20 Malta highlights including hidden places you should not miss
This is one of the most interesting islands in the Mediterranean sea with plenty of history and gorgeous beaches all around the coast.
It’s a small country, however, so easy to get lost in the so many things to do and see.
For this reason, I have built this guide with the Malta highlights and a few off-the-beaten-path things to do
A mix of well known and secret spots that will give you a great overview of Malta.
A list that is just perfect if you are visiting Malta for 3, 5 or 7 days, or even longer.
Table of Contents
- 1 Malta highlights – in a nutshell
- 2 St John’s Co-Cathedral
- 3 National Museum of Archaeology
- 4 Casa Rocca Piccola, the hidden secret of Valletta
- 5 Fort St Elmo
- 6 Upper Barrakka Gardens
- 7 Grand Harbour boat tour
- 8 Valletta
- 9 Esplora
- 10 Birgu and its waterfront
- 11 Tal-Karmnu Sheep Farm
- 12 Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
- 13 Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples
- 14 Mdina and Rabat
- 15 Popeye Village
- 16 Blue Lagoon & Comino
- 17 St Peter’s Pool
- 18 Marsaxlokk
- 19 Blue Grotto
- 20 Coral Lagoon
- 21 Unmissable 4 beaches
- 22 Gozo Island – day trip or longer stay
Malta highlights – in a nutshell
The country of Malta is actually based on three islands:
- the main island of Malta, the most popular destination
- the small and less popular Gozo still stuck in the past with the centre in the town of Victoria
- the hidden gem called Comino, a tiny island famous for its Blue Lagoon, perfect for a day trip
Here below is a map with all the Malta highlights and a few hidden secret spots that you should visit too.
This is a quick list of things to do based on your budget and place of stay. However, scroll down or follow the links for a full description of the attraction.
- Budget highlights: If you are on a budget then I definitely suggest a walk in Valletta, Birgu and inside the walls of Mdina ($0). St John’s Co-Cathedral access is also inexpensive and well worth the few Euro. On Sunday go to the fishing market in Marsaxlokk and have a walk to the St Peter’s pools for a swim ($0). Also, any of the Malta beaches has a free public section.
- Malta highlights tour in a day: With just one day in Malta, I suggest staying in Valletta and around. Have a walk in the old town, take Grand Harbour boat tour to see the Medieval towns from the water, visit Fort St Elmo and if you still have time, the Casa Rocca Piccola. For drinks, go to Bridge Bar and for dinner at the Il-Horza Restaurant (Maltese cuisine)
- Malta Highlights for 3 days: In three days you can plan some really nice itineraries that would allow you to discover most of the island and the Blue Lagoon too. You should also include a trip to Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Mnajdra and Hagar Qim, the Blue Grotto, Popeye Village and the beaches. For more details, I have written a full 3 days in Malta itinerary with a few options based on the budget, if you are travelling with kids on in a romantic breakaway, with or without a rented car. They are five day-by-day plans to be inspired and possibly build your own.
- Unmissable things to do in one week in Malta: In one week in Malta, you can experience all of the below highlights and so much more. You should, in this case, refer to my complete guide to 7 days in Malta for more details and day-by-day plans.
- Highlights of Valletta area: St John’s Co-Cathedral, Walk inside the wall, Grand Harbour boat tour, Lascaris War Rooms, National Museum of Archaeology, Casa Rocca Piccola, Fort St Elmo, Bridge Bar for drinks at night,
- Unmissable places to visit in Birgu: Get lost between the small lanes of this lovely old town. Then have a drink or a coffee at Birgu. Keep going and visit Fort St Angelo at the Malta at War Museum
- Highlights of Rabat: The biggest highlight of Rabat is St Paul’s Catacombs. From there you can have an easy walk inside the fortifications walls of Mdina
- Highlights of Mdina: Walking inside the fortification walls of Mdina is like walking in an open-air museum. You should add in your bucket list also the Mdina Cathedral and Museum
- Highlights of Gozo: Gozo actually offers more than you may think. It’s a small island with many attractions and places to experience as the Cittadella Fortress in Victoria (also known as Il-Kastell), the Salt Pans in Zebbug, the Rotunda St. John Baptist Church, Dwejra Inland Sea (a small green lagoon with caves and cliffs around, the perfect spot for a boat tour around), The Old Prison of Gozo and the Blue Lagoon (technically not in Gozo but in Comino, still a very short boat ride). You can go to Gozo by ferry.
