The Maltese islands lie in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Within their boundaries is a wealth of cultural heritage, natural beauty and architectural masterpieces. The capital, Valletta, has been crowned European Capital of Culture 2018, yet its lesser-known towns too are full of undiscovered treasures, further from the tourist trails.
Promoting these, the European Commission runs a project known as EDEN (The European Destinations of Excellence), seeking out those towns or villages that make a country special. These five places, every one with their own unique charm and character, are little slices of paradise:
Best for: A journey back in time
The winner of the EDEN project was Qrendi on Malta’s southeast coast. Almost wholly undiscovered by tourists, this beautiful village has two of the most important, and most spectacular, Neolithic temples in the country, dating back to 3600 – 3200 BC: Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.
Walk in the footsteps of ancient man as you marvel at the temple walls, sheltered by cliffs and offering spectacular vistas stretching out across the Mediterranean. For those with penchant for geology, Il-Maqluba, meaning upside-down, is a rare natural phenomena not to be missed. Fifty feet deep, this curious canyon has given rise to many legends, the most popular of which decrees that it was created by a god, as a punishment to an evil village that used to sit on the site.
Best for: Festive fun
While Malta is often seen as a summer destination, tourists who visit Ghajnsielem — EDEN’s first runner-up — over the Christmas period will be met with an amazing sight. One of the most popular festive events in the country, five acres of once neglected land is transformed into a living, breathing recreation of Christ’s birthplace, earning it the name Bethlehem f’Ghajnsielem.
Between 10 December and 7 January, expect shows, events, and a host of actors bringing Christmas to life. Horses turn mills, villagers go about their daily tasks, animals roam, and a poor unknown couple tend to their newborn in a stable.
Best for: Panoramic views
The EDEN project’s second-runner up is Dingli, its vantage point high up on a plateau 800ft above sea level, offering some of the most incredible views in the country. In fact, the tiny chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalene marks the highest point of all Maltese islands. From the shore, the sheer cliffs rise like an impregnable fortress, or visitors can view them from the top. Walks wind along their entire length, and at certain times of year the surrounding scrubland is adorned with swathes of purple flowers.
Also within easy striking distance of Dingli is Buskett Gardens, Malta’s only woodland area, full of towering cypress, orange and pine trees. The village itself — all limestone houses, winding streets and ancient churches — remains off the beaten trail, an enchanting example of an authentic Maltese village.
Best for: Long stretches of sand
Perched on a hill, Millieha is one of the northernmost villages on mainland Malta and overlooks the country’s largest sandy beach. Its network of cobbled paths winds through centuries-old buildings, where each street seems to have a story to tell. EDEN named it third runner-up, and while in one direction the Mediterranean Sea meets blue skies, in the other lush, fertile valleys stretch as far as the eye can see.
Look up from any one of the nearby beaches, and the handsome, 18th-century baroque church dominates the skyline. Its five bells, shipped in from Milan, ring out during religious festivals and inside hang five paintings by famous Maltese artist Giuseppe Calì. Other attractions include the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa, a labyrinth of a wartime air-raid shelters, and Popeye Village, where the 1980 musical comedy was filmed.
Best for: Seafront strolls
Overlooking picturesque Marsaxetto harbour, fourth runner-up Ta’ Xbiex takes its name from the word ‘tbexbix’ meaning sunrise, and with good reason. For those who wake early enough, watching the sun come up across the bay, over Malta’s capital Valletta, is truly unforgettable.
Known for its quiet atmosphere, warm-hearted locals and magnificent marina, the town is a magnet for visitors wanting to relax. There’s also an excellent selection of restaurants along the harbour front, serving up the freshest of seafood from the day’s catch.
When to go: Malta is a year round destination. The winters are mild, while summers can reach 34C.
Getting there an around: Until 31 March, Air Malta has is offering new, lower-priced flights from London Gatwick, from £44 one-way, including all taxes and charges.
Average flight time: 3h
More information: visitmalta.com