Malta, Paradise for History and Culture Lovers
Looking for the best things to do in Malta? You have plenty to choose from! This small island nation is a paradise for anyone who is a history buff, archaeology aficionado, maritime devotee, or lover of religious pageantry and sacred art.
Malta is a small sun-drenched archipelago in the Mediterranean, off the coasts of Sicily and Libya. Just 17 miles long and nine miles wide, Malta is a compact treasure chest of diverse cultural legacies. Over the millennia, almost a dozen different civilizations ranging from the Greeks to the Arabs and Spanish have called Malta home. The result is an intriguing potpourri of styles and influences in its architecture, ambiance and cuisine.
What are the cultural highlights of things to do in Malta you ask? The Maltese heritage is too rich to cover it all here but we’ll recommend the best of:
- Scores of ancient temples that pre-date the pyramids by a millennium;
- Stunning architectural legacy left by The Knights of St. John, who made Malta home for more than 265 years;
- Vibrant maritime heritage that includes colorful and distinctive boats known as dghajsas, luzzus, and frigatinas;
- Manifestations of a robust faith said to have been first inspired by St. Paul's arrival in 60 A.D. after a shipwreck.
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BEST THINGS TO DO IN MALTA | TIME TRAVEL INTO DEEP HISTORY
Malta has one of the world’s most amazing collections of archaeological sites, with more than 30 megalithic temples. In addition to these intriguing giant stone monuments that rise to the sky, there is also an equally fascinating prehistoric underground structure. These constructions are all portals into daily life on Malta from about 5200 – 2000 B.C. Each site has distinguishing characteristics that reveal something about the engineering, art, beliefs and societies that constructed them. If you are an amateur Indiana Jones, you will be in your glory in Malta! Here's our recommendation of five prehistoric marvels not to miss!
The Heritage Malta Multi-Site Pass is a must if you plan to visit even just a few of the island's historic sites. This plan includes all 22 museums and sites (except Hypogeum), as well as the Malta National Aquarium and the Citadel Visitor Centre. The cost is $50 per adult; $38 for seniors and students; $25 for children up to age 11 years.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a Neolithic subterranean necropolis where the remains of 7,000 people were housed. This otherworldly burial chamber is located in an urban neighborhood of Paola, part of a swath of communities that encircle Malta's Grand Harbor.
The Hypogeum spans three levels and was used from 4,000 - 2,500 B.C. The site was discovered in the same way many other Maltese sites of historic importance have come to light--by accident. In 1902, construction workers inadvertently broke through the Hypogeum's roof, and it has been under excavation, study and preservation ever since.
While not an easy place to visit for anyone who is claustrophobic, this labyrinth is worth getting out of your comfort zone to experience. The mystique of the place is palpable and its rooms go by names like "Holy of the Holies" and the "Oracle Room". In this latter chamber, spirals and circles hand-painted in red ochre decorate the ceiling and sounds made here produce a powerful acoustic resonance. Archaeologists believe that chanting and drumming may have taken place here that could be heard throughout the entire complex.
Excavation of the Hypogeum has produced a horde of intriguing archaeological material. Among the excavated materials include a large quantity of human bones that suggests that the burial ritual had more than one stage. Also, some of the artefacts recovered include pottery vessels adorned in intricate designs; amulets; shell buttons; and stone and clay beads. There were also little stone-carved animals and birds that may have been worn as pendants. The most remarkable relic found is a clay figure named the "Sleeping Lady," believed to have represented a mother goddess.
A very limited number of people are allowed into the Hypogeum at a time and it's best to book your visit months in advance. There is always a small number of "last minute" tickets for the following day available from the National War Museum in Valletta.
The Tarxien Temples are just a short walk from the Hypogeum--although there is easy parking available. This site is another example of the astonishing heritage that can be hidden below what now is a suburban neighborhood. At the time the megaliths were discovered in 1914, the area was agricultural and it was farmers ploughing their field who unearthed this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tarxien is also a poignant reminder that science is a continually evolving field with practices that become more astute over time. While the site is very well interpreted, there is quite a bit of unsophisticated reconstruction that was done decades ago that does detract from the experience. Nonetheless, Tarxien is well worth visiting.
