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Imagine Instagram-worthy lagoons for swimming, spooky underground temples once reserved for death rituals and piles of fresh pasta that rival what you’d find in Italy. This is Malta, an island tucked just below Sicily that packs an impressive array of things to do in just 122 square miles. Plus, the capital, Valletta, has been named the European Capital of Culture in 2018—an impressive title for a city of its size. In fact, Malta and its sister islands are our new favorite place. Here’s why.

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St John’s Co-Cathedral | Trover photo by Stephen Nunney

A petite, culture-packed capital

Valletta packs plenty of culture within its small space. There are some 320 monuments within just 55 hectares—just one of the many reasons the city has earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the imposing city gate (designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano) to the harbor, you’ll see countless examples of historical splendor, including the Grand Master’s Palace, Fort Saint Elmo and the Manoel Theatre. St. John’s Co-Cathedral, which is a must for the sheer abundance of gold and exquisite art inside an otherwise unassuming building. Meanwhile, the Upper Barrakka Gardens are framed by 17th-century terraced arches and an ideal setting for views of the turquoise harbor. Don’t miss out on some of the more modern touches around Valletta, like the intriguing surrealist sculptures tucked throughout the city.

Trover photo by Richard Spiteri

Swimming coves fit for mermaids

Malta’s secret swimming coves, rocky coasts and few sandy beaches are heavenly. The best place to swim is a hot debate, but most people agree that the Blue Lagoon, just off the tiny sister island of Comino, is worth a visit. The stunningly beautiful azure lagoon with pristine white sand beaches draws crowds come high season so get there early or scope out one of Malta’s slightly less frequented (though no less gorgeous) swimming spots like the untouched Għajn Tuffieħa Bay, the breezy and kid-friendly Mellieħa Bay, or secluded Fomm ir-Rih Bay. If you’re into diving, there’s no better place in Europe than Malta to go under the sea.

Trover photo by Hecktic Travels

Pasta and pastries aplenty

Pack an appetite—but leave your low-carb diet back at home. The Maltese passion for all things starchy manifests early in the morning, when hole-in-the-wall bakeries start pulling pans of pastizzi out of the oven. These flaky, buttery pastry pockets come packed with ricotta and parsley or smashed peas and onions, making for a tasty breakfast or mid-afternoon pick-me-up. The carb fest continues straight through dinner, when restaurants churn out piles of fresh pasta and rabbit ravioli (a local favorite!).

Trover photo by Earthseeing

Prehistoric sites to wander

Prepare to be humbled—the prehistoric sites scattered across Malta and sister island, Gozo, will remind you that we’re all here for but a moment in time. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta provides a thorough introduction to the creations of prehistoric people, with displays of catacombs, Phoenician-era sarcophagi and Bronze-age daggers. But it’s even more profound to see ancient sites in their original settings. Take, for example, the Ħaġar Qim—a complex megalithic temple preserved in all its limestone glory on a dramatic cliffside. You can still walk through the interconnected chambers, where fertility rituals are rumored to have taken place some 5,000 years ago, using the “fat lady” statuettes displayed at the museum. Gozo’s Ġgantija temples, which local folklore suggests were built by a giant, will continue to stoke your sense of wonder on an island that’s just a ferry ride away.

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Spooky underground sites

Even more fascinating than the underground burial chambers in Malta is the below ground Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Constructed around 4,000 BCE, the neolithic necropolis was the final resting place for some 7,000 people. It consists of multiple chambers once used for death rituals, including a cemetery and funeral halls. Most impressive is the “Oracle Room,” which has curved stone carvings that amplify sounds throughout the complex. Chanting and drumming likely took place in that room, made even more mystical by a ceiling painted with swirls of red ochre that seem to dance like a flickering flame when lit up. Book tickets online well in advance—only 10 visitors are allowed on each of the eight hour-long daily tours, in an effort to preserve the space’s delicate climate.

Trover photo by Calli and Travis

Balconies on every building

Malta is an extremely safe place for travelers, but locals warn of one potential danger: neck pain. Why? Your gaze will constantly be looking up at traditional Maltese balconies. Nearly every building seems to have an elegant stone balcony projecting over the city streets, a feature reputed to have stemmed from the country’s Arab influence. Many of the balconies feature elegant carved designs of flowers and foliage, gargoyles and animals. As if they needed more help gaining attention, the balconies are traditionally painted in shades of burgundy, emerald, yellow, and cerulean that look striking against the tan buildings. Don’t say we didn’t warn you about that stiff neck!

Trover photo by Sharon Zahra

Dramatic GoT backdrops

The struggle to wait for the next season of Game of Thrones is real. But it gets a lot easier with a trip to Malta, where you can see some of the places where the show was shot. Mesquita Square in the quiet, walled city of Mdina served as the backdrop for the fight between Jamie Lannister and Ned Stark in the first season. The show turned the San Anton Palace in Balzan into the stables for the Red Keep and the spot where Arya chased cats. And the Dothraki camped at the Mtahleb Cliffs, where Daenerys and her baby dragons first surfaced from the flames. Malta Film Tours hosts GoT-themed tours, where two actors who appeared in the show take you to more than a dozen sites.

Photo courtesy of San Anton Palace

Interesting places to stay

Valletta makes a convenient base for exploring the rest of Malta and its sister island, and boasts plenty of cozy accommodations. You can’t go wrong by booking one of the artsy duplex suites at Ursulino Valletta, a traditional family townhouse transformed into a colorful boutique hotel with the best rooftop breakfasts. Looking for something even more lavish? The Palazzo Paolina Boutique Hotel has walls and ceilings with beautifully painted floral motifs, marble floors, and elegant stairwells draped with red carpets (not to mention spacious rooms!). It’s a design-lover’s dream.

Tagged: Europe

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Joni Sweet

Joni Sweet

Joni is a freelance writer who focuses on travel, health and wellness. Her journalistic pursuits have taken her around the globe—rafting down the Ganges, splashing around Earth’s largest volcanic lake and hot air ballooning over Cappadocia—only to land her in the most thrilling city in the world, New York. You can see her work at
Joni Sweet

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