Travel Highlights in Malta – a personal list

St Johns Co-Cathedral in Valletta

Back in Berlin, after travelling for 10 days on Malta and the neighbouring island of Gozo, we looked back on intense days of travel. So, we came up with a list of our personal travel highlights in Malta.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Malta was not really on our list of potential travel destinations. But with the rising incidence rates we were looking for a suitable destination within Europe. One condition was that it still had a warmer climate in November. We were wavering between Cyprus and Malta, but in the end, Malta made it. And looking back, Malta is a travel destination we would recommend, for sure.

The island of Malta is densely populated and we knew beforehand that it is not a hiking destination. However, Malta has a very varied and long history and we were prepared to do a lot of sightseeing. And a lot of the items in our list of Malta highlights are classic traditional sightseeing spots. As you might expect, some of them are even UNESCO World Heritage sites.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta on Malta

St Johns Co-Cathedral in Valletta

Over the years we have visited many very opulent churches. Some of them were UNESCO World Heritage sites, like the Wieskirche in Bavaria or the painted monasteries in Bucovina. Thus gold-plated interiors of churches do not easily impress us. But the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta really blew our mind. It was the Maltese Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere who commissioned it in the 16th century to serve as church for the Order of the Knights of St John.

The Caravaggio painting is a highlight in Valletta's St Johns Co-Cathedral

The interior is a feast in gold and stucco. The Order of St John – the Maltese Knights – was organized along ethno-linguistic and geographic divisions. Each unit was called a langue, or tongue. Altogether there were eight tongues and every one of them had its own side chapel in the huge church. And all of them tried to outdo each other with design and pomp.

The hefty entrance fee of 15 € included an informative audio guide. We listened and looked, and listened, and looked more. Altogether we spent almost two hours inside the church. At the end of the self-guided tour through the church we had a look at the Oratory. It houses a magnificent painting by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” is one of his largest paintings and the only one that bears his signature. A highlight within a highlight.

Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni

Model of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in the Archaeological Museum of Malta

Wherever we travel, we check the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country. Malta currently has three UNESCO sites inscribed. We managed to visit all of them, but only one made it onto our Malta Highlights list: The underground man-made cave system of Hal Saflieni. The oldest parts of Hal Saflieni are more than 5000 years old. That’s before metal technologies arrived on Malta. So the people dug them without metal tools, using only other stones for the work. Apparently, they used the site first as a sanctuary of some sorts, later it became a necropolis.

When archaeologists discovered the caves around 1900, they found the remains of more than 7000 people. Parts of the caves feature elaborately painted spirals and dots. The red ochre used to paint them is very sensitive, so entrance is strictly limited to only a few people per group. Inside no pictures were allowed.

The female statuettes found at the Megalithic temples

Statues from Hagar Qim in the Archaeological Museum of Malta

There are six Megalithic temples on the UNESCO World Heritage list, but none of them made it onto our “Highlights in Malta” list. Admittedly, the temple of Ta Hagrat was a close runner-up. But we loved the small and not so small statues of women that were found at these temples. Some of them are only a few centimetres in size, most of them about 20 centimetres, and the giant Tarxien statue must have been three meters high. Most of the statues are quite fat and look instantly like fat women. While many might be ambiguous and could possibly show extremely fat men (think of sumo ringers), there are some with large breasts that are clearly female representations.

giant female statue in the megalithic temple of Hal Tarxien, Malta

Many of the statues are headless, but there is a hole in which a head could have been attached. As there are no written sources about the Megalithic cultures of Malta, archaeologists are still pondering the reasons. Were the heads removed during a ceremony such as a burial? Was the statue intended to have different heads? Like: “As today’s priestess on duty, Lady XY welcomes you”? Seeking out the statues at the Archaeological museum in Valetta and some other on-site museums was intriguing!

Historic Old Towns

Street corner in Mdina (Malta) by night

We loved strolling through the old towns of Victoria (on Gozo) and Mdina (on Malta). We couldn’t get enough of the small alleys with statues of saints high up on niches in the walls, and the numerous small and bigger churches. And the cobbled streets were a delight during the day and, especially, at night. Other travellers were searching for specific viewpoints: The old town of Mdina also was a movie location in the first season of Game of Thrones.

Early morning in the harbour town of Marsaxlokk

Early morning at the Marsaxlokk harbour was a highlight of our Malta trip

We visited the fishing village of Marsaxlokk on Sunday for the famous Marsaxlokk Fish Market. To beat the tour groups, we wanted to be there early in the morning and thus spent the night from Saturday to Sunday in Marsaxlokk. On Sunday morning we went for the market just after sunrise before breakfast. The vendors had just arrived and were setting up their stalls. But we could stroll along the harbour front, taking pictures of the many colourful boats in the morning light. The market itself was a bit of a disappointment, though. Most of the stalls were selling shoes, Christmas decoration, plates, and all sort of knick-knack.

The Aviation Museum in Attard

Aviation Museum in Malta

Shortly before we came to Malta we read “The Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead. The book is about a woman who learned to fly small aircrafts during the 1930s and ’40s against all odds. Not only were women not expected to do such things as flying a plane. Marian Graves, the heroine of the book, does not even come from an affluent family. Besides the story itself we also enjoyed learning about the early years of aviation and aircraft development. So, when we read about the small Aviation museum on Malta we were hooked. This was a chance to see some of the planes described in the book for real! Especially the Supermarine Spitfire, a single seat fighter plane that was used by the Royal Air Force before and during WW II.

