Guide to Europe’s Microstates: Malta

Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Quick facts (most recent available data)
Population: 452,515 (28th smallest country by population)
Area: 316 sq km (10th smallest country by area)
GDP per capita (PPP): 26,100$ (41st)

Visiting Malta

Location and how to get there: Malta is composed of three main islands located about 150 km South of Sicily. I took a short 1.5-hour flight from Rome. Map

Why visit? Malta is spectacular and has it all. If you’re interested in history there’s everything from 5,000 year-old temples to fortifications erected by the legendary Knights of Saint John during their 250+ years of reign over the islands; the capital of Valletta is a gem of a city built on a small peninsula and completely fortified; there’s a fascinating mix of cultural influences including Roman, Arabic, Spanish, Sicilian and British; intense blue waters, spectacular scenery and good weather add to the mix.

Recommended visit duration: 4 days to one week

Fun facts:

  • Valletta is one of the first cities in the world to use a grid design
  • Malta’s flag bears the George Cross (the highest award of the UK together with the Victoria Cross) awarded to the country by George VI for bravery in WWII. The Maltese flag is unique in bearing a decoration of another country
  • The military religious order of the Knights Hospitaller (or Knights of Saint John / Knights of Malta) ruled Malta between 1530 and 1798
  • The smallest of Malta’s three inhabited islands, Comino, has an area of 3.5 sq km and a permanent population of 4. A priest and a policeman commute from the island of Gozo.

Review of my trip to Malta

While my trips to Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City were mostly urban explorations with some nature thrown in for good measure, Malta appears different. For one thing, Malta is a full-fledged member of the European Union, joining in 2004 (the smaller microstates aren’t EU members, but have signed various treaties with the European Union).

While still small, Malta is 5 times larger than San Marino and 158 times larger than tiny Monaco in area. Furthermore, Malta ranks 5th in population density among independent countries – don’t worry, this is not apparent on most of its territory.

I flew from Rome and arrived in Valletta at night. My stay was at the Excelsior Hotel – I don’t usually recommend hotels but this particular one was great and had a very good location. While enjoying breakfast I take in the views from the hotel’s restaurant: blue waters, a nice bay, yachts and fortifications. It’s looking good already.

As soon as I start exploring I discover Valletta to be a gem of a city, full of forts and fortifications erected by the Knights Hospitaller. There’s a uniform architectural style based on stone which shines golden in the morning sun. Intense blue waters contrast with the stone buildings for some splendid photo opportunities. It gets pretty hot, but exploration of the outer city walls and of countless narrow streets is a pleasure. The city was once named Superbissima for its beauty by the ruling houses of Europe.

The National War Museum outlines Malta’s heroism in WWII. First settled around 5200 BC, the islands enjoy a very rich and diverse history (amazingly Malta even had dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants before the first settlers drove them to extinction). A period of Roman control is followed by Byzantine/Greek influence; Arab invasions and colonization are followed by Norman period and inclusion in the Kingdom of Sicily. After passing through domination by various empires, the islands are awarded to the Knight Hospitaller in 1530 by Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Knights would rule until Napoleon captures the islands in 1798. After becoming a part of the British Empire in 1814, Malta joined in the Allied war effort in WWII and finally gained independence in 1964.

More city explorations follow as well as encounters with lots of cool cats. People are friendly and boats float lazily in a small harbor. The impressive Siege Bell Memorial is built with cool fossil-filled slabs of stone and warns its visitors not to hang around when the bell is in use.

Two nice city gardens offer great views of the city below. The three cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea enclosed by massive fortifications can be seen to the East. The nice little water taxi ferries travelers to the more developed (and crowded) Sliema to the West.

If you want more action but don’t want to leave Valletta for its more modern and busy neighbors, then Republic and Merchant Streets are the places to be, with their shops, restaurants, cafes and everything else.

Unlike the microstates I’ve visited so far, Malta offers so much more to explore outside the larger capital city area (as city-states, Monaco and Vatican City don’t even have a capital: for them the entire country is the capital). There’s an excellent bus network that makes all corners of the country accessible, and ferries to go from one island to another. On the main island (also called Malta) I head for the Blue Grotto, a spectacular rocky bay with some cool rock formations and crystal clear water in all shades of blue.

After a cool boat tour, my next destinations are the ancient temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world dating from around 3600 – 3200 BC. It’s really amazing to imagine builders working on these sites more than 5,000 years ago and try to guess their intended use

At nightfall I reach the ancient capital of Mdina, another beautiful walled city built in stone that’s beautifully lit and a delight to explore.

The next day I spend some more time in Valletta visiting St. John’s Co-Cathedral and then head off to explore Gozo, the second largest Maltese island. I more-or-less randomly pick Xlendi Bay, a secluded village complete with small beach, colorful buildings and beautiful views; the village has its own little fort overlooking the bay which is placed on a cool fossil site.

After a nice swim in the bay and some good food it’s time to check out Comino, the smallest main island of Malta. The place to be here is the spectacular Blue Lagoon. Not satisfied with the quaintness of Comino, I swim to the even smaller Cominoto for a little bit of island exploration.

The following day I hop on a harbor cruise to get more pictures of Valletta and the Three Cities area with their splendid fortifications and blue waters. There’s some sort of celebration/boating competition going on with flags and colorful banners decorations everywhere.

Afterwards there’s even more stuff to see and do – the Knights Hospitaller Museum, The Malta Experience show which outlines the country’s rich history, some shopping in the main Point Mall in Sliema, more city explorations and finally a relaxing swim at the hotel’s own little beach.

I absolutely loved Malta and wished I had more time to explore it. After visiting four microstates  I come to enjoy their diversity even more. My next trip will take me to two more of Europe’s smallest countries: Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

See more pictures in my Malta photo album:

More information available in the Malta country profiles on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage.

Keep reading: Monaco | San Marino | Vatican City  | Malta | Luxembourg | Liechtenstein | Andorra | Gibraltar | SMOM