It is said that the Maltese islands are the open air museum of the Mediterranean, offering 7,000 years or more of history to explore with numerous unique cultural and historical sites. The islands boast prehistoric ruins older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt.
Steeped in the legacy of the medieval order of the Knights of St John, the islands were used as a stronghold for defending Christendom. Malta lies about 60 miles (97km) south of Sicily and 160 miles (257km) north of Libya, a strategic position in the Mediterranean that has made the islands a crossroads of history.
The last occupiers were the British, who granted Malta independence in 1964. But the Knights of St John, to whom the island was donated in 1530, left the biggest and most unique influence. The Knights reigned supreme over the island for 270 years, building magnificent churches and monuments.
Malta has truly ancient mysteries too, primarily in the form of 30 prehistoric sites boasting massive Neolithic temples, considered to be the oldest freestanding stone buildings known to man. But Malta and its little sister island, Gozo, are not stuck in a time warp.
The islanders enjoy life to the full, and the calendar is liberally sprinkled with summertime , with fireworks and revelry in every little parish in honour of the village patron saints, as well as the major carnival in early spring every year.
The capital, Valletta, besides offering some awesome Baroque buildings and fortifications as its main sightseeing attractions, is bursting with restaurants and cafes. The island's compact size is also a plus for visitors.
It takes no more than an hour to drive between any two points on the main island, and there is very little open space. The dense population means that the island is virtually one large urban area, with buildings occupying every inch.
Malta is blessed, however, with a rugged and appealing coastline, boasting secluded bays and sandy beaches hidden between rocky outcrops, which attract travellers at least as much as the historical sightseeing.
While on holiday in Malta, there are various wonderful things to see and do, as well as beautiful island beaches to enjoy. Visit St John's Co-Cathedral to see Caravaggio's painting and the inlaid tombstones covering the floor in this celebrated place of worship.
Still in Valletta, the Malta Experience illustrates the history of Malta at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. The Three Cities are home to architectural displays of the island's maritime history, while Hagar Qim boasts a prehistoric temple complex, including the oldest human structures in the world.
Visit Marsalforn for great restaurants and bars or dive into the 'blue hole' at the Azure Window's secluded pebbled bathing pool. There is a wealth of historical sightseeing for tourists, and combined with the hedonistic glories of the Mediterranean coast makes Malta a superb travel destination.
Getting around in Malta is easy thanks to the cheap and reliable public bus system which has an unexpected charm due to the use of vintage buses. Services radiate from Valletta, so you may find yourself doubling back to get to other destinations.
The buses can be uncomfortable in extreme heat since none are air-conditioned. But the short rides make it bearable. You can pick up schedules at terminals or on the buses themselves. You can also take the white taxis that will transport you anywhere on the island.
Having said that, local pre-booked black cabs are cheaper. Hiring a car in Malta is another option, and you can do so at many hotels, harbours, and the airport. Another pleasant transport alternative is hiring a bike, which you can do in Valletta.
Valletta's magnificent medieval cathedral is famous for the painting by Caravaggio, which hangs in its oratory, and the 369 inlaid mosaic marble tombstones that cover the floor. Each tombstone depicts the lives of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John, buried beneath.
The façade is rather sever and militaristic. Yet inside, the cathedral is lavishly splendid in the grandest tradition of high Baroque. Carvings cover every each of wall, while the vaulted ceiling sports paintings depicting the life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights.
The cathedral benefitted greatly over the centuries from many donations given by the Knights and their Grand Masters. Some of the most impressive works of art were gifts from the order. It's still an active place of worship, with frequent services, and also operates as a beautiful venue for cultural events.
The stunningly ornate cathedral is an exceptional sight and a must for tourist in Malta. Guided tours and rented audio guides help to greatly enrich the experience. Travellers should be sure to check the website for visiting hours to avoid disappointment.
The Grandmaster's Palace, built around 1571, today serves as the office of the President and seat of the Maltese Parliament. When parliament is not in session, the palace and its State Rooms are open to the public.
The palace is a treasure trove of art, from the unique collection of Gobelin Tapestries to frescoes depicting the Great Siege of 1565 by Perez d'Aleccio that cover the walls of the Halls of St Michael and St George.
