“Why did you decide to visit Malta?”
I was asked this question time and again by curious locals during our week on the island.
“I’d seen pictures,” I’d respond. “And everyone who has been here raves about the charming towns and natural beauty.”
The truth is that Malta does not come up on many travel radars (at least in the United States), unless you’ve known someone who has been there (or maybe heard that Game of Thrones was shot across various parts of the three islands that make up Malta). Or maybe you’ve heard of the 1989 Malta Summit between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev or going back further in time, the Order of the Knights of St John.
For those unacquainted with the archipelago of three islands that make up Malta, located just south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, this European outpost is spread across the main island (Malta) and two smaller islands (Comino and Gozo). A melting pot of cultures and traditions and a language derived from Arabic, Italian and Latin, “everyone and their dog has controlled Malta at one point or another” according to Bill – the taxi driver that drove my husband and I do our hotel near Mellieha on the north western coast of the main island. Although much about the ancient history of Malta is still unknown, its geographic location with close proximity to Africa, mainland Europe and Asia makes the country a strategic star and the natural beauty of the archipelago makes it an oasis for many.
24 reasons to Visit Malta
There is no doubt about it. The list of things to do and see in Malta is long. Depending on the season, you might even just want to spend your days in Malta on one of the small beaches or playing in the Caribbean-like blue water – kayaking, scuba diving or swimming. Whatever your reasons are for traveling to Malta, I’m betting that you’ll leave with more than you anticipated.
I’ll be honest, we didn’t visit the Palace or go inside Fort St. Elmo or watch the Malta Experience video – because although I’d heard good things about these attractions, I wanted to savor as much of the outdoors as we could during our trip. And yes, you should visit Mdina, the “old capital” and silent city of Malta (at least when the tourists leave) and marvel at the mysterious UNESCO World Heritage site at the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni. But you should also walk, explore and experience as much of the local feel as you can – which is what you’ll find here in my list of reasons to visit Malta.
Take in the incredible views around Malta
There are no shortages of spots to be wowed by views that look as if they’ve been painted by a master artist in Malta. Your jaw will drop. I promise. The reflecting sun over the sea, turquoise blue waters and magnificent village scapes will clog your camera with more photos than you know what to do with. And though some visitors to Malta focus on the capital city – Valletta – and the surrounding towns and villages, I’d highly recommend venturing north along either coast for a mix of jagged cliffs and sea.
Explore Valletta on Foot
The walled city of Valletta, now Malta’s capital, is small relative to other world capitals. But the city, designed on a grid system, is made to be walked, to be discovered and to be enjoyed. Light and energy bounce off the Maltese limestone on the buildings that line the streets, with charming window box balconies jetting out from the facades. Roam without a purpose, to admire the charm especially when you stray from the center of town and watch as locals come and go with their families.
Appreciate the artistry of the island
The artistry of Malta can be seen across the island but in particular in Valletta, where frequent events and annual festivals decorate the main areas. For more permanent displays, travelers will appreciate Mdina glass sculptures, the Maltese Cross and artistic masterpieces in churches like St. Paul’s Collegiate Church and St. John’s Cathedral. Honestly, even the crisp blue sky set against the limestone buildings will look like a piece of art that you’d like to see everyday.
Eat a honey ring at Caffe Cordina in Valletta
Oh Caffe Cordina, how I love thee. Whether you choose to sit inside the historic palazzo with vaulted ceilings, marble floors and paintings by the Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali or at an outdoor table watching passer-byers, you will want to devote a morning or afternoon (or both) to a treat at Caffe Cordina. (We did both!) You cannot really go wrong with a pastry from the pasticceria – like a traditional Maltese honey ring – or a more savory snack from the display of pastizzi and puff pastry choices. (If you are looking for a puff pastry, go early in the morning for the best selection as they tend to run out by early afternoon.)
