Despite its small size, Malta is packed to the gills with things to do and places to visit. The downside of this is that many destinations across this tiny archipelago in the Mediterranean are always teeming with tourists, all clamouring for a fleeting glimpse of an ancient fresco or a shady spot at the beach.
While some of Malta’s top attractions are definitely worth the long lines and throngs of tourists, there are scores of alternative, less crowded destinations you can visit. Aside from having fewer visitors, these secret spots in Malta offer plenty of history, culture, and everything you could ever hope to discover and experience on a trip to these Mediterranean isles.
Valletta, capital of Malta since 1571, is by no means the country’s largest city. With an area of 0.61 square kilometres and a population of 5,827 (as of January 2019), Valletta is one of the smallest cities in Malta, as well as one of the smallest capital cities in the world. It’s also one of the most densely populated, and it can be even more crowded during peak tourist season.
Thankfully, there are a lot of places within the city limits and the neighbouring Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua that remain under the tourist radar. Visit any of them if it’s a unique Valletta experience you seek.
Deep beneath Valletta’s ancient walls is a network of tunnels more than 450 years old. In 1565, the Knights of Malta dug the Valletta Tunnels to store the supplies they would need to withstand an invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The besieging Ottomans reportedly dug their own tunnels to get inside the city. When either side broke through into the tunnels of the other, some of the most heated clashes of the siege took place.
Four hundred years later, the tunnels again played an important role in safeguarding the Maltese. A British colony during World War II, Malta was relentlessly bombed by the Axis Powers — in fact, it was one of the most intensively bombed countries during the war. Daily bomb raids sent thousands of Valletta’s residents scrambling for safety in the tunnels. Some of them even dug new ones beneath their homes or businesses to store supplies.
The tunnels lay forgotten until 2009, when an archaeological survey unearthed them. A few of the tunnels are now open to the public, but most of them are yet to be rediscovered.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral Skeleton Tombstones
The architects who designed St. John’s Co-Cathedral might have had a severe case of horror vacui. Such was their disdain for empty space that they covered every available surface inside one of Malta’s most important churches with gold leaf, vibrant frescoes, and intricate inlays.
If you look closely at the floors — from the nave to the chapels to the oratory — you’ll notice something remarkable. Almost every block of marble is actually a tombstone, and most of them bear an image of a skeleton.
The tombstones date back to the early 17th century and commemorate the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitallers. Many of them have Latin epitaphs that tell the story of the knights buried there, as well as beautiful inlays of skeletons, angels, and crowns and coronets to signify the knights’ aristocratic origins. Besides the tombs that cover the floors, there’s also a crypt where the remains of several of the Hospitallers’ Grand Masters lie.
St. Lucia’s and St. Paul Streets
Narrow, sun-splashed St. Lucia’s Street is just behind St. John’s Co-Cathedral, so it’s the perfect place to grab a spot of lunch or some coffee after a visit to the church. St. Lucia’s Street is also home to a small stretch of shops specialising in silverworks, as well as the Embassy Shopping Complex, a modern mall with state-of-the-art movie theatres and a multimedia museum.
The famous stairway of St. Lucia’s Street begins at the corner of St. Paul Street, just a few steps away from the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck and Is-Suq Tal-Belt, Valletta’s historic indoor market. St. Lucia’s narrow stone steps lined with tiny café tables, lush plants in terracotta pots, and colourful gallarijas lead down to the Church of St. Lucy. Inside, a riot of colour and gold leaf greets you from the altars, each dedicated to various saints and martyrs.
Lower Barrakka Gardens
The Lower Barrakka Gardens may be less popular than the Upper Barrakka Gardens, but it’s no less beautiful. In fact, locals prefer the smaller lower gardens for the peace and tranquillity it offers.
From its terrace right by the water, watch ships glide in and out of the Grand Harbour while snacking on Maltese favourites such as pastizzi with either a ricotta or piźelli (a paste made of peas) filling. From the gardens, you also get a clear view of Fort St. Angelo, Fort St. Elmo, and Fort Ricasoli, which have stood guard over the Valletta harbour for hundreds of years.
A walk along the gardens’ shaded paths leads to a war memorial right by the water’s edge. The Siege Bell War Memorial commemorates the 7,000 Maltese service personnel and civilians who lost their lives during World War II. Every day at noon, the bronze “Siege Bell” is rung in their memory.
Mdina and Rabat
The ancient cities of Mdina and Rabat are among the most visited in Malta. These are the places to visit if you want to get a slice of Maltese history. From the massive gold-hued walls, churches, and palaces of Mdina to the archaeological sites in Rabat, the cities offer a glimpse into Malta’s past and celebrate its people’s traditions.
The Romans prohibited burial within the walls of Mdina, and so Christians who lived in the city between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD dug underground tombs for their dead in the suburbs. One of these is the St. Cataldus Catacombs, accessible via a steep flight of stairs inside the Church of St. Cataldus.
