When we explored places like Stonehenge and the pyramids in Egypt, I spent the entire visit in awe of just how old they were. To stand in the shadows of structures built not just centuries but millennia ago was humbling; I couldn’t imagine replicating that feeling.
And then we visited Malta.
I didn’t expect a duo of islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to be brimming with history, but Malta has been inhabited for almost 8,000 years, and that kind of longevity comes with a story or two. We found some of Malta’s best stories are told by the country’s megalithic temples, which are some of the oldest buildings on the planet. In fact, the mysterious temple ruins on Malta are the second oldest free-standing structures on earth—dating back to the stone age and even predating the invention of the wheel! Although Malta is a vacation destination for many reasons—they have their fair share of great beaches and delicious food—the stone age temples were the biggest highlight for us. If you have been wondering how you might spend a vacation in Malta, let us introduce you to some of the most impressive temples you should add to your list!
Built: 3600 BCIn 1649, Maltese historian Giovanni Francesco Abela shared one of the earliest known observations of Ħaġar Qim, saying it was, “indubitable evidence of the fact that the first inhabitants of Malta were of the race of Giants.” Standing before the megalithic temple, it’s pretty easy to understand how he came to that conclusion. Ħaġar Qim translates to Standing / Worshipping Stones, and when it was constructed between 3700 and 3200 BC it was meant to be a spiritual place where rituals were conducted. Consisting of multiple rooms, Ħaġar Qim was most likely developed and expanded over several centuries; the main temple is the oldest, and several other chambers and temples were added and connected over time.
Entering through the trilithon entrance will make you wonder if giants didn’t really build Ħaġar Qim. With two megalithic stones flanking the entrance and a third draped over them, it would be impressive architecture today and is jaw-dropping when you remember they have been standing in place for 5,000 years. Walking through each space, we noticed how some stones boasted carvings and others were positioned in very precise spots; some large holes carved into the stone have been connected to the solstice, suggesting events like sacrifices may have been aligned to specific times of year.
Historians believe that Ħaġar Qim hosted fertility rituals, and one piece of evidence was the discovery of the Venus of Malta. Now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the Venus of Malta features a headless female form and was likely a symbol of female worship or fertility. Who carved it—and when—are just a few of the mysteries connected to a figure from an equally mysterious temple!
Built: 3600 BCJust a few minutes downhill from Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra is approximately the same age as its neighbor but offers few clues about its purpose or function when it was in service to some of Malta’s earliest residents. Mnajdra was likely used for fertility rituals and possibly religious purposes, and small animal bones were discovered that indicate sacrifices might have taken place there. Mnajdra was almost certainly built to be astronomically aligned; during the summer and fall equinoxes the sun enters through the temple’s main doorway to illuminate its interior. When it was excavated, archaeologists discovered one stone that seemed to represent a calendar following the position of the moon.
Perhaps Mnajdra’s best feature is its location; directly on the coastline overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the view would have been perfect thousands of years ago, but today it is perfect for a different reason. Visiting Mnajdra, you won’t see any modern-day construction nearby or in the distance. We explored the ruins seeing nothing more than the stones placed there long before modern-day conveniences would have made that work easier and listening to nothing beyond the stiff breeze that accompanied us that day. The only component of the experience that didn’t feel rooted in history were the huge tarps that protect it from the weather, a reminder that we can’t take these structures for granted.
Built: 3150 BCSurprisingly, the first temple we visited was at the hotel we picked for our first night in Malta. Much smaller than many of its counterparts, the Buġibba Temple is in St. Paul’s Bay and is a bit younger than other temples on the island. Little is known about its purpose or what might have happened there. Two sets of carvings provide clues: on one stone, the carvings are aligned with those that were used as alters in other temple locations. On the other, fish carvings can be seen on two sides of a stone. Considering how close the temple was to the sea, the carvings make sense and could indicate rituals connected to bountiful fishing might have taken place there.
We might not have encountered Buġibba Temple if we hadn’t ended up at the Dolman Hotel, which was built around the ruins and provides some protection for them. You don’t need to be a guest in order to see them, though; they are available to the public, and they are worth stopping by to see.
More Information: Booking.com/dolmen-resort
Ta’ Hagrat Temples
Built: 3600 BCNot too far from St. Paul’s Bay, the Ta’ Hagrat Temples in Mġarr are among the oldest temples in Malta. Comprised of two temples, there is some evidence that the temples were built on or around an existing village; when excavators arrived in the 1900s, they discovered pottery and the remains of domestic huts that suggested people once lived there. Like Ħaġar Qim, archaeologists also found a surprising carving while excavating the site: a carving of a building. It is also on display in the National Museum of Archaeology.
Somewhat off the beaten tourist path, we were the only people there when we visited and had the entire site to ourselves. Ta’ Hagrat is a well-preserved example of the temples that still dot Malta’s landscape, and we were glad to make space to see them during our time there.
