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The Essential Guide to Gozo

By AFAR Editors

Dec 16, 2019

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When visiting the Cathedral of the Assumption, look up at the mind-boggling trompe l’oeil ceiling.

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When visiting the Cathedral of the Assumption, look up at the mind-boggling trompe l’oeil ceiling.

Head to Malta’s sister island to explore holy shrines, ancient citadels, stunning cathedrals, and impressive salt pans that are still in use today.

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The lesser-known sister of Malta in the Maltese archipelago, Gozo is a 26-square-mile island full of ancient history. Standing atop the island is a medieval citadel, marking the spot where the earliest settlers lived as far back as the Bronze Age. Today, it’s the centerpiece of the island’s biggest city, Victoria, which is known to its 6,000 residents as Ir-Rabat.

Outside the capital, crystal clear waters and red sandy beaches attract swimmers and snorkelers, while the ruins of Ggantija draw history buffs from around the world. Stunning rock formations and a patchwork of salt pans are among the island’s other intriguing attractions. The best way to explore is by the cheap modern taxis that line up at the port of Mgarr.

While touring the island, you’ll quickly discover that food is a passion and pleasure of Gozitan life. Try the local specialty ftira, a breadlike snack typically served with toppings and eaten as a pizza or tart. Fruit conserves of lemon, fig, orange, and prickly pear are also common, as are a variety of locally produced oils and sea salts. Fill up, then set out with the following list of the best things to do in Gozo. 

Cathedral of the Assumption

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The baroque Cathedral of the Assumption, made of local limestone in the shape of a Latin cross, is enclosed within the walls of Gozo’s famous citadel near Victoria. In addition to the impressive steps and marble statues of bishops leading up to the main doors, the stunning cathedral features a trompe l’oeil ceiling that gives the impression of a dome, but is really a fresco of a grand rotunda. Be prepared to stand there head back, mouth agape, marveling at the wonder of its artistic trickery.

Saint George’s Basilica

Saint George’s Basilica is home to a baroque organ and Byzantine-style chapel.

The ornate Saint George’s Basilica tops the hill at the heart of Victoria. In the glittering golden interior, you’ll find a fully functional baroque organ and an intriguing, Byzantine-style chapel. Because the church holds mass every morning and evening, the best time for a sightseeing visit is at lunchtime or in the afternoon. Surrounding the church, Victoria’s narrow alleyways are also worth a stroll to soak up more of the island’s historic architecture.

Ta’ Pinu National Shrine

One of the most popular sites in Gozo, the Ta’ Pinu National Shrine features colorful mosaics and stained-glass windows.

On a small hilltop with views of the sea, the neo-romantic Roman Catholic church of Ta’ Pinu became a pilgrimage site after a woman from a nearby village heard the voice of the Virgin Mary coming from inside. Because of its popularity, the 16th-century basilica was remodeled in 1920, adding traditional Maltese limestone, intricate mosaics, and a range of colorful stained-glass windows. It’s since been visited by two popes, John Paul II in 1990 and Benedict XVI in 2010, and remains one of the most popular sites in Gozo. 

Cittadella

The Neolithic Cittadella once served as the center of life on Gozo.

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Dating back to Neolithic times when Gozo was independent from Malta, this fortified citadel, which overlooks the current capital of Victoria, used to be the center of life on the island. During centuries of harassment by the Turks and Berbers, it served as a refuge for Gozo’s population, but it was sacked in 1551 when the Ottomans invaded and forced the majority of Gozitans into slavery. After nearly five decades, the Citadella was reshaped into its present layout, which was renovated as recently as 2018. 

A walk through the striking limestone structure is a must when visiting Gozo. While wandering the grounds, notice the holy shrines under the Norman-style arches and the doors adorned with a coat of arms. Up on the ramparts, you’ll find a 360-degree view of Gozo’s hills, valleys, and villages, with the sparkling Mediterranean Sea in the distance. There are also various on-site churches and museums to visit, like the fascinating, cave-like Gunpowder Magazine, where gunpowder was stored in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

Ggantija Temples

At more than 5,500 years old, the Ggantija Temples predate Stonehenge.

The Ggantija Temples, named after the Maltese word for “giant,” are the oldest and most impressive of the megalithic temples in the Maltese islands. Built during the Neolithic period from coralline limestone, the ruins are more than 5,500 years old, predating Stonehenge—and even the pyramids of Egypt. This UNESCO World Heritage site was recently restored; it’s visitor friendly, with walkways and a new center featuring displays of prehistoric artifacts from across Gozo.

Salt Pans

Gozo’s famous salt pans are still in use today.
On the northern coast of Gozo, visitors can get a fascinating introduction to one of the island’s most important traditions: sea salt production. Just past Qbajjar Bay is a nearly two-mile stretch of 350-year-old salt pans, which remain a vital source of income for Gozitans to this day. In the summer, locals scrape up salt crystals and store them in nearby caves for later use. Several Gozitan businesses package the salt in gift jars, which are available for purchase in many of the island’s souvenir stores. 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Malta

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