The Knights decorated the palace richly and elaborately, conscious of showing off their wealth and influence. For visitors, exploring splendid chambers like the Hall of the Supreme Council of the Knights is thrilling.
Visitors can also view the Armoury and state apartments adorned with friezes depicting the history of the Order of the Knights of St John. The Armoury is perhaps the greatest attraction of the palace and it boasts one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.
Malta has a tumultuous history and the Armoury holds the assorted weaponry of centuries of invasions, sieges, and battles, making it a paradise for military history buffs. Guided tours are available and wonderful audio guides offer comprehensive commentary.
The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta houses one of the inns of the Knights of St John: the Auburge de Provence. The establishment's focus on Malta's prehistory includes displays such as the reconstruction of prehistoric remains found at the Hypogeum.
Pottery, sculptures, statuettes, stone tools, and jewellery from the prehistoric, megalithic, and temple-building periods feature. Punic and Roman tomb furniture are also present, with all exhibits sourced from excavations across the Maltese islands. The age of some artefacts is staggering.
Only those interested in archaeology will fully appreciate the wonders on offer, its treasures wasted on those easily bored by ancient histories and cultures. Young children especially should give it a skip. The collection is well-maintained and labelled, with exhibitions in chronological order.
Valletta suffered great damage during World War II bombing raids. The war defence of Malta took place in the Lascaris War Rooms, with the island always holding a strategic military importance far out of proportion to its size,
Some of the most famous battles fought in the Mediterranean during the war were coordinated from these headquarters, a 17th-century underground complex of tunnels and chambers. Now restored, it acts as a museum with displays of charts, models, and dioramas.
It's fascinating to see all the old wartime paraphernalia and to explore the once top secret military operating rooms. Guides are enthusiastic and well-informed volunteers who greatly enrich the experience. Tours are conducted in English and take 75 minutes, after which visitors can freely stroll the grounds.
The Malta Experience is a dramatic presentation that illustrates the history of Malta, from Neolithic to modern times. Shown at the Mediterranean Conference Centre at St Elmo's bastion in Valletta, the building originally served as a hospital by the Knights of St John in the 1500s.
Wards are now great sweeping halls with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, functioning as exhibition areas. A modern theatre the Malta Experience audio-visual show in 17 different languages.
The show is a sweeping expose of 7,000 years of history covering the original stone-age inhabitants, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Knights of St John, and the nation's modern history. It is as entertaining as it is educational.
Indeed, the Malta Experience is a great way to begin a holiday in Malta as it provides an overview of the archipelagos' dramatic history and greatly enriches the sightseeing to come. This is particularly useful as not all sites on the islands have detailed information for tourists.
The documentary also offers great insight into the Maltese culture and people. About 45 minutes long, the Malta Experience is immensely popular and more than four million visitors have seen it since its opening.
Malta's main maritime towns have merged into a fortified conglomerate known as the Three Cities, resting on the promontories opposite Valletta. Vittoriosa is the oldest town in Malta after Mdina, featuring plenty of historical architecture, including several of the Inns of the Knights of St John.
There is also a hospital built by the Order in 1672, in which still lives a Benedictine convent of devout nuns. Dating from 1274, Fort St Angelo is the oldest fortified part of Vittoriosa and stands at the tip of the promontory. Additionally, the Museum of Maritime History is well worth a visit.
Founded in 1717, Cospicua is the youngest of the Three Cities and features some fascinating churches. Senglea, designed by Grand Master De La Sengle in 1551, exists as an important pilgrimage destination. Its parish church contains a statue of Christ the Redeemer, said to have miraculous powers.
There are many great restaurants and bars in the Three Cities and the marina area is becoming increasingly popular. The best way to explore is on a walking tour, wandering through the old districts and discovering unexpected joys and treasures.
Apart from the rich history, the Three Cities are famous for their residents' enthusiastic celebration of holy days and festas. The most exciting of these is the Easter procession, when status of Jesus Christ are carried at a run through crowded strets.
Just southwest of the Three Cities in the suburb of Paolo, the Hypogeum is a labyrinthine limestone complex of man-made chambers extending some 36 feet (11m) below the surface. Experts believe it was a burial site and temple for Neolithic humans who used antlers and stones to carve it out more than 5,000 years ago.
