Sitting in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and the coast of North Africa, Malta has been highly desired by countless nations over the annals of history, yet to many travelers in the modern era, it remains something of a mystery.
Although this nation has started to receive accolades from the travel press in recent years, this densely populated archipelago still retains much of its charm. From grand cathedrals to ancient temple ruins, as well as countless epic sea stacks and arches that line its shores, it is a Southern European gem that shouldn’t be forgotten about by the world traveler looking for a diamond in the rough.
Languages: Maltese, English
What To Do
No historical attraction in this tiny island nation does a better job at defining its timelessness than the Megalithic Temples of Malta. With religious structures dating back before recorded history (the oldest ones have been carbon-dated at more than 5,500 years old), their presence drives home the importance of this archipelago to just about every civilization that has existed in the Mediterranean.
There are seven temples in total that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as these archeological treasure troves contain reliefs, drawings and pottery shards that give a sense of place to these ancient ruins.
First erected the Phoenicians about 2,700 years ago, the walls of the Mdina Old City made it the perfect location to locate the first capital of Malta. Much of the current walls and architecture that exists today was constructed during the Arabic period in 870 AD, which are defined by grand arches, tight back lanes, and rough beige sandstone that stretches high above street level to create a slightly claustrophobic experience that will make for endless hours of carefree wandering for photographic enthusiasts.
Don’t forget to see St. Paul’s Cathedral (contains a painting that chronicles the time when St. Paul wrecked his ship off the coast of Malta) and the Cathedral Museum (which has a fascinating collection of woodcut prints) during the course of your day here, as they are cornerstone attraction that can make a trip to Mdina worth it on its own.
Another impressive church to check out during your time on Malta is the St. John’s Co-Cathedral, which is located in the present day capital of Valetta. Built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, it is widely considered to be one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Europe.
While the exterior exudes strength (the cathedral was designed by military architects), the interior will thrill the eyes with its decadent elements, as there are abundant frescoes detailing the life and times of St. John, while marble statue and bronze statues depict biblical figures throughout.
One work of art that you should seek out (it hangs in the Oratory) is the painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which depicts the end of one of the Holy Gospel’s more prominent supporting characters in a vividly detailed fashion.
Being in a highly strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has long been a highly coveted possession for militaries in every era. It wasn’t easy to conquer though, as taking strongholds like Fort Rinella was a herculean task for generals in the 19th century.
Constructed by the British and equipped with the latest artillery (100 ton Armstrongs that could launch 2000 pound shells almost 2 kilometres), it stood strong against potential threats that Italians and the Turks posed without ever having to be actively defended.
In the present day, living history actors give tours of the fort, and if you are especially lucky, you may even get to witness one of its big guns being fired (done once per year to keep it in shape while saving the enormous expense of setting it off on a more frequent basis).
While Malta is one of the more densely populated nations in Europe, those looking to experience natural beauty during their time here will not be disappointed by the Azure Window. Located on the smaller island of Gozo, this limestone arch formation is the remains of what used to be a fully enclosed cave.
Tidal action over the eons brought about its eventual collapse, of which only the roof and its right and left walls remain. While it is made of some of the oldest rock in Malta, the continued rate of erosion suggests that the top slab will come crashing down in a matter of years, so come see it ASAP before this stunning sight crumbles into the Mediterranean.
What To Eat
The national dish of Malta is Fenkata, which is a stewed rabbit dish that became popular after the Knights of St. John had passed an edict forbidding the hunting of this animal by commoners. Their subjects did so in secret, and created this delicious meal as an edible act of defiance against them. Fried up with wine and garlic, it is a dining highlight you won’t want to miss.
If you are in the mood for soup, make the effort to seek out Aljotta, a fish soup made popular by Lenten restrictions that forbade the consumption of meat during this 40 day solemn period in the Christian calendar. Made with herbs, tomatoes, onions, rice, and a boiled whole fish, it is a broth that will bring seafood lovers back for seconds.
Made around Easter, Figolli is a sweet that has long been the favorite pastry of the Maltese around this time of year. Flavoured with orange rind and filled with ground almonds, it is a treat that you will enjoy equally as much.