Towards the end of last year I found myself with some unexpected annual leave due to a cancelled trip, and decided to book a last-minute holiday on a bit of a whim. I opted for Malta in the hope of some slightly warmer weather and having heard lots of positive things about it over the last few years from others who’d been. While Malta can be an amazing holiday for beaches, snorkelling and diving, if you’re going during the winter months you’re more likely to be checking out the amazing history and culture, which is what I’ve focused on in this post.
If you’re on a short trip to Malta, it’s fairly likely you might stay in its capital Valletta. It’s a good base to have as it’s close to the airport, there’s loads to do in the city itself, and it also has great public transport links to other areas of the island. Here are just a few things I recommend checking out in Valletta, you could probably accomplish them all in one day, or one and a half days at a more leisurely pace.
Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens
These gorgeous public gardens offer beautiful panoramic views of the harbour, with the three cities as a backdrop. From the lower gardens take the path downwards and you can walk right along the waterfront all away around the walled city. There is also a cannon gun salute twice a day at midday and 4pm in the Upper Gardens. It’s popular with tourists and worth attending if you can time your visit to coincide.
Entry to the gardens is free.
Lascaris War Rooms
Just below the Barrakka Gardens is a real hidden gem of Valletta – the Lascaris War Rooms. This network of connected underground rooms and tunnels was created in 1940 for Britain’s War HQ in Malta. The defence and strategy of the island was all coordinated from these rooms. After the war it was also used by NATO to track the movement of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. As you can imagine, the history is really interesting and you can get a real sense of what it might have been like for the military personnel who spent their lives underground during this period.
Be aware it closes quite early during winter season (4pm) and you’ll need at least an hour to go around. There are guided tours offered but if you arrive between tours there’s a great audio guide.
Entry costs €10.00.
National War Museum / Fort St Elmo
It’s impossible to go to Malta and not hear about the impact of war on the island – it seems to have been a central part in more than it’s fair share! While the Lascaris War Rooms focus on Malta’s role in WWII, the National War Museum (the converted Fort St Elmo) goes way back to 1565’s Great Siege of Malta, when the Ottoman Empire attempted to conquer the island. The Fort itself was the location for much of the intense fighting that took place in the siege. There is also lots more information about Malta’s role in both the World Wars and it contains a replica the George Cross awarded to the island for its bravery in 1942.
Entry costs €10.00.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
I’ve been in a lot of cathedrals in my time but St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta has to be one of the most impressive. It is incredibly extravagant, with an abundance of gold, carvings and statues covering every surface. It is actually considered one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in all of Europe. If you’re an art fan, the Caravaggio masterpiece ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ is on display in the oratory of the cathedral. It’s not only the largest work by the famous painter, but also the only piece he ever signed.
The cathedral is huge and there is so much to see so make sure you leave at least an hour to go around, if not more. If you listen to everything on the audio guide it will take at least that long but you can skip to the bits you want to.
Entry costs €15.00.
Mdina was Malta’s capital up until the medieval period. It really is a must-visit on any trip to the country, as it’s considered one of the finest examples of a walled city in Europe. It’s not hard to see why, with its charming streets and incredible baroque architecture. It is also known as ‘The Silent City’, as when people started to move out after the capital transferred to Valletta, it became like a ghost town. Even now, it’s still quiet and near deserted. There are no cars allowed inside the city walls and you can even spot some signs on the wall asking people to keep the noise down.
St Paul’s Cathedral and Museum
Mdina isn’t exactly full of things to do, it’s more about the experience of going there and soaking in the history as you meander along the cobbled streets. However, the one place you need to add to your ‘to visit’ list is St Paul’s Cathedral. This Catholic Cathedral dates back to the 12th Century and was originally the only seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta, until the 19th Century when Valletta built its own cathedral (St John’s) and it was forced into sharing the honour. It is beautifully decorated, but less elaborate than St John’s (which it feels like was deliberately trying to upstage this one!)
Entry costs €10.00.
Other must-see sites of Malta
Outside of Valletta and Mdina there are so many other sites dotted across the island that are worth visiting. In a short trip it can be difficult to fit everything in so I’ve just included a few of the ones I chose to visit here. There are a number of others I’d make the effort to see if I had the time on a return trip, such as the Blue Grotto and Popeye Village, but these weren’t as big a priority for me on this trip (I had just been to a similar blue cave in Italy and I’ve not seen the Popeye film).
While you’re on route from Valletta to Mdina, make sure to stop off and look around Mosta Rotunda. Of course, if you’ve been to the Pantheon in Rome, it’s hard not to compare. While that may be larger, the Mosta Rotunda is much more visually spectacular due to its decorative interior painted in blue, gold, and white. You can also go up to the top of the Rotunda and get an amazing closer view of the dome! The Rotunda is perhaps most famous for a remarkable event that occurred there in 1942. On this day 300 worshippers were at the Rotunda when a German bomb pierced through the ceiling and smashed a hole into the floor below. The bomb didn’t detonate and the people of Malta considered it to be a ‘miracle of God’. There is a replica of the bomb on display in the small museum on site.
Entry costs €5.00 and includes an audio guide.
How often do you get the chance to see one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world? Even older than Stonehenge, Ħaġar Qim and the Mnajdra temples date back over 5000 years! It’s difficult for historians to determine exactly what these structures were used for (they are thought to have been religious sites) but just seeing how they constructed the buildings and the huge pieces of limestone that were placed and shaped to create the buildings is fascinating. There are also nature trails around the cliffs here worth exploring that offer stunning sea views.
Entry costs €10.00
Another popular ancient site is the underground burial complex, Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, but be aware you will need to book well in advance. I thought I could do this a few days before and it was booked out for months! This is because numbers are really restricted to prevent damage to the site. It is possible to get last minute rush tickets the day before if you’re keen but be aware that you’ll pay a premium for them.
How to use Malta’s buses
While on most short European breaks you wouldn’t venture much further than the capital, Malta is a small enough island that you can see most of the main sites in a few days. Hiring a car is a popular choice but if you don’t drive (like me) you don’t need to miss out. The whole island is well-connected by a public bus system, which is really straightforward to use.
Download the Tallinja bus app to your smartphone. Make sure your location is enabled and then you just type in where you want to go and it tells you where the nearest bus stop is, what number bus you need to get, and what stop to get off at. All of the bus stops appear on the written screens at the front of the bus and are announced in English, so you know when to press the bell to get off.
How much does it cost to take the bus in Malta?
If you’re just going a journey or two you can pay as you go on the bus. It’s €2.00 a journey in the day and €3.00 at night and you can pay by cash or contactless card.
If you’re going to be using public transport quite a bit over a number of days it is probably worth getting a 12 single journeys card for €15. You’ll need to purchase these, or any other type of card at a self-service machine. Trying to find the locations of these machines can be tricky as there doesn’t seem to be any public information about where they’re located, and although it says you can also purchase the cards in newsagents I found this wasn’t the case. The ticket machines are usually in busy tourist areas, for example, the one I eventually found was by all the bus stops at the Sliema Ferry terminal. I believe there’s also one or more at the main bus terminal in Valletta.