One of its main points of distinction is as the location of the best-known of "Malta's fat ladies" to be discovered. The bottom half of a colossal statue represents cartoonishly plump legs below a pleated skirt that is epic in its width. When it was excavated between 1915 - 1919, it was found next to an altar that had remnants of food on it. Adjacent were carved animals, believed to have symbolized sacrifices. Various theories have emerged about the meaning of these fat ladies, ranging from fertility cults, to a matriarchal society dominated by women priestesses. However, some scientists point out that none of the statues have any pronounced female characteristics, such as breasts. See these sites and artefacts for yourself and form your own theory!
The Ħaġar Qim complex is on the west coast of Malta, about a 30-minute drive from Valletta, which is directly opposite it on the east. The temples are set atop cliffs towering above the shimmering Mediterranean, you can appreciate why the ancient man chose the location to worship and view the stars. Along with Tarxien and four other Malta megalithic temples, Ħaġar Qim is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These temples are exquisitely beautiful, a stroke of genius of prehistoric masonry. Considering the structures were built between 3600 and 3200 BC, the Ħaġar Qim temples are still incredibly well preserved.
The primary Ħaġar Qim structure is made up of five rooms with a corridor down the middle. A bird’s eye view would clearly shows the likeness to a woman’s body; with her hips, chest and head. Because of this layout as well as artefacts found on site during excavation such as small clay figurines, it's believed that Ħaġar Qim was used as a shrine to revere Mother Earth and cycles of fertility.
Just 1,600 feet from Ħaġar Qim is another megalithic temple complex, also set in a field that is carpeted in wildflowers in the spring. While the designation "megalithic" means "massive", a fascinating feature of Mnajdra is the small architectural details that still endure several millennia after the structure was erected. Among these are a series of small holes drilled in the stone, which are believed to relate to the cycles of the moon. That conjecture, combined with the fact there were no human remains found here, has led archaeologists to believe that Mnajdra served as an astronomical observatory. In fact, the main doorway of the site is situated so that on the equinoxes, a shaft of light streams through and lights up the chamber.
Read More: Meet eminent Maltese archaeologist, Dr Rueben Grima, in this Q & A and learn more about the meaning of the megalithic monuments!
Meet The Knights of St. John
The Knights of St. John were a long-time presence on Malta, one that continues to loom large today—they make regular appearances in every day conversation with locals. A religious order formed during the times of the Crusades in the 11th century, the Knights were given Malta as a home in 1530 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, for the rent of two falcons a year.
Early in their 265-year reign of the island, the Knights established the adjoining “Three Cities” of Senglea, Cospicua, and Vittoriosa along the southern coast of Grand Harbor. After a horrific 1565 battle with invading Turks that involved decapitated heads being fired as cannonballs, the Knights built the highly fortified Valletta across the Grand Harbor, on the Sciberras Peninsula. At 1,800 feet by 3,000 feet, Valletta is Europe’s tiniest capital.
Malta has long been a cultural crossroads because of its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean. Highly coveted as a naval base by a succession of superpowers over the millennia, Malta's culture and architecture have been profoundly influenced by all those who have had a presence here.
Nowhere else on the island is this heritage more powerfully visible than from the waters of the Grand Harbor. Boatmen can be found along its perimeter who can take you for a ride in vessels known as dgħajsa, or "ferries", which feature a serpent-like bow. The views of the fortifications lining the waterfront are dramatic. The bastions, towers, and batteries of the Grand Harbor are considered to be among the best military architecture in the world and even a layman can see why. The panorama is breathtaking!
St John’s Co-Cathedral
One of the most magnificent legacies left to Malta by the Knights is St. John's Co-Cathedral. An architectural, cultural, and spiritual landmark, this Baroque masterpiece stands out among Malta's 359 churches. The Cathedral is located in the center of Valletta, and the visitors' entrance is on Great Siege Square on Republic Street.
The Cathedral of St. John was built between 1573 and 1578 by a Maltese military architect and the exterior is fairly plain and fortress-like. This contrasts with the interior, which was redesigned in the 1660s and is sumptuous and highly ornate. Paintings of the life of St. John the Baptist decorate the vaulted ceiling and side altars. The marble floor is inlaid with the tombs of more than 400 Knights. The Cathedral has no less than nine chapels: one devoted to the Knight's patroness Our Lady of Philermos and the others dedicated to the patron saints of the Order's eight divisions, known as langues.
