Autumn is the ideal time to visit this small nation with a vast history. The summer heat has eased, but the sea remains warm. Every wave of civilisation has left its mark on the Maltese islands, creating a mosaic of cultures and colours. Malta, Gozo and Comino are wrapped in more than 100 miles of coastline, and decorated by dozens of towns and villages.
Malta is plumb in the middle of the Mediterranean, with Sicily 60 miles north and the North African coast 120 miles south, and Malta's main tourist office is in Valletta at 229 Merchants Street (visitmalta.com; 9am-5.40pm daily, Sundays to 1pm). It occupies the Auberge d'Italie, former home of the Italian knights. The former capital, Mdina, is on the south-west side of the island, slightly inland. The most touristy parts of Malta extend along the coast north-west from Valletta, through Sliema and St Julian's to Bugibba and Mellieha.
Island-hopping, is easy. The inter-island ferry (gozochannel.com) shuttles between Cirkewwa at the far the north-west of Malta and Mgarr at the south-east tip of Gozo, every 45 minutes for most of the day; return foot-passenger fare €4.65. The 25-minute voyage gives views of the island of Comino, and connects with a bus to Gozo's elegant but sleepy capital, Victoria. Malta's key celebrity hideaway is the Xara Palace (xarapalace.com.mt) in Mdina. A 17th-century mansion has been converted into a boutique hotel that entices royalty and celebrities.
Take a view
Valletta's Upper Barrakka Garden fills a strategic corner of the city's fortifications – and yields tremendous views over the Grand Harbour as well as along the length of the capital. You can see how the honey-coloured walls of the Maltese capital embrace crusader history, palaces and elaborate churches.
Take a hike
Descend past the ruins of the Royal Opera House, now an open-air theatre, and the new parliament building. Turn right along Valletta's main thoroughfare, Republic Street, lined with mansions and notable monuments. The most significant is St John's Co-cathedral (9.30am-12.30pm on Saturdays, until 4.30pm Monday-Friday; €6) – Baroque at its most intense. The Oratory contains Caravaggio's The Beheading of St John – the largest painting produced by the artist. Religious fervour fuses with military ambition at the Grand Master's Palace – once the power base for the Mediterranean, now the office of Malta's president and venue for the Knights' Armoury (heritagemalta.org; 9am-5pm; €10).
At the end of Republic Street, bear left at Fort St Elmo and along the French Bastion. Then take Old Bakery Street for a cross-section through fading grandeur. Continue up the steps to Hastings Gardens, for a view across Marsamxett Harbour.
Lunch on the run
Caffe Cordina at 244 Republic Street (www.caffecordina.com; 8.30am-7pm) has been satisfying islanders' appetites for decades. There are tables outside, but the café's elegant interior is an attraction in its own right. Order pastizzi – pasties filled with cheese or peas.
The National Museum of Archaeology in the Auberge de Provence (heritagemalta.org; €5), holds some of the world's oldest sculptures. Exhibits include the mysterious Sleeping Lady and the Venus of Malta.
Down the hill, the Casa Rocca Piccola at number 74 (casa roccapiccola.com) is a 16th-century palazzo occupied by the aristocratic de Piro family, plus their antiques and curios. Tours – sometimes led by the Marquis or Marquesa – are hourly 10am-4pm daily except Sunday, €9.
Go to church
The neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim, share a dramatic site on the south-west shore of the island (heritagemalta.org; 9am-5pm; €9). They are covered with canvas, but remain intensely atmospheric gateways to the past.
Walk in the park
Malta is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe, yet on the southern shore there are vast open spaces – with the cliffs at Dingli offering some of the finest coastal scenery in the Mediterranean.
Should you prefer a walk in a theme park, try another Hollywood connection just west of the busy town of Mellieha. In 1980 the director Robert Altman was looking for a location in which to film Popeye, starring Robin Williams. He chose Anchor Bay. They built the set, made the movie and left the set in place – now Popeye Village (popeyemalta.com; from 9.30am year-round, closing at 5.30pm in September and October, 4.30pm in winter).
Malta is an open-air society, and its liveliest outdoor market is Marsaxlokk, a pretty fishing port in the south-east of the island. On six days a week, the stalls strung out along the harbourside are mostly aimed at tourists, but on Sunday mornings it is devoted to fresh fish, fruit and vegetables.
Out to brunch
AD1530, the year the Knights of St John arrived on the island of Malta, is celebrated in the name of the informal trattoria in Mdina adjoining the Xara Palace Hotel. Try a feast on a plate: the Maltese platter, with goat's cheese, Maltese sausage, broad-bean paste and artichokes; under €10, including a cappuccino. Open at 10.30am daily.
Take a ride
Close to the ferry port of Mgarr on Gozo, visit a hilltop location that was once the most sophisticated place in the Mediterranean: Ggantija, a Unesco World Heritage Site (9am-5pm, €5) on the Xara plateau. The name derives from the later belief that only giants could have created the structure. Dating from 3600BC, it is the oldest free-standing monumental building in Europe.
Icing on the cake
Back in Valletta, take in the late-afternoon view from the Upper Barrakka Garden, then ride the glass-sided lift down to the waterfront. Hop aboard a water taxi (€1.50 per person) across the Grand Harbour to Vittoriosa. To work up a thirst for one of the shoreline bars, wander through the backstreets and explore the original homes of the Knights.