For Malta’s largely Roman Catholic population—and for Bible readers around the world—a story recounted in Acts 28:1-2 when Paul the Apostle washed up on the island’s shores after a shipwreck may found familiar “When they had been brought safely through, then we found out that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us extraordinary kindness; for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold, they kindled a fire and received us all.”
Extraordinary kindness is a fitting way to describe the week we spent in Malta, and our first night there felt a bit like arriving after a shipwreck. While Adam and I enjoyed two smooth, on time flights, the same could not be said for our family traveling from the USA’s west coast to meet us. They faced a series of delays that cost them their first afternoon in Malta, so Adam and I journeyed alone from the airport to our Airbnb to wait for them. As rain poured down from the skies, we stood in shocked silence to find the rental was not quite as described in its listing. The rain had caused an electrical short that left the entire house in darkness. The photos didn’t show the bedrooms’ ceilings, where patches of mold stretched across. Pools of water formed under poorly sealed windows. The property manager told us that, once the power could be restored, we could use the refrigerator or the air conditioner but never both at the same time.
Later that night—after our family arrived, after we reported the property and its manager to Airbnb, after we promptly found ourselves halfway around the world without a roof over our heads—we landed at the door of a beautiful property where the staff warmly welcomed us for our first night. Their restaurant’s kitchen stayed open long enough to feed seven weary travelers, and the next morning I awoke rested after a sound, dreamless sleep. It was later that week that I learned of Paul’s unplanned arrival during a rainstorm and appreciated that, centuries later, hospitality still feels like the standard on Malta’s shores.
While I wouldn’t consider an evening of hotel check-ins and check-outs for our Malta top 10 list, once we had a comfortable, safe place to stay we discovered an incredible number of ways to spend our time on the tiny islands packed full of things to do. If you’re thinking of an ever-so-slightly-off-the-beaten-path European destination, we want to introduce you to 10 things to do in Malta. From food to history to beaches and outdoor activities, you might be surprised by how much you’ll want to fit into your vacation!
The Maltese Catacombs
As with so many spots around the world, one of the best ways to learn about Malta is to head underground.We did just that early into our Malta adventure, and our visit to the Maltese Catacombs Complex in Rabat quickly became one of the most memorable parts of our time on the island. In Roman times, the deceased were buried outside of the city, occasionally leading to extensive underground cities of their own as more and more people were interred in final resting places. We spent a couple hours walking through St. Paul’s Catacombs, which is the largest of its kind in Malta and extends over 22,000 square feet of space. Likely originated in the 3rd century AD, more than 1,000 people were buried in the tombs. Today, visitors can conduct self-guided exploration of about 20 catacombs, which provide an interesting view into burial traditions and even life on Malta hundreds of years ago.
Approaching each catacomb, we noticed signage clearly depicting important information about the underground experience. In general, proper footwear was encouraged, and general warnings about the amount of light, headroom, and number of steps to navigate were available to help visitors decide if they wanted to explore or move to a more accessible spot. Signs also provided a brief education about what we would see; if human remains were visible, signage warned us in advance, and each catacomb was marked by the religious beliefs of those buried there. In several catacombs, people of all faiths—or lack thereof—were buried side by side. Once inside, each catacomb featured remarkable carved stone tombs that housed the departed. We also saw several examples of triclinia, carved stone tables where family members would gather to share a meal known as refrigerium with their deceased loved ones. Our visit, which took place on a day when tourist crowds were at a minimum, felt peaceful with a macabre touch made possible through the site’s history and low lighting. If you are looking for interesting things to do in Malta, the catacombs are sure to be a memorable part of your itinerary!
Stone Age TemplesThere’s no excuse to miss out on the stone age temples when curating a Malta vacation itinerary, and if ancient history fascinates you as it does us you’ll find enough temples on Malta to fill a few days and capture your imagination in the process.