- Secret spots to experience: Sunday fishing market in Marsaxlokk (the sleepy town itself is beautiful), Salt Pans in Zebbug, Victoria Lines (a 12-km wall dividing the North and the South of the main island, also known as the Great Wall of Malta (lovely spot for a walk too), Dwejra Inland Sea, The Old Prison of Gozo
- Famous film locations in Malta: you may be surprised to know that Malta has appeared in many films. Some of the most popular locations are the Popeye Village, Mdina main square (in the famous Steven Spielberg movie Munich), the Dwejra Inland Sea (used as a film set in Game of Thrones), Victoria in the Da Vinci Code and finally part of the Gladiator movie was filmed in the countryside of Malta.
One important thing to note. I have not here mentioned the Grandmaster Palace in Malta’s capital city because it is going to be closed for renovation for 3 years.
In some cases, I have added the bus route as well. Make sure to check on the Malta Transportation website to confirm the time schedule.
You can also think to rent a car for one day, a few days or the whole stay.
My favourite website to hire a car is DiscoverCars.com, a comparison website that provides the lowest price in the market at the moment of your enquiry, very handy
St John’s Co-Cathedral
St. John’s Co-Cathedral is hailed as being one of the most magnificent church attractions not only in Europe but the whole world.
It is truly a beautiful piece of history with roots as far back as the early 1500s.
At first glance, from outside, the co-cathedral is not the most impressive one, especially if you have visited other European cathedrals.
However, the moment you get inside, you will realise it is unlike anything you have ever seen.
From the magnificent architecture to beautiful masterpieces by the Italian painter Caravaggio, this church is truly breath-taking.
If you are planning a visit there, make sure to factor in entry fees, as it is one of the few church attractions in Europe that have one, although not as expensive.
You should also try visiting during the week and in mid-morning hours so you can take in all the beauty without the distraction of crowds during peak hours.
My personal suggestion here is to join a guided Valletta walking tour which includes the visit to the Co-Cathedral.
You will get so much out of a local guide.
Guided Valletta walking tour with Co-Cathedral
National Museum of Archaeology
The National Museum of Archaeology may be small but it is one of the largest in terms of the wealth of history and culture.
It is home to more than 7000 years of Malta’s history from unique Neolithic sculptures to knives from the bronze age.
The museum is particularly famous for being home to a precious numismatic collection with over 16000 coins and medals donated to the museum in 1899.
This includes one of a kind coins from different historic civilisations that you will not see anywhere else.
The museum itself is also a work of art.
The 16th-century structure features a baroque architectural style.
You will get to explore this and its many treasures at your own pace as the museum runs on independent tour systems.
Just set aside about 60 to 90 minutes to go through all the exhibits and take in all the history and beauty around you.
The Casa Rocca Piccola is one of those places in Valletta that, though not famous, is definitely worth a trip for a historic experience unlike anything else on the island.
It’s a little hidden gem of Valletta, a Palladian style palace formerly home to nobility and several wealthy families over the century since it was built in the 16th century.
The rooms have an immaculately preserved décor and you will really breathe the 500 years of history.
A real keep secret of Valletta.
You can also get a full tour with historic highlights from 10am to 5pm.
Once you are done with the inevitably exciting sight-seeing, you could also grab a bite from the in-house restaurant.
Fort St Elmo
Malta has a pretty exciting and interesting military history, from Turkish invasion to militia activity in Sciberras.
The Fort St. Elmo National War Museum is a great place to learn about all this and much more.
The museum itself has numerous war exhibits, including wartime artefacts, pictures commemorating momentous occasions, and very educational text displays.
In addition to the museum, you could walk around the fort which is itself a thing of wonder.
You also have fantastic views to look forward to from the nearby bay.
