Discover this tiny Mediterranean island nation, which offers legendary history, luxurious hotels and beautiful beaches.
Ask Americans about Malta, and most of the recognition will be from fans of the Humphrey Bogart film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon.
Yet the real Malta, set at the crossroads of the Mediterranean between the island of Sicily and Libya’s African coast, boasts a history and culture enriched by thousands of years as a vital strategic link of trade routes, gorgeous Mediterranean weather, spectacular, unspoiled beaches and a bilingual population that use both English and Maltese as official languages, and the Euro (since 2008) as its unit of currency.
Malta is actually three islands, the largest being Malta, followed by Gozo and sparsely inhabited Comino. A member of the European Union, Malta gained independence from Britain in 1964—the last of a string of imperial rulers that stretch back to the Romans, Greeks and even the Phoenicians.
All these empires left their mark on Malta’s culture, its language (which does not resemble other European tongues at all), its cuisine (except for the British, thankfully, who after 150 years of colonization did not managed to impose delicacies like Toad-in-a-Hole on Malta’s strongly Sicilian-influenced cooking style) and most especially its architecture.
Malta is a fortress island ruled by the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem (the crusading Knights Hospitallers of Maltese Falcon fame who built a number of fortresses, palaces and cathedrals) from 1530 until the British took over to keep the strategic redoubt from Napoleon; a pair of forts tower over Malta’s Grand Harbour, fashioned from the same honey-colored limestone as virtually every structure on the island. At sunset it glows, making early evening walks or harbor tours by boat a must.
A good deal of its tourism comes from Britain, where Fortress Malta was a familiar cornerstone of the empire until independence.
Malta’s history dates back to the Stone Age, when Sicilian migrants built still-standing temples that predate the Great Pyramids, albeit on a substantially smaller scale. The 5,600-year-old Hagar Qim (tel. +356-2142-4231) temple on Malta and the Ggantija Temples on Gozo are both interesting excursions and offer a hands-on experience that works well for children. Admission for each site: €5.82 (US $7.50) for adults 18 to 59; €2.91(US $3.75) for students 12 to 17; €1.75 for children 6 to 11; free for children 5 and under.
Underneath an unassuming Valletta side street is an underground temple burial complex, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 5,400-square-foot Hypogeum was hewn from rock and contains an abundance of artifacts. Tours of the carefully sealed structure are strictly limited and should be booked a month or more in advance. Admission: €9.32 (US $12) for adults 18 to 59; €4.66 (US $6) for children 6 to 17; children under 5 are not allowed into the complex.
The 900-year-old Knights Hospitallers still exist, in a less warlike body, and regularly sponsor period costume re-enactment. The centers of the order’s history comprise the grandest structures on Malta, beginning with Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Elmo (the site of frequent Sunday re-enactments by the Knights), which stand on either side of the Grand Harbour—site of the Great Siege of 1565, when the Knights held off an Ottoman Turk invasion fleet 10 times their size—and the ornate Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta. The latter houses the Maltese parliament, so tours can be erratic, but the Tapestry Chamber, with its stunning Gobelin tapestries and the vividly frescoed Hall of St. Michael and St. George, otherwise known as the throne room, are highlights.
The artistic highlight of Malta is without a doubt St. John’s Co-Cathedral (St. John’s Street, tel. +356-2122-0536) which houses Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, as well as his St. Jerome Writing, another important painting by the artist, who fled to Malta to escape murder charges. Then there is the floor of the co-cathedral, so named because the Knights decided they needed a cathedral of their own, despite church law forbidding more than one in any diocese. The wealthy crusaders are entombed under incredibly elaborate marble mosaics that cover the entire nave. Don’t plan a quick stop—it is breathtaking. Admission: €5.82 (US $7.50) for adults 12 and over; children under 12 free when accompanied by an adult.
The legacy of the British period—which began when Lord Wellington took Malta away from Napoleon and continued through the fierce bombing campaign ordered by General Rommel to protect the Nazi invasion of North Africa—can be found at Fort Rinella, a British fortification with the world’s largest cannon and daily re-enactments in 19th century costume, as well as restored period interiors. Admission: €8 (US $10.32) for adults 17 and over; €7 (US $9) for children 16 and under. Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, Notre Dame Gate, St. Edward’s Street. Tel. +356-2180-0992, www.wirtartna.org.
Next: Malta’s Lay of the Land
Most of the cities, shopping, nightlife, historical sites and tourist attractions are on Malta, It also attracts European jetsetters when they want to escape the scene at French and Italian Riviera resorts.
Valletta is the Baroque capital of Malta, and it sits next to the towns of Sliema and St. Julian’s. Valletta is where you’ll find the historic waterfront, a great place to stroll, as well as Republic Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare where much of the island’s better shopping is concentrated. The capital is, unsurprisingly, where many of the historic buildings, museums and restaurants are concentrated. That said, Sliema is where the best clothing boutiques are located. Find nightlife and a good deal of fine dining in Paceville and St. Julian’s.
