DestinationsFrom cathedrals to culture, the island country in the Mediterranean Sea has a lot going for it as travel destination.

Malta is Europe's next cruise hot spot. Here's why

Malta is Europe's next cruise hot spot. Here's why

Before the pandemic, I had my money on Malta being the next blockbuster European destination. Look out, Croatia, was my thinking.

And why wouldn't it be? The destination has a lot going for it: the attention garnered by Valletta's status as European Capital of Culture in 2018; its Mediterranean location, only 190 kilometres from Sicily; its booming popularity as a cruise destination, with lines like Viking and Ponant calling there; and, of course, the beauty and charm of the place itself.

Then came Covid-19. The virus stymied travel across the Continent, but there's something a little different about stifling the growth of a destination that's starting to become popular on a wide scale versus, say, one like Paris that is an already established A-list star.

The good news is that while international tourism plummeted during the pandemic's onset -- from nearly 2.8 million in 2019 to 660,000 in 2020 -- travellers are coming back. Nearly 2.3 million people visited the destination in 2022, and while still not back to peak levels, it's worth remembering that, even though we're so done with it, the shadow of the virus still lingers.

The small fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the southeastern region of the island of Malta.
The small fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the southeastern region of the island of Malta. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

Bottom line, I'm doubling down on my earlier prediction. Malta has nowhere to go but up, and here's my list of reasons why:

  • The geography. The Maltese archipelago comprises three main islands: the island of Malta, home of Valletta and the Grand Harbor; the smaller, less-developed Gozo; and Comino, virtually undeveloped and whose Blue Lagoon is a draw for diving and snorkelling.

  • The blend of the unique and the familiar. Yes, it's Old World Europe, with plenty of tiny, winding streets and picturesque architecture to prove it. But it also exudes a tantalising mix of Italian and Arabic influences, which shows up in the language, in town and city names like Rabat and Mdina and in local surnames. The good news for visitors from North America is that English is widely spoken, a remnant from years of English rule.

  • Its Unesco-approved sites. Though a tiny destination, Malta features three Unesco World Heritage Sites: seven megalithic temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo; the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum; and Valletta, Malta's picturesque capital.

Even visitors only glancingly interested in history are likely to be wowed by the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground temple where the walls are adorned with prehistoric art and with origins so ancient that archaeologists don't know who created it or why.

  • Art and culture. One of the most famous paintings by Italian Renaissance master Caravaggio, "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist", is located, not in a crowded museum in Italy but rather in St. John's Co-Cathedral on Malta. Caravaggio was known for his use of shadow and light -- known as chiaroscuro -- and, interestingly, for being a murderer and fugitive on the run from his criminal past.

It's worth noting that St. John's Co-Cathedral is one of 365 churches in the islands -- one for every day of the year.

Another compelling site is St. Paul's Catacombs in Rabat, a fourth century, underground maze that not only reveals the earliest glimpses of Christian life on the island of Malta but also served as an air raid shelter during World War II.

Piazza Regina in Valletta.
Piazza Regina in Valletta. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

  • Medieval charm. Valletta, the jewel in Malta's crown, isn't the only beautiful hot spot in the destination. The walled town of Mdina, the country's oldest city and once its capital, has the fairy tale quality that Europhiles often look for, and at night, its main buildings sparkle with illumination.

Another highlight is Birgu, a tiny, fortified city across from Valletta's Grand Harbor that packs a lot of charm for its size. Attractions include Fort St. Angelo, once a medieval castle, and the intriguingly creepy Inquisitor's Palace, complete with torture chambers.

  • Nature. For a day-in-the-country experience, the island of Gozo offers unspoiled countryside, a smattering of temples and churches, hiking trails and beaches.

The mild year-round temperature lends itself well to outdoor pursuits, and Gozo is accessible from the main island of Malta by ferry or multiple private yacht charter companies.

  • Festivals. Malta is festival-happy, and while there are too many to list here, a few notables include the Malta International Arts Festival in Valletta, offering music, theatre dance and arts events from 16 June to 2 July; and EuroPride Valletta 2023 from 7 to 17 September.

Source: Travel Weekly

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