It's comprised of several interconnecting chambers on three distinct levels. Used over a span of many centuries, the oldest remains at the site date back to about 4,000 BC. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Archaeologists have recovered numerous statues, amulets, figurines, and vases, many of which are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. The Hypogeum has been open to the public since 1908 and the droves of visitors have unfortunately had a negative impact on the ancient environment.
Now, only eight tours a day take place with 10 people permitted on each tour. They are often booked up weeks in advance so tickets should be booked early to avoid disappointment. The tours are more or less an hour long and provide audio guides.
Haqar Qim is a prehistoric temple complex located in western Malta. Discovered in 1839, it dates back to around 3,000 BC and boast some of the oldest human structures on the planet. The Hagar Qim and nearby Mnajdra ruins are close to the village of Qrendi, about nine miles (15km) southwest of Valletta.
The megalithic temples are carved from giant limestone slabs, housing sacrificial altars, oracular chambers, and carved animals and idols, themselves fashioned by flint and obsidian. The largest megalith is 23 feet (7m) high and weighs about 20 tons.
Although the ancient ruins of Malta are generally called temples, very little is actually known about their purpose. Many of the relics recovered from the Hagar Qim site, including the famous Venus of Malta and her accompanying fat lady statues, are on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
Unlike some of the other temples on Malta, Hagar Qim has an impressive visitors' centre that offers plenty of background information through interactive displays. While there are shelters around the site to protect one from the elements, they hardly detract from the otherworldly experience of the ruins.
A good place to begin exploring Gozo is the Citadel, or Citadella, an historic castle right in the centre of Victoria. The area that is now the Citadel was first fortified around 1500 BC, with further developments occurring under Phoenician and Roman rule.
Up until the 18th century, it was the only fortified refuge against attack for Gozo's inhabitants. From the ramparts of this fascinating sanctuary, visitors can admire sweeping views of the whole islands. Happily, the Citadel houses a number of attractions and makes for an exciting visit.
The Gozo Museum of Archaeology, found just inside the walls of the Citadel, is a 17th-century building that was originally the town hall. It provides great insight into the history of the island, also illustrating the cultural history of Gozo from prehistoric times to the early modern era.
Presented chronologically, this collection covers the Neolithic Period, the Phoenicians, the Romans, medieval times, and the emergences of the Knights of St John. The Citadel also houses the spooky Old Prison, which is now a museum.
One of the Citadel's greatest treasures is the beautiful 17th-century Baroque cathedral. The Citadel could easily keep tourists occupied for a few hours with the views alone justifying a visit.
Sometime between 4,100 BC and 2,500 BC, Pre-Phoenician Gozitans carved two massive megaliths into temples which now stand as mysterious monuments to a bygone age. Legend has it that they were transported to the island by a giantess called Sansuna, hence the site's name: Ä gantija.
Large stones balls in the area have led archaeologists to conclude that the massive blocks were rolled into place. Two temples have a common façade but each has a separate entrance. Inside the walls, animal sacrifices occurred during ritual observances.
The temples, along with other similar complexes on the main island of Malta, are documented as the oldest free-standing structures in the world. For this reason, the extremely impressive Ä gantija Temples are a famous UNESCO Word Heritage Site.
But the site is not equipped with as much information as some visitors might desire. It's best to do some research beforehand or to join a guided tour as added knowledge greatly enriches the Ä gantija experience.
The alabaster caves at Xaghra feature amazing stalactites and stalagmites. One of them, named Calypso Cave, has an important place in Greek mythology and overlooks the red sand of Gozo's best beach, Ramla Ihamra.
The grotto is believed to be the one referred to in Homer's Odyssey as being where the beautiful nymph, Calypso, kept Odysseus for seven years. Visitors have fantastic views over the bay while below remains a fortification built by the Knights of St John.
Two other caves worth visiting at Xaghra are Xerri's Grotto and Ninu's Grotto, both geologically magnificent. Discovered by local families whilst digging wells on their properties, visiting the caves requires knocking on their doors and descending through their houses.
The families are very friendly and happily show visitors around. Children enjoy exploring the caves and are recommended attractions for those travelling in Malta with kids or to anybody interested in the geology of the region.
