Malta vs Madeira: Which should you visit?

They’re both beautiful islands in Europe offering outdoor fun, culture aplenty and food to make you drool. But which one is the best? We put them head to head in an attempt to find out…

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A sunrise view of Malta's capital, Valletta (Dreamstime)

A sunrise view of Malta's capital, Valletta (Dreamstime)

Population: 475,700

Size: 316 sq km

Famous for: Medieval architecture and coastal resorts

Expect: A busy events calendar, Knights Hospitaller relics and outdoor thrills


Looking towards the town of Camara de Lobos in Madeira (Dreamstime)

Looking towards the town of Camara de Lobos in Madeira (Dreamstime)

Population: 254,876

Size: 801 sq km

Famous for: Fortified wine and Cristiano Ronaldo

Expect: Island beauty, festivals and an adventurous feel that belies its go-slow reputation


The Blue Lagoon on Malta's Camino Island (Shutterstock)

The Blue Lagoon on Malta's Camino Island (Shutterstock)

This middle-of-the-Med archipelago is made up of three main islands – lively Malta, laid-back Gozo (pictured) and virtually unpopulated Comino – all of which are layered with cultural influences.

Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and the British are among those to have held sway here, resulting in a uniquely Maltese mix.

A Portuguese island region that sits almost twice as close to the African coast as it does to Lisbon, Madeira is essentially a subtropical outpost of Europe in the Atlantic.

You’ll therefore find a version of Portuguese culture – great food, old-world architecture, lots of festivals – played through the prism of island life.

Day trips

At the right time of year, you can enjoy dolphin and whale watching trips from Madeira (Shutterstock)

At the right time of year, you can enjoy dolphin and whale watching trips from Madeira (Shutterstock)

In Malta, the UNESCO-listed city of Valletta, Europe’s smallest capital, is the noble legacy of the medieval Knights Hospitaller and has a Grand Harbour as spectacular as you’ll find anywhere.

Elsewhere, Mdina is a fortified city brimming with its own history, while over on Gozo, the Ġgantija temples date back to megalithic times.

Madeira's capital city Funchal has bags of charm, although its flower gardens (pictured) and produce markets are perhaps best enjoyed when cruise-ship groups aren’t in town.

Elsewhere, off-road jeep trips are a great way of sampling the scenery, and there’s also dolphin- and whale-watching (at its best between April and October).

Did you know? Portuguese explorers first arrived on Madeira in 1419, by which time Malta had already welcomed a couple of millennia’s worth of outside visitors, many of them invaders.


A plate of Maltese seafood (Shutterstock)

A plate of Maltese seafood (Shutterstock)

The Maltese love their food. Drawing on flavours and traditions from the Med, North Africa and beyond, Malta’s cuisine reflects its crossroads location.

Fresh seafood features heavily, as do island delicacies such as gbejna (sheep’s cheese), pastizzi (savoury stuffed pastry) and imqaret (a sweet date-filled pastry).

Madeira is synonymous with the fortified wine that’s been made here for centuries. It’s stickily lovely stuff – and the food’s pretty good, too.

Classic dishes include espetada (skewered beef prepared with garlic and salt then wood-fired) and grilled tuna, while the local bolo de mel (honey cake; pictured) hits the spot.

Outdoor activities

Hiking in Madeira (Shutterstock)

Hiking in Madeira (Shutterstock)

Malta has 300 annual days of sunshine to shout about, so its al fresco appeal is something of a given.

Cyclists (pictured), rock climbers, kitesurfers, kayakers and hikers all have ample excuse to book a trip here, while the scuba-dive sites are some of the best in Europe, with reefs, wrecks, caves and clear waters.

Madeira’s sumptuous landscape is arguably its top draw.

Covered in lush valleys, volcanic peaks and forested slopes, it’s also laced with some 2,000km of levadas – man-made waterways that double as walking trails.

Mountain biking and canyoning are further draws, while the Atlantic swell also attracts surfers.

The verdict

Both Malta and Madeira have suffered from rather staid reputations in years gone by – well, not any more. If you’re in search of some short-haul island adventure, both now offer superb opportunities for travellers.

True, Malta perhaps has the edge in terms of historical drama and Madeira has an altogether grander, rawer feel to its scenery, but neither of these edge-of-Europe getaways are going to leave you feeling short-changed.


Read more on Malta and Madeira:

9 amazing must-dos when you're in Madeira

The best things you can do on the island of Gozo

How to spend a 3-day mini break in Madeira

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