Many of the tombs are surmounted by a canopy hewn from solid rock, while others were carved into the cavern walls. An agape table, a circular platform where relatives of the dead would gather to commemorate their loved ones, is one of the main features of the catacombs.
Lush forests once covered the island of Malta, but most have long been cleared, cut down to make way for farmlands and to supply wood for building ships. One of the few remaining forested areas on the island is the Buskett Gardens.
Located just a few minutes south of Mdina, Buskett was originally the private hunting grounds of the Knights of Malta. Today, it is a public garden frequented by locals and nature lovers. Follow the winding pathways to appreciate the beauty of the various trees, shrubs, and flowers in the gardens, as well as the vineyards and lemon and olive groves within the grounds.
If you happen to visit Buskett in late June, take part in the Feast of Imnarja. On the eve of this harvest festival, join picnickers for a bowl of rabbit slow-cooked in red wine as you’re serenaded by folk musicians and singers.
The coast west of Rabat is home to landscapes too breathtaking to be of this world. One of these is Il-Blata tal-Melħ — “the rock of salt.” This limestone cliff reportedly got its name when an enterprising Italian commissioned workers to carve stairs and shallow beds right into the rock. Whenever the tide came in, the beds would fill with seawater, which evaporated under the sun’s heat, leaving behind salt crystals. The workers then collected the salt in sacks, loaded these into boats, and took them to the market.
There are a few other salt pans in the area, but Il-Blata tal-Melħ has one unique feature: a narrow staircase with solid rock walls that lead right into the water. Sitting on the steps, you can watch the waves crash against the cliff face or wait for the tide to come rushing in. Don’t go swimming in this area, though — the water is reportedly 100 metres deep at the shore, and even the smallest of waves could take you under.
No landscape on Malta’s west coast can rival the Blue Grotto’s scenic beauty, but the Dingli Cliffs come close. The cliffs include Malta’s highest point, which is marked by a small chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. From there, you get far-reaching views of the Meditteranean Sea and the surrounding valley. Venture into the sleepy hamlet of Dingli and explore Phoenician and Carthaginian tombs cut into the rock, as well as the ruins of Roman baths.
The Dingli Cliffs stretch north to south from the Blue Grotto to Baħrija — a two-hour trek across rugged terrain overlooking vineyards and the sea. From Baħrija, it’s a treacherous walk down to Fomm ir-Riħ, a secluded bay that offers great swimming, diving, snorkelling, kayaking, and fishing.
Mellieħa is known for being the northernmost town in the island of Malta and for having some of the best beaches in the country. The most popular beaches are in Golden Bay and Mellieħa (or Għadira) Bay, which is home to Malta’s largest sandy beach. Spend the day splashing about in the shallows and explore nearby attractions, including quirky theme park Popeye Village and rose-coloured St. Agatha’s Tower, as well as these extraordinary destinations.
Għadira Nature Reserve
Every autumn and winter, millions of birds migrate south to warmer climes, and Malta’s Għadira Nature Reserve is one of their pit stops. Grab a pair of binoculars and see the 140 bird species that make this 17-acre wetland area their temporary home.
During this time, you can spot ducks, white wagtails, reed bunting, ospreys, honey buzzards, and the occasional flamingo and red-breasted flycatcher. Meanwhile, spring and summer are when egrets, sandpipers, and redshanks can be seen wading in the brackish shallows. Year-round, resident birds such as moorhens and Sardinian warblers, as well as zitting cisticolas making their distinctive “snipping” call, can be spotted in the park.
Il-Majjistral Nature and History Park
Malta’s first national park was established in 2007 to protect and conserve the natural heritage of Malta island’s northwest region. This area of coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, and fertile farmlands encompasses a wide diversity of native trees and plants, as well as different species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, including weasels and wild rabbits.
There’s also a number of important historical and agricultural sites, including prehistoric cart ruts, medieval towers, and the ruins of neolithic circular stone huts called giren. There are also the razett — traditional cubic farmhouses made of limestone, with a wide courtyard and a rooftop veranda. Many of the razett in the area have fallen to disrepair, but some are still occupied by families that have tilled the land for generations.
A big sign along a lonely stretch of highway will point you to Selmun Palace, an 18th century villa on the Selmun Peninsula northeast of Mellieħa proper. What once was a grand hunting lodge of the Knights of the Order of St. John now stands empty and practically derelict, and the abandoned hotel out back only serves to emphasize the sorry state of this once-elegant building.
Plans to rehabilitate Selmun Palace and turn it into a tourist destination — and filming location — have been made, and these will hopefully return the villa to its former glory. As it stands today, though, it’s a great side trip from Malta’s more popular spots and a great way to get acquainted with Maltese culture and history. The numerous cats that roam the grounds freely and greet visitors happily are enough of a reason to make a detour to Selmun Palace.