A marvellous Maltese treat, the Azure Window is a distinctive rock formation forming a large arch over the brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Formed when several enormous caves collapsed, it's often been a perfect location for film shoots.
Located in Gozo, near the tourist village of Dwejra, the Azure Window is a popular scuba diving site in Malta. Unfortunately, tourists aren't allowed to walk across the arch due to erosion, with the site in danger of falling apart altogether. If this happens, it will be renamed the Azure Pinnacle.
This coastline boasts many secluded pebbled bathing pools and crystal clear water. The strange formations formed in lovely little pools makes swimming exciting, providing enjoyable diving in the blue hole near the Azure Window.
The area's most famous formation is Fungus Rock, found near the entrance to a black lagoon. Heavily guarded during the era of the Knights of Malta because of a special plant with healing properties which grew upon it, stealing the plant meant death penalty.
Malta has a typically Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild winters, very similar to the climate in southern Italy and Greece. Almost all the rain falls between October and March, making the rest of the year consistently dry.
The temperature is fairly constant in Malta and there are frequent and often strong winds. It is humid throughout the year, seldom falling below 40 percent. In summer, temperatures frequently reach 84ºF (30ºC) and can rise above 95°F (35°C). But the sea breezes often temper the heat.
July and August are the hottest months. In spring and autumn, a hot wind known as the Xlokk sometimes brings high temperatures and humidity while autumn gets sporadic rainfall. Winters are mild, with daytime temperatures seldom falling below 50°F (10°C).
Nights are somewhat colder but snow never falls in Malta. The wonderful Mediterranean climate makes Malta a year-round travel destination. The peak summer months are predictably the most popular with tourists.
But some prefer to visit in spring and autumn, between April and early June or in October, when the heat is less oppressive. If you are travelling primarily for historical sightseeing, then winters can be a pleasant time to visit as Malta is less crowded and slightly cheaper.
The currency was changed to the Euro (EUR) in 2008 (Maltese lira are no longer accepted). Banks, ATMs and exchange bureaux can be found all over the islands, as well as foreign exchange machines in the tourist areas.
Banks generally open mornings Monday to Saturday, but exchange bureaux at the international airport are open 24 hours a day. Most hotels and restaurants, as well as many shops, accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa.
English and Maltese are the official languages; Italian is also spoken
230 volts, 50Hz. UK-style three-pin square plugs are used.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
British citizens and those with passports endorsed 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar need to have passports valid for duration of stay. British passports with any other endorsement must be valid for three months beyond period of intended stay.
A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen' or 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), nor for holders of identity cards issued by Gibraltar authorities, and endorsed 'Validated for EU travel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom'. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period, for holders of British passports with any other endorsement.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. A visa is required.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid on arrival in Malta. No visa is required.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Malta. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, non-EEA passengers to Malta must hold return/onward tickets, the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, and sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country. For visitors who are visa-exempt, extensions of stay are possible, by reporting to the Police Headquarters in Malta, no later than one week prior to the expiration of the period of visa exemption. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no health risks associated with travel to Malta, and water and food is generally safe for consumption. Travellers coming from recognised infected areas require a yellow fever vaccination certificate to enter Malta.
A reciprocal health agreement exists between the United Kingdom and Malta. As a result, British citizens receive emergency medical treatment on the same terms as Maltese nationals on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Visitors should, however, take out adequate medical and travel insurance in case medical evacuation or further treatment is required. Medication should be available in Malta but those requiring specific prescription medication should take it with them in the original packaging, accompanied by a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what the medicine is and why it's required.
A gratuity of about 10 percent is expected in hotels and restaurants if a service charge is not included in the bill. Most services are tipped about five to 10 percent (including taxi drivers).
Malta is very safe for tourists. Crime is rare, though theft from parked cars and handbag snatching can occur. Local driving can be challenging so exercise caution on the roads.
The wearing of skimpy clothing away from the beaches should be avoided, and dress should be conservative when visiting churches.
Business in Malta tends to be conducted in the same fashion as elsewhere in Europe. That is to say, both formally and politely. Punctuality is important while dress should be formal. This means a suit and tie being the norm unless the weather is hot, in which case one can forgo the jacket.
