The 9 Best Cities & Areas in Malta for Tourists
Founded by the Knights of the Order of St John in 1566, the capital city of Malta is perched on a rocky peninsula between two harbours and surrounded by tiers of thick stone ramparts. It was supposedly created “by gentlemen for gentlemen”, and whatever you think of that statment, there’s no doubt that modern Valletta has a genteel air, making it a good choice for people who enjoy a bit of culture and sophistication on their hols.
Restaurants and bars tend to congregate along the waterfront and on Republic Street, where you’ll find smart hangouts such as the Charles Grech cafe. The Upper Barrakka gardens offers great views over the Grand Harbour, and nearby is the Castille Place (the town’s administrative hub) and the Saluting Battery, where cannon volleys fire off at noon each day.
The town is rich in architectural landmarks, the most notable of which is St John’s Cathedral, a baroque edifice dating back to 1577. The oratory is decorated with no less than two painting by Caravaggio, including one of his masterpieces, The Beheading of St John the Baptist. The Knights were ruled over by a Grandmaster, and you can go on tours of his magnificent palace and the adjoining armoury. Most properties are more expensive as other places around the island, but still there are several excellent cheap places to stay as well.
Just half an hour by road from the airport, this village west of Valletta is best known for its Paceville neighbourhood, Malta’s prime clubbing hotspot. if you want to spend your Maltese vacation on the tiles, this is the place to be. And to round out its entertainment offers, it also has a cinema, bowling alley and places to shop. If you’re more about dining than dancing, then head to the Spinola Bay area, as it’s here you’ll find the village’s most well reviewed restaurants.
Then there’s the high end Portomaso complex, which is is home to a marina, a Hilton hotel, a Thai restaurant with a koi pond and a tower which is the tallest building in the whole of Malta. If your plan is to chill out in a luxury hotel, then St Julian’s offers a choice of top international chains like the InterContinental and Radisson.
But this town isn’t just about what goes on after dark. Although St Julian’s isn’t the best place in Malta for beaches, swimmers are catered for with five dive schools, offering everything from basic instruction to tours of the local scuba spots.
According to local legend, St Paul was shipwrecked here during his travels, and it’s certainly not a bad place to end up! Quieter than St Julian’s, it features quite a large Maltese population, making it a good choice for people who want to blend in with the natives and experience a more authentic, less touristy picture of modern life on the island.
Reading this, you also won’t be surprised to learn that it offers more in the way of self-catering apartments and b&b’s rather than big hotels. If you’re keen to explore outside town, most of Malta’s other main tourist destinations are 30 to 45 minutes away by bus, with regular services to and from St Paul’s Bay every hour.
Or if you want to check out the immediate neighbourgood, take a gander at the abundant birdlife at the is-Simar nature reserve, or pay a visit to local landmarks such as the Wignacourt tower. Malta has lots of ancient watchtowers, but this is worthy of special attention as it’s thought to be the oldest of all.
Snuggled between Gzira and St Julian’s, Sliema was a favourite with the Brits during colonial times and it still has a distinctly English flavour, as you can tell by street names such as Prince of Wales Road and Windsor Terrace. For the homesick, there’s no shortage of pubs showing football and eateries like The Chophouse where you can chow down on juicy Scottish beef.
The beating artery of the town is the 3 miles of seafront promenade stretching south to north. Here people go for a stroll, exercise or enjoy a morning cup of coffee. A mix of holiday apartments and high end flats, Sliema is a good option for visitors who want to explore all that Malta has to offer, old and new. The rocky coastline offers plenty of prime spots to tan yourself and go for a dip.
The clubs of Placeville are close by, and the beauties of Valletta are only 15 minutes away by ferry. Meanwhile shopaholics can put a dent in their credit cards at the Plaza and the Point, two of the swankiest malls in Malta. When looking for cheap places to stay in Malta, Sliema is a perfect choice.
Mellieha is a picturesque hilltop village with the largest sandy beach in the whole of Malta at its doordtep. Relatively remote, it’s a place to get away from it all, ideal if you’re the short of person who longs to relax in a hammock with a good book, surrounded by stupendous views. Mellieha itself still has a villagy feel and a slow, laid back tempo. It’s also the best place to stay in Malta for beaches.
Meanwhile the bay is shallow, serene and child friendly, with discreet kiosks where you can buy snacks and rent beach equipment, Fitting with Mellieha’s relaxing vibe, there’s a wellness theme to the village accommodation, which specialises in plush spa hotels offering amenities such as golf and tennis.
