Planning a trip to Malta

By Mark Segal
This item appears on page 12 of the March 2021 issue.

During my one-week visit to the archipelago of Malta in February 2020, I realized that because there is so much to see and do there, it’s important for independent travelers to plan ahead and be efficient with their time. Despite its small size, this country has much to offer.

As a result of its strategic location, Malta has been controlled by or fought over by most Mediterranean powers during the past 3,000 years, among them the Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Castilians and Abbasids.

The story of the Knights of Malta, who controlled the island from 1530 (when they received it from Charles V of Spain) until 1798 (when Napoleon took it from them) is fascinating, and their fortifications and palaces are well worth visiting. Malta’s greatest challenge and defining event was the Great Siege of 1565, at the hands of the Ottomans.

Tales of Maltese valor and suffering in World War II are legendary. The country served as an Allied base despite two years of constant bombardment. Axis military resources were diverted and impeded from Malta, changing the course of the war in North Africa, and it became the launching pad for the recapture of Sicily in 1943.

In addition to all this, some of the oldest stone buildings in the world can be found there — impressive ruins and tombs that predate the pyramids of Giza and even Stonehenge.

If you’re thinking of visiting Malta, the following is a sample itinerary to consider.

DAY 1: If possible on your arrival day, take a 90-minute 2-harbor cruise. It will provide up-close viewing of all the main fortifications of the capital, Valletta, and the neighboring Three Cities. This will help you get oriented and give you an excellent feel for the natural layout of the port, one of the finest in the Mediterranean. There are regular departures from Sliema.

DAY 2: Spend the entire day in Valletta, a city built by the Knights.

Tour Fort St Elmo at the National War Museum, then visit St. John’s Co-Cathedral (with its impressive inlaid marble floor), the Grandmaster’s Palace (on my visit, the State Rooms were closed for renovations, but the armory was open) and the 16th-century palazzo, Casa Rocca Piccola. The National Museum of Archaeology, with its fascinating collection of ancient artifacts, is not to be missed.

Enjoy the spectacular panoramic view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, then walk about, enjoying the architecture and style of this planned city of gridded streets.

DAY 3: Spend the day in Mdina, the ancient walled city and former capital, right in the center of and dominating the island.

Start by visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, dedicated to the man who was shipwrecked in Malta in AD 60 and is credited with bringing Christianity to the island. The cathedral also has a museum nearby.

Your next stops could be Palazzo Falson and the National Museum of Natural History. There isn’t much left of the Domus Romana (Roman House), but it has some nice mosaics and exhibits and is the place to learn about the Roman times.

There are also several interesting sites in the adjoining city of Rabat. St Paul’s Catacombs are often listed first, but a visit involves climbing in and out of different tombs that are not very decorated. Another option is St Agatha’s Crypt & Catacombs, which have interesting frescoes and are part of a walking tour. Don’t miss the adjoining small but fascinating Wignacourt Museum.

In this amazingly eclectic museum, you’ll find historical and religious art, and from its underground level you can visit the Grotto of Saint Paul, where the apostle reputedly sought refuge for three months. The underground level is also connected to a complex of World War II air raid shelters.

Other attractions in this area are the Malta Aviation Museum, the Malta National Aquarium and the Dingli Cliffs, but you can save those for a different day.

To reach Mdina, take a bus from the central station just outside of Valletta, at the Triton Fountain. If you time your visits right, you can see Mdina using a hop-on, hop-off bus.

DAY 4: Step back into Neolithic history by visiting some premier archaeological sites, starting with the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola. This necropolis, dating from the 4th century BC, is an extraordinary place, like another world from the past.

To protect the site, a maximum of eight tours are permitted each day, each with a maximum of 10 participants. Booking online ( is essential, preferably weeks or even months in advance.

Nearby are the Tarxien Temples, which are at least 5,000 years old. The next two Neolithic sites are Haġar Qim and Mnajdra, located near each other on the south coast (not far from the Blue Grotto). These three sites are like smaller versions of Stonehenge, but they are older and have intact ceremonial rooms. Giant canopies protect these sites, detracting somewhat from the spectacular settings.

