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What is there to see and do in Malta?

The compact trio of islands that make up the Maltese Republic, set squarely in the Mediterranean Sea, are not just a pretty place for a sun-drenched break. The country is both fun and interesting to explore with a real sense of history lent by monuments and landmarks that date from antiquity and the middle ages through to modern times. In fact, the citadels of Valletta and Mdina are so scenic and well-preserved that they have doubled for various locations in top television show Game of Thrones.

Malta's famously vivid blue waters and extraordinary coastal features also make it a popular destination for diving and boat trips, while there are a clutch of golden beaches, flat rocky shores and lagoons that are ideal for swimming. Malta has some classic family attractions to delight little travellers too such as the new national aquarium and a Popeye theme park that was the original set for the 1980s film. It's also easy to explore the islands with a good network of buses, plenty of tours and boat trips available, and regular ferry services.

The islands' strategic mid-Mediterranean position has led to a rich and textured history with wave upon wave of civilizations leaving their marks and creating a unique cultural mosaic. Fragments of two centuries of British rule still remain, such as the familiar red telephone boxes that are hard to find in the UK. Today the islands have a distinctly gentle and peaceful temperament, with little hustle and bustle and a slow pace of life. The Maltese are known for their warm and welcoming spirit and local cuisine includes wonderful sea food, rabbit stew and buttery pastries filled with pea puree or ricotta - the perfect snack if you are on the go.

Celestial cities

Malta's crowning glory is the Unesco-listed capital of Valletta, nestling on a high peninsula between two natural harbours. The small city boasts more than 320 historic monuments, among them the architectural marvels of honey-hued stone built by the Knights of St John almost 500 years ago. The Grand Harbour, baroque buildings, imposing fortresses and cathedral embellished with the work of famous artists really set it apart from other island capitals.

Every year in July, the city hosts the Malta Arts Festival with theatrical performances, dance and live music at venues around the city. Valletta also has an annual international jazz festival featuring open-air music down by Valletta's harbour that's not-to-be-missed. Malta Music Week centres on the city too, although there is live music and special DJ sets at clubs and other locations around the island. It's little wonder it has been named European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Valletta's sightseeing highlights include St John's Co-Cathedral, richly decorated and inlaid with marble and gilt, and featuring an enormous Caravaggio painting, and Turner's take on Valletta's Grand Harbour at the National Museum of Fine Arts that's a real treat for art enthusiasts. Also well worth a visit is the Grand Masters Palace's State Rooms and Knights Armoury, once the seat of the Knights of St John, where you can walk atmospheric corridors draped in finery and decorated with portraits, coats of arms and suits of armour. In a nearby square, you can tour a restored mansion from the same period, Casa Rocca Piccola, with a typical ornate courtyard, interiors and antique paintings, to complete the picture of Malta's illustrious era of crusaders.

While the city is best explored on foot, and horse-and-cart is another pleasant touring option, the best way to see Valletta's grand facade is from the harbour. Gondola-like water taxis ferry people across the bay from Valletta to Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu) on the south-side of the harbour, which predates Valletta as the first place the knights settled. Take a stroll through the olde worlde paved lanes lined with shuttered balconied houses, lanterns and foliage, and stop for a drink overlooking the water.

The island's former capital of Mdina is another great place for sightseeing. Known as 'the silent city', Mdina is a traditional medieval walled citadel built in an elevated position above the landscape with panoramic views over the island. While you wander the maze of preserved streets and squares, be sure to stop and stare at the grand high ceilings of the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul, which is Malta's principal place of worship. And if you feel peckish, linger over a great value Maltese platter at Trattoria AD1530.

Heritage hotspots

Travellers to Malta can discover a bounty of cultural treasures and amazing antiquity. Among Malta's extraordinary prehistoric sites, the Unesco World Heritage-listed Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is perhaps the most atmospheric. This ancient rock-carved burial complex is built on three levels and only 10 people per hour are allowed to descend, making the experience that bit more special.

Close by is the Tarxien temple complex, built between 3600 and 2500BC, one of a clutch of neolithic temples in Malta that are older than both Stone Henge and the Egyptian Pyramids. It's remarkably sophisticated and well intact, and you can see some of the artefacts and carvings discovered at the site in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The museum itself is housed in a notable building - the Auberge de Provence - which was built as the home of the Knights of St John in 1565.

In the south of the island, the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are also an unmissable sight.

The sleepy island of Gozo to the north also boasts one of the most ancient freestanding buildings on earth, known as Ggantija or Giant's Tower, on the Xara Plateau with pretty island panoramas. If you decide to take an excursion to Gozo, make time to visit the island capital of Victoria, a citadel city of serene streets and pretty lanes that is one of the oldest places in the Mediterranean.

Seashore sights and aquatic attractions

Malta, Gozo and Comino all share more than 100 miles of striking coastline made up of sandstone cliffs deeply indented with harbours, bays and channels. Along the shore you can see natural arches rising from the ocean, and caves and lagoons of shimmering blue. The best way to appreciate this spellbinding coastal scenery is to take one of the many boat trips and tours offered around the island. To experience the bewitching Blue Grotto, you can board boats from a narrow inlet in the south of the island.

It's also very easy to enjoy the pleasures of Mediterranean island hopping in Malta, with regular ferries linking the north coast of Malta with the south coast of Gozo. The route takes just 25 minutes travelling past the little island of Comino, and you can also join trips to visit the Azure Window and Calypso's Cave, which has breathtaking views of Malta. Dedicated boat tours to Comino's Blue Lagoon natural lido area also leave from Cirkewwa Harbour.

Diving, snorkelling and swimming are also popular activities to enjoy in the islands with accredited dive centres dotted around Malta and Gozo, and plenty of places to hire snorkelling gear. Though the brilliant visibility and beautiful coastal features are the main draw for divers, there are some great wrecks dives around Cirkewwa too. In fact, for a short time marine explorer Jacques Cousteau's former boat, the Calypso, was used as the ferry between Malta and Gozo, and Cousteau himself named Malta among his favourite places to dive in the world.

If you prefer to glimpse the underwater world without getting wet, there is an excellent national aquarium off the seafront promenade that skirts Bugibba and Qawra. It's newly built with a sub-aquatic walk-through tunnel and houses a wide range of local and more exotic marine creatures. There's a seafaring themed park close to Mellieha too - Popeye's Village in Anchor Bay - which was originally the set for the 1980s movie but has been maintained as a tourist attraction ever since. It's the perfect place to visit with a young family but anyone interested in film sets, quirky buildings, or water-based fun is sure to have a good time there.

For hikers and nature enthusiasts, Malta is the ideal place for coastal walks. On the northern peninsula, some great coastal hiking routes crisscross Malta's first national park, Majjistral Nature and History Park, between Mellieha and Golden Bay, while the high Marfa Ridge dominates the area north of Mellieha. Walkers can enjoy magnificent views from the 250-metre-high plateau on the western edge of the peninsula, and follow hiking routes past historic towers to beaches such as beautiful Paradise Bay. The cliffs around Cirkewwa to the north are also pitted with old cave dwellings that make it particularly fascinating to explore.

On Malta's little-visited west coast, the Dingli sea cliffs, plunging straight into the Mediterranean Sea on one side and towering over the island's low-lying hills on the other, make a great day out for energetic walkers and nature lovers. Adventurous types with a head for heights can arrange to abseil down the cliffs with local outdoor activities specialists, or for a more sedate day you can bring along a picnic and drink in the inky blue view.

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