Built: 3250 BCWe didn’t have the Tarxien Temples on our radar when we arrived in Malta, but they quickly became one of our favorite stops during our visit! Located close to Valletta, the temple was constructed sometime between 3250 and 2800 BC. They are comprised of four separate but connected temples, and they create an impressive visiting experience.
One feature that helps the Tarxien Temples stand out is the stone carvings that give visitors a glimpse of well-preserved prehistoric art. Spiral designs and animals are the most prominent, but the most memorable is the lower half of a female figure wearing a pleated skirt. The upper half has been lost to history, but what remains is yet another example of how females were revered in ancient Malta and how detailed the Maltese craftspeople were even 5,000 years ago.
Like with so many other temples, historians aren’t quite sure what happened within the Tarxien Temples’ walls. Animal bones suggest sacrifices, and there is some evidence that the site was used for cremation as Malta entered the Bronze Age. We found ourselves imagining what it would have been like to frequent the temples when they were first built as we navigated the maze of walkways and chambers. With so much of the complex so well-preserved, it’s one of the sites that makes it easiest to feel transported back in time.
Built: 3600 BCThe oldest temple complex in Malta is one of the oldest manmade structures on the planet—even older than Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids. The Ġgantija Temples are located on the island of Gozo, and some of the megaliths used are among the biggest in any of the temples. When you think about how long ago the temple was built—they predate even the wheel—it’s almost impossible to imagine how mere mortals might have moved them and stood them in place during their construction. It’s no wonder that local folklore suggests a giant built them—specifically a giantess, who carried her child on her shoulder as the lifted the rocks and set them in place to build a place of worship.
Ġgantija consists of two separate temples that share a common wall, and they mirror each other in terms of shape and even functionality. Both are clover-leaf structures with a central passageway that runs from the entrance to the back wall. They contain alters and, when they were first discovered, offered evidence of sacrificial rituals based on the presence of small animal bones. Of all the temples, Ġgantija is the most impressive that we saw; from megaliths that weigh more than 50 tons to the remarkably preserved structures that have stood the test of time, our visit reminded us that there is no better way to appreciate history than to visit the places that bring it to life.
Other Stone Age Temples to Visit in Malta
We visited a lot of the megalithic temples in Malta, but there are many more interesting sites to visit around the island. Here are a few more to add to your list!
► Skorba Temples
Built: 3600 BC
Some of the most recently excavated temples in Malta are the Skorba Temples, which are close to the Ta’ Hagrat Temples in Mġarr. The site was home to a village before the temples were built, and some preserved examples of ancient pottery were discovered there. The pottery itself tells a story; older examples were gray, and newer examples featured a red motif.
► The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni
Built: 4000 BCThe Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is the most popular and famous of the Malta Temples, and it’s by far the hardest to visit. Only 10 people are allowed in each hour, and people claim tickets months in advance. We started planning our trip to Malta long after tickets sold out for the dates we chose, so we didn’t have a chance to see the Hypogeum. If you are planning a trip of your own, we would recommend it even without the benefit of seeing it ourselves; it offers some of the best-preserved examples of temple architecture and design, including the Holy of Holies—a central structure oriented toward the Winter Solstice—and the Decorated Room, which features hand-carved spirals in the limestone walls. Tickets sell out quickly and often on the day they are released; they can be reserved online, and it’s worth monitoring the Heritage Malta website so you don’t miss out!
More Information: HeritageMalta.mt
► Kordin Temples
Built: 3500 BC
The Kordin Temples, which numbered at least three but perhaps as many as five, are megalithic Malta temples of which only the third temple survives. The first two were destroyed as Malta grew and industrialized as a nation. The third temple, which was built around 3500 BC and abandoned about 1000 years later, is only available to visit by appointment. It is not as well-preserved as other temples that don’t require an appointment, but they would be a great addition to a Malta temples itinerary for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge and understanding of ancient life on the island.
Hotels in Malta
Malta is a small island, and getting around is easy by public buses—and even easier with Uber, which is relatively inexpensive and very convenient if you plan to visit a few temples in a day. If the Malta temples are on your list, the Dolman Hotel would be a great choice—especially since your stay would make a stop at the Buġibba Temple very easy! We spent a night at the Dolman, and we found the rooms to be very comfortable; the great breakfast buffet was also fantastic.
More Information: Booking.com/dolmen-resort
We found the Dolman Hotel on Booking.com; take a look to see if Booking.com has a hotel in a location that works for you with the amenities you need!
Enjoy the Malta Temples!
While many people visit Malta for the beaches, a day or two exploring the Malta temples will connect you to some of the most historic and surprising structures on the planet. Even though we had plans to see a few before we arrived, we quickly prioritized a few others after being so impressed by Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Whether you want to learn about what life could have been like for some of our oldest ancestors or you’re looking for some picturesque spots for a few great photos, a visit to the Malta temples is sure to be a highlight during your visit!
Looking for more ancient and mysterious locations around the world? Check out these posts from our archives!