devoured the leftovers for the next three days.
Best things to do in Malta if you only have 3 – 4 days
If this is your first time in Malta and you only have a few days to spare, this itinerary provides a good mix of historical and natural attractions:
- Walk around Valletta’s city center, starting at the city walls (Valletta, Malta)
- Take in the views of the Upper Barrakka Gardens (Valletta, Malta)
- Marvel at the St. John’s Co-Cathedral (Valletta, Malta)
- Take a half day trip to the old capital Mdina (Mdina, Malta)
- Swim / visit the Blue Lagoon and take an easy hike in the cliffs around it (Comino)
- Experience the impressive Cittadella (Victoria, Gozo)
- Visit the Ggantija Temples (Xagħra,Gozo)
- Dine in one of the many outdoor restaurants in Xlendi Bay (Xlendi, Gozo)
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How many days in Malta are ideal?
I recommend a minimum of four days, three nights. I stayed in Malta for 10 days, spending most of the time in Gozo in search of quieter shores and proximity to nature. If you want a bubblier social atmosphere, Valletta is your place.
2. Where to stay (for first time visitors)?
I recommend all of the places that I stayed:
- Malta: this AirBnB in the Floriana district is just a 5-minute walk from Valletta city center and offers gorgeous views of the Grand Harbor. The area feels local and “neighborhoody.”
- Gozo: this Xlendi apartment is super simple, but the view is worth a million dollars. I also spent a few nights in this wonderful 300-year old traditional limestone home in the village of Il-Qala. It ended up being too big for me, but if you’re traveling with a group this home is excellent (it even has a plunge pool!) and the Maltese owners are very kind (they even picked me up from the ferry station). The location is central to all Gozo sightseeings, a 5-minute walk from the central plaza with several nice restaurants and only a couple of miles from Mgarr Harbor.
3. How much should I plan to spend on a mid-range budget?
Malta is more affordable than most Western European countries. Independent travelers can expect to spend between €60 to €120 per day (accommodation, food, transportation and tours).
4. Is Malta safe for solo female travelers?
Yes. Violent crimes are very rare. On a few occasions, I walked alone at night on empty streets and felt safe. The Maltese are kind and friendly. Of course, you should always exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings anywhere you travel.
5. Are public transportation and Uber available?
The public bus service is convenient and reaches the main tourist areas in both Malta and Gozo. It’s cheap, but not always on time. Car sharing rides, such as Uber and Lyft, are also available.
6. Do I need to rent a car?
I don’t recommend renting a car if you’re staying in Valletta. The city is quite walkable. If you want to visit nearby towns, such as Mdina, just hop on a public bus.
I recommend you rent a car in Gozo to fully optimize your time there. Public buses are available, but aren’t always on time. An easy 15 minute car ride could take more than one hour by bus.
Be aware that the Maltese drive on the left (like in the UK).
For rentals, I highly recommend Eagle’s Garage. Franky, the owner, offers exceptional service. This was my very first time driving on the left. And yes, I had a small accident . Thankfully, there were no injuries or other people involved. I’m thankful that I had rented my car at Eagle’s Garage. Franky came to my rescue and didn’t charge me an eye and a leg to fix the damage, as other operators would have done.
7. What is the tipping culture?
Tips in restaurants are expected (5 – 10% of the bill). Tips are not customary for taxi rides but are always welcome.
Want to hear more about my experiences in Malta?
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