Bored of the Beach? Time to Explore the Maldives' Capital
Around 1.4 million travellers visited the Maldives in 2018, but relatively few took the time to explore the Maldivian capital, Male. On the face of it, this comes as no surprise – people come to the Maldives for the beaches, the ocean, and the resort hotels, and many of these tend to be located quite some distance from Male. While the Maldives is Asia's smallest country by land area, its atolls are scattered in a long chain across the Indian Ocean, with Male in the middle, so some travellers may be staying 500 km or more from the capital. The only chance those visitors would have to take a look at this intriguing city would be just after their flight arrives at Male's Velana International Airport, or just before their flight home departs.
However, guests staying much closer at hotels such as the Centara Ras Fushi Resort & Spa, which lies just 11 km from Male, or less than 20 minutes by speedboat, have the perfect opportunity to get to know the "real Maldives" where 130,000 real Maldivians live and work.
Male - A Unique City
Male is a unique city. Unlike many sleepy capitals of small island nations, Male feels like a big city crammed into a tiny space. From the water it is an amazing sight – while it may lack skyscrapers, it does present a crowded urban skyline rising straight out of the sea. Not an inch of space goes to waste, while waste is used to create more space.
It's also one of the very few capitals you can walk all the way across, or around, without getting tired or lost. The city is a densely packed rectangle, bisected along its length by the main shopping street. The rest is a warren of twisting alleyways and narrow streets. You could become hopelessly disorientated but the sea or the main street will always come to your rescue before too long, so feel free to wander as and where you please.
Male is not a city that's packed with tourist attractions. Given that almost a third of the Maldives' GDP comes from tourism, it may come as a pleasant surprise that Male doesn't feel remotely touristy. You'll see a few foreign faces as you walk around, but the overall impression is of hassle-free anonymity in a city that's just going about its business. One spot that does come highly recommended is the local fish market, where you can witness the spectacle of fisherman bringing in the catch, and also find the freshest seafood to enjoy nearby.
Grand Friday Mosque
Two other highlights would be the Grand Friday Mosque, which welcomes non-Muslim visitors outside prayer times. This gorgeous dazzling white building might easily be one of the world's most beautiful mosques. However, it’s important to remember that the Maldives is quite a conservative country, and while tourists will always find a warm welcome, you should avoid wearing anything too revealing around religious sites. Close by is the National Museum, which is closed on Friday and Saturday, but which does provide insights into Maldivian history for those visitors eager to learn more.
Maldives Tsunami Memorial
Finally, one cannot forget the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, which swept through the low-lying Maldives causing significant damage and loss of life. Today there is a monument commemorating that tragic event which stands close to the main ferry terminal at the southwest corner of the city. This ferry terminal is the most distant point on the island from where the airport ferries arrive at the northeast corner. It takes around an hour to walk between the two.
The ferry terminal should certainly be on your itinerary though, because it's the departure point for the cheap and frequent public ferries to the adjacent Villingili Island, which has a public beach where the locals enjoy the water. You can also go slightly further afield to Thilafushi, which has attracted worldwide attention as an environmental nightmare. Thilafushi is where the Maldives disposes of its rubbish. Ships arrive from all over the archipelago to dump their rubbish in the lagoon as landfill, and while it may not be the most appealing of destinations, many travellers are interested to see it for themselves.
All in all, Male is well worth a day of your time – you can't truly say you've been to the Maldives until you've seen what really makes it tick.