We share an extensive look into the temples we visited in our dedicated post on the topic, but Ġgantija on the island of Gozo and the Tarxien Temples not far from Valletta stand out as two that should be on everyone’s list. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is perhaps the island’s most popular temple, but if you can’t secure a reservation (and reservations are all but compulsory—they should be made months in advance since visitors are very limited) you can still gain a lot from visiting other temples. Some, like Ġgantija and its enormous megaliths, will leave you awestruck that such construction was possible before modern tools were available. Others, like the Tarxien Temples, will leave you wondering why such structures were created at all. The balance of skilled craftsmanship and mysterious origins make any temple worth of a spot on your list!
Maltese Food and Drinks
More and more travelers are boarding planes in search of great meals, and Malta has plenty of delicious local cuisine. Here are just a few of our favorites.
► Cisk Beer and Kinnie SodaMany of our meals were washed down with Cisk, the local Maltese beer. Brewed for almost a full century, Cisk is a light lager that is worth trying if you’re hoping to keep your food and drink choices local during your visit. If beer isn’t your preference, locals love Kinnie, a bittersweet soft drink that is absolutely an acquired taste. We found diet Kinnie to be more palatable than its full calorie partner, but both have an almost spicy taste that includes citrus, vanilla, and licorice.
On our first full day in Malta, we prioritized a stop at Caffe Cordina, where we enjoyed Maltese pazizzi, which can be filled with either minced meat or mushy peas. Both were equally delicious; the flaky, croissant-like crust surrounded savory fillings that were intended as a snack but quickly became a meal. Coupled with the sweet kwareżimal—a hazelnut, honey, and almond pastry—and a few local beers, it was exactly the treat we needed as we rested our tired feet. Caffe Cordina has served customers for almost 200 years, and it offers an experience you won’t want to miss.
More Information: CaffeCordina.com
Seafood lovers won’t want to miss local Maltese fish soup, which is available as a starter or main course on many menus. Known as aljotta, the tomato broth is cooked with rockfish to produce a simple, nourishing meal often accompanied by fresh bread. We treated ourselves to aljotta several times during our visit to Malta and found it to be delicious no matter which restaurant served us.
MdinaEstablished around the 8th century AD, Mdina served as Malta’s fortified capital city for centuries. Although it was strategically important and an otherwise bustling city for much of its history, by the end of Medieval times its residents began moving away from the ornately appointed buildings in search of other spots to call home, and Mdina never regained its position or prominence. Today, it retains the nickname “The Silent City,” an ode to its lack of population (only 250 people call Mdina home today!). Despite how few people live within the city’s walls, it’s an incredible tourist destination and well worth a spot on your list of things to do in Malta.
Mdina houses several museums, cafes, and cathedrals, yet for us the best part of our visit was simply walking through the narrow streets and admiring the city’s architecture. Some buildings are close to 1,000 years old, and it’s hard to understand completely how people could have grown tired enough of them to move away and leave the city so quiet. Sweeping views of the bay can be seen from several vantage points, and on the day we visited—under bright blue skies with a gentle breeze—I found myself wondering how hard it might be to pack up and move to one of the lovely homes on a street with no cars. Mdina was also featured prominently in the HBO series Game of Thrones, so fans of the show will find the area to be especially fascinating. Plan to spend a relaxed afternoon exploring the walled city for a glimpse into Maltese history.
Malta National Museum of ArchaeologyMalta’s history extends back far longer than you might imagine, and the National Museum of Archaeology has evidence of humans calling the islands home that date back to the Neolithic Period (5900-2500BC). Although the museum is small, its collection is impressive and highlights quite a few of the most important artifacts that have been discovered over the years. One of our favorites was the Venus of Malta, a headless, Paleolithic statue of a woman discovered in the Hagar Qim temples, which date to 3300 BC. Another favorite was the Sleeping Lady, a woman in a reclined position whose purpose is unknown; she could represent meditation, sleep, or even death. While many artifacts are easy to identify and interpret, many of Malta’s statues defy clear answers and continue to intrigue visitors to this day.
