Malta may be one of the smallest countries in the world, but it certainly doesn’t lack in things to do. The three-island archipelago is located a little over 100 mile south of Sicily in the Mediterranean and includes the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino. For such a small area, though, there are a surprising number of historic sites—ranging from megalithic temples said to date back to the 4th millennium B.C. to medieval fortresses and walled cities—and are a major draw for visitors. But activities in Malta are not limited to visiting relics of the past. The Mediterranean nation has natural wonders to explore (both above and below water), festivals to attend, and nightlife to partake in.
From rock climbing and swimming in the Mediterranean to wandering the ancient ruins of various centuries, here are some of the best things to do in Malta.
For getting to know Malta’s history and ancient past
1. Spend a day exploring the city of Valletta and its landmarks
- Where: Valletta
Given Malta’s strategic location and succession of rulers—from the Romans, Normans, and Sicilians to the Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British—it’s somewhat surprising to find Valletta so well-preserved. The capital city dates back to the 16th century and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. When it was recognized as the European Capital of Culture in 2018, several historic landmarks, such as the city gate at the entrance to Valletta, underwent extensive restoration. When visiting save a day for wandering the city to see such landmarks as:
Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: At nearly 138 feet high, the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel looms large on the city skyline. Although the church itself dates back to 1570, it was badly damaged during World War II and only reopened in its current form in 1981 after 23 years of rebuilding.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral: The church is named a co-cathedral because the bishop of Malta also sits at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. One of the world’s must-visit churches, it features a glittering gold interior that represents the pinnacle of high baroque architecture, plus eight chapels dedicated to the eight branches of the Knights of Malta. History buffs will want to explore the crypt, while art lovers will appreciate the ceiling frescoes by Mattia Preti. Tickets include entrance to the attached museum.
2. Visit the National Museum of Archaeology
- Where: Valletta
Housed in the baroque Auberge de Provence, the National Museum of Archaeology features a collection dating as far back as 5200 B.C., during the Neolithic period. Through such objects as delicate stone tools and Phoenician amulets, it provides a solid introduction to Malta’s prehistoric history and adds context to many of the historical sites around the island. It’s a perfect starting point for a tour of Valletta, and the small museum is easily be explored in an hour.
3. Upper Barrakka Gardens
- Where: Valletta
One of Valletta’s most scenic spots, the Upper Barrakka Gardens has memorable views of the Grand Harbour, the fortified cities of Senglea and Birgu across the harbor, and the shipyards below. Every day at noon, members of the Malta Heritage Society dress in British military uniforms and fire a ceremonial gun [cannon] salute. Visitors can stroll by beautiful fountains, and there is plenty of manicured green space for picnics. Take an elevator which connects the gardens to the Valletta waterfront, or perhaps ride the elevator at dusk to watch the sun setting over the city’s rooftops and the Mediterranean.
History buffs won’t want to miss the Lascaris War Rooms, a collection of tunnels and chambers 150 feet beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens, that served as the secret headquarters for Allied operations during World War II. Commanders stationed here oversaw some of the most ambitious campaigns in the Mediterranean, including the 1943 invasion of Sicily. After the war, the War Rooms were used by the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy.
4. Go back in time in the medieval town of Mdina
- Where: Mdina
Plan to spend at least an afternoon wandering the streets of the walled city of Mdina (also known as the Silent City), which was founded in the 8th century A.D. and served as the nation’s capital until medieval times. These days fewer than 100 people live in Mdina, though the walled city remains a popular tourist attraction. After your visit, make a stop at Coogi’s Restaurant & Tea Garden for lunch or a quick drink while enjoying views of the surrounding farms on the other side of the city’s walls.
Game of Thrones fans will be interested to know that Mdina was one of many filming locations for the series.
5. Tour St. Paul’s Catacombs
- Where: Rabat
Located on the outskirts of Mdina in Rabat, St. Paul’s Catacombs are an homage to Paul the apostle. Paul and 274 others were shipwrecked just off Malta around 60 A.D. on their way to Rome. Legend has it that the survivors took refuge in a grotto, above which a church and monument were later built in the apostle’s honor. The Catacombs, which represent the earliest evidence of Christianity in Malta, are a labyrinthine set of underground cemeteries. Covering an area of over 21,000 square feet, the catacombs twist and turn with dozens of hypogea (chambers) once used for burials.
6. Explore the Cittadella
- Where: Victoria, Gozo
The site of the Cittadella on the island of Gozo is thought to have been inhabited since Neolithic time and more certainly by the Bronze Age. The land was used by the Romans for a settlement. The Cittadella is a fortified citadel, which overlooks Gozo’s current capital of Victoria.
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 Mediterranean in the distance. There are also various on-site churches and museums to visit, such as the cave-like Gunpowder Magazine, where gunpowder was stored in the late 17th and 18th centuries.
