Forming part of a central Mediterranean archipelago, with the islands Gozo and Comino, Malta has an appealing location that has seen it in the midst of a tug of war over the years.
Romans, Greeks, Sicilians, French and British are among the many to have called Malta their own and the end result is a compelling cocktail of cultures. With typically hot and dry climate, and a plethora of transport options too, you’ll find Malta lends itself perfectly to uninhibited exploration.
The historical secrets extend as far back as the prehistoric ages; the unearthing of the Megalithic Monuments of Malta suggests that the island has been inhabited since the early Neolithic period of around 5000 BC, or perhaps even earlier. These incredible ancient relics are scattered across the island and have been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. They are claimed to be the oldest free-standing structures on Earth, even older than the Egyptian Pyramids – claim enough to make them feature highly on your ‘must-visit’ list.
Head to the south-east coast of the island and you’ll encounter the charming town of Paola, home to Malta’s most extraordinary site of all. Prepare to be mesmerised by the popular Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5,000-year-old underground necropolis carved entirely from rock. Discovered in 1902, it features a network of eerie halls, chambers and passages where an estimated 7,000 bodies were laid to rest. It has since featured on the UNESCO list too.
Though many areas of the island are easily explorable on foot, no visit to Malta would be complete without a spectacular horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of the hilltop citadel, Mdina. Marvel at the majestic villas, palaces and fortifications as you pass by, gaining an authentic insight into medieval Maltese life.
And then there’s Valletta, the harmonious UNESCO-listed capital, which has been described as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world”. Initiated in 1565 by the Knights of St. John, following the Great Siege, it became Europe’s ‘first ever planned city’ and was built on Mount Sceberras between Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour. A boat tour of the harbour is an unforgettable opportunity to capture the brilliance of Valletta from the water while learning more about the story of the ‘Three Cities’ (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua) and their links to the Siege.
Walk through the City Gate and you’ll be greeted by a blend of beautiful scenery, treasured artefacts, flourishing Baroque architecture and many monuments shaped by the city’s 16th century foundation. Heading the list is the impressively adorned St. John's Co-Cathedral where you’ll find a giant painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. Elsewhere, the Grand Masters' Palace – home to medieval weaponry and over 5,000 suits of armour and now the official residence of the Maltese President – makes for a very worthwhile pit-stop, as does the recently renovated and re-opened Fort St. Elmo, the only building standing from before Valletta was built.
It is here at the fort where you’ll find the fascinating National War Museum, with absorbing audio-visual displays charting everything from the Great Siege to the Cold War. Pride of place goes to the George Cross that was awarded to the entire population of Malta in 1942 for their bravery during World War II. Alternatively, the Lascaris War Rooms housed Britain's top secret command during the war and offer a stunning glimpse of life in a secret underground tunnel complex.
Valletta combines the classic with the contemporary, with a thriving cultural milieu and zest for life thrown in too: Turner’s 19th century watercolour Grand Harbour scene – on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts – holds as much appeal as the modern exhibits at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity; whereas at the vibrant waterfront you’ll find a selection of restaurants, shops and bars. Valletta is a city reborn – and a European Capital of Culture for 2018 – a refreshing twist to the extensive historical heritage.
The beauty of the island as a whole lies as much in its natural wonders as in its historical significance. Starting off in the capital, the Upper Barracca Gardens allow a little downtime away from the hustle and bustle of the city, though at noon and 4pm each day a cannon is ceremoniously fired. The spine-tingling panoramic view of the Grand Harbour is sure to live long in the memory; this is truly one of the best vantage points.
Coastal landscapes range from steep limestone cliffs indented by bays and coves in the south and southwest, to rocky shores in the north and east. Many well-known films and TV series have taken advantage over the years, including Gladiator, Troy and Game of Thrones. The archipelago is a hiking paradise, with numerous trails along the coastlines. Sleepy towns burst into life with processions and celebrations of patron saints; marinas thrive with sailing boats; and snorkelers and scuba divers can explore an underwater world of caves, crags and wrecks. A popular spot is the Dingli Cliffs on Malta’s southern shores. Also within reach is the iridescent Blue Grotto at Wied iz-Zurrieq. During a leisurely boat trip, you’ll observe caves and coral formations underneath the water, which glow a thousand shades of blue.
And over on the island of Gozo – which can be easily reached on one of the regular ferries – striking churches punctuate the small villages, and the pretty, gilded beaches are also worth your attention. In particular, Ramla Bay is the most sought after; from Calypso Cave – thought to be the cave Homer mentioned in The Odyssey – there are spellbinding views overlooking the beach and encircling valley.
There are so many options at your disposal when it comes to uncovering this sparkling Mediterranean delight. Taking in the highlights of Valletta is enchanting enough, though you can just as easily use it as your base and venture to the furthest reaches of the islands, unearthing hidden gems all the way. Whichever method of exploration suits you best, you’re in for a thoroughly gratifying journey with endless reward.
Get there on a Fred. Olsen cruise...
Take your pick from a smorgasbord of sailings that visit Malta, from Mediterranean discoveries and exotic fly-cruises to the full ‘Around the World’ adventure.