The island nation of Malta sits in the Mediterranean Sea at the contentious crossroads of some of history’s most notable empires. As a perfect base for control of trade and passage and an early warning center for the mainland, Malta has a long and illustrious history of colonization and domination by more powerful states in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
Thankfully, Malta has always stood strong against siege and domination, leaving many of the signs of millennia of settlement preserved. The little island even still features a George Cross on its flag, a symbol of the award given to the people of Malta by England’s King George VI for their crucial efforts in holding out and fighting German and Italian forces during World War II. Malta was considered by many to be the key to control of the Mediterranean, home to important shipping lanes as well as domination of North Africa, where fierce fighting occurred during the first half the war. Despite heavy bombing and the constant threat of German and Italian invasion, the people of Malta kept their heads, and the British used the island as a base from which to dramatically disrupt Axis shipping.
Even better, the jockeying for this strategic position has largely ended, and Malta, today, is a quiet, sunny, and visitor-friendly paradise. Its final ruler was the British Empire, and the country remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Before that, it was the French, who had taken possession of Malta when Napoleon requested safe harbor, but then took the island by force. But the last rulers to leave a significant mark on Malta’s appearance were the Knights of the Order of Saint John, an itinerant order of Catholic knights who were given a home in Malta by the King of Spain in exchange for the quirky annual tribute of one Maltese falcon. The Knights, who controlled Malta from 1530 to 1798, gave it some of its most characteristic medieval architecture, based on the need to defend the island from hostile Muslim forces, particularly the Ottoman Empire. The knights built Valletta, a port city of one square kilometer and now one of the most distinctively Maltese places on the tiny island, characterized by large, sun-bleached walls and gorgeous medieval streets and structures.
While many of Malta’s most visible and best-known structures are from the medieval era, settlement actually began thousands of years before, when settlers, probably from nearby Sicily, landed on the island. Many of the structures they built, including large, fascinating, and multifarious ancient temples, remain standing, and are thought to be some of the oldest manmade structures in existence.
It’s not just history and architecture that draw people to Malta. The island boasts an excellent tourist infrastructure, appealing as much to partiers and upscale beach bums as to history buffs and classicists. Sliema offers a transportation hub and shopping amid stunning medieval architecture. Mellieha shows off World War II history and a popular beach. And Bugibba even features a waterpark and high-end spas.