Why Malta Is The Perfect Mediterranean Island For A Historic Vacation

The Mediterranean country of Malta is one of Europe's smallest nations, yet its diminutive size belies a rich and fascinating history. The tiny archipelago of three islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) covers just under 200 square miles, and it is dotted with an abundance of sites that make it an absorbing vacation for history buffs. 


Situated just 58 miles south of Sicily and 186 miles from the coast of North Africa, Malta has been inhabited since around 5900 B.C., and its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has made it a coveted prize over the millennia. Many empires have come and gone: The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Aragonese, and many others have fought for control and left their mark. Napoleon Bonaparte seized it in 1798 as a staging post for his Egyptian campaign before the British took over for the next few centuries, and the islands were a key base for the Allies during World War II — Winston Churchill described Malta as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier."

Malta gained independence in 1974 and joined the European Union in 2004, and nowadays welcomes over 2 million visitors each year with its attractive blend of cultural treasures, beautiful weather, excellent beaches, and English spoken across the nation, all packed within an easily navigable distance. With plenty to see, the only real question is how much you can fit in during your visit.


Where to start in Malta

Even if you stay elsewhere in Malta, Valletta is a must-see destination on any itinerary. With a population of just under 6,000 people, this gorgeous and easily walkable capital city overlooks a scenic harbor, and the focal point of its historic center is the grand dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. There are many more historic sights as you meander through the atmospheric streets, plus plenty of attractive cafes and restaurants for refreshments or a relaxed bite to eat. Scuba divers can also explore a reminder of the island's naval history, the wreck of HMS Maori.


The Basilica is just one of many majestic religious buildings across the three islands. Even small towns are dominated by majestically large churches and cathedrals, as you will see in places like Siġġiewi, Żebbuġ, and Rabat. Neighboring the latter is the former Maltese capital, Mdina, one of the most gorgeous walled cities in the world. Known as the Silent City, around 250 residents live within the ancient fortifications, a car-free zone of narrow streets that boasts an ornate Baroque cathedral.

Not all of Malta's stunning religious treasures are centuries old. On the island of Gozo, Ta' Pinu Sanctuary became a pilgrimage site after locals supposedly heard a heavenly voice near the old 16th-century chapel. The present gleaming architecture began construction in 1920 to welcome the influx of visitors, and it is said to be a place of miracles.


Other historic things to see in Malta

As fantastic and inspiring as Malta's religious buildings are, a historic trip to the islands isn't just about churches. You can delve back to pre-Christian times at wonders like Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a warren of Neolithic underground burial chambers and tunnels dating to 4000 B.C. Visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site are limited to only 10 people every hour, so consider booking a tour in advance. Also worth visiting are the megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim, located on a hilltop near the sea caves of Blue Grotto. Discovered in 1839, the ancient chambers are around 5,000 years old and were once used to worship fertility symbols. The most famous, the Venus of Malta, can be seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.


Fans of military history can get their fix at the Mgarr World War II Shelter, tunnels used during the Siege of Malta, or the Malta Aviation Museum, which is home to Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes. Movie buffs will also find some cinematic heritage tucked away in a rocky bay near Mellieħa. Popeye Village is a leftover movie set built for Robert Altman's 1980 film about the cartoon sailor starring Robin Williams, and it remains one of the island's most popular tourist attractions. Malta is one of Europe's best beach vacations, but it is just as perfect for a historic getaway.