I’ve got one word for you. Pastizzi. Yum. While these puff pastry delicacies may not make a nutritionist happy, they absolutely made my insides squeal in delight. You will find pastizzi in places like Caffe Cordina, but also at small shops with display cases lining the street – like you might find a slice of pizza walking through an Italian town. We even made dinner out of pastizzi (ok, with cheese and wine) on several nights.
Find beauty in door knockers
I admit it. I have a thing for Maltese door knockers. So much so that we bought one to bring home and are now fighting with our home owner’s association to be able to keep it on our front door. (Ridiculous, right?) Known as “il-Habbata,” these adornments come in many motifs, shapes and sizes. My favorites were the variations on lions, though I did see dolphins, hands and Maltese crosses.
Have lunch at the Grassy Hopper in Valletta
I found the Grassy Hopper on Instagram before leaving for Malta and knew that I wanted to eat lunch there. This vegetarian, feel good eatery offers wraps, salads and burgers and a long juice and smoothie list. Oh and dessert. Delicious, sweet but healthy dessert. (Ok, healthy at least in the whole food, no refined sugars and starches). Not only did it feel good to enjoy a lunch of delicious food, but the nutrient rich meal counteracted any other imbalances from the rest of the week (or so I’d like to tell myself). The best part, is that the Grassy Hopper filled up with locals on their lunch break or with friends getting together while we were there. It reminded me of a neighborhood cafe that feels very much like home. (Note, the Grassy Hopper in Valletta is closed on Sundays).
Get lost as you wander Valletta
Ok, so you can’t really get lost in Valletta since you are surrounded by water on three sides and the city is designed in a grid. But you can walk aimlessly and lose track of where you are as you get distracted by exquisite facades and streets that beg to be explored. Perhaps my favorite part about walking through Valletta is that with each time of day and the changing amount of light reflecting off the limestone, the streets take on a whole new persona from morning to afternoon.
Without even realizing it, we lucked out with our resort and the proximity to great hiking on Malta, sandwiched between Ghajn Tuffieha and Il Majjistral Nature and History Park. On our first afternoon, we ventured out to the Ghajn Tuffieha – known for a popular beach (known to some as Golden Bay) – near Mellieha. But instead of heading down to the beach, we explored the trail that led us to an overlook of Ġnejna Bay. We chose to climb over and across the rocks out towards the tip of a small peninsula. Although there is formal trail through the rocks, each new outcrop offered a subtle invitation – which we took… again and again. Il Majjistral on the other hand, ventures towards the north and provides views of Comino and Gozo in the distance on a clear day. Il Majjistral is perfect for sunrise and offers multiple spots where you can descend down the cliffside towards the water, where I saw a rabbit hunter and his dog on a morning mission!. (Note…I tried running in il Majjistral one morning and though it can be done, the terrain is very rocky and trail running shoes would be a good idea if you have them.)
Sit along the water and watch the boats of Marsaxlokk
The traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk – located in the south of the main island – is known for a bay full of brightly painted fishing boats. These blue, yellow and red vessels have an energetic quality that makes it hard not to smile. Filled with buckets, nets and fishing gear, these boats – known as Luzzus – have a unique design that dates back to Phoenician times and includes not just bright colors, but a pair of eyes painted on the bow (that are said to protect the fisherman at sea).
Chat with Locals
The Maltese people are some of the kindest and friendliest that I’ve ever met. Both the locals and the many expats that now make Malta home come together in what feels like a universal community that welcomes all and celebrates each moment. Maybe it is the blend of cultures and traditions that have laid claim to Malta over the years, but this island nation feels more like a melting pot that other international cities. And perhaps it is the Italian in me that appreciates watching people come together in the streets and in cafes in the evening, but I found myself wistful while watching friends and multi-generational groups congregate at a local bar – eating, drinking and stepping outside for a cigarette or pipe.