The Cathedral has an impressive collection of period art and the most famous work is a painting by Caravaggio depicting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the figure for whom the Knights and the cathedral are named.
The admission fee for St. John's Co-Cathedral is 15 Euro for adults and 7.50 for students and seniors. The church is closed to visitors on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and holidays. There is no charge for those attending Mass.
Grand Master’s Palace
A short walk brings you to The Palace, which occupies an entire city block on St. George's Square. Originally constructed in 1571, this was the first building erected in the new city of Valletta for the Grand Master of the Order of St. John. Today home of the President's office and House of Representatives, sections of the Palace are open as a museum. Among the halls to visit are the Throne Room, the Tapestry Hall; the State Dining Hall; the Ambassador's Room; and the Armoury. Take a stroll in the Palace's two courtyards.
The Palace is open on weekdays except for Thursday 10:00 a.m. - 4 p.m. and on the weekends from 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Armoury is open daily 9:00 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission is 4.66 Euro to the Palace and 4.70 to the Armoury.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
This is a public garden in Valleta that offers a magnificent panoramic view of the Grand Harbour. Along with the Lower Barrakka Gardens, these are located on the upper tier of St. Peter & Paul Bastion, which was built in the 1560s.
These colonnaded gardens were actually the private gardens and exercise grounds of the Knights of the langue of Italy, whose Auberges are located very close by. In 1824, the gardens were opened to the public and while it may have suffered major damages during World War II, these wonderful gardens are now fully restored to its previous glory for all the world to enjoy.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens promises one of the best views of Malta. With its unhindered, panoramic view, the gardens themselves provide a wonderful collection of busts, plaques and statues that represent various personalities as well as other significant events in Maltese history. The most noteworthy of these collections is the bronze piece built by famous Maltese sculptor, Antonio Sciortino. The ‘Les Gavroches‘ is a masterpiece that depicts three children hurrying forward, signifying the extreme hardships experienced by the Maltese population at the turn of the 20th century.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN MALTA | GET AQUATIC
Tour Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum in Malta is located in Birgu, one of the small fortified cities on the Grand Harbor. It is housed in the former Royal Naval Bakery, which was originally built in the 1840s. The Maritime Museum's collection contains more than 20,000 artifacts, and it is the largest museum on the island. The exhibits will take you on a 7,000 year voyage through Malta’s maritime history. Everything that is on display here shows the connection between the Mediterranean and the Maltese people.
Only in 1988 did the museum start collecting the artefacts that are now on display here. A lot of the items were actually donations by Maltese citizens as well as private companies, international maritime and naval museums and foreign navies. At present, the volume of artefacts continue to accumulate making it quite a worthwhile visit for history enthusiasts and inquisitive travelers.
Marsaxlokk is a colorful fishing village on Malta's south shore, about a half hour's drive from Valletta. The harbor is a cheerful sight, filled with fishing boats known as "luzzus" that are typically painted a bright blue with vivid gold, green and red trim. The bow of the boats is festooned with the Eye of Osiris, a practice to ward off danger that likely dates to the era when the Phoenicians inhabited Malta.
A fish market is held on Sunday mornings and browsing along the waterfront is a great way to spend a couple of hours. Needless to say, some of Malta's best seafood restaurants are in Marsaxlokk, so plan to enjoy a fantastic lunch here.
Read More: Learn the fascinating history of Malta's traditional boats!
The Blue Grotto is on the southeastern coast, about 20 minutes north of Marsaxlokk. You can take a half-hour excursion out to these sea caverns on a small boat known as a frigatina. The Grotto is very popular and it attracts more than 100,000 tourists every year. The cost is 8 Euro and while the experience is admittedly very "touristy", seeing the luminescent turquoise waters is a treat.
