written by
Jennifer Jones

Stone age hunters and farmers first arrived to the islands from Sicily around 5200 B.C. Ghar Dalam, a cave in Malta, is the discovery site of the earliest human settlement on the island some 7400 years ago, as well as there are bones of Ice Age animals visible inside the cave. Nearly 4,000 years later around 3500 B.C., megalithic temple builders built some of the oldest existing structures in the world such as those at Mnajdra and Hagar Qim. Ensuing, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and the Byzantines all left their mark on Malta.

Christianity was brought to the island in 60 A.D. when St. Paul became shipwrecked here. In 870 A.D., the Arabs conquered Malta and left a very important mark on their language, Maltese. After many years of power struggles, including an occupation by Napoleon from 1798 to 1800 and then Britain from 1800 to 1964, Malta gained its independence in 1964. The State of Malta became the Republic of Malta 10 years later and officially joined the European Union in 2004.

The many conquerors and rulers of the island left behind a bountiful culture. The islands come alive each February with the start of carnival week, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Masked balls are held with fancy costumes. Lavish late-night parties wind through the night. A tickertape parade of extravagantly colored floats presided over by King Carnival with marching bands and costumed revelers enchant the senses.

Malta is also home to vibrant nightlife and laid back wine bars, even with its traditional conservatism and the steadfast Catholicism of the older generation. Every April in the country’s capital of Valletta, firework factories compete and exhibit their finest works. In the summer, many of the small towns have feast days dedicated to saints. The week-long feast means decorations will be hung and fireworks will explode in the night sky. The June Malta Mediterranean Folk Music Festival is a spectacular three-day event with everything from traditional Maltese folk songs to time-honored Maltese foods. July plays host to the Malta Jazz Festival attracting the greats of the international jazz scene to Malta. In the Fall, Notte Bianca is a night-long celebration of culture and the arts. Many historic building and museums open their doors late into the evening to host special exhibits and performances.

In 2018, Valletta received the award of European Capital of Culture. Throughout the year and beyond, Malta is hosting a series of cultural events to showcase the many talents of the Maltese people. This is also an opportunity for the city to raise its viability on an international scale and helps advance urban regeneration. This honor has only been given to about 40 European cities so far. Valletta’s turn as European Capital for Culture is expected to create a cultural framework that will benefit local artists for many years to come.

When visiting Malta, there are many sites that one should not miss. Malta’s most impressive church, St John’s Co-Cathedral, was designed by the architect Gerolamo Cassar and built in Valletta between 1573 and 1578. A huge painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is one of its greatest treasures. The floors of St. John’s are the tombs of famous knights of the Order of St. John. The Mosta Dome was built between 1833 and the 1860s on the site of an earlier Renaissance church. Based on the design of the Pantheon in Rome, the dome is the third largest unsupported dome in the world. On April 9, 1942, a bomb struck the dome during a mass with more than 300 people attending, but the bomb did not explode. This event was interpreted by the Maltese as a miracle.

Dating even further back in history, the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni is a subterranean structure with a series of complex halls and burial chambers dating from 3000 to 2500 B.C., but not discovered until 1902. It is estimated that some 7000 bodies may have been entombed here.

The Blue Grotto (Taht il-Hnejja) is a series of seven caves and inlets on the southern side of Malta. Here you will find deep blue waters and magnificent natural rock formations. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are the best preserved of Malta’s prehistoric sites set on the cliffside of southwest Malta. These UNESCO World Heritage megalithic temples are the oldest freestanding structures on Earth built approximately between 3600 B.C. and 700. In total, seven megalithic temples can be found on the islands of Malta and Gozo.

On Malta’s rural sister island, Gozo, you will find the captivating Ggantija temples as well as beautiful orange-red sandy beaches. These temples are known for their Bronze Age structures. Another not-to-miss stop in Gozo is the Citadel in Victoria. Here you will find a small bastion city built at the top of a hill with sweeping ocean views. Visit the Inland Sea, an impressive geographical feature carved out by the Mediterranean. Gozo can be reached by a 25-minute ferry ride from Cirkewwa, the harbor of Malta.

Back on the island of Malta, the former capital, Mdina, is absolutely charming. The city lies behind high walls and dates back almost 4000 years ago. The city does not allow any cars on its narrow streets and time appears to have stood still here.

The majestic Mediterranean Ocean lends itself to great diving and snorkeling with many dive sites close to shore. There are also amazing surf spots spanning all over the island, including Palm Beach, St. Thomas & Ghallis. All are close to the visitor center of Malta on the north shore.

The official languages of Malta are Maltese and English so if you are reading this, you will be able to navigate your way around the islands and communicate with locals. Make sure to try some of the local delicacies such as lampuki pie, rabbit stew, bragioli, Kapunata and more. Make sure to ask the locals where you can find the best Maltese dining — they always know the good spots!

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