Eat Date Rolls at the Sunday Market in Marsaxlokk
We’d heard about the Sunday fish market at Marsaxlokk from multiple sources and knew we wanted to spend our Sunday morning there. But what I didn’t realize is that more than the fish, I’d be interested in the date rolls (ok and also the fig rolls…but especially the date rolls). I will never eat a fig newton again without thinking of these Maltese nuggets of heaven. For better or worse, we didn’t eat as many as we should have –thinking that we’d eat more throughout the week. And while you can probably find these sweet treats throughout the island, but because it was near Christmas when we visited, many shops were selling Christmas sweets and cookies in lieu of the date rolls.
Eat Fish Whenever You Can
Fish, fish and more fish. I think the only meal that we never ate fish was breakfast. With an incredible local bounty, you cannot go wrong with fish in Malta (though many would also sing the praises of rabbit, I stuck with fish). And yes, the fish market in Marsaxlokk is worth a visit and we did eat a lovely lunch overlooking the market and water – but the prices are inflated in Marsaxlokk as opposed to other parts of the island. (Not sure you want a meal only of fish? Start with a Maltese platter for an assortment of bread, olives, bigilla (beans), gbejniet (cheese) and sun dried tomatoes.)
Admire the Azure Window in Gozo
Chances are good that you’ve seen pictures of the Azure Window before (maybe even on Game of Thrones?). Located on the smaller sister island to Malta, this limestone arch contrasts with deep blue waters creating a window that beats any window view that I have in my house. Probably one of the most popular attractions in Gozo, the Azure Window warrants a playful exploration over the salt pans for multiple perspectives on this geological gift. Make sure to leave time to visit the Dwejra watchtower for views of Fungus Rock as well as the Inland Sea – created by the collapse of underwater caves.
Go for a Hike in Gozo
The possibilities for hiking and walking in Gozo are endless (the same can be said of the main island of Malta). From village to village, along the coasts, the choices are varied and unique. Spending only one day in Gozo, we opted for a short hike above the cliffs surrounding the Azure Window The rugged landscape with low lying shrubs highlighted the contrasting color of the water and cloudy sky. Even though the terrain is consistent, I felt drawn to keep going – savoring every angle and perspective of the coast as it unfolded below us.
Explore the Coast by Boat
One way to explore Gozo by boat is to hire a small boat and driver at the Inland Sea and take a ride out into the caves and near the Azure Window. (These outings are weather dependent as the water can get very choppy.) Our driver – David – pointed out the coral living under the vibrant blue water in the caves, revealing pink, red, orange and purple hues that only begin to tell of the life that exists below the surface. And being on the water to look up at the massive cliffs? Not even the view from the top can compare. Another way to experience Gozo via water is to scuba dive. Nearby underwater caves, the Inland Sea and the Blue Hole – a 60 meter long tunnel – are popular dive sites drawing in divers with bold colors and ample marine life.
Find Adventure in Gozo
I’ve already talked about hiking and scuba diving in Gozo…so what other adventures are out there? The smaller size of Gozo and charming villages make this an island where wandering and exploring, without a map are an adventure in and of itself. Whether you follow the stairs and path down the cliff in Xlendi Bay or roam the quiet streets of Victoria, you’ll be glad you devoted time to Gozo.
Admire the view from Fort S. Angelo in Birgu
One of my favorite moments during our time in Malta was discovering a set of stairs below Fort S. Angelo that led through an overgrown area to a view of Valletta and the harbor unlike anything else I’d seen. This was a perfect spot to let Malta soak in, as well as rest from a day of walking (and get in a few yoga stretches). We weren’t the only ones who had this idea. Although you get the distinct feeling that this is not an officially public area, it is hard to resist the temptation to stay a while.
Appreciate Night Views
As incredible as the days are in Valletta, you’ll want to plan to spend an evening there as well to see the city come alive with lights hanging across the streets and around the window balcony boxes. The limestone color comes alive in a whole new way at night, lit by streetlights and the moon. Be sure to roam down to the water for views that reminded me of twinkling lights and magic.