Some of the best beaches in the Mellieħa area are the most remote and secluded. For instance, Għajn Tuffieħa Bay can only be reached via a steep flight of stairs down a craggy cliff face. Because it’s harder to reach than neighbouring Golden Bay, Għajn Tuffieħa is hardly ever crowded, and the red sand beach is pristine.
Farther up north is the Arħax Peninsula, which is home to several spectacular secret swimming spots. Slugs Bay can be reached by going down a craggy slope. The rocks and boulders at the shore have discouraged development of the bay, so you probably won’t encounter another soul when you visit, except maybe for one or two devoted divers. Meanwhile, reaching the Coral Lagoon on the peninsula’s northernmost tip involves a considerable trek along the rocky coast, but the crystal clear turquoise waters inside this natural cave will be truly worth the effort.
Neighbouring beaches Armier and Little Armier are popular among locals; on weekends, especially, you’ll likely come across entire families going on banana boat rides or having a picnic on the cream-coloured sand. Rent a sun lounger and a beach umbrella, and watch the boats ferrying daytrippers to and from the islands of Comino and Gozo across the bay.
Gozo and Comino
Compared to the main island of Malta, Gozo and Comino are smaller, more rural, and much more laidback. And with populations much smaller than Malta’s — Comino actually has only three year-round residents — they are far less crowded, offering a tranquil retreat away from the rabble of tourists in Malta.
Victoria — or Rabat, as it is still referred to by Gozitans — is the capital and geographical heart of Gozo. Spread across a cluster of hills in the middle of the island, the city encompasses both the old town of Rabat and the Citadel, an enormous medieval building visible from virtually every part of the island. Places of interest in Rabat include Pjazza Indipendenza (known as it-Tokk), St. George’s Basilica, and Villa Rundle Public Gardens, a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city.
The Citadel itself is a popular tourist destination, but within are some little-known spots that are worth a visit. For instance, there’s the Old Prison; generations of prisoners covered the cell walls with graffiti, including some pretty impressive sketches of ships. There’s also the Folklore Museum, or the Gran Castello Historic House, which houses a vast collection of traditional Gozitan and Maltese crafts, artworks, and everyday objects.
To the east of Victoria are the Ggantija Temples, the oldest free-standing structures in the world. At 5,800 years old, these temples predate Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Wander around the complex for a closer look at the well-preserved buildings, as well as the numerous figurines and statues found throughout the site.
Wied il-Għasri and Wied il-Mielaħ
A crooked creek with crystal clear water snaking between two rugged cliffs is one of the most picturesque things you’ll see in Wied il-Għasri. And after a long walk or bike ride across this rocky valley, you’ll definitely want to take a cooling dip in the water. You might also want to follow the creek as it merges with the bay, a good spot for diving and snorkelling in Gozo. Up for more adventure? Trek to the salt pans at Reqqa Point — take note of the star-shaped imprints left by sea urchins on the ground — then on to those in Xwejni Bay and Qbajjar Bay.
To the west is another beautiful valley with a rock “window” that provides spectacular views of the Mediterranean. Wied il-Mielaħ is home to a sea arch reminiscent of the very popular Azure Window on the other side of the island. (Sadly, the Azure Window collapsed during a storm in 2017.) A narrow spit of sand at the bottom of a rocky cliff lets you peek through the Wied il-Mielaħ Window; across a stretch of blue-green sea, you’ll spot another window that’s also worth a visit.
Ta' Ċenċ Plateau
One of the lesser-known spots in Gozo is the Ta' Ċenċ Plateau. This area of rough limestone and garigue occupies about 49 acres of the island’s southern coast. The cliffs just outside the village of Sannat rise 145 metres above the sea, offering exhilarating views on all sides. Follow the trail across the plateau to Mġarr ix-Xini for a relaxing swim in the sheltered bay.
Nature enthusiasts would be happy to spend a day spotting birds such as Cory’s shearwaters and European storm petrels, which nest and breed in cavities in the cliffs. Meanwhile, history buffs would enjoy exploring the nearby ruins of the megalithic temple Borġ l-Imramma and megalithic tombs called dolmens.
Santa Marija Bay
Santa Marija Bay’s tree-fringed beaches have always been popular among campers, so the news that the area would be closed to camping was met with universal dismay. Luckily, the new Comino camping grounds were opened in June 2019; though closer to the Blue Lagoon, campers and other visitors to the island can still easily access the beaches and caves that have made Santa Marija Bay popular.
Divers come year after year to the Santa Marija Caves, a vast system of sea caves on the island’s north side. Ten of these caves are accessible, some shallow enough to allow snorkelling. One cave extends 30 metres through the headland and into another cave; a large shaft marks the caves’ junction, bringing sunlight into the caves and giving the waters a brilliant azure glow.
There are a lot more secret spots to discover and explore in Malta, and Wheel & Anchor is giving you the chance to see them all. Join us on our Sicily, Malta, and the Aeolian Islands tour in May 2021 for a Mediterranean adventure like no other. Sign up today.