The beautiful Maltese islands of Gozo, Comino and Malta cover an area of just 316km² in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea 80km south of Italy, yet within these boundaries there lies a wealth of cultural heritage built up over millennia.

Malta's capital city Valletta and its more ancient predecessor Mdina are endowed with a treasure trove of architectural and artistic gems.

With six Unesco World Heritage sites, from prehistoric megalithic temples, ancient cart-ruts and troglodytic caves, the Maltese capital – which has been named European Capital of Culture 2018 – is a glorious, historic city that's brimming with remains dating from the Punic, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman and Medieval periods, through the period of occupation by the Order of St John, and up to the subsequent French and British occupations.

But there's much more to explore beyond the country's culture-filled capital: Malta is dotted with plenty of attractive, lesser-known towns and villages which offer an insight into history and culture.

To help promote and celebrate amazing smaller destinations like these, Malta has teamed up with the European Commission to name its European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN). The competition centred around the theme of destinations which provide a tangible cultural offer. It saw the selection of a winner and five runners-up.

The winner was the village of Qrendi on the island of Malta. Home to top attractions like the pre-historic temples of Ħagar Qim and Mnajdra, Phoenician and Paleo-Christian rock-tombs, as well as Knights' period watch-towers and churches, Qrendi is well worth visiting. The idyllic, luxuriant countryside that surrounds the village has become very popular for weddings in recent years, while the coastline offers superb scuba diving spots like the Blue Grotto in Wied iż-Żurrieq, which is renowned for its crystal-clear waters.

Runners-up include the small village of Għajnsielem, on Gozo, the second largest island in the archipelago. Għajnsielem hosts an annual Christmas event which is very popular. Twenty thousand square-metres of once neglected land have been converted into a recreation of Christ's birthplace, earning it its name of Bethlehem f'Għajnsielem. Visitors surpass 100,000 annually, and activities go on all year round.

The third runner-up was Dingli, which is a village in the northern region of Malta, set on a high plateau some 250m above sea-level. With vantage points over the sea and surrounding countryside, Dingli provides some of the most beautiful views Malta has to offer. The village's outstanding heritage is reflected in its piazza – home to a fruit and vegetable market and more – making Dingli a must-visit for both local and foreign visitors.

Next comes Mellieħa, which boasts sites of cultural, religious, and natural history to complement its fine sandy beaches. The village of Mellieħa is perched on a hill, commanding distant views of both Comino and Gozo while also priding itself on spectacular attractions such as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa, its labyrinthine war-time air-raid shelters, and the gorgeous Popeye Village.

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The last runner-up was Ta' Xbiex. Located in the central region of Malta, the small town of Ta' Xbiex is home to around 1,800 inhabitants, many of whom are foreigners. Ta' Xbiex hosts a number of foreign embassies, as well as the flowering yacht marina. Both are situated by the slow-paced, bucolic Ta' Xbiex seafront, overlooking the magnificent Grand Harbour.

The blend of history and culture, warm and pleasant Mediterranean climate, beautiful scenery, and crystal-clear waters make the Maltese islands a magnet for diverse visitors fascinated by all the attractions that the island has to offer. Malta's wide-ranging culture offers experiences that never ceases to surprise visitors who venture to explore the many contrasting corners of the beautiful islands. So what are you waiting for? It's time to get exploring.

For more information on holidays to Malta, head to visitmalta.com/eden