The appeal of this natural grotto is the combination of the sunlight refracting off the limestone walls of the sea caves. You can witness the phosphorescent shades of underwater flora and the deep dark color of the sea daily from sunrise until around one in the afternoon.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN MALTA | RABAT AND MDINA
Rabat and Mdina are two neighboring towns that are about a 20-minute drive from Valletta and exploring both of them would make for a full day. Located in the interior of the island's west, these ancient settlements each have distinctly different feels and unique historic and cultural significance.
Rabat is the bigger of the two locales, with a population of about 11,500. This city is a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics, as biblical traditions hold that St. Paul found refuge in a cave here for three months after a shipwreck, bringing Christianity to Malta.
Rabat is known for two significant sacred sites--but there is a general ambiance of spirituality throughout the entire small city. That's thanks to the appearance of statues, votive offerings, and niches that adorn almost every block. Whether you identify with the Catholic symbolism or not, the gestures are heartfelt, artistic, and make a strong statement about the presence of faith in everyday life.
Mdina, on the other hand, was considered a strategic site as long ago as 700 B.C., when the Phoenicians first established a fortified presence here. Being about three miles from the coast and having an elevation that is one of Malta's highest, Mdina continued to be a stronghold for a series of subsequent invaders who claimed Malta as their own.
The Romans took control of Mdina in 218 B.C. and the city became the island's capital. During this time, it grew to about three times its present-day size, encompassing what is now Rabat. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the size of the city shrank to make it more defendable. Arab Muslims settled in Mdina in 1048; the name is Arabic for "city". Next to lay claim to Mdina was Roger I, a Norman count who had already conquered Sicily.
Then, when the Knights of St. John arrived on Malta in 1530, they chose Birgu as their capital. While Mdina's role in Malta's political life became less vital, the Knights did enlist a French engineer to rebuild it after a devastating earthquake. The result was another layer of cultural patina on the city's Arab-Norman-Baroque architecture.
Collegiate Church of Saint Paul and Grotto
Christianity came to Malta almost 2,000 years ago, arriving via no less than Paul the Apostle. Tradition says that Paul was being transported to Rome to face trial as a rebel and that he and almost 300 others on the boat were shipwrecked on Malta. The welcome Paul and his fellow survivors are recorded in Acts of the Apostles by St. Luke:
"And later we learned that the island was called Malta.
And the people who lived there showed us great kindness,
and they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves... "
St. Paul is said to have commanded the respect of the Maltese people when he was bitten by a snake as the bonfire was lit--and was unharmed.
Rabat's Collegiate Church of Saint Paul was constructed between 1653 - 1683 and is built above a cave that St. Paul is believed to have lived in during his three-month stay on Malta.
Adjacent to St. Paul's is a smaller church dedicated to St Publius and the grotto is reached through this chapel. A shrine to St Paul includes a statue that was donated by the Knight of St. John Grand Master Pinto in 1748. Hanging alongside it is a silver galley ship commissioned by the Knights of St John in 1960 to mark the 1,900-year anniversary of St Paul's shipwreck. Thirty years later, Pope John Paul prayed in the grotto during his visit, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2010.
Frescoes of St Agatha’s Catacombs
Very nearby is St. Agatha’s Catacombs, a labyrinth of low-ceilinged chambers cut into the rock between the 3rd and 8th centuries. The catacombs were originally built to house tombs, with vaults on both sides of long narrow corridors. The use of the space as an underground cemetery was abandoned during the Arab occupation of the area. Then, from the 12th - 15th century, the crypt began being used as a shrine and for worship. Lore says that practice started with the arrival of 15-year old Agatha from Sicily, a devout Christian who was escaping the advances of a Roman official.
After arriving on Malta, Agatha used the crypt to pray and share the teachings of Christianity with local children. Legend say she returned home to Sicily, where she was martyred with horrific torture, including having her breasts cut off. St. Agatha is known today as the patron saint of breast cancer; her feast day is observed on February 5.
Whether Agatha's story is fact or fiction, adoration of her in these subterranean rooms is evident by the 13 frescoes that depict her. There are another 17 paintings depicting saints, ranging from St. Lucy and St. Venera, who like Agatha, were martyred virgins. Another fresco shows the figure of St. Leonard, who was granted the right to free prisoners he felt deserved their liberty. Known as the patron saint of slaves, he is shown holding chains, symbolic of his solidarity with captives.
