Though Malta has a population of only half a million, its turbulent past placed it at the historic centre of the succession of struggles for power in the Mediterranean and witness to the changing cultures of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Its fascinating historiography has been shaped by centuries of foreign rule by various powers, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Swabians, Aragonese, Hospitallers, French, and British.
As a result, the country is home to a number of fascinating historical sites. Here’s our pick of 10 which you shouldn’t miss when paying a visit.
The Grandmasters Palace in Valletta has been the seat of power in Malta since the 16th century. It was in 1571 that the Knights Hospitaller of St John made the Grandmasters Palace their base, a role which it would fulfil until 1798, when this religious and military order left Malta.
Today, as well as being a government building, parts of the Grandmasters Palace are open to the public, particularly the State Rooms and the Armoury. The opulent and lavishly decorated State Rooms display several art collections of which many, such as The Great Siege Frescoes by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, date back to the times of the Knights Hospitaller. Meanwhile, the Palace Armoury contains the impressive collection of armour and weaponry of the Knights Hospitaller.
The Ggantija Temples are a UNESCO-listed megalithic temple complex on the island of Gozo and some of the world’s oldest surviving religious structures.
Comprised of two well preserved stone temples enclosed by a wall, it is unclear as to exactly when the Ggantija Temples were built. UNESCO put their origins between 3,000BC and 2,200BC, although others date it to as early as 3,600BC.
The eponymous Verdala Palace was built by and named for Grandmaster Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle, the 52nd Grandmaster of the Order of Malta in 1586 in Buskett Gardens. Over the years it has served as a military prison holding French soldiers captured by the Maltese or British during the French Blockade of 1798-1800 as well as a silk factory under British rule but in the early 1800s it fell into disrepair.
Since Verdala Palace is, in essence, a private home, it’s closed to the public but there are some great walks through Buskett Gardens and the local village of Siggiewi offering stunning views of the palace. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you will have already seen the palace in a different guise – it was the set of the exterior of the mansion of Illyrio Mopatis in Pentos.
The Malta Aviation Museum in Takali houses an impressive collection of aircrafts, military uniforms and related equipment.
The main focus of the Malta Aviation Museum is World War II, particularly the important role played by Malta between 1940 and 1943. The main World War Two exhibit can be seen in the ‘Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar’ which includes a Supermarine Spitfire MkIX and a Hawker Hurricane MkIIA.
Mnajdra is a coastal megalithic temple complex in Malta listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The earliest of the Mnajdra temples was built sometime between 3,600 BC and 3,200 BC, dating back to the Ggantija phase, although there are several temple remains.
St John’s Co Cathedral in Valletta is one of the most important reminders of the Malta’s time under the Christian and military order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John.
Today, this grand cathedral is a testament to the Knights Hospitaller. Whilst externally it is a relatively simple structure, the inside of St John’s Co Cathedral is resplendent with frescoes, paintings and carvings. Many of these chart the life of the cathedral’s namesake. Amongst the works found in St John’s Co Cathedral are several by Caravaggio. In fact, St John’s Co Cathedral is home to the only painting ever signed by this famous Italian painter.
Located in the Auberge de Provence, house to the Knights of the Order of St John, Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology exhibits an impressive and intriguing collection of artefacts dating back as far as 5,000 BC covering Neolithic, bronze age, Phoenician period and others will soon be open and dedicated to the Punic, Roman and Byzantine periods.
You can refer to the museum catalogue or attend one of the guided tours.
Hagar Qim is one of Malta’s UNESCO-listed megalithic temples. Dating back to between 3,600 BC and 3, 200BC, Hagar Qim is a single temple which stands dramatically on a cliff-edge, although it may once have been a larger complex. There are also some other prehistoric structures nearby.
It’s worth noting that Hagar Qim is not far from the Mnajdra site and the two are usually seen together.
The Mgarr Second World War Shelter in Malta was one of a number of subterranean bomb shelters used by the population during the Siege of Malta. The Siege of Malta saw the island of Malta being subjected to an intensive aerial bombing campaign by the Italians and then the German Luftwaffe from 1940 to 1943.
The shelter is one of the largest of its kind and, since being found underneath a restaurant, has been restored. Today, it’s open to the public, who can tour its underground passageways and learn about the Maltese experience during the war.
The Lascaris War Rooms in Malta were important military headquarters during World War II and the setting from which the invasion of Sicily as well as many other operations and Malta’s air defences were coordinated. Located underground and comprised of a complicated web of tunnels, the existence of the Lascaris War Rooms was secret.
A Royal Navy base for years after the war, in the 1960s the Lascaris War Rooms became a strategic communication centre for NATO. Since 2009 it has been under the management of the Malta Heritage Trust and is now a popular tourist site.