Malta Travel Highlights
“Where’s Malta”, my brother’s quizzical expression was obvious even through the fuzzy Skype connection at the Hotel Intercontinental. “Where’s Malta? Never heard of it. I think you made it up”. These were the famous last words of one Christopher James Willey Acworth and, dear brother, I will never let you live that geographical hiccup down for as long as we both shall live. (You can get me back later). 🙂
But can you really blame him, and I’m sure an astonishing amount of people around the world, for never having heard of the tiny country about 90km south of Sicily? Maybe you’ve heard of it but haven’t the foggiest where the iPhone dropped pin would go if push came to shove? Or maybe you thought it was one of those islands off the coast of the Galapagos or something because it sounds all exotic, right? Wrong (well not about the exotic part)…but it’s right down the bottom of the good ‘ol European Union. And if you blink you just might miss it.
Before the Brangelina tribe recently set up digs on the island of Gozo (about 8km off the coast of Malta) to shoot an upcoming blockbuster, Malta was never really a huge player on the well-worn Europe tourist maps. Sure, it has always been a uniquely intriguing destination for avid travellers and of course, the neighboring Italians (who have been coming here on holiday for decades), but for those of us who live halfway across the world, Malta may as well be half-way to the moon. Which is kind of ironic really, because upon arriving at the airport and travelling by car through the starkly desolate, cacti-laden countryside to the historic capital of Valletta, you can’t help but get the feeling you’re actually on the set of Star Wars. But then the capital, with its ancient streets, historic architecture and swimmable marinas, hits you like a medieval oasis among the desert! The densely populated Valletta and surrounding suburbs are anything but sparse. In fact, most of Malta’s 400, 000+ inhabitants live within a 10km radius of the capital, and you can easily see why.
For a country that has been influenced by an historic smorgasbord of foreigners – think the Arab, Norman, Roman, French, Spanish and British Empires – you can immediately sense the colorful diversity when you walk the narrow streets of the old town and meander through the charming citadels. The city is a patch-work-quilt of cultures stitched together in one place, but a uniquely Maltese flavour still shines through in the local dishes of domestic rabbit and Lampuki Pie (a seasonal pastry-covered fish casserole containing spinach, cauliflower, chestnuts and sultantas). The architecture is in direct response to the dry Maltese landscape, with buildings made predominately of limestone from local quarries with flat-roofs to collect rainwater. Wood is like gold bouillon in Malta as there are no forests to speak of, and after a long day of sightseeing I found myself playing a little game called “spot the wood”. It’s actually strangely addictive.
Malta is a country of contrasts, and I’m still not sure I have it all figured out, but maybe that’s the reason for its appeal. On the one hand, you’ve got this arid, almost-lifeless rocky landscape that collides with the bluest of blue water housing flourishing ecosystems of life. You’ve got a melting pot of parties, progressive finance and business growth in this tiny central city and yet the entire country had a blackout one night. You’ve got old, you’ve got new and you’ve got beauty… or a big, neutral nothingness if you defer from the city or the tourist path. One things’ for sure though, Malta will be entirely different to what you expect – in a good way. Sure, it has the breathtaking vistas and the nightlife… but it’s just all so different to the vision you have in your mind before you go. But if you just sit-back and slide into the surroundings then you will almost certainly enjoy the ride, because Malta is just far enough off the euro-grid to feel like you’re landing on the moon.
Malta Travel Highlights – Trip Notes for the Imaginative Traveler
Upper Barrakka Gardens
These stunning public gardens offer sweeping views of one of the largest natural harbours in Europe – The Grand Harbour – and were once the playground of the famous Maltese Knights. One of Valletta’s most unique and picturesque parks, these gardens were established in 1775 on the bastion of St Peters and Paul. These days though, summer sees some eclectic wine, music and food festivals housed within the grounds, with the main stage overlooking the harbour and old towns of Senglea and Vittoriosa. When nothing much is scheduled even the view is enough of an event to make the trek up to the gardens, so grab some cheese and Maltese wine and prepare for photo opportunities all round.
