Golden Bay is one of Malta’s most popular beach destinations. // © 2015 Visit Malta
Feature image (above): In the seaside village of Marsaxlokk, visitors can see traditional Maltese fishing boats and sample traditional seafood dishes. // © 2015 Visit Malta
Malta might be the smallest country in the European Union, but it is a top destination boasting more than 1.4 million visitors a year.
The regal walled city of Valletta towers over the harbor waters of the Mediterranean and welcomes cruise ships from around the world. Approaching Malta by sea is a moving experience — the blue water gives way to the overlapping sandstone buildings and monuments, creating a living painting that's reminiscent of another time.
Malta is strategically positioned, not just for cruise vacationers but also for military purposes. During World War II, it was heavily bombed and fought over. Remains of air raid shelters can be visited on the island today.
Malta’s rich history goes back even further. Religion, royalty and falcons were woven together when the Holy Roman Emperor gifted Malta to the Order of St. John (a Roman Catholic order of knights) as a place to call home. Every year from 1530 to 1798, Malta gave a falcon to the King of Spain as a symbol of gratitude and peace.
Modern Malta has much to offer while preserving its past with three UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the city of Valetta. Many cruise ship visitors will simply remain in Valletta for the day, but to get the most out of this port, a tour of the island is recommended.
Here is an itinerary that covers the best that Malta has to offer.
Travel by Taxi
Once docked in Valletta, grab a taxi. Malta’s charming old bus fleet was replaced by modern air conditioned buses in 2011. And while you can still see the beautiful buses around, taxis will cut travel time by two thirds. Negotiate a day rate and head south to the quaint fishing village of Marsaxlokk.
Visit the Local Market
Sunday has the biggest market in Marsaxlokk, but the daily offerings are plentiful as well. Graze over the seafood and crafts before enjoying a bite by the brightly painted “luzzu,” a traditional Maltese fishing boat with a pair of Phoenician eyes on the bow.
Discover Sea Caves and Historic Temples
A short cab ride west reaches the Blue Grotto, a system of natural sea caves. Take a dip or simply admire the sapphire blue waters.
And just 2 kilometers away are the temples of Hagar Qim, one of the most fascinating prehistoric sites in the world. Home to what are thought to be the oldest unearthed freestanding structures known to man, the temples are more than 5,000 years old (pre-dating the Great Pyramid by a thousand years). That the stone monuments — some weighing up to 20 tons — exist on a tiny island makes it all the more improbable.
Explore the City of Mdina
After a quick tour around the temples, jump back in the cab for another scenic ride to Mdina. The walled gem, Mdina, is a must-see destination and probably the most beautiful city on Malta. It is certainly one of the best-preserved walled cities in Europe, and its baroque and medieval architecture are stunning. Dubbed the Noble City, it is also home to Malta’s various royal families from Spain and Sicily.
After perusing Mdina’s charming shops, head to Fontanella Tea Garden for breathtaking views of the island, excellent pizza and fresh tuna baguettes.
Relax at the Beach
No visit to Malta is complete without a trip to the beach. After lunch, drive to the beautiful Golden Bay. Those needing services will find them at the adjacent Radisson Blu Resort & Spa, Malta Golden Sands, or just take a dip and then dry off quickly — Valletta awaits.
Sightsee in Valletta
The capital is small enough to walk across in just a few minutes, yet it holds enough historical treasures to take days to visit.
Start at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in the center of Valletta and wander from there. Just around the corner, Agenda Bookshop is the finest purveyor of English language tomes on Malta.
Farther on, Grandmaster’s Palace has a fine collection of armor and weaponry. It can get crowded during high season; a great insider’s tip is to book in advance. History buffs will also love the Lascaris War Rooms, where Allied defense of the island was headquartered during World War II.
Unwind With Wine
With a quest for history sated, relax at the San Paolo Naufrago wine bar. The establishment spills out onto the sidewalks, making it the perfect stop for a late afternoon aperitif.
The final stop should be at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a wonderful terraced outdoor space overlooking the historic port. Linger over that last glass of wine or iced tea, and reminisce over the fantastic day in old Malta. Then, let the shiny modern elevator whisk you back to your cruise ship.