Exploring Three Gorgeous Mediterranean Islands on a European Vacation

Europe & UK

Island of Crete and Mediterranean Sea, Greece

When it comes to the Mediterranean, Spain, France, and Italy get the lion’s share of attention. But if you want to go beyond the obvious, set your sights on Malta, Sicily, and Crete on your next European vacation. These Mediterranean islands offer worlds of ancient history, gorgeous landscapes, and inspiring culture to explore.

Where to Go on the Mediterranean Sea?

The Ancient History of Malta

Malta, a tiny archipelago nation, is rarely the first nation people think of when they dream of the sun and culture of the Mediterranean, but it’s a small country with a big history. Over 7,000 years of history, to be exact. Whether you’re a history buff, a culture vulture, or a beach bum, it deserves attention.

The small villages in Malta will transport you to the past while the cities remind you of the startling present. The capital, Valletta, is the logical first stop here and offers many attractions that’ll satisfy even the briefest of stopovers. Valletta is the smallest capital in Europe and offers a blend of history and culture that captures the appeal of Malta as a whole. If you only have time for one landmark in Valletta, make it St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the centre of the Order of Saint John or the Knights Hospitaller, constructed between 1572 and 1577. It is the home of the Caravaggio painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which is displayed in the Oratory. Of course, the city has more than historical attractions. The Grand Harbour is an attractive spot for cruises, while the nightclubs along Portomasa Marina and Paceville showcase the Maltese love of a good party.

Yachts and boats in the bay near Valletta, Malta
Yachts and boats in the bay near Valletta, Malta

Much of Malta’s appeal lies beyond the capital, especially the historical sites dotted across the island. The history is apparent from the first moment you arrive on the island, whether in the capital Valletta or a small port elsewhere. Its over 7,000 years of history has seen empires come and go; the Romans, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians are some of the most notable empires of antiquity that have staked their claim to Malta. All this history has left temples, fortresses, and all manner of ruins across the island, from the 5,000-year-old necropolis of Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola, a few kilometres to the south of Valletta, to the megalithic temple of Hagar Qim on the island of Gozo.

In fact, you need only cross the Grand Harbour from Valletta to find Fort St. Angelo in Birgu, which was constructed as a castle in the 16th century and has been reconstructed throughout its history into the shape it is today. The fortified town of Senglea, just on the outcrop of land to the south of Fort St. Angelo, is another historical wonder worth exploring on your European vacation. If you travel further from the capital, you’ll find many other historical attractions. The town of Mdina on the centre of the island was the old capital until the medieval era and has passed between Romans, Christians, and Arabs throughout its history. Its architecture reflects its diverse heritage.

Malta’s natural environment is also envious. The warm weather and golden beaches attract all manner of vacationers. The islet of Comino, which sits between the islands of Malta and Gozo, has the Blue Lagoon, a small bit of paradise with warm and clear waters. As well, beaches like Golden Bay are perfect spots to spend an afternoon. Malta also accommodates a bit of adventure. You can go scuba diving and snorkelling to explore spots like the Blue Hole, an underwater natural chimney on the western coast of Gozo.

Related Article:
Consider a Malta Vacation, a Small but Precious Gem in Europe

Tourists at Blue Lagoon enjoying the beach, Comino Island, Malta
Tourists at Blue Lagoon enjoying the beach, Comino Island, Malta

Natural Appeal of Sicily

Sicily conjures images of large families feasting on old recipes and full-bodied red wines on sun-bleached estates, but there’s more to this Italian island than pop-culture imagery you’ll find in the likes of The Godfather. While Sicily is defined by tradition, it’s not a musty place with an impenetrable culture for outsiders. In fact, Sicily is among the most naturally and culturally-invigorating parts of Italy and the whole Mediterranean. Of course, don’t ever tell Sicilians that they’re Italian. The island may be a part of Italy, but the culture is all its own.

Like Malta, Sicily has millennia of history to draw upon. The same civilizations that conquered Malta conquered Sicily, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, and even medieval civilizations like the Normans and Arabs. The actual Kingdom of Sicily was founded in 1130, and became one of the wealthiest states in Europe. However, it hasn’t had such prominence throughout the entirety of its history. In fact, during some centuries, the island was considered little more than a backwater, an afterthought for the civilizations that conquered it. Of course, when you arrive on the island and gaze up at the volcano, Mount Etna, looming over the sun-bleached landscape, you’ll realize that any notion of Sicily being unmemorable is foolish.

If you are looking for landmarks of its long history, on your European vacation, you’ll find the best in the Valley of the Temples, a ridgeline outside of Agrigento that has seven temples dating back to Greek antiquity. The archaeological site is an invaluable treasure trove for Greek art and artifacts, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For landmarks closer to the modern era, explore the capital, Palermo, and visit Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily, and a gorgeous example of cultural syncretism, with a Byzantine dome, Arabic arches, and Norman decor.