Explore the Three Cities of Cospicua, Birgu and Senglea
Although much is said about Valletta and the neighboring St. Julian’s and Sliema, just across the harbor lie the Three Cities. Vittoriosa (Birgu), Senglea and Cospicua are quaint mini-outposts of life on Malta. Although you’ll find mega yachts docked in the harbor, these smaller villages take all that is good about Malta, and amplify it tenfold. Here you’ll see daily life (and quiet at night) mixed with historical landmarks that date back to Phoenician times and eventually the Knights of St. John. For a thorough tour of the Three Cities, consider renting a Rolling Geeks tour golf-cart to explore and learn.
Wander Aimlessly Through Birgu
My favorite of the Three Cities was Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa). Maybe I was biased as my parents had visited several months before and had planted the seed of how they loved Birgu, but I could not resist the charm and energy of this fortified city with a population of less than 3,000 people. I could see myself living here, community by ferry boat to Valletta for work (if I didn’t work from home that is), seeing friends and family at a local bar in the evening and enjoying the salty air from my open windows.
Eat Dinner at Osteria VE. in Birgu
Ok. Yes, I went to Malta to eat Maltese food. But when we sat down at our small table at Osteria VE. and watched as local after local came in for dinner while I sipped my Aperol Spritz, I knew that this Italian eatery would make my list of favorite meals. Owned by Stefano and Thomas – two Venetians – all that is good about Italy and Malta to come together in this 17th century building. A sense of home, a sense of comfort and delicious ingredients and flavors combine to make a meal here more than “just” dinner. And yes, I am probably biased because any chance for me to chat in Italian and feel “at home” always puts me in a good mood (even without any grappa), but our evening at Osteria VE. was more than that. From start to finish, every taste and sip was a celebration. Had we had time, I would have gone back to Osteria VE…again and again. (Tip: Be sure to make a reservation as the restaurant is very small!)
Spend an Evening at Tal-Petut for Dinner
Watch the Sunset
Sunset is a magnificent sight no matter where you see it, but in Malta – over the azure waters and against the yellow of the limestone – this daily event rises to a new level of bliss. I’m not sure I’d ever seen the rays of sun shooting toward the sky like it did as it started to descend towards the horizon from our vantage point at Ghajn Tuffieha (or Golden Bay).
Tips for visiting Malta
- The main island of Malta is divided into multiple regions. The north is known for its proximity (and views) of Comino and Gozo. It is also home to the island’s beaches (Buġibba, Qawra, St. Paul’s Bay, Mellieha, Golden Bay and Ghajn Tuffieha). The south is characterized by fishing villages and central Malta features the ancient capital of Mdina and the Roman town of Rabat. The majority of hotels can be found in Sliema and St. Julian’s (also where the majority of trendy shopping and nightlife are located). Although we were a bit removed at the Radisson Golden Sands (near Mellieha), I appreciated our proximity to natural areas for hiking.
- Although Malta is a small island, getting around can take longer than you think. Travel by local bus is convenient and easy, but can take longer with multiple stops on each route. If you take a taxi, be sure to ask your hotel what an average fare should be and negotiate with the driver before getting in. Check to see if your hotel has an arrangement with the Drifter car service. We used this company almost exclusively and were always impressed with their service especially late at night when we were returning to the hotel after dinner in Birgu.
- Along the same lines of transport, the Maltese tend to drive quickly (and on the lefthand side of the road). The number of accidents is highly disproportionate to the number of inhabitants…so consider hiring or taking the bus a driver instead of renting a car. Parking in the historic areas is also at a premium (another reason not to rent a car).
- If you do plan to visit the Hypogeum (which is incredible, although I didn’t list it as a separate reason to visit Malta), you’ll need to reserve your tickets in advance through Heritage Malta. (Note: The Hypogeum will be closed for a renovation project after June 6, 2016).
- We traveled to Malta in December which turned out to be perfect since it was low tourist season. The weather was still comfortable for a mostly outdoor itinerary, but too cold for swimming in the sea. Summer is a different story entirely as crowds increase as do the temperatures (so be sure to confirm whether or not your hotel or accommodation has air conditioning if that is important to you).
More resources to help plan a visit to Malta: