Small but near-perfect: why Malta makes a great compact holiday

There are three islands in the Maltese group, which is in the central area of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. Malta is the biggest of them, followed by Comino and Gozo, the latter being little more than a speck. Despite Malta’s relatively small size it has seen more than its share of exciting history due to its strategic position, with Islamic and Christian forces squabbling over it during medieval and Renaissance times, and occupation by the British army during World War Two. The Knights Hospitallers successfully defended it against the Turks before themselves being ousted by Napoleon I in 1798.

The islands are small, but it’s probably wise to find some reliable car hire in Malta, since the island is too large to explore on foot unless you’re into walking and staying for a couple of weeks. However, Valetta, Malta’s capital is easily discovered on foot – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and described by them as one of the world’s greatest concentrations of historic areas. Once you start wandering around you’ll discover just how true this is, with St John’s Cathedral and a myriad of forts, museums, bastions and battlements crammed into something less than a square kilometre. The Manoel Theatre is three centuries old, and there are also numerous flea markets and quaint little shops to explore. Check out the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National War Museum and the fabulous National Museum of Archaeology to gain a greater understanding of the rich and varied history of these fabulous islands and their capital in particular.

The specifically medieval highlight on Malta, however, is Mdina, the former capital and an Arabian Nights fantasy of narrow, winding alleyways surrounded by neat city walls, from which you can get some of the best views across the island. This area has all the charm of Cordoba and Seville in Spain, and the Baroque and medieval architecture is quite sumptuous. St Paul’s Cathedral is the main attraction here but there are also lots of other historic buildings and Mdina is ideal for an evening stroll around the little outdoor cafes whilst drinking up the unique atmosphere. The Mdina Dungeons Museum, with its gruesome exhibits from the bad old days of medieval butchery and fanaticism, is always popular as well.

The islands boast plenty of sandy beaches when you fancy a break from the culture. These are easily accessible by car and are great for a day of water sports and fresh air. Pack a picnic and you can reach all the beaches easily from your base in Valetta. There are several attractive rugged strips of coastline as well, and on Comino there’s even a lagoon – the Blue Lagoon, which looks like something out of a glossy brochure for the Caribbean.

The roads around the islands are excellent and you can take the car to a convenient spot before setting out on foot across a varied landscape of dramatic seaside cliffs and gentle hillsides. The climate is ideal throughout the year and there are numerous cross-country pathways that will take you past picturesque wayside chapels and megalithic temples testifying to the richness and depth of Malta’s unique history.

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.