A culinary highlight in Malta: Ricotta Qassatat

Qassatat Ricotta in Valetta

Food on Malta was ok, but not superb. We did not particularly like the famous pastizzi filled with cheese or peas. But we loved the similar, but less fatty Qassatat. Especially those with ricotta cheese, fresh and warm.

Have you travelled in Malta? Let us know about your personal Malta highlights in the comments.

NB: Our trip to Malta was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves. This post does contain affiliate links.

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  1. Another good visit for you both. Supermarine Spitfire I think you meant altho a Submarine Spitfire would be something!

    1. Dear Dennis, so nice to hear from you! Yes, it was fascinating to read about the war planes and the early history of aviation. People took to flying like you learn riding a bicycle today. Not in numbers, but without much prior knowledge. There even were instructions available on how to built your own small plane.

  2. This really leaves an appetite for Malta!
    Apart from that, I just came across the vaccination rate there, which is obviously nearly 97%. So it‘s a very safe place to be these days….

    1. Dear Beate, we enjoyed our trip very much, indeed. But Malta really lacks nature. It is one of the most densely populated places in Europe. We can show you pictures next time we meet!

  3. My godson and I went scuba diving in Malta two years ago and visited the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Archeological Park, among other places, on our dive-free days 🙂

  4. I always wonder from did the ancient humans get the strength to live in such difficult spaces. I was imagining them making cave sanctuaries with stones, digging and digging. I would like to see the fishing village Marsaxlokk. Even the church looks amazing with its gold interiors.

  5. I remember being amazing at how opulent the cathedral is in Valletta, and having one of the most important Caravaggio’s in the world is amazing. All the other sights are great as well, but I think just strolling around the villages with that lovely golden stone is what Malta is all about.

  6. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni must be spectacular if they are the only UNESCO site that made the highlight list. I can’t imagine digging a cave system with only stone tools. Great tip to try a Qassatat

    1. Dear Sherianne, just imagening how old the caves are and how the people back then made them gave us goosbumps. It is a fascinating glimpse into the past.

  7. Ah, if you only knew how much I want to visit Malta! We planned on going for a day a few years ago, when we were in Sicily. However we decided that Malta was worth more than just a short day trip, so we decided to postpone it for another time. Seeing how much there is to see and do there, I’m glad I did. But I’ll have to plan a trip to see the old caves, the historic towns of Victoria and Mdina. The cathedral in Valletta looks stunning also!

  8. I loved Malta. It is one of my favourite countries! Just like you I too love to look for UNESCO sites wherever we go and I’m glad that I managed to get a ticket of Hal Safleni. We loved the temples too actually. Apart from the history, we loved their setting, on the seaside. We completely missed the Aviation Museum, so I’m glad to read about Marian Graves here!

    1. Dear Bhusavali, the aviation museum was really interesting. Actually, Marian Graves was not a historical person, but the main character in a novel I read. The novel got me interested in historic planes!

  9. I love any place that is historic and has ruins. I have always had Malta on my list and I will visit it sometime next year if I can. I knew about the museums, caves and the ruins, but it is interesting to see the museum on aviation as that is something I have never heard of.

  10. I did not realize that there is so much to see and do in Malta. I would love to see the St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and see its magnificent details personally. A trip to the aviation musuem sounds fun too as I have been to one.

    1. Dear Clarice, the aviation museum was very interesting! We had read a book about the history of aviation shortly before we went to Malta and got interested in the subject.

  11. Love the photography. The details in the ceiling are so amazing. I love cathedrals and palaces, and all those places with elaborate artwork. They are so ornate. The food looked good too.

  12. Malta has been on our travel wish list for far too long. It would have been on our plans for 2021 but sadly got pushed to a future date. We would definitely love strolling in the old towns. And enjoy the fishing harbours. Too bad the food you found was not great. But I know we will love all the fresh seafood.

    1. Dear Linda, I think there is good food. But maybe you have to invest some time into research to find the good restaurants. And then, sometimes go a bit out of your way to get there. Malta is quite touristy, so I guess there are many restaurants that do just average food for tourists. It was not bad either.

  13. The underground man-made cave system history sounds interesting. I wonder what they did to the 7,000 bodies they found at the site. But the fat female statuettes are definitely intriguing. Why like that?

    1. Dear Umiko, it was not 7000 whole skeletons, but only parts of 7000 bodies. They recovered them and store them in the Archeological Museum now. Some of the skulls are on display there too. And the archeologists try to learn about the past from them.

  14. I love exploring small countries. They seem to have that special charm to them. Malta is one of those countries I would like to explore. Ricotta Qassatat looks mouth-watering.

  15. Malta has been on my travel list for years now as I have seen and heard so many great things!!! There is so much to do and see there I would have to make a weeks worth trip visiting here. The historic caves and that cathedral in Valetta look too die for! I am hoping my family and I can make the trip there this summer.

  16. Wow! It never struck me that Malta has so many fascinating UNESCO sites. I am blown away by the picture of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Its gold-plated interiors are just stunning and worth admiring.

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