With a glorious coastline, open-access beaches, a plethora of churches and historic sites all across the landscape, there’s plenty to do in Malta without shrinking your wallet. From the cliffs to the castles, from the baroque to the avant-garde, there is a tourist treasure to discover without a ticket. This miniature nation is full of small towns, many surrounded by towering bastion walls, dotted with limestone palaces and hidden nooks and crannies. It’s ready for some constructive loafing and there’s almost always a friendly spot to chat or lend a browsing hand.
Below you will find a plethora of suggestions to fill your time in Malta that cost nothing. In addition, we also have guides dedicated to spending a weekend in Valletta, the best hotels in Malta, the best restaurants on the island, the biggest attractions, the most beautiful beaches and the best of the bar scene.
Stroll through the city gate
The main entrance to Malta’s fortified capital since it was built in 1570, the City Gate has gone from a drawbridge (closed nightly to protect the population) to a modern open entrance designed by famous Italian architect Renzo Piano (of London Shard). Cross the deep ditch and enter the impressive bastion walls. Climb the steps on either side for views from the top of the fortifications (and access to Hastings Gardens and Castille Square) or head straight past the Piano-designed parliament building, which opened in 2015, and in the heart of Valletta.
Drink in the view from Upper Barrakka Gardens
These arcaded public gardens, built by the Knights of Malta and embellished by the British, are perched atop Valletta’s imposing walls and present a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour. Across the water is Malta’s oldest fortress and the historic Three Cities. Explore the monuments and sculptures, cool off at the fountain or have a coffee in the small outdoor cafe. If you can be here at noon, you’ll be treated to British martial music, a bit of loudspeaker history and the firing of the Saluting Battery’s cannons.
Walk through Valletta’s fortifications
Built by the Knights of Saint John (Knights of Malta) after nearly losing the islands to the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege, Valletta was a state-of-the-art fortified city c. 1570. Much of its impressive protection still stands today and with sea on three sides, it’s an immensely pleasant walk around the city walls. Less than 3 km will take you from the City Gate, through the Upper Barrakka Gardens and down the side of the Grand Harbor to Knights Hospital and Fort St Elmo, before returning to the other side of the city via the Fortress Builders: Fortifications Interpretation Centre.
Visit The Fortress Builders – Fortifications Interpretation Center
Fortress Malta is an expression of the Second World War, but this island was already heavily fortified for centuries. Valletta was built from scratch by the 16th century rulers of the islands, the Knights of St. John, to be impregnable, so desperate were they to keep their sworn enemy, the Ottoman Turks. Created by the world expert on Malta’s fortifications, this center tells the story of the nation’s defenses – with models, objects and computer graphics – in as much detail as you choose. There’s also a children’s section, complete with building blocks so they can try out some of their own building.
Enter the Church of the Shipwreck of Saint Paul
St. Paul is a patron saint of Malta and a bit of a Maltese hero. According to the bible, he was shipwrecked here in AD 60, and this is one of several churches dedicated to him and this story. Inside is the colorful wooden statue of the São Paulo feast that parades through the streets every February 10th (his feast day) and a pair of slightly gruesome saint relics: ‘São Paulo wrist bone’ and a piece of the spine marble in which he is said to have been beheaded in Rome. Surrounding the church are intriguing little chapels, each belonging to a different brotherhood or guild.
Address: 74 St Paul Street (tourist entrance next to St Lucy Street), Valletta
Birgu / Victorious
Explore the small streets of Birgu
Officially called Vittoriosa, but almost always referred to by its pre-1570 name of Birgu, this was the Knights’ first base in Malta. When the Order of Saint John arrived here in 1530, with Valletta not a blink of an eye, these sea warrior monks needed to live on their boats to settle in this, the only port city in existence. Birgu remains medieval in layout, a maze of small traditional streets flanked by many buildings from the Knights period. It is a charming place for a historic stroll through the main square with its decorative balconies, and through the Collachio, the area where the Knights had their hostels (collective houses) – now marked with plaques.
Go back in time in Mdina
High above the center of the island, Malta’s first citadel capital, Mdina has been inhabited and fortified since the Bronze Age. The Romans, Arabs and medieval aristocracy ruled from here and it remains a rarified city of limestone palaces, convents and churches along narrow zigzag streets designed to deceive the enemy. Left in the past when the center of gravity moved to Valletta, Mdina remains a ‘silent city’, a living museum still inhabited by Maltese nobility, a place of atmospheric alleys and bastion-top walkways that offer breathtaking views across the island.
Enjoy a fabulous panorama on the cliffs of Dingli
The Dingli Cliffs are found at the highest place in Malta, plunging 250m into the sea, but they have more to offer than spectacular views (although there are many). Here you’ll find Clapham Junction, Malta’s largest collection of mysterious old cart tracks crisscrossing the rock face. There are Punic tombs and a troglodyte cave, inhabited until the 19th century, as well as indigenous plants and herbs, aromatic underfoot. A great spot to take in the panorama is the small 17th-century Chapel of Santa Maria Madalena, where there is an observation deck – ideal for a quick photo stop or a serene sunset.
Watch the boats rocking in Marsaxlokk
Traditional fishing boats painted in bright stripes of yellow, red, blue and green in the harbor of Marsaxlokk. This is Malta’s traditional small fishing port, where boats leave and catches arrive every day, as they have for hundreds of years. Fish is sold at the morning market – replaced later in the day by a cluster of more touristy stalls – and fish dinners are eaten by Maltese and visitors at the chain of family-run restaurants that stretch along the waterfront. It is a delightful place for a sunny walk, sailing and dreamlike moments looking out to sea.