Although Mdina was Malta's capital for centuries, today it is home to less than 300 people who live within its fortified walls. The main gate into the city is Baroque in design and was built in 1724 by the Knights of St. John. It's known as the "Silent City" and explanations for that range from its fall from power to the fact is largely pedestrian-only. It certainly has a mysterious quality and you can almost feel the presence of Malta's patron saints St. Agatha and St. Paul, whose figures decorate the rear of the Mdina Gate.
The Domvs Romana is the ruins of a Roman-era house situated on the boundary between Mdina and Rabat, Malta. Domvs was built during the 1st Century BC and it served as an aristocratic townhouse inside the Roman city of Melite. During the 11th century, a Muslim cemetery was built on the remains of the Domvs.
Accidentally discovered by landscapers in 1881, the ruins have become popular for its beautifully well-preserved mosaics considered as one of the most primal examples of Hellenistic style mosaics found today. Experts determined that this Roman house was inspired by ancient Greek architecture which was considered superior at that time. Some of the mosaics are simply decorative while some of the most iconic depict some of the popular mythological scenes.
The Domvs Romana’s courtyard is decorated with one of the most famous and diffused motifs of antiquity, known as the 'drinking Doves of Sosos'. This design enjoyed widespread success among rich and noble Romans. The original motif was created by an ancient artisan named Sosos, which inspired copies in locations as far-flung as Malta, Pompeii, Rome, Delos, and Alexandria.
One of the museum's most moving exhibit pieces is a ring that was discovered in a Muslim grave by eminent Maltese archaeologist Sir Temi Zammit during the 1921-22 Domvs Romana excavation. The silver ring, which is the only personal ornament found in any of the graves, was found on the second finger of the right hand of a skeleton laid in a well-made grave. Circa 11th century A.D., the ring is plain with a broad face on which an inscription in Kufic characters is cut saying 'Rabbi Allah Wahid', or 'God alone is the Lord'.
Palazzo Falson is the second oldest building in Mdina. The two-story medieval palace reflects the influence of the Sicilian architecture of its period. A series of 17 rooms wrap around an internal courtyard; the rooms at the rear of the courtyard are the oldest part of the building, and date to the 13th century.
The most recent resident of Palazzo Falson was owner Capt Olof Frederick Gollcher OBE, the son of a prosperous shipping merchant of Swedish descent. Gollcher was a scholar and philanthropist, and his collection of objets d’art and historical artifacts are a treat to experience. When he died in 1962, the house was managed by a private foundation. In 2001, the Maltese Heritage Foundation restored the property and its contents.
Palazzo Falson is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10.00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. The first tour is at 10:30; the last tour is at 3:00 p.m. Guided tours are available in English at 10:30am, 11:15am, 12:00pm, 12:45pm, 2:15pm and 3:00pm. The cost for adults is 10 Euro; students and seniors, 5 Euro. Children under five years are not admitted.
Catholicism is Malta's official state religion and 93.9% of its population practice this faith, making it one of the most Catholic countries in the world. No doubt, the influence of St. Paul as well as the long-time presence of the Knights of St. John contributed to the enduring devotion of the Maltese. Not surprisingly, Malta has vibrant Easter and Christmas holiday celebrations.
Among the most moving and spectacular is the Good Friday procession, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. This event is held in seven different communities; I attended the procession in Zebbug, and it was enthralling. Communicants dress in elaborate costumes of Jerusalem's citizenry--shepherds, Roman soldiers, slaves, royalty, Jewish priests--and re-enact the events leading to Christ's death in a sort of open-air theatre.
As the enactors solemnly advance, uniformed brass marching bands play mournful dirges. Thousands line the streets, dressed mostly in black, given the somber nature of the occasion, despite its flamboyance. If you work up an appetite, vendors sell sweets like hot cross buns, fried dough, and qagħaq tal-appostli, bread rings with almonds.
It's hard to name a destination that has a more rich cultural heritage than Malta! With ancient architecture that spans a couple of millennia, a landscape and coast of stunning beauty, moving sacred traditions, and a colorful maritime heritage, Malta makes for a fascinating place to explore! If you have been to Malta, we invite you to share your favorite features of its culture in the comments section!