More Information: HeritageMalta.mt
The Saluting Battery in Valletta has operated since the 1560s and is now among the most popular tourist attractions in Malta. We happened to stumble upon it on our first day, and it was a big highlight during our walk through the city.
Twice a day, at 12 PM and 4 PM, one of eight replica cannons fires as a tribute to the role of the original cannons in Malta’s history. Many years ago, the cannons were used to help ship captains calibrate their clocks. Today, most ships in the vicinity don’t need the help, but visitors can find a spot on the viewing deck to spend a moment being transported back to a time when cannons served for protection as well as guidance. Malta’s saluting battery is thought to be the oldest ceremonial battery that is still operational and, perhaps, the oldest in the world. We arrived by chance about 30 minutes before the final firing of the day, and we decided to brave a few raindrops and secure a spot to watch when we discovered what was about to happen. Sure enough, by 4 PM hundreds of people clamored for a clear view of the cannon, which was professionally loaded and standing by for the show. After a brief speech about the importance of the ceremonial battery, and a musical interlude, the cannon exploded. Moments later, as celebratory music filled the air, a flock of surprised birds furiously winged their way past us and toward quieter spots to enjoy the twilight. The firing takes just a moment, but if you find yourself in the area it’s a unique way to experience Malta!
The Blue Lagoon
Although we didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon, our family did—and they returned with rave reviews of the time they spent there. The second smallest of Malta’s islands, Comino is the backdrop for the Blue Lagoon, which is very popular for swimming and snorkeling in crystal clear water. The boat ride necessary to reach Comino is worthwhile on its own (you’ll see lots of stunning landscapes on the way), but the main attraction is spending a day by or in the water. During good weather, it’s one of the most popular spots to visit in Malta.
Ramla Bay and Tal Mixta CaveIn a world where we’re always looking for a great photo spot, Ramla Bay hits all of the criteria. Located on Gozo, the red sand gives way to magnificent blue waves crashing on the shore. It’s a beautiful location that feels somewhat untouched; there isn’t a significant amount of development in the areas adjacent to the beach, which gave it a somewhat isolated ambiance conducive to relaxation.
Our visit was during a stretch of weather that was just a bit too cold to lay out in the sun or swim in the Mediterranean Sea, but it was great weather for hiking. The famous Tal Mixta Cave overlooks Ramla Bay, and you’ll find a nice hiking trail that takes you from the beach up to the location. Often confused with the real-life location of Calypso’s Cave from Homer’s Odyssey, the Tal Mixta Cave provides equally stunning views fit for the legend. While we don’t recommend hiking from the beach to the Tal Mixta Cave unless you don’t mind something pretty strenuous, we do recommend making your way to the cave for some truly spectacular views of the sand and water. Some of our favorite photos were of the beach framed by the cave.
To get to the Tal Mixta Cave by car, you can drive to this spot on Google Maps where you’ll find a parking lot. We took an Uber to that location and it was just a short walk from there.
Dingli CliffsOn Malta’s western coast, the Dingli Cliffs are the highest part of the island and provide some beautiful views of the coastline. We arrived with the idea that we might spent a few minutes there for a few photos before continuing to our next stop, and we ended up taking the better part of an hour to walk around, take photos, and admire the cliffs on a lovely, sunny day.
As we arrived, our first stop was for a cup of traditional Maltese coffee from the From My Garden cart that set up by the parking lot. The coffee was surprisingly good and kept us warm as the breeze blew around us, and the cart’s owner offered us a traditional Maltese honey ring to enjoy with it. In addition to coffee, we sampled a few different types of locally made liqueur and selected a couple to return to the USA with us (the prickly pear liqueur was delicious!). From there, we walked past the Mary Magdalene Church toward benches overlooking the water, where we paused to enjoy our coffee and pastries as we watched a very happy cat settle into a perfectly sunlit spot for a quick bath and a nap. While we left with the photos we wanted, the break was just what we needed, and we realized the cliffs are a perfect destination to include when visiting Malta.