Other nearby historic sites worth a stop in Gozo include the ornate St. George’s Basilica, which tops the hill at the heart of Victoria and the baroque Cathedral of the Assumption, enclosed within the walls of the Cittadella.
7. The Ggantija Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Where: Gozo
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 is visitor friendly with walkways and a new center featuring displays of prehistoric artifacts from across Gozo.
For experiencing Malta’s more current culture, food, and nightlife
8. Shop for gifts and snacks on and near Merchants Street
- Where: Valletta
Stalls at the busy Merchants Street Market, which is open every morning of the week, sell traditional Maltese crafts alongside bargain clothing, jewelry, and other gifts. Right off Merchants Street is the Is-Suq Tal-Belt Valletta Food Market, an indoor collection of food stalls ideal for sampling Maltese food. Swing by Lot 61 Coffee Roasters across the street from the food market for a cup of some of the best brew in the city.
9. Watch live music at Bridge Bar or Cafe Society
- Where: Valletta
Valletta by day may be all about sightseeing and jostling with crowds of day-trippers from docked cruise ships, but nighttime in the capital city is an entirely different experience. On warm nights in particular, the nightlife spills out from the city’s bars and restaurants onto the streets. On these evenings, join the locals lounging on city steps and enjoy a drink and live music at establishments like Bridge Bar or Cafe Society.
10. Attend a festival
- Where: Nationwide
It’s easy to time a visit to Malta with a festival, thanks to a diverse calendar of events. For a more traditional cultural experience, time your trip for “festa season”—a series of extended weekends that runs from the end of May to September—when towns and villages throughout Malta celebrate the feast of their respective patron saints with papier-mâché statues, Maltese delicacies, and fireworks.
However, some of the more standout events worth planning a trip around include Birgu Fest and Notte Bianca, both annual festivals that take place in October. Birgu Fest is a festival in which the entire old city of Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, turns off all of its lights and illuminates the city’s ancient walls and cobblestone streets by candlelight. Notte Bianca, also a nighttime festival, takes place in Valletta but is more focused on music and partying than the romance of candlelight. If you happen to visit in February, grab a costume and head to Nadur, Gozo, for its macabre Carnival celebrations.
For getting out to see Malta’s natural beauty
11. Take a boat tour to the Blue Grotto or Blue Lagoon
- Where: Qrendi (Malta) or Comino
No trip to Malta would be complete without an excursion on the Mediterranean, and one of the most enjoyable ways to experience it is with a boat tour. If you’re short on time, take a taxi or drive to the coastal town of Qrendi, where you can hop on a quick 30-minute boat tour to the Blue Grotto, an oceanside cave.
If you have at least a day to spare, it’s worthwhile to sign up for a longer boat tour to see the Blue Lagoon, located on the uninhabited island of Comino, which is the archipelago’s smallest. There are both day and half-day trips to the Blue Lagoon and Comino departing from either Valletta or Gozo.
12. Walk along the Xwejni Salt Pans on Gozo
- Where: Qbajjar Bay, Gozo
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.
13. Take a scenic drive on Gozo
- Where: Gozo
Gozo is mostly an agrarian island, so you won’t find any big cities here. Instead, focus on exploring the outdoors, and in particular the seaside cliffs and rock formations, scattered about the island. The most famous is the Azure Window, a rock archway that collapsed in 2017. Even so, visitors still flock to the location to see its remnants. Equally stunning, though less well-known, are Wied il-Għasri a beautiful sea canyon you can hike to and swim in and Wied Il-Mielaħ a (still-standing) natural rock arch perched above the sea, both of which are on the north coast of Gozo.
14. Go for a swim in the Mediterranean
- Where: Various
You won’t find many white, sandy beaches on Malta or its two smaller islands, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any great areas for swimming and beach days—quite the opposite. Grab a beach blanket or towel and spread out on the rocks at Paradise Bay, Wied Iż-Żurrieq, or St. Peter’s Pool in Malta. If you’re on Gozo, head to Xlendi.
If you go to St. Peter’s Pool, end your day with a seafood meal in Marsaxlokk at casual eatery Skuna or the slightly more upscale restaurant Tartarun. On Sundays, the town has its weekly fish market. Though often touted as a great tourist attraction in Malta, it’s okay to skip unless you’re buying fish to cook later.
15. Rock climb its coastal cliffs
- Where: Gozo
Malta’s seaside cliffs may not always be great for lounging, but they are excellent for rock climbing. If you’d like to try your hand at this adventurous sport, sign up for a tour with Gozo Adventures in Gozo or MC Adventure in Malta. The guides with both tour companies are very experienced and friendly, and have options suitable for all levels—from total newbies to experienced outdoor climbers.
Sara Lieberman contributed to the reporting of this story.