Discovering Malta

Marsaxlokk village port in Malta | Photo by Balate Cristian Mircea
Marsaxlokk village port in Malta | Photo by Balate Cristian Mircea

Discovering Malta

by Jessica Zen
Stripes Europe

Peacefully resting the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and the coast of North Africa is Malta. While the island is currently a prime place to vacation, this wasn’t always true. Malta’s history has been plagued with sieges, wars and various rulers. Tour a fort from the Great Siege, learn about the Knights of St. John and wander through the streets of the silent city to discover the rich history embedded within the very walls of the buildings. Malta is teeming with history, ancient architecture and radiant sea views.     

History

The Knights of St. John played an important role in Malta’s history. They were part of a Catholic military order that ruled from the 16th to 19th centuries. Malta was gifted to the knights by Charles V of Spain in 1530. These magnificent knights settled in Birgu and made improvements to Fort St. Angelo to make it their position of power. Their rule came to an end in 1798 when Napoleon seized the island. 

Despite their downfall, the knights left evidence of their military rule all over the island with forts, bastions, watchtowers, cathedrals and more. Take note in the signature eight-point Maltese Cross displayed everywhere, which symbolizes the eight obligations of the knights: “to live in truth, have faith, repent one's sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and whole-hearted, and to endure persecution." Anything you can find with this cross makes a perfect souvenir! 


Fortified city of Mdina in Malta | Photo by Marek Idowski 

Mdina

The old capital of Malta from the middle ages is the fortified “silent city” of Mdina. It rests on a hill in the center of the island and is quite impressive to view from afar. Be sure to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. This 17th-century structure has a Baroque facade and took 5 years to build. Inside you’ll find an ornate vault and a ceiling with paintings of St. Paul’s shipwreck by the Manno brothers. Outside you’ll notice the twin bell towers, which loom over the city.

In many gallery windows throughout Mdina, you’ll see colorful hand-blown glass. These mesmerizing pieces range from marbled vases to intricate sculptures. At Mdina Glass, you can watch the glassblowing workshop where master artists create amazing pieces. These pieces also make great souvenirs. 


Port of Valletta at sunset | Photo by foottoo 

 

Valletta

The first stone was laid in 1566 for the new capital of Valletta. This took place after the Great Siege of 1565, when against all odds, the Knights of St. John defeated the Ottoman armada. Fort St. Elmo was constructed by the knights in 1552 and was at the forefront of many battles during the siege. It has since been rebuilt to mirror its original star shape. Today it is home to the National War Museum. Inside you’ll find military armor from both order knights and the Ottoman Turks, as well as various items from wars from the Bronze Age until World War II. 

St. John’s Co-Cathedral was also constructed by the Knights of St. John. It was completed in 1577 and features a Baroque facade, but the inside is what is truly stunning. This place of worship is a veritable work of art, with a marble tombstone floor and gold-gilded everything. The massive vaulted ceiling features various works of art, but you can’t miss the work by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in the oratory. His famous painting, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” was created in 1608. If you do nothing else in Valletta, make time to visit this gem. 

For a more thrilling adventure, go diving in the warm, sparkling waters to the HMS Maori British destroyer that was sunk in 1942. This dive is great for all skill levels, even beginners. You’ll glide along the sandy seafloor at a depth of about 52 feet. If you’re looking for a more challenging dive, the island of Gozo offers dives to the Blue Hole and various other opportunities to take in the underwater oasis that surrounds the islands.  


World-famous Azure Window in Gozo Island | Photo by Mirko Vitali

Gozo

Located a quick 20-minute ferry ride from Malta is Gozo. Known as the “little sister,” this island is perfect for finding secluded sandy beaches and impressive architecture. The Ta’Pinu Basilica dominates an open landscape while the ocean glistens in the background. This place of worship was constructed on a site of miracles, where the Virgin Mary appeared to villagers. Inside features a marble canopy, mosaics, stained-glass windows and various sculptures. After you’ve taken in the views of the basilica, take a walk down the Stations of the Cross path to the top of the hill. Here you can enjoy amazing views of the island. 

You can’t leave without visiting one of the shimmering beaches. Ramla l-Hamra is the biggest and most popular due to the rich, almost red-colored sand and idyllic surrounding countryside. The shallow waters and ample space are perfect for families that want to get away and spend some time relaxing in the sun. 

The sheer amount of history located on these two small islands is extraordinary. Spend your time next to the sea or wandering through the narrow streets in the cities. Discover elaborate worship sites and ancient forts on your Malta adventure. 

 

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