LONELY Planet's naming of Malta as their number one "secret destination" in the world a couple of years ago stretched the meaning of the word "secret" pretty much to breaking point. The archipelago does, however, have a lot more to it than your typical Mediterranean beach-getaway spot, and, to give Lonely Planet their due, not all of that historical and cultural texture is particularly well-known outside the country.

Nestled right in the middle of the Med, 60 miles south of Sicily and 120 miles east of Tunisia, the Maltese Islands (Malta is the largest of the three, followed by Gozo and Comino) have been as strategically attractive in a military sense through the centuries as they are strategically attractive as a source of year-round sunshine and copious history now. From the fourth century BC until 50 years ago a rolling cast of occupiers including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Sicilians, Knights of St John, the Spanish, the French and the British ruled a place that had as much value as a trade-route post as it did as a base for launching attacks on neighbouring areas. King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross in 1942 for its bravery in fighting off a brutal Nazi siege in the early stages of the Second World War (the Cross was subsequently added to the Maltese flag and remains on it to this day), and independence from the UK came in relatively peaceable style in 1964.

The Maltese language bears witness to this pile-up of influences – its core mix of Italian and Arabic actually classes it as the only Arabic language written using a Latin alphabet. Driving through the low hills and terraced fields of Malta's countryside, you're as likely to see road signs pointing to the Scrabble-nightmare likes of Ta' Xbiex, Wied il-Bużbież and Ix-Xaghra ta' l-Isqof as the more prosaic Albert Town and Pembroke (or the pleasingly gangster San Lawrenz, for that matter). English is Malta's second official language, and English words pepper sentences in Maltese. A particularly lustrous, Latinate version of the word "alright" is the standard word of confirmation, and became an affectionate running joke with our excellent tour guide.

The capital, Valletta, was our first port of call after arrival at Malta's centrally located airport on a gloriously warm autumn day. Valletta's minuscule size was the first "secret" (at least to me) about Malta that I discovered. At 0.8 sq km and with only 5,730 inhabitants, this tiny walled city is the smallest capital in Europe. Before another commitment intervened, I had planned to linger in Valletta for two or three days after the official end of the trip to get to know what I had imagined to be a rather larger "city". As lovely as the place is and much though more time there would have been a pleasure, a couple of hours either side of lunch was enough to take in the main places of interest.

The Malta Experience, a 45-minute multi-sensory whoosh through 7,000 years of Maltese history in a panoramic auditorium equipped with a huge 3-D screen and moving seats, was a great way to set the scene, though given its surprisingly physical nature I wouldn't go there after a jumbo milkshake. St John's Co-Cathedral in the centre of the town is considered one of the world's great cathedrals, and its extraordinary Baroque interior was too much to fully take in on a single visit. The Cathedral houses the Caravaggio masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist, the largest canvas the Italian master ever painted and the only one he ever signed, amid a scarcely believable array of coloured tombstones, friezes and sculptures. If I can swing it I'll certainly return one day to try to process a little more of the ornate beauty of the place. The adjacent Upper Gardens of Barakka proved a good spot to stumble over to in an enchanted daze after the Cathedral. The Gardens look out over Valletta's amazing natural harbour and across to Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, three contiguous fortified settlements that together form The Three Cities. If you arrive at noon you'll also catch the comforting pageantry of The Saluting Battery, Valletta's version of The One O'Clock Gun.

The aforementioned lunch, meanwhile, was at Caffe Cordina, which opened in 1837 and occupies a central place on Valletta's food scene. Pan-fried rabbit is one of Malta's signature dishes, and proved highly effective in satisfying a fearsome post-flight appetite. This was one of several excellent meals I had on the island, the most memorable of which was at La Nostra Padrona in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, where we ate wonderful sea bream roasted in foil along with the top-notch bread that's a huge source of national pride in Malta.

Earlier that day we had travelled to one of Malta's most prominent natural wonders, the Blue Grotto. Now that might sound like a particularly icky subchamber of the Playboy Mansion, but it's actually a spectacular complex of sea caverns on the island's south coast. The caverns' location and the effects of the sunlight create a mirroring effect that brings out the extraordinarily deep, textured blues of the name. The long boat in which we sailed around the Blue Grotto turned out to be one of the more conventional forms of transport we used in Malta. Unusual ways of ferrying visitors around seem to be a bit of a thing there, and if you can accept so obviously marking yourself out as a tourist they are often the most sensible ways of seeing certain parts of the island. A company called Rolling Geeks (I'm sure there must be pun there that I'm missing) offers tours of the Three Cities in self-driven electric golf buggies. As questionable as that might sound they were actually an excellent way to explore the area without having to trudge up and down its many hills. The buggies, which according to the owners are the only ones of their kind in Europe, play information about the places on your route as you drive, and radio contact with the company's office in Birgu can be made at any time in case of mishaps or missed turnings.

So far, so dignified. It is my solemn duty to report, however, that our tour of the ancient walled city of Mdina, Malta's capital from antiquity until the medieval period, was taken while aboard Segways. I doubt I'll be alone when I say that these contraptions have been an object of unparalleled derision to me for many years – sniper-rifle jokes were my standard response when those bulbous red helmets beetled into view outside the flat I lived in in Barcelona. I simply had no choice here, though, so with Mark from Peep Show's words filling my head, mantra-like ("I am Louis Theroux. I am Louis Theroux and his wry smile at the orgy"), I dutifully trundled off. I soon discovered that I was really good at Segwaying, and that it was actually pretty fun, and have thus been unable to look at myself in the mirror since. You'd still have to point several dozen sniper rifles at me to get me on one in Barcelona, or any other major population centre, but Malta has a way of making you suspend normally iron-clad prejudices about tourism, and my horror dissipated with terrifying ease. Mdina itself is stunning and has a couple of viewpoints that offer incredible vistas over almost the whole island. It's well worth seeing, either on a cringy motorised zimmer frame or on foot.

Add to all this an increasingly vibrant music scene – Radio One's Annie Mac will host the fifith edition of her Lost And Found festival there in May and the excellent Glitch Festival has rightly attracted admiration since it began in 2016 – and it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid cliches about "a holiday with something for everyone".

The place isn't completely without downsides, but they're few and far between. With nearly 450,000 people living on its 120-odd square miles over the three islands, traffic can be a problem, though for one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Malta doesn't generally feel that crowded when you're walking along its streets. The puzzling Mediterranean beach-resort habit of soundtracking lazy afternoons by the pool with ear-splitting Europop was sadly in evidence at the hotel I stayed in, but a little forward-planning would doubtless turn up places where this isn't done. Aside from gripes as minor as these, Malta is a destination you really can't go wrong with. Act now, before the big secret spreads any further.

Kit Macdonald was a guest of the Maltese Tourism Authority. He flew from Edinburgh to Malta with Ryanair – return flights start at around £250. He was a guest at the Seashells Resort at Suncrest, where a double room starts at around £130