Aerial view of Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily, Italy
Aerial view of Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

The landscape of Sicily is as much a highlight as the historical landmarks. Mount Etna on the eastern coast is one of the highest active volcanoes in Europe and the highest Italian peak south of the Alps. It towers over the island with its snow-capped peak and aggressive volcanic activity, which often sees smoke plume from its crater and the occasional explosion of lava. Although recent activity means it is best you keep your distance for the moment, it remains an astounding sight. The rest of the island is gorgeous as well. The waters are warm and make for good swimming, while the divergent landscape, mountainous in some places, wooded in others, and with a few deserts sprinkled in for good measure, means that you’ll find natural highlights no matter where you are.

I’d be remiss to mention Sicily and not talk about the culture. There is a lot to like about the island’s cultural atmosphere, at once a melting pot of a million different influences, but distinctly its own. Cities like Palermo offer great shopping in markets like Mercato di Ballaro, but it’s the food, which you’ll find in city and village alike, that is truly astounding on your European vacation. You’ll have your pick of savoury wonders, from the fried goodness of arancini to the stick-to-your-ribs hominess of a bowl of pasta alla Norma, which is pasta served with a sauce of fried eggplants, tomatoes, basil, and ricotta salata. Savour the fruit of the sea with dishes made of fresh shellfish marinated in citrus juices, or enjoy the land’s nutty bounty with almond and pistachio sauces and sweets. And don’t forget to cap off dinner with cannoli, the island’s favourite dessert, made of a crisp, fried dough wrapped around sweetened ricotta.

Palermo, Sicily, Seafront view, Italy
Palermo seafront view, Sicily

The Cretan Lifestyle

If all you know about Crete is the Cretan diet that famously consists of hearty fats, red wines, and abundant seafood and fresh vegetables, you’re still aware of the Greek island’s most significant cultural contribution: its magnificent food scene. But there’s a lot to like about its landscape and history as well, even if the food is central and indicative of its alluring culture.

Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands, but it’s not nearly as flashy as its cousins like Santorini or Mykonos, which are smaller, but pack more of a potent cultural punch. Crete is more humble, but perhaps even more appealing, as its landscape has ample beaches and sunny vineyards that attract beachgoer and wine lover alike. It also promises quiet and long afternoons of warm sunshine and days where the demands of the clock all but disappear on a European vacation to Greece. You’ll find palm forests here near the beaches of Vai as well as towering mountains, such as Mount Ida, the tallest of the White Mountains and legendary birthplace of the Greek god, Zeus. You’ll find deep gorges, such as Samaria Gorge, which cuts a 16km-long rift through the island and draws travellers to experience the unforgettable hiking routes.

Crete is also an island with a long history, which is something of a prerequisite in the Mediterranean. The capital, Heraklion, has plenty of historical highlights such as the Heraklion Archaeological Museum that has Minoan artifacts, as well as Knossos, the Bronze Age fortress that was the legendary home of the Minotaur. There are also vestiges of medieval civilizations here, such as the Venetian-built fortress of Firkas in Chania.

North Entrance of Knossos Palace, Crete, Greece
North entrance of Knossos Palace, Crete, Greece

But while the history and the landscape are undeniable highlights of the island, the food is the main attraction. Back in the early 2000s, the Cretan diet became world-famous as one of the healthiest in the world, despite its high dependence on fats and wine. The diet fad may have passed, but the cuisine remains one of the healthiest and tastiest of European cuisines.

Cretan food is centred on an abundance of olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, and all manners of cheeses. Due to the island’s environment, cows are rare, so most of the cheese is made of sheep’s or goat’s milk, making it healthier than its bovine counterpart. It’s also delicious and finds its way into almost every dish. You’ll find soft cheeses topping Cretan salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions, or as the finishing touch on herbed spreads of chopped tomatoes on bread rusks, known as dakos. You’ll find it baked into savoury pies like sarikopitakia and kalitsounia. You’ll even find it in desserts. When red meat is included in the meal, it’s often lamb, such as lamb with stamnagathi, which sees lamb sautéed in olive oil and served with a lemon and egg sauce alongside a bed of stamnagathi, or Cretan chicory. And let’s not forget Raki, the grape brandy that caps most meals and signals that you are truly in Crete.

Glass of raki and a plate of dakos in Crete, Greece
Glass of raki and a plate of dakos in Crete, Greece

The Mediterranean islands of Malta, Sicily, and Crete demand your attention, on a European vacation, with their thousands of years of history, sunny landscapes, and delicious foods. The next time you’re planning a trip to the Mediterranean, forget the coastlines and head to the islands in the middle of the sea. There you’ll find history, food, and culture that’ll make you want to stay a thousand years.