It is a popular attraction of Malta and you will enjoy it best during off-peak season.
Alternatively, try to make it as early as you can, to avoid the big groups.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
The gardens themselves are beautiful, but I mostly suggest going there for the beautiful views of the Grand Harbour.
From the Upper Barrakka Gardens you will see Birgu and the St Angelo Fort, L-Isla, the sleepy town of Bighi and so much more
It is, in my opinion, the best view that you can get in Valletta.
From there you can also take the lift down to the waterfront where you can catch the characteristic dghajsa to Birgu (more on this later in the Birgu section)
Grand Harbour boat tour
There are many ways to tour Valletta but none as fun and unique as a Grand Harbour boat tour.
This allows you to see the beautiful harbour towns of Malta from a whole new point of view, the water.
This will give you a new appreciation of the beautiful baroque skyline and busy harbours.
Typically, the cruise will last 1.5 hours give or take 20 minutes.
However, it is a fantastic escape from the busy, tourist-laden town and offers a chance to enjoy the beautiful breeze while soaking up the views.
There also happens to be a commentary on board giving useful information as you pass different spots or iconic vessels like the Black Pearl.
Drinks are available onboard otherwise take your own water.
A nice, cold drink will definitely come in handy if your tour is on a hot and stuffy day.
It’s a popular attraction and I personally suggest booking the tour in advance. Usually, you can cancel it free of charge up to 24 hours from the experience, in case you change your mind. Very flexible.
Valletta old town is absolutely gorgeous. It was built in just 5 years as a fortress by the Knights of St. John after the Great Siege of 1565.
Walking and getting lost is an activity by itself.
The two main streets, Republic and Merchant, can be very busy, but everywhere else is still life as normal.
In fact, the northern you walk (towards the St Elmo Fort) the least touristic it becomes.
I had an early wake up at 7:30am on my last trip and I met only locals on that side of the city (great to have a chat with them, by the way), with convenient shops (tiny supermarkets) that are definitely not touristic.
You can find also hidden gems as Sally Port, a fantastic Pizzeria with gorgeous Napolitan style pizza at 6-7 Euro!! And great and quick service too.
In Valletta, or around (Birgu, Sliema or St Julian’s), you can also join one of these fantastic locally run tours
- The Street Food and Culture Walking Tour is a great way to enjoy the cultural and historic sites together with some wine tasting and local street food. It gives really a 5D experience, a sensory trip of Malta
- the waterfront tour of the Valletta Grand Harbour. It lasts 90 minutes, just the right time to get a good view of the marvellous bay. Very well priced.
- if you want to explore Valletta, and I definitely suggest it, you may want to join this 4 hours walking tour, including the visit to the St John’s Co-Cathedral, with a local guide
- if you are in St. Julian’s and looking to meet other people for some fun then why not joining this organised pub crawl
- it’s not an experience by itself but this Malta Airport Transfer will make your life much easier on arrival, extremely convenient if you are on a group trip
Esplora is an interactive science museum at Bighi, a town facing Valletta, just 500 metres from Birgu
Opened on 28th October 2016, it has been an instant success story with kids of any age, and adults too.
I was there with my 8 years old kid and he enjoyed it so much, actually hard to leave.
But, in true honesty, I have learned myself so much too.
It is all about science with hands-on experiments and workshops.
There are plenty of exhibits, from physics to ecology (just to mention the two I liked the most), with the museum helpers engaging the kids into testing the different environments (giving some respites to the parents 🙂 )
The icing of the cake is the fabulous planetarium, where you get a full view of our solar system, so well explained too!
To go there, you can catch the direct bus #3 from Valletta
Birgu and its waterfront
Let me do a step back to the Valletta old town. It is absolutely stunning, however, it can be busy.
I would say even too busy in the summer months, especially at Republic and Merchant Street (the two main streets).
Birgu, on the other side of the Grand Harbour, is an island of tranquillity, one of the hidden secrets of Malta, literally 15 minutes from Valletta.