Maltese GardensMalta’s gardens are wonderful spots to stretch your legs and relax, and we included both the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the San Anton Gardens during our visit. In Valletta, the Upper Barrakka Gardens are close to the spot where we watched the Saluting Battery, and they were our destination when we discovered we were just in time for the final cannon firing of the day. Dotted with fountains and lush greenery, they are located on the highest part of the city walls and offer lots of panoramic views as a result. Originally designed as a recreational spot for knights, the gardens opened to the public in the 1800s, and today you’ll see locals and tourists alike as they wander through and appreciate their beauty.
The San Anton Gardens are located on the presidential palace grounds, but they are open for all to enjoy. Extensive and beautifully maintained, we enjoyed a leisurely walk through the grounds and appreciated how quiet they were. While there are plenty of walking paths and statues to admire, my favorite part was the collection of birds roaming the property. Ducks and swans lazily floated through the water, but I was especially thrilled to encounter a few peacocks out for a stroll along the same path we followed. The gardens have an aviary and a small petting zoo, so perhaps birds aren’t a big surprise to most guests, but I found it to be one of the more special stops during our time in Malta.
Bonus: Aviation in MaltaAir travel fascinates me, and we didn’t let our visit to Malta pass by without stopping at the Aviation Museum to see their collection of more than two dozen historic planes. In addition to saving us from an incoming rainstorm, we had the chance to look at a few of the aircraft they house or are restoring in their hangar. It’s a small museum not far from Mdina, and we enjoyed taking time to walk around.
One additional bonus discovered during our trip was the airport’s viewing deck, which is open to passengers and the public. It is a great spot to sit and watch as planes take off and land. Located before security, you don’t need a ticket to visit, but it’s a good consideration for spending a few minutes before your flight or after you land if you have some free time before departing for your hotel.
More Information: MaltaAviationMuseum.com
Hotels in Malta
We ended up staying at two hotels while in Malta. On our first night, after checking out of the ill-fated Airbnb, we stayed at the Dolmen Resort Hotel. Beautiful and loaded with amenities, we were very comfortable there for a single evening. Unfortunately, they were fully booked for the week we visited, which meant we had to check out and move to another property for most of the week.
More Information: Booking.com/dolmen-resort
Our home base became the Ibis Styles St. Paul’s Bay, where the seven of us moved into four rooms that felt like they were in their own wing of the building. From quiet rooms to comfortable beds to a great breakfast buffet to the most accommodating staff in Malta, we couldn’t have been happier to land there. We spent our evenings sitting on the rooftop by the pool, drinking wine from a shop around the corner and enjoying the serenity that came with our stay. WiFi was fast enough for Adam and I both to put in a few hours of work, which was a nice bonus.
More Information: Booking.com/ibis-styles-st-pauls-bay-malta
Booking.com saved us when we needed to find a place to stay as quickly as possible. Using their app, we were comparing properties within a short drive of us and making a selection in moments. Take a look at Booking.com to see if there is a great hotel that meets your needs as well!
Despite how our trip started, our week in Malta was memorable in all the right ways. We loved learning about its immense history, soaking in the views from cliffs and beaches, and indulging on delicious meals as our days dwindled to the end of our visit. Like Paul the Apostle, though, it was the extraordinary kindness we remembered best. We remembered the kindness expressed by the hotel staff at the Dolman, who apologized for not being able to accommodate us for more than a night but made us feel safe and secure regardless. We remembered the kindness of the staff at the Ibis, who did everything but light a fire to warm us as she prepared our rooms and checked in the strangers who washed up on her doorstep. We remembered the kindness of the woman who owned the coffee cart, insisting we take a complimentary pastry to enjoy with our coffee. It seemed that every memory we made was enhanced by someone we didn’t know offering us a warm welcome in their own way.
There’s a saying that people won’t remember what you say, but they will remember how you make them feel. That may be why Malta remains a special destination in our travel history and why you may find that your own list of 10 things to do in Malta is wrapped in the extraordinary kindness the island has to offer.
Looking for more ancient locations around the world? Check out these posts from our archives!