Mdina is the old city of Malta, the medieval walled town with narrow streets, restaurants, shops and nobles’ ornate houses. Families and souvenir hunters should make an excursion to Mdina Glass, a working glass factory and shop that produces beautiful glassware. The factory is open to the public, and consists of a dozen or so artisans heating, blowing, and shaping glassware and decorative pieces right in front of you. Vases, plates and the entire rage of glassware is available in the shop for anywhere from a few Euros to a few thousand. Crafts Village, Ta’ Qali. Tel. +356-2141-5786, www.mdinaglass.net.
Many resorts on Malta have beaches, but to really get away from the crowd, and to see some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, you have to take the 25-minute ferry ride to Gozo, whose name means “joy” in Castilian. The island—home to a substantial cottage industry of lace making—is largely rural, peppered with coves sheltering both red- and white-sand beaches and incredible scuba diving locations.
Marsalforn is the main seaside town in Gozo, offering plenty of seaside cafés specializing in fish freshly caught by the picturesque local fleet of small boats.
If staying overnight, there is the five-star Hotel Ta’Cenc (tel. +356-2155-6819) and the Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort & Spa (Triq Ir-Rokon, tel. +356-2211-0000); rates start at €110 (US $142).
Among the most beautiful beaches is the red-gold sanded Ramla Bay, or Ramla I-Hamra. Not too crowded even in summer, Ramla Bay has several cafés, and the swimming is safe, making it popular with families. Overlooked by the village of Xaghra, the beach is the site of Calypso Cave, traditionally the home of the Nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey, as well as a few Roman ruins. Xaghra is also the home of the Ggantija Temples, well-preserved, 5,500-year-old temples with walls more then 20 feet high
San Blas is another beach favorite, perfect for snorkeling and picnicking. The final stretch of the steep road is pedestrian-only, but the walk, through fields of citrus trees, is beautiful, and the crowds are few.
Cave-lined Dahlet Quorrot, known locally for its beauty and popular with local fishermen, is an excellent spot to snorkel. Dwejra’s spectacular rock formations—including a natural stone arch rising from the waters, the Azure window—offer excellent snorkeling and diving, but should be attempted only by strong, experienced divers. Nearby dive sites include The Blue Hole, the caves of the Inland Sea and Crocodile and Fungus Rock. It is probably the best site in Malta for viewing undersea marine life and coral.
Finally, Malta’s third island, tiny Comino, is famed for its Blue Lagoon, where parts of Troy and The Count of Monte Cristo were filmed. Its crystal blue waters can attract crowds in the high season, but it’s worth the boat ride from Gozo or Malta. St. Mary’s Tower, built by the Knights in the early 15th century, oversees the island.
Next: Family Friendly Malta
There is a great deal for families to do in Malta, but two things particular to the island offer interesting excursions: its connection to the pre-Roman Catholic Church and its place in Hollywood’s moviemaking industry.
The gospels record that the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in A.D. 60. Between that early introduction to the faith and nearly 300 years under the rule of a Catholic order, the church’s influence runs deep. The Maltese claim to have more churches per capita than Italy, and the pageantry of Easter week and Christmas are quite spectacular. A visit during Mardi Gras is also worthwhile. The parades feature fantastic, brightly painted, homemade, animatronic floats that end up in a fairground chock full of music and dancing for the whole family.
As for the movies, Malta’s strict building codes (the local limestone is the only acceptable building material) mean many neighborhoods besides Mdina are extremely well preserved for period pieces. Films shot here include Gladiator, Troy, The Count of Monte Cristo and U-571.
For families, the best legacy is the Popeye Village (Anchor Bay, Mellieha; tel. +356-2152-4782), originally the set of the 1980 Robin Williams musical about the cartoon sailor. Located in Mellieha, it now has the preserved village, animation shows and many pools for kids. Also at the site is Santa’s Toy Town. Another nearby option is the modern and creative-themed Fun Park (tel. +356-2224-2445) created at Hal Far by Global toymaker Playmobil.
Most tourist destinations have some kind of “audio visual spectacular” (that is, movie) covering its history, and most are uniformly awful. The Malta Experience, a 45-minute excursion through the island’s rich history, is a pleasurable exception that visitors—particularly with children—shouldn’t miss, due largely to the fact that the English narration is by Sir Derek Jacobi, one of the great British actors of his generation. Admission: €9.50 (US $12.26) for adults 14 and over; €4.50 (US $5.80) for juniors under 14. St. Elmo Bastion, Mediterranean Street. Tel. +356-2124-3776, www.themaltaexperience.com.
As for dining, traditional Maltese cooking can be had at Ir-Razzett L-Antik (Valley Road, Qormi; tel. +356-2147-0221), a restaurant in a restored, 400-year-old mill with a substantial cellar of surprisingly good local wines.