And there is more, I highly suggest visiting Birgu not only for the city itself (it’s called city, but it is in fact a little town) but also for the trip to reach your destination, that you can do with the characteristic Maltese boat, the dghajsa, through the Grand Harbour for about 2Euro.
The best way to finish off the day is by visiting the waterfront for aperitivo and dinner, with a beautiful view over the Marina and L-Isla (the second of the three cities)
You should read my full post about the Birgu Waterfront with the things you can do and places you can visit, including the St Angelo Fort, the Inquisitor Palace and more.
Tal-Karmnu Sheep Farm
I had such a great time at this farm and I have learnt so much too.
I grew up in a city and, although I moved a fair bit around the world, I always felt more confident living in a city.
My contact with the animal world has been pretty limited to my trips, I must say.
I learnt so much about the sheep world in this experience
Moreover, I went through the entire process from milking to making cheese in the traditional way, all hands-on.
You can see more about the experience in the video I attached in the lower part of this article.
I was there also with my 8 years kid and he had a blast, he absolutely loved it.
This is a great experience for families with children and, in my opinion, for everyone in love with the animal world.
You need to contact them directly on the Tal-Karmnu Sheep Farm website to arrange a day and time for the tour. They are pretty much on demand, which is great.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a place of true mystery and wonder.
It has quite a controversial past and despite being discovered in 1902, it has been consistently open to the public only in a much later stage.
With all the unique structures and wall art, it is safe to say that it was worth the wait.
This attraction served as a sanctuary and burial site for civilisations dated back to 3000BC.
There are three levels for you to explore with the middle one having the most for you to explore.
This includes the Oracle room that is known for its fantastic acoustics and wall art as well as the Main Chamber which is where the iconic Sleeping Lady of Hal Saflieni was discovered.
Something important to note here is that for the cave’s protection, they do not let a lot of people in at the same time.
So make sure to book your tickets in advance to reserve a spot otherwise you might get turned away at the door if they are at capacity.
Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples
Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples are actually two distinct sites.
However, the two megalithic temples of Malta are a mere 500 metres apart and most people visiting Malta will make a 2-in-1 trip for both (there is only one entrance ticket).
The unique structures can be traced back to 3600 BC and are so iconic that they are both a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The structures themselves are beautifully preserved, in fact, they are the oldest standing structure in the world, older than Stonehenge in UK.
In addition to the actual architecture, you have a lot to take in from 4D displays and audio guides that give a new dimension to the trip, allowing you to have an authentic and informative experience.
Something special you may have to factor in is transportation.
The temples are out of any town, which means commuting is inevitable.
If you have a rental car, then you can come and go as you please. You can also stop at the Blue Grotto viewpoint and take a bot to go inside.
However, if you plan on taking the hourly bus from Valletta (#74) you will have to plan your tour properly to avoid long, boring waits.
Mdina and Rabat
A trip to Malta would not be complete without a visit to Mdina.
Mdina was the old capital of the country till the Knights of St. John decided to build Valletta and consequently move the capital there.
Rabat is more of a commercial hub, but in saying that, the Old Town of Rabat, just outside the Mdina Gate is so lovely too.
In Rabat you will find the best ftira (super tasty local round sandwich) in Malta. The place to go is Chez Eman (closed on Mondays). Very economical too.
Back to Mdina. As you enter the main gate, you will feel like in an open-air museum with tiny streets and hidden squares.
The Dungeons Museum is straight on the right side as you enter, in the undergrounds of the Palace Vilhena.
In this unusual museum, you will find the history of the torture in Malta. Definitely a corner of the past that is rarely explored.
The History Museum is right next door. I loved the fact that I could explore the interior of the beautiful Palace Vilhena.
The exhibitions are ok, nothing to call home about but worth spending there 30 to 60minutes.
There are other museums and the cathedral to explore, as you walk towards the centre of Mdina.
The St Paul’s Catacombs, another of the popular attractions of Mdina, are actually outside the gate, in Rabat.
My recommendation here is to stay in Mdina at least for 1 night to appreciate the Silent City with the night lights, a totally different experience.
If you are a fan of the 1980s hit musical film “Popeye” then this should definitely be on your Malta bucket list.
