How to Go Beyond Malta’s Capital of Culture

Stacey McKenna leaves Malta’s capital Valletta behind to learn more about the island nation’s North African and European influences.

Photo © Stacey McKenna

The Maltese archipelago has received a lot of attention recently thanks to Valletta’s 2018 European Capital of Culture status, but to go deeper, I want to go beyond the strollable streets of the capital.

Stay in the Silent City

My first stop in Malta is Mdina, the country’s capital from the 8th to 16th centuries BC. Just 7.5mi (12.4km) from Valletta, the ‘silent city’ earned its nickname because most visitors come during the day, leaving the streets cloaked in lamplight and quiet after dark.

While I make time for some of the city’s attractions — the National Museum of Natural History has a great display on the islands’ geology — I spend most of my time ogling the Baroque architecture and wandering the labyrinthine streets, the 11th-century relic of Islamic rule. Watching the sunset from Bastion Square is a highlight, as is strolling the gold-lit alleys.

A Mdina alleyway at night. Photo credit: Stacey McKenna

Go Beneath the Surface of Malta

In nearby Rabat, just 2.5mi (4km) away, I explore the catacombs at St. Paul’s Cathedral; subterranean cemeteries, with clusters of tombs and ceremonial halls carved into the limestone. Originally built during the Roman era, when bodies could not be buried within the city walls, the catacombs have fallen in and out of use through the centuries.

Most recently, they served as air-raid shelters during World War II, when the Mediterranean archipelago’s strategic position made it a target for Italian and German militaries. The 6,000-year-old Hypogeum Hal Saflieni, in Paola, is another underground site worth exploring for its corbeled ceilings, prehistoric paintings (the only ones on the island), and echoing “Oracle Room.”

A wedding party spilled out of Rabat's Collegiate Church of St. Paul, built in 1675. Photo credit: Stacey McKenna

Walking the Dingil Heritage Trail

A 40-minute bus ride from Valletta, the village of Ħad-Dingli is home to the17th-century Saint Mary Magdalene Chapel, and where I start the Dingli Heritage Trail, a 7.5mi (12km) clifftop path, on the southern coast of the island, that links country churches, bronze-age villages, and temples that predate the Egyptian Pyramids. I find the Saint Mary Magdalene Chapel locked, but enjoy the views of the terraced hillsides that descend to the sea.

Trails trace Malta's clifftops, often offering up views of the eroded coastal archways that seem to spring from the sea. Photo credit: Stacey McKenna

I veer onto a path through the wildflower-strewn landscape, and switchback down a steep slope, where I find a series of small caves — some dug into the limestone and left open, others blocked up with cinder blocks — and stone walls. There are no signposts, but I later learn that nearby sections of the same cliff band have cave houses which archaeologists believe were inhabited from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Soon, the trail downward fades and I turn back to continue hiking the trail to reach the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra complex.

Over half way along the Dingli Heritage Trail, I arrive at the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra complex. The heritage park includes megalith (limestone block) temples from the Ġgantija and Tarxien periods, between 4,500 and 5,500 years old. Among the most ancient religious sites on Earth, they are described by the World Heritage Sites committee as "unique architectural masterpieces".

Sitting on top of a cliff, the ancient structures are built from megaliths weighing up to 20 tons, adorned with carvings and statuettes, and have unobstructed views of the sea. I walk through small doorways and peep through portholes that were positioned to line up with seasonal solstices.

The temples at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra were built during Malta's Ġgantija phase, between 3600 and 3200 BCE. The giant boulders, or megaliths, were quarried from local limestone and weighed as much as 20 tons. Photo credit: Stacey McKenna

Blue Grotto Boat Tours

Malta is popular for scuba diving and sailing, but I take a tour of the Blue Grotto, a system of archways, bridges, and caves that waves have carved into the limestone cliffs on the south coast of Malta. I board a colorful boat at Wied iż-Żurrieq’s fisherman’s wharf, near Qrendi, and we set out along the coast for about 15 minutes before we reach the caves.

Boats take turns entering the caverns, which reach a depth of about 85ft (26m) into the rock.  It’s surprisingly peaceful inside. Minerals in the rock cause the water to glow different colors, including bright cobalt, purple, green, and even pink depending on weather and time of day.

Horseback Riding on Gozo

To explore more of this island nation, I catch the ferry from Ċirkewwa Ferry Terminal on the northwestern tip of Malta to the nearby island of Gozo, a 3.7mi (6km) boat trip away. Known for the Inland Sea, a lagoon of seawater linked to the Mediterranean Sea through a natural arch, Gozo has many beaches, is a center for water sports and is one of the top diving destinations on the Med.

I am drawn to less-developed Gozo to ride horses, and head to Gozo Stables, where Joe, owner, horse trainer, and guide, greets me.

I join a small group tour and ride a spirited chestnut horse which keeps things interesting, while novice riders get quieter steeds and all the guidance they need. The hour-long horseback tour weaves through nearby farmlands and culminates with a stop at unmarked ruins of an 18th-century battery overlooking the sea.

By the time I leave Malta, I realize I haven’t even begun to scratch the small island nation’s ancient limestone surface. But what I have done is just enough to know I need to come back.

Trip Notes

Ditch the taxis

Walking or traveling by public transport are the best ways to explore Malta. The transit system is comprehensive, distances between attractions are short, and the drivers and passengers are helpful.

When to go

Most of the year the weather is pleasant. For water sports, summer is best (June to September). To avoid the crowds or for active walking trips, try spring (March to May) or fall (October and November), when temps are down.

Where to stay

Valletta makes a great base from which to explore the main island and even day-tripping to Gozo. For a sense of what makes Mdina special, stay at least one night.

Connect locally

English is widely spoken, and Malta is a destination for English language learners. So, as tempting as it is, don’t just rush from site to epic site. Take advantage of the easy communication to chat with residents about their islands.

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