Vineyard tours and tastings are available at the Meridiana Wine Estate (Ta’ Qali, tel.+356-2141-3550), whose Isis Chardonnay is particularly nice. In St. Julian’s, Barracuda (194 Main St., St. Julian’s; tel. +356-2133-1817), overlooking Balluta Bay, is a good choice for fans of seafood, as is Zeri’s Restaurant (Portomaso Marina, St. Julian’s; tel. +356-2135-9559).
The dozen five-star hotels all tend to have good restaurants, including Blue Elephant Malta (Hilton Malta, Portomaso, St. Julian’s; tel. +356-21-383-383), a romantic Thai restaurant in the Hilton Malta that flies spices in weekly. The top casinos, the Dragonara Barriére St Julian’s (St. Julian’s; tel. + 356-21-382-362) and the Casino at Portomaso (also in St. Julian’s), both have excellent brasseries with Mediterranean cuisine and good nightlife. Wherever you’re eating in Malta, reservations are a good idea in the May to September summer season.
One of the best eating establishments in the country is Ta’ Frenc Restaurant (Ghajn Damma Street, tel. +356-2155-3888) on Gozo, a converted farmhouse with outdoor seating in the herb garden with a focus on meals prepared with local ingredients.
There are more than a dozen five-star hotels in Malta. The recently refurnished Xara Palace Hotel (Misrah il-Kunsill, tel. +356-2145-0560), set in a 17th century palazzo at the entrance to the old city of Mdina, is a member of Relais & Chateaux, and possibly the most exclusive hotel in the country; rates start at €200 (US $258) per night.
Competing for that honor is the Hotel Phoenicia Malta (Mall Floriana Valletta, tel. +356-2122-5241), located in Valetta a short walk from St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Its views of the Grand Harbour fortifications are among the best in the country—possibly one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth chose it during a state visit. Rates start at €160 (US $206) per night.
The Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa (De Paule Avenue, San Anton; tel. +356-2144-0301), flagship of Malta’s homegrown luxury hotel chain, and the Corinthia Hotel St. George’s Bay (St. George’s Bay, +356-2137-4114) are both excellent choices; rates start at €88 (US $113.50) per night and €155 (US $200) per night, respectively.
Near the Corinthia, on a peninsula in St Julian’s, is the Westin Dragonara Resort (Dragonara Road, +356-2138-1000), which includes the glittering Dragonara Casino. Rates start at €105 (US $135) per night.
The most romantic choice may be the two private townhouses offered by Valletta Suites (tel. +356-7948-8047), which both date to the reign of the Knights. Maison La Vallette (from €40/US $51.60 per night) and Valletta Nobile (from €30/US $39 per night) both offer antique furnishing and excellent locations in the heart of Valletta.
Airlines servicing Malta include Air Malta, Lufthansa, KLM and Alitalia. London and Rome are the obvious transfer points. I arrived via Rome’s Fiumicino airport and departed through London Heathrow, and I strongly recommend the former.
While car rentals are available and even encouraged, I would avoid it, or limit your driving to a few specific excursions. Just 60 miles from Sicily and with a road system built by the British, the Maltese “drive like Italians, but on the wrong side of the road,” as one local put it. There is a good public bus system, and considering the entire country is just 122 square miles (not quite twice the size of Washington, D.C.), many locations are close together or accessible by taxi.
Themes: Historical Vacations
Thanks for the Additional Malta Info Hi Nick, thanks for the added info on Malta. Great stuff all around. Will definitely drop you a line for tips when I eventually make it to the island!
Additional notes about Malta Mdina is also known as the silent city, just to make it clear. Meridiana vineyard is great, call ahead and book a tasting, make sure to sit outside on the terrace with a few bottles of wine and some local goat cheese, and it will make your holiday in malta way better. I once took some friends over (they only had 6 hours in malta) there, and it really made their visit here the best one they had in all of europe so far. I disagree with flying through Rome, as I've had issues with that airport, but Munich and/or Frankfurt is also great transfer points if you don't want to go through Heathrow, with - in my eyes - friendlier staff. Also, in the "where to eat" section, I think Palazzo Santa Rosa ( ) in Mistra Bay should be mentioned, it's a restaurant that really focus on slow cooking and grow most of their veggies them selves (it's set in a farmhouse), as well as only locally produced food. It's a bit on the pricy side, but for the person that loves good food, it's a must to go there. The Arches ( ) in Mellieha is also a great restaurant (with the best wine cellar in malta, and has won several awards for their wines over the years), so you should take a look at it as well. If you are up for a swim, Ghadira bay (just north of Mellieha, bus route 45 ) is the largest sandy beach in Malta, but can be quite crowded. Golden beach is another option (west-northwest) which can be a bit less crowded, and it's really two beaches, if you drive down there, don't go down to the hotel, but park on the top, from where you can walk down to both beaches, and the one on your left (south) side will usually be less crowded and a bit nicer, very shallow water to begin with, but always nice and warm. In addition, if you want a guide or more suggestions, feel free to email me, westerlundn (at) mac.com and I'll help you out with your vacation.