It was initially built as a set village for the film but has since grown into a fully fledged theme park with a water jumping castle and characters from the iconic franchise.
Another really awesome thing you have to look forward to from the village are the daily shows including recreations of famous scenes from the movie and comic strips.
This should definitely stir up some nostalgia.
The best part is that you do not have to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy the village.
This makes it fantastic for family trips, as there will be a lot for the children to look forward to.
This includes playhouses, boat rides, and even village tables for a nice lunch out together.
Moreover, the beach side of the village is now organised with sunbeds and umbrellas (all free of charge, included in the entrance ticket) making it a nice sea resort to spend the day.
Just make sure to time your trip when the weather is nice so you can take in all the attraction has to offer.
You can visit the Village on your own (from Valletta take bus #41 or #42 to Ghadira Bay and from there is a 30 minutes walk or take the direct 101 bus) or on an organised trip.
You can also visit the Popeye Village as part of a full-day experience sailing with a catamaran that will take you also to the Blue Lagoon and other beaches and snorkelling point too.
You can read also about Malta
Blue Lagoon & Comino
Malta’s Blue Lagoon looks like something straight out of a travel magazine catalogue, with breathtakingly beautiful blue clear waters and fantastic panoramic views.
It is definitely worth a visit offering the perfect backdrop for those holiday photographs with which to commemorate your fun holiday in Malta.
In addition to being super pretty to look at, the water in the blue lagoon is usually clear and calm.
This makes it perfect for family trips with older kids that will also enjoy fun activities like snorkelling and boat rides around the bay.
The fact that it is so gorgeous is a double-edged sword because the popularity makes it quite crowded.
If you want a nice spot to set up your beach gear, then you will have to go there early.
It would also be best to avoid the summer peak season if you want to share this slice of paradise with as few people as possible.
And once you are there, which not having a walk around Comino Island, with its beautiful dry nature and stunning views over the island of Gozo and the island of Malta.
It is a great way to mix some sunbathing with some easy trekking.
You would need to join an organised trip to see the lagoon.
You can either opt for a Day-trip including also the islands of Gozo and Comino or a Catamaran Day including the Popeye Village
Blue Lagoon, Gozo & Comino Catamaran Day
St Peter’s Pool
St Peter’s Pool is a must-see for adrenaline junkies and if you want a unique and exciting new experience.
The natural pool is perfect for swimming, cliff jumping, and boating.
The horseshoe formation has beautiful, deep, and clear water making it perfect for a nice day of splashing around with the cliff offering plenty of shade.
If you are not up for a swim, you could go snorkelling in the clear waters just adjacent to the confined pool.
They are just as clear and calm allowing for a really fun experience.
You could also sunbathe on the rocks and enjoy the cliff jumping shows or the beautiful view of the horizon.
St. Peter’s Pool is literally off the beaten path. Either drive there with a rented car or take the bus (#85 from Valletta) to Marsaxlokk and you will have a 30 minutes walk from there.
This is a lovely fishing village completely off the beaten path where the life is going in a sort of slow motion.
The small bay is absolutely stunning, even more so if you see it from the top (see video below where I filmed it with a drone)
Plenty of colourful small fishing boats and, of course, the possibility of buying fresh fish directly from the fisherman in the early morning.
I also suggest a visit to the old market, especially on a Sunday morning when the fish market is on.
On every other day, there are plenty of stalls selling the typical souvenirs and some local products
This is also a fantastic spot to have lunch, with lots of waterfront restaurants offering the catch of the day directly from the boat.
I suggest visiting Marsaxlokk on a (half)day trip with the St. Peter’s Pool.
You can catch the direct bus #85 from Valletta to visit both, although you will need quite a walk for the St. Peter’s Pool.
You can also rent a car for the entire day and squeeze is also a visit in the afternoon to either the Blue Grotto (see below) or the Mnajdra and Hagar Qim Archeological Site.
The Blue Grotto in Malta is one of the most incredible natural wonders on the planet.
It gets its name from the different shades of blue all over the walls of the caves and caverns.
These are as a result of the reflection of light from the blue sea waters, creating magical blue shimmers on the walls.
