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
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. 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. 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