Local landmarks include a small monastery with a crypt formed from the natural caves below, as well as three veneral watchtowers overlooking different aspects of the bay, each with its own distinctive features. Fancy working off some energy and goinh on a trek? There’s a nature park and heritage trail along ancient hill footpaths, while the kids should get a kick out of a theme park dedicated to the cartoon character Popeye.
Located on the shores of Marsamxett harbour (the body of water on Valletta’s left flank), Gzira is popular with foodies, who can browse a wide selection of Italian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Indian and vegetarian cuisine.
Its main attraction, though, is Manuel island, to which it is linked by a sturdy bridge. Over its long and busy history, the island has gone from being a plague hospital in the 16th century to a fort in the 18th century and an outpost of the British navy in World War Two. Used for shooting several scenes in the hit TV show Game of Thrones, Fort Manuel has a huge parade ground where colourful historic reenactments are staged.
On top of that, the island is home to a duck village (with other forms of birthlife too) and its slipways make photo op-worthy spots to go swimming in the harbour, within view of Valleta’s magnificent ramparts.
Also known as the “Cottonera”, these were the first three towns to be founded by the Knights of the Order of St John when they landed in Malta after seven years of wandering homeless from port to port. In fact, there was already a settlement in Birgu, and the knights adapted an existing Norman structure into the magnificent Fort St Angelo that still dominates the townscape today.
Belying their extreme age, there’s a cool, hip feel to the Three Cities. They’ve become a nexus for small, family run boutique hotels, quirky bistros and smart wine bars. Birgu in particular has been senstiviely developed with a marina, entertainment and fine dining area. But you can’t visit this trio of centuries old townships without experiencing a sense of history.
Bormla alone has over 2 miles of ancient fortifications, while Senglea has a magnificent garden from where you can look down over the Grand Harbour. In addition, Birgu boasts museums dedicated to its maritime heritage and to Malta’s role in World War Two.
Want to learn more? A groundbreaking company called Rolling Geeks will send you out on a tour of the Three Cities in a self-driving electric vehicle. And If you’re in the mood to pick up a bargain, Birgu also plays host to a market on Tuesdays and a car boot sale on Sundays.
Head down to the blunt southern end of Malta and you’ll find this row of three attractive fishing villages. Most of the fish that makes its way onto dinner tables right across Malta is caught in Marsaxlokk, so it’s no surprise that it also has some of the island’s finest seafood restaurants, as well as a thriving fish market on Sundays.
A quiet getaway destination and popular lunch spot, it also has a pleasantly laid back nightlife scene, with a nice mix of tourists and locals. You can tell at a glance that the village still makes its living from the sea by the colourful blue and yellow striped luzzu fishing vessels that line the quays, and by thenets laid out for repair every day. And yet although it feels quiet and remote, it’s actually only 10 minutes by road from the airport.
A quarter of an hour away by foot from Marsaxlokk is Birzebugga, where you’ll find Fort St Lucian. Built in 1610, this ancient building is still in active use after four centuries as an marine research centre. Nearby too is Marsaskala. This has a quiet waterfront with cafes and eateries, and two of the area’s best beaches, St Thomas Bay and St Peter’s Pool. Also in the vicinity are several watchtowers built by rich local families, all with something unique to catch the eye.
Malta is in fact an archipelago, and its second largest island is Gozo. Home of the seductive nympth Calypso in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, it’s quieter and more rural than the main island of Malta. Marsalforn draws visitors with its first rate seafood restaurant scene.
There’s also a small beach, rocks where you can sunbathe, and plenty of spots for snorkelling. Diving centres offer boat excursions to other islands and to the Blue Lagoon, one of the best swimming spots in the whole archipelago. With its shallow waters, transparency and brightness of colour, it’s perfect for watersports, snorkelling or just paddling about.
Another setting that will have you reaching for your camera, Xlendi is a resort in the southwest of Gozo, situated in a cove sheltered by steep cliffs and topped with a watchtower. The idyllic location attracts a rich array of birds and plants, and there’s a feeling of antiquity. Roman amphora have been found in the reefs that fringe the bay, and there are tombs dating back to Punic times in the nearby hills. And for another trip into the past, the curious can explore a cave which was used as a private swimming spot by local nuns.