Despite this name, the Blue Grotto is not a monochromatic spot.
In fact, as you approach shallower waters, you will appreciate all the diversity there is with the multi-coloured flora and fauna that defines the seafloor.
The best part is that the water is super clear, so you can very easily see through it.
There is a lot for you to do here.
You could join a boat trip and tour the bay and its many caves and caverns.
You could also go snorkelling or scuba diving, in which case there is a lot for you to explore.
You can either drive there or catch a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour, one of the easiest ways to see Malta
This is another hidden gem that only a few travellers venture to, completely off the beaten path.
One of the reasons that this great place is still a little secret is that it is hard to get there by public transportation. You would need to catch the bus #49 to Xilep, and from there it is a 3km walk under the sun.
For this reason, I would suggest it only if you have a rented car with you.
The Coral Lagoon is located in the northernmost point of the island of Malta, facing Comino, just a few nautical miles away.
Once you park the car in front of the remote camping area, you need to walk around 10 minutes through the sharp rocks (walking with flip-flops can be challenging), direction north.
Suddenly a big hole opens up from these rocks and you will see the Coral Lagoon.
A short grotto connects this lagoon with the open sea.
It is forbidden to jump into the lagoon (10 metre high jump). The biggest problem I see is not the jump itself (if you have the adrenaline for that), but the way out.
You will have to swim out to the open sea and climb the sharp rocks from there, complicated in case of a wavy sea and even very dangerous because of the sea currents.
Unmissable 4 beaches
You will find many beaches in Malta, of course. There is a good mix of pebble and sandy beaches around.
You should plan to visit at least one, if not all, of the four beaches below:
- Paradise Bay Beach: a small size beach that does not get very busy (except between mid-July and end of August when it’s very busy everywhere). The water is absolutely amazing, of turquoise colour and the beach is sandy. You can also rent your sunbed for the day for some relaxed time. Great view to Gozo, the second island of Malta
- Ghadira Bay Beach: the biggest on the island and popular, too. It’s a sandy one, with shallow water quite popular with families and kids. It’s easily reachable from Valletta or any town nearby. From Valletta grab the #42 direct bus and you will be there in around 1 hour
- Golden Bay Beach: a sheltered, good size sandy beach north of the island, a great spot for sunset drinks. The Pebbles Beach Bar is perfect for drinks and food. This is a popular place in peak season. Try to make it early in the morning if you drive there, otherwise you may find it difficult to park the car. If staying in Valletta, you can grab the direct bus #44 (~1 hour ride)
- Riviera Beach: along the eastern end of Golden Bay. Another amazing beach with shallow water that works great for families. The last time I was there it was windy and wavy, however, that is more of a rare occasion. Parking may be an issue as there is limited space. Go instead to Golden Beach and take from there the one-way road to Riviera Beach. Park at the bottom end of the road, 5-10 minutes from the descent to Riviera Beach.
Gozo Island – day trip or longer stay
Exploring the island Gozo is like stepping back in the past, a small Malta as it used to be.
The capital Victoria is absolutely stunning with the historical Cittadella, 600 years old, on top of a small hill and the Old Town just outside the main gate.
Plenty of yummy restaurants around and an easygoing life made of late dinner and enjoyable cocktails.
Other historical sites to visit are the Rotunda St. John Baptist Church, an unusual new church built on top of a historical chapel, and of course, the famous archeological site of Ggantija.
Then you can find some naturals wonders like the Sanap Cliffs (even more impressive than the Dingli cliffs in Malta Island) or the Dwejra Inland Bay.
And you can finish with a few little hidden gems like the Salt Pans on the north coast or the Xerri’s Grotto, hard to find but unique experience.
The ferry to Gozo is an experience by itself, with a beautiful view of all three Maltese islands (Malta, Comino and Gozo)
I wrote a full guide to Gozo and how to experience it either with a day trip (I suggest a tuk-tuk experience for that) or with one or more nights on the island (read my review on this lovely boutique hotel with the Cittadella view)
5 thoughts on “20 Malta highlights and hidden things to do”