Handshakes and the exchanging of business cards take place on greeting. English is widely spoken in business and so a translator is unnecessary. Business hours can vary but are usually 8.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. Some businesses open for a half-day on Saturdays.
The country code for Malta is +356, and the outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City or area codes are not required. Local and international telephone calls can be made from hotel rooms, and most hotels also offer fax and internet access.
GO telecommunications offices also provide these services in the main towns. Comprehensive GSM 900 and 1800 mobile phone networks as well as nationwide 3G coverage cover the islands.
Travellers arriving in Malta from non-EU countries do not need to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, 100 cigarillos or 250g of tobacco; 4 litres of wine and 2 litres of spirits. Travellers may carry personal items of non-commercial nature worth up to €430 when travelling by air or sea.
Official Tourism Website of Malta: www.visitmalta.com
Embassy of Malta, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Canada): +1 202 462 3611
Malta High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7292 4800
Malta Honorary Consulate, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 1 1435 0463
High Commission for Malta, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 6290 1724
Embassy of Malta, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1676 2340
United States Embassy, Valletta: +356 2561 4000
British High Commission, Ta'Xbiex: +356 2323 0000
Canadian Embassy, Rome, Italy (also responsible for Malta): +356 2552 3233
South African Embassy, Rome, Italy (also responsible for Malta): +39 685 2541
Australian High Commission, Ta' Xbiex: +356 2133 8201
Embassy of Ireland, Ta' Xbiex: +356 2133 4744
New Zealand Embassy, Rome, Italy (also responsible for Malta): +39 6853 7501
Known as the Noble City, Mdini was the original capital of Malta before the arrival of the Knights of St John in the Middle Ages. Initially a Phoenician town, it underwent periods of Roman, Arbaic and Norman occupation.
Situated on a rocky outcrop about nine miles (15km) west of Valletta, the elegant walled settlement can trace its origins back more than 4,000 years. Although today, all that remains is the largely restored medieval town.
At the heart of Mdina is the landmark Baroque Cathedral of St Paul. While the Knights reigned over Malta the city became the home of the Maltese nobility, who lived there under autonomous rule and deemed unworthy of joining the Order of St John.
Descendants of some of these families still live in the city. Mdina and the ancient suburb of Rabat not only offer some fascinating and valuable sightseeing opportunities, but also come alive in their own unique ways when the sun sets.
Lamplight accompany ambient evenings spent in restaurants, tucked away in bastions and palace courtyards. Motor vehicles are banned inside the city walls, and pedestrians have free reign to walk the streets and take in this precious site of Maltese heritage.
A beautiful church usually occupies the centre of every Maltese town and village. One of the most impressive of these is St Mary's in the central Maltese town of Mosta, also known as the Rotunda of Mosta or the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which has a glorious blue, gold and white dome.
The unsupported dome is one of the largest found anywhere in the world, with a design visibly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the church began in May 1833 and ultimately ended in the 1860s.
Many say that St Mary's Church was the site of a World War II miracle: in 1942, while 300 people were praying in the church, a bomb crashed through the dome and landed on the mosaic floor, but did not explode. A replica of the bomb is today displayed in the church sacristy.
This famous miracle draws many pilgrims and curious tourists to the church, but the ornate interior is reason enough for a visit. The church has a fine collection of religious art, including one of the largest collections of paintings by the famous Maltese artist Guzeppi Cali.
The church is still an active place of worship and visitors are welcome to attend services. Entry to the church is free but donations are welcome. The church is usually closed between 12pm and 3pm.
Also known as Sweethaven, Popeye Village is the actual set used in the 1908s musical of Popeye starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall. Since then, the set has grown into one of the country's major tourist attractions and is a must for those travelling with children in Malta.
Kids can wander around the authentic wooden buildings such as the bakery, post office, and school house. But there's also lots of fun activities for the whole family, including meeting famous cartoon characters, boat rides, water trampolines, sun bathing decks, and games.
The park now boasts the Popeye Comic Museum, showcasing more than a hundred original comics dating back to 1936. Sweethaven hosts fun stuff for kids but also organises adult events like team building exercises upon request.
The little village is gorgeously situated and quite charming. The opening times and activities vary according to the season so it's best to check the official website for information before visiting in order to avoid disappointment.