Mdina Old City
Mdina Citta Vechia is a quaint medieval walled town situated smack-bang in the middle of Malta. It was once the old capital when the Roman Empire ruled, but these days only 300 affluent Maltese live within its gates. Sometimes known as the ‘silent city’ by tourist and locals alike, the best way to experience this ancient town is to grab the nearest member of the opposite sex and make a romantic night of it, spending a leisurely dinner overlooking most of Malta from the balcony of the quaint ‘Theos’ restaurant.
Blue Grotto is a breathtaking series of overwater caverns and caves which can be explored by tiny tourist boats from the shore (they cost 8 euro per person for a 20 minute ride). Blue Grotto is famed for the unique way the sun wraps itself around the caves and kisses the sea, producing the most acutely blue water you will ever lay your pretty eyes on.
Prehistoric Temples of Malta
The megalithic temples of Malta are older than the Pyramids of Egypt. Just think about the magnitude of that statement for a second…Once you do you’ll realize how truly cool it is to be able to walk amongst these 5000 – 4100 BC well-preserved stone structures, learn about how they were formed and absorb the historic vibes.
Malta’s capital is both captivating and creative. A world heritage site and veritable open-air museum, Valletta’s architecture dates back to almost 5 centuries ago. Dotted with quaint cafés and wine bars, the city is the central focal point for business and leisure.
Saint Peter’s Pool
This natural swimming hole is one of the quieter spots on the island, and with turquoise green waters, it’s probably the prettiest. Make sure you pack everything you’ll need for a perfect sun-filled day as there are no shops or facilities nearby.
The Grand Palace
If you like Game of Thrones then you’re going to love the Grand Palace. A fascinating mixture of contemporary and historic politics and war, this building houses the seat of the Maltese president and Parliament of the Republic of Malta. But the highlight of the palace is the Armory halls, which display some original examples of medieval amour and weapons used by the Knights of St John and their adversaries. How these specimens actually wore the solid silver chest plates in the stifling summer heat I’ll never know, but getting up-close and personal with these artefacts of war is an intriguing experience nonetheless.
As far as good, clean (and not overly crowded) city-beaches go this one is hard to beat. Slide into these stunning waters any time you feel the sweat from sight-seeing in Valletta getting a little overbearing. FYI – this beach is made of rock – but who really needs sand anyway – it’s scratchy and gets everywhere!
If rocky beaches aren’t your bag then venture about 30 minutes from Valletta and you’ll find one of the most pristine white sandy beaches on the island, Golden Bay. Marked by its rainbow umbrellas and tanned (sometimes leathery) backpackers, the beach attracts the young and hip for a day of fun in the sun. There are two bars and a restaurant on the bay, as well as umbrella and sun bed hire for 8 euro a day, but other than that, the beach is fairly secluded.
We came across this harbourside café while walking from Sliema Beach to St Julian’s Bay, and found out later it was a Malta institution. Gotta love when you stumble upon an unplanned hotspot. With a selection of fresh seafood and local produce to match the panoramic views of the Sliema Promenade, Fresco’s Café is a definitive stop on the Malta foodie trail.
This eatery offers the best pizzas in town, and is a tastefully-converted traditional Maltese villa built directly over Balluta Bay. Reserve a balcony table in advance so you can watch the sun go down with a Prosecco in hand and a mouth-watering BBQ chicken pizza in the other.
Hints/Know Before You Go!
- There’s a big difference between St Julian’s Town and St Julian’s Bay, if you want a truly Maltese experience and some peace and quiet, then steer clear of the former else you’ll be forced to re-live you’re schoolies days with the hords of Italian backpackers partying up a storm on the main club strip.
- Most of the white-sand beaches are crowded in August so you’ll need to arrive early (say, before 11am) to nab an umbrella and a good spot next to the water.
- Getting around can be expensive! Buses are sporadic, and be prepared to pay upwards of 20 euro for a 15-20 minute cab ride on the island. There is so much exploring to be done so your best bet is to hire your own transport for the trip, whether it’s a 4-wheeler, scooter or car – your bank balance will thank you for it!