The capital of the Maldives sits on a 1-sq-mi/2-sq-km island—the whole place can be seen on foot in about an hour. Home to about one-third of the country's population, it's packed to the gills with buildings and people—in fact, it's become so crowded that neighboring islands have been developed to take on the overflow. (And several land reclamation projects were needed just to get Male' to its current size.) Most of the older buildings have been demolished to make way for tall, modern ones. And unfortunately, although the place is tiny, everyone seems to own a car or motorbike, and traffic has become unpleasant. Male' has no natural beaches, being surrounded by seawalls on all sides. However, a landscaped artificial beach and adjoining breakwater have been built around the harbor on the southwest side of the island, which has become popular for jogging and strolling.
Start your tour of Male' (pronounced MAHL-ee) at the waterfront near Jumhooree Maidan, the main square. Pass by the main fishing harbor, crowded with dhonis (traditional fishing boats) unloading their catch. The area has some interesting markets, along with hangouts for the fishing folk. Take time to visit the National Museum and look at the stone figures collected from sites in the Maldives by adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. The pleasant Sultan's Park surrounds the museum. Tea shops offer a good way to meet people, and you can shop for souvenirs in Chandhanee Magu.
The population of the Maldives is officially 100% Sunni Muslim by law, and there are more than a dozen mosques in Male'. The modern Grand Friday Mosque dominates the city's skyline, but the mosque known as Hukuru Miski, or Old Friday Mosque, is the city's oldest and most distinctive. The surrounding courtyard contains a cemetery full of elaborately carved coral headstones. Many Maldivian leaders, including Abu Al Barakat, the man who brought Islam to the Maldives in the 12th century, are entombed in the vicinity.
There are some interesting dive sites near Male', although the nearby waters are littered with cast-off bicycles and other trash. Of particular interest is the wreck of the Maldives Victory, a cargo ship that hit a reef and sank in 1981—it's now covered with coral and lots of fish. Some of the resorts in the area also have good house reefs in which nonguests are also allowed to dive, providing they don't attempt to go ashore. Dive centers in Male' can arrange excursions by boat.
Male' is surrounded by North Male' Atoll and South Male' Atoll, which were the first places in the country to be developed for tourism. It's also the home of the first island to be developed for guesthouse tourism, in 2010. Maafushi now contains around 25 guesthouses and associated facilities for tourists including a private beach, and has an atmosphere unlike any other island in the Maldives. North Male' Atoll has some of the best surfing in the Maldives, as well as some shipwrecks that make fascinating dive sites. Banana Reef, a protected marine area, is probably the country's best-known dive site. The Helengeli and Eriyadu Resorts are among the most popular in the area with divers. South Male' Atoll also has a number of good dive sites, many of which include small caves with hard and soft corals and occasional nurse sharks. Some of the most popular dive sites include Guraidhoo Corner and Vadoo Caves.
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