Steeped in prehistoric ruins, tales of the Knights of St. John and 7.000 years of history, Malta, along with neighbors Gozo and Comino, is a cultural powerhouse. Bleached by centuries of Mediterranean sun, Malta’s capital, Valletta, and the fortified Mdina guard art treasures, palaces and mighty cathedrals. Modern visitors aren’t the only ones who have found Malta alluring: With its Siculo-Arabic language, Italian-inspired food, British pubs and phone boxes, it’s apparent that throughout history everyone has wanted a taste of this remarkable island.
Malta’s craggy coastline has beautiful sandy beaches, most of which are the island’s north coast. Mellieha Bay, Malta’s largest sandy beach and Birzebbugia attract families with watersports, fun activities and shallow waters. Snorkel in the brilliant aquamarine seas at Blue Lagoon or catch the stiff northern breezes windsurfing off Ghallis Rock. Divers plunge into the deep blue to explore the reefs, caves and wrecks off Gozo and Comino. Even in midsummer, Gozo’s dune-flanked Red Beach is rarely crowded.
Malta’s graceful capital, Valletta, looks its best when the dusk paints its domed churches and 16th-century Grand Master’s Palace gold. Contemplate Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro masterpiece, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist”, in the opulently baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The fortified Mdina, nicknamed the “Silent City,” is lined with stately palazzi, bastions and a cathedral that dominates the Maltese skyline. Book tickets ahead for the World Heritage Site Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean burial place and temple dating to 3600 B.C.
Drawing on fresh fish and herbs, Malta puts its own twist on Mediterranean cuisine. In Valletta, Queen Victoria presides over Republic Square, where you can people-watch over coffee and flaky pastizzi (pastries filled with ricotta or peas). Tuck into seasonal Maltese and Italian dishes like fenek, rabbit slow-cooked in garlic and wine, at rustic-chic Rubino’s. A well-dressed crowd gathers for seafood and cocktails at bougainvillea-clad restaurants by the water’s edge in St. Julian’s and Sliema.
Venture underground to the stalagmites and stalactites of the gleaming Alabaster Caves. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, Calypso Cave is where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus as a prisoner of love for seven years. Sheer cliffs plunge into the cobalt Mediterranean at the Blue Grotto, take a boat from Wied iz-Zurrieq to explore its caverns.