Located in the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese islands have always had close links to the major centres of civilization and history, with many neighbouring countries claiming title at one time or another down the centuries.
These islands, with a total population of just over 420,000, have a rich culture and intriguing heritage, which dates back over 7,000 years. Here are some of the highlights of this tiny island state.
With a population just shy of 7,000 people, the capital city of Malta is a quaint town, offering a mix of Baroque, Neo-Classical and modern architecture with some buildings dating back to the 16th century. Valletta was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, one of a number of heritage-listed sites in the Maltese Islands.
Perched on a hill in the centre of the island of Malta, the walled city of Mdina was once the capital of the island archipelago. First settled around 4,000BC and later fortified by the Phoenicians, successive conquerors reinforced the defences until the Normans laid claim in 1091. The wall they built serves as an impressive reminder to the city's turbulent past. Nowadays, it is the walls that attract many visitors, keen to explore the history within.
Touted to be the oldest free-standing structures in the world, the Megalithic Temples of Malta are surprisingly less frequented than other ancient monuments. Constructed between 4100 and 2500BC, the temples are dotted around the Maltese islands – six of these locations are now World Heritage-listed.
Built by the Knights of St John at the height of their power, Mellieha is a charming town in the Northwestern part of Malta. Previously abandoned due to fear of attacks by corsairs throughout the 1800s, the town now boasts a greater population than the capital city with over 10,000 inhabitants. Historical attractions include the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha and numerous archaeological sites, which date back as far as the dark ages and the Crusades. Mellieha is also home to some of the world’s finest beaches and cliffside views.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hypogeum is an underground sanctuary and catacombs, which was lost for hundreds of years before its re-discovery in 1902. Visitor numbers are limited to 60 people a day due to the extreme age and delicate nature of this unique underground labyrinth. Book well in advance if you do decide to go as its a popular attraction.
Auberge de Castille
The Auberge de Castille, in Valetta, was built by the Knights in the 1570s to house each langue of Castille, León and Portugal. Located at the highest point in the city of Valletta, the Auberge changed hands numerous times as Malta was first occupied by Spanish Knights, who were expelled during the French occupation of 1798. The building later became the headquarters for the British armed forces in Malta in 1805. A restoration project to rejuvenate the site began in 2009 and was completed in 2014.
Also located in Valletta, this historic structure houses the Office of the President of Malta and the House of Representatives. The site was originally an Auberge d’Italie, constructed in 1570 before being purchased a year later and enlarged into a palace. The priceless tapestries and frescoes alone make this site worth the visit; the tapestries are almost 300-years-old and depict scenes from around the world.
The Maltese islands have an exciting, if turbulent, history. At every turn you will find links to significant events, architectural and archaeological wonders, and culture and art influenced by every major civilization throughout European history, dating as far back as 5000 BC. Whether you’re planning to visit the many UNESCO sites or immerse yourself in Victorian-era artwork, you’ll find the Maltese archipelago a treat to explore.