The tiny island country of Malta has a lot of surprisingly cool activities and things to see. Like all port towns, the area around the cruise ships in Valletta might not seem all that impressive. But when you venture out, Malta has so much to do that it was impossible to fit into a week. From shipwrecks to prehistoric temples, it might be the most unique island in the Mediterranean.
Ferry around the Three Cities
It might come as a surprise that the most beautiful part of the area surrounding Valletta is not Valletta itself, but the three cities adjacent to it on the Grand Harbor. Made up of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Sanglea, the area is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. With the gorgeous churches sitting along the Grand Harbor, it has all the charm of Venice without all the people (or the smell).
You can ferry around from Cospicua to Valletta for 1.50 euro a ride. There’s another ferry from Valletta to Sliema, which sits on the opposite side of the capital. These cities have existed since the Middle Ages, giving the fortified buildings a beautifully weathered look that reflect off the water.
Enjoy Maltese food on a sidewalk in Valletta
Of course, Valletta itself is not to be missed. The main fortified part of the city is quite elevated and is accessible by an elevator that takes you up from the port. Many of the streets are actually sloped steps, where cafes and restaurants set up outdoor seating. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the most beautiful setting to have a drink and a meal, with the bright blue Mediterranean peeking through the buildings on the horizon.
Maltese food is also quite the treat, and Valletta is the best place in Malta to enjoy it. It’s like Italian food if Italians discovered you can cook with something other than oregano.
Take a boat through the Blue Grotto
Located almost directly south of Valletta on the southern border of Malta, the Blue Grotto is a series of underwater caverns that you can tour by boat. The sun lights up the clear blue waters making the grottos seemingly glow in the dark. Some day tours combine this with Marsaxlokk, providing transportation to and from each of the cities. But you can easily take public transportation yourself from Valletta and then just hire a boat.
Visit King’s Landing in Mdina
I’m not a dedicated enough viewer to catalogue the numerous locations in Malta that have been used as to film Game of Thrones (besides, other people have done it already). But if there’s one place not to miss in Malta, it’s the walled city of Mdina. If you’re wondering why you should bother to go to a Mediterranean island to spend any time landlocked in the middle of the country, it’s because Mdina is fucking gorgeous. From St. Paul’s Cathedral to the ruins of the Domvs Romana, the city is dripping with ancient mystique.
Go deep sea diving to a shipwreck
I’m not sure if I’ve been visiting the wrong seaside cities, or if no other places capitalize on this kind of experience, but diving is a popular activity in Malta. Not just any diving, but shipwreck diving. Isn’t that just the coolest thing you’ve ever heard? Of course, to dive you have to be certified, but many diving schools offer a one-day crash course that involves shallow water diving and then boating to one of the shallower wrecks with a guide.
It’ll cost you a pretty penny (at least 90 Euro). But it’s worth it, to be able to get up close and personal with the WWII wreck, HMS Maori, or the P29 wreck, which is just a decade old. You can also dive in the reefs, if you don’t like the idea of swimming around rusting hunks of metal that are being reclaimed by the ocean. (I mean, come on. Reconsider.)
Go to the seaside market in Marsaxlokk
I’m a real sucker for colorful boats. Though you’ll see a lot of different kinds of boats and ships on the harbor around Valletta, the best place to see a whole sea of tiny colorful Maltese boats is the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. The tiny town is also known for its open air market, where you can buy all sorts of clothing and jewelry as well as food.
Go way back in time at the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Malta doesn’t just have a lot of history, but a lot of pre-history. This Neolithic complex in Paola, Malta was unearthed in 1901 and dates back to 3000 BC. Archeologists believe it was a necropolis, housing the remains of over 7,000 people. Though there are many prehistoric archeological sites scattered around the country, this one is widely seen as being the best preserved example of a Maltese temple since its underground. Others, like Ħaġar Qim and the Ġgantija temples are above ground, though they’re still popular places to visit.
Swim in the clear blue waters of the Blue Lagoon
This is probably the only super packed tourist attraction in the world that I would wholeheartedly recommend despite the crowds. Located in the small island of Comino, the Blue Lagoon has sparkling blue clear shallow waters with a sandy floor. It’s beautiful from a boat, from the cliffs of Comino, and from its own icy waters. It’s also kind of a party, so have a drink and enjoy the shitshow.
Explore the island of Gozo
Gozo is the largest of the Maltese islands (not including Malta itself), and in many ways it’s a smaller version of Malta. You’ll find some beautiful architecture, ancient archaeological sites and beaches. One of Gozo’s most popular sandy beaches is Ramla Bay, which is overlooked by Calypso’s Cave, believed to be the cave in Homer’s Odyssey. Gozo is also home to dramatic seaside cliffs, like those at Sannap and Dwejra Bay (previously the home of the Azure Window, which was lost to a storm).
Visit the set of Popeye
Before Game of Thrones came around and started claiming all sorts of sites around Malta, another classic hero called Malta home: Popeye. The 1980 musical starring Robin Williams was filmed on a seaside set built for the movie near Mellieħa. It’s currently a theme park, Popeye Village. Aside from movie props that can be seen inside some of the houses, you can also take a boat trip around Anchor Bay.
Relax by the sea
If you’re in Malta, or thinking of visiting Malta, you probably went in search of a seaside escape – where you could lay out under the sun and listen to the water crash against the rocks. There’s absolutely no shortage of this in Malta, because you can’t escape the ocean no matter where you are. There are a couple of popular sandy beaches in Mellieħa and St. Paul’s Bay, like Golden Bay and Mellieha Bay. Many people are content to sit back on any edge they find, even if it’s rocky. Or better yet, sip cocktails at a restaurant that overlooks the water.
Though deceptively small, trying to see all of the unique things Malta has to offer is probably just as impossible as trying to see all of the US in a week. But take it easy; you’re in the Mediterranean. There’s no room for stress here.