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If you didn’t know much about Malta before now, that’s likely going to change. While it may be a tiny country in the Mediterranean—the smallest country in the European Union and its capital is the smallest in Europe—Malta has become one of Europe’s most talked-about destinations.
A once-overlooked, petite archipelago overshadowed by its larger and more popular sun-kissed neighbors Italy and Greece, Malta is stepping up to the spotlight, especially after its capital city Valletta was co-crowned European Capital of Culture 2018—Valletta shares the title with Leeuwarden, The Netherlands.
What this island country lacks in square miles it makes up for with its sheer concentration of ancient archeological wonders, an eclectic and cosmopolitan culture, and stunning azure sea views in nearly every direction. Malta’s attractions are luring more and more travelers—there was a recorded nearly 30 percent increase of visitors from the U.S. alone in early 2018. It doesn’t hurt that English is Malta’s official language—it was under British rule until 1964—and it’s a safe and peaceful country.
Capital of Culture, Valletta
There’s so much more to Malta than its 300 days of Mediterranean sunshine and sparkling sea coastlines (although we admit this what initially attracted us). The capital city Valletta has hundreds of monuments within a relatively small space, making it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Declared a world heritage site due to the vast number of historical ruins in the city, Valletta isn’t just resting on its ancient laurels. The European Capital of Culture 2018 is brimming with culture beyond its archeologic wonders and is infusing innovation and modern art into its trove of 7,000 years of history.
While strolling through this compact and walkable capital, you’ll find modern art next to medieval fortresses. The recent reimagination of Valletta’s ancient world is credited to Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed Valletta’s City Gate, the modern parliament building, and the open-air theatre in the ruins of the former Royal Opera house.
Malta’s Masterpiece and Caravaggio's Sanctuary
A visit to Valletta won’t be complete without taking in one of Caravaggio’s must-see masterpieces in Valletta's Oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. The notorious bad boy artist Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, fled Rome in 1607 after he was wanted for murder and sought protection and absolution from the Knights of St. John in Malta. The artist thought the Knights of Malta, the last surviving outpost of the network of military religious orders, would recognize him as a fellow soldier. A quiet spiritual life did not last Caravaggio and he fled again after a brutal brawl with other knights. But the unorthodox artist, known for dramatic use of shadow and shafts of light, did leave behind some of his most important pieces of art, including his largest and only signed work 'Beheading of St. John the Baptist.’ Try to spot the artist’s signature in the painting’s red blood oozing from John's head.
Cinematic Appeal—From Popeye to Games of Thrones
With its fortified hilltop cities, ancient medieval architecture, rugged coastlines, and stark rock formations jutting out of azure blue water, it’s no surprise that Malta’s old-world look has made cameos on the silver screen for over a century. A popular filming location since 1925, when it starred in the silent movie, Sons of the Sea, Malta has been featured in over 200 films.
Malta’s former capital Mdina was used as a stand-in for the metropolis of King’s Landing on HBO’s hit Games of Thrones. The Azure Window that was used in filming GOT has since collapsed, but the Blue Grotto could make for a perfect stand-in. Gladiator, Troy, and Popeye were also filmed in Malta. Popeye’s Village has turned the 1980 film-set into a theme park.
On the island of Comino, you’ll find St Mary's Tower, which is featured in The Count of Monte Cristo. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt spent their honeymoon filming By the Sea in Malta, even though it’s supposed to be the South of France in the film. We can’t see why the breathtaking bay of Mġarr ix-Xini in Gozo couldn’t keep these two in love.
Old Glamour Hotels Restored with Modern Luxury
Malta’s first luxury hotel built in 1939, The Phoenicia Malta, is the ideal base for exploring Valletta with its prime location on the edge of the city walls. Just steps from the Triton Fountain and City Gate, this historic art-deco hotel used to be the vacation haunt of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. You’ll certainly feel the regal touch at this five-star property that’s recently been restored to its glory days as one of Europe’s grandest hotels. The showstopper here is the new outdoor infinity pool secluded by the city’s ancient fortification and overlooking Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
The other grand dame hotel deserving of the spotlight is the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, the original flagship and birthplace of the iconic Corinthia brand. Opened in 1968, this five-star historic hotel is a secluded retreat adjacent to the Presidential Palace and the San Anton botanical gardens. The hotel started out as a restaurant in a restored 19th-century villa, and today the Villa Corinthia restaurant continues to be one of the most sought-after places in Malta for contemporary fine dining.
If you want to sleep by the sea, add a few days on at the hotel’s sister property, Corinthia Hotel St George's Bay, where you can take a dip in six pools on the palatial waterfront property, or swim at the hotel’s private beach. The hotel also provides private sailing yacht and catamaran rentals.
Blue Lagoons, World War II Shipwrecks, and Underground Worlds
After you have had your fill of Valletta’s opulent interiors such as Grand Master’s Palace and Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palace where Malta’s remaining royalty call home, it’s time to explore its outside wonders. Hop on a boat or charter a yacht to the country’s least inhabited island Comino. Locals give different population numbers, but it was said last year that Comino lost one its four residents. Whether it has four or forty residents, Comino’s undeniable top draw for drastically increasing its population on any given day is its breathtaking Blue Lagoon. This jaw-dropping shallow turquoise bay is what beckons day-trippers to this car-free island.
Up the adventure ante and explore the caves and shipwrecks under the sea in Malta. A popular diving destination with its crystal clear, year-round warm waters, even diving in Malta includes a lesson in history—there's numerous shipwrecks from World War II, when Malta became one of the most bombed locations in history.
Or explore Malta’s subterranean marvels at the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, one of the world's best preserved prehistoric sites, an underground labyrinth of burial sites dating back more than 5,000 years. Ħal-Seflieni Hypogeum only allows 80 visitors a day to preserve the delicate site, so best to plan ahead for this one.
Far-flung Islands That Are Easy to Get to
While Malta’s remote sun-soaked shores in the middle of the Mediterranean might be hard to locate the map, in just a few hours’ flying time you can reach this pint-sized archipelago from most mainland European cities. British Airways offers daily flights to Malta from London Gatwick. Once you arrive in Malta, renting a car is your best option to explore the islands. And it only takes 20 minutes on the regular ferry service to get between Malta and Gozo. Or better yet, rent your own boat or yacht and linger on the azure sea for as long as you like.