The Ghar Dalam Cave and museum are also worth visiting. This cave has produced many fossils and historical remains, including evidence of the first human habitation of Malta, around 9,000 years ago.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum can be reached with a 15-minute bus ride from Valletta. With good planning, you can use the southern route of the hop-on, hop-off bus to visit all four of the Neolithic sites in one day, making some additional stops too.

DAY 5: Gozo, one of Malta’s main islands, has its own identity and history. For example, in 1551, after the Ottomans decided not to attack Malta island, they captured Gozo and enslaved most of the island’s 5,000 inhabitants.

Take Bus 222 from Sliema to the harbor of Ċirkewwa, northernmost Malta, for a short ferry ride (running every half-hour) to Mġarr on Gozo, and from there use the hop-on, hop-off bus to get around or take a local bus.

About 3½ miles from Mġarr is Gozo’s capital, Victoria, more commonly referred to as Rabat, where there is a fortified citadel. You can enjoy panoramic views while walking around its ramparts. Attractions within the walled Old Town include the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Gozo Museum of Archaeology, the Old Prison, the Gran Castello Historic House and the Gozo Nature Museum.

The main Neolithic site on Gozo contains the Ġgantija Temples. If you wish, you can do a combined one-day visit to both Gozo and Comino, sailing directly from Sliema. However, your visit to Gozo will be limited to a 3-hour bus tour, and there won’t be much time for Comino island.

DAY 6: If you choose to devote a day to Comino, the ferry from Sliema will leave you there for about five hours while the rest of the group visits Gozo.

Aside from walking and enjoying nature, there’s not a lot to do on Comino, which has limited tourist facilities, but the Blue Lagoon offers one of the nicest swimming spots you could ever find, and there is an ancient watchtower a short hike away (not always open) plus some relaxing scenic nature walks.

Pack picnic fixings and either sunscreen or a parasol as well as some patience for crowds if you visit in high season.

DAY 7: This is your day to visit Malta’s Three Cities: Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea (Isla) and Bormla (Cospicua), located on three promontories just across the harbor from Valletta.

Focus on Birgu. The original home of the Knights of Malta, it was where they made their stand during the Great Siege. Highlights include the extensive Fort St. Angelo, the Malta at War Museum, the Inquisitor’s Palace and the Malta Maritime Museum.

Reaching Birgu by water requires taking a ferry from Valletta or hiring a small boat. The embarkation point is best reached by taking the elevator down from the Upper Barraka Gardens. Buses also make the trip, but they weave around the bays and take much longer.

DAY 8: You might also wish to spend a day scuba diving or snorkeling. Both Malta and Gozo (particularly the latter) have some amazing dive sites, including historic wrecks, for divers of all levels of experience. Many companies and operators can help you make the arrangements.

Here is some general information.

MUSEUMS – Malta has a lot of museums, many of which are worth visiting despite being modest in size. Museum passes offer significant savings, and there are many choices. Buy them online or, better yet, ask at your first museum to see if, in light of your plans, any of the combination passes are really worth it.

TRANSPORTATION – The classic historical buses have been replaced by modern vehicles, but there are routes to every corner of the islands. Tickets and transport passes can be purchased for set numbers of days or rides on the bus. The only limitation is that many routes are centralized in the capitals, Valletta and Victoria.

Renting a car is easy, but driving in Malta is on the left side of the road, and there are many traffic circles.

An endless selection of tours can take you to different combinations of destinations, and they’re easily arranged. Keep in mind, however, that they usually follow strict schedules, may need to pick up guests from different locations and may not provide as much time as you wish at each site.

If you want to maximize time and efficiency and don’t mind paying a little extra for transport, download the applications for the cab service Bonju Rides ( or Bolt Taxi ( and order your own rides. For a small group, this is an excellent option, since distances are not great and any shared costs are fairly reasonable.

WHEN TO VISIT – Malta does a great job of taking care of visitors, but capacity is limited, so timing your visit is important. The best months to visit are March through May and September through October. Expect large crowds during the summer peak season and on holidays.

WHERE TO STAY – The most convenient place to base is Valletta, but a considerably less expensive option is Sliema, across the bay, which has many hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops in all budget ranges. To reach Sliema from Valletta, take a short ferry ride or a bus. Routes run regularly.

Enjoy Malta!

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