Mysterious, Multicultural, Majestic. These are all the M words I could think of to describe Malta, an island south of Sicily and not that far off the Tunisian coast. Malta is a strange little place full of friendly people who who speak a language that sounds like what happens when Arabic and Italian have a baby. Don’t let the tiny size fool you, there is more than meets the eye here in many ways. In one week there was no shortage of things to do. Here is my suggestion for a one week itinerary for Malta.
Language: Maltese but English widely spoken
Currency: Euro and it is easy to find ATMs
History: Malta was basically ruled by every empire you can think of since the dawn of civilization. The Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, French and most recently the British have all left their mark.
St. Paul was shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D. and brought Christianity to Malta. The Arabs conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and left an important mark on the language of the Maltese. Charles V bequeathed Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalemwho ruled over Malta from 1530 to 1798. The Knights took Malta through a new golden age, making its cultural scene noteworthy in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This is sooo important and I hate reading blogs that leave out this crucial info, so forgive me if I go overboard making sure you are not clueless about this part, like I was! Just know that the island seems small but has only a few roads connecting certain places and tons of traffic. It takes quite a while to get from place to place, especially by bus. This was one of the things I found frustrating about Malta.
Valletta is the capital of Malta. It is truly magnificent with unique architecture, narrow hilly streets, painted wooden bay windows and glimpses of the sea everywhere. You can walk all the streets in a few hours easily. Make sure to visit the fort and see Barrakka Gardens (that I fondly called Barack Obama gardens). At the end of this post are options for dining, drinking and lodging.
This is the view of the three cities from the Gardens. Particularly lovely during golden hour.
The Three Cities are Vittoriosa (also Il-Birgu), Senglea (L-Isla) and Cospicua (Bormia). They are the cradle of Maltese history and give a glimpse into authentic Maltese life. The harbor inlets have been in use since Phoenician times and the docks provide a living for local people.
To reach the Three Cities, take the ferry from Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. There is a lift that takes you down from the upper city to the harbor. The ferry round trip is 2.80 euros.
Have a stroll on the Sliema promenade. Maybe visit the beach. Go to one of many public pools and relax and get out of the heat. Explore St. Julian’s Bay. Eat at one of many good restaurants. Take ferry between Sliema and Valletta for nice views of Valletta from the water. FYI St. Julian’s to Valletta is 30 minutes by bus. It doesn’t seem like it should take this long but due to the shape of the harbors, the bus has to take the “long way”. The ferry is only 5 minutes!
Comino Island is the tiny island north of Malta, between Malta and Gozo. It apparently only has 3 inhabitants.
Rather than taking the touristy boat trip, consider taking the #11 bus to the ferry at Il Cerkiwwa and visit on your own. You will have more freedom and flexibility. The Blue Lagoon is indeed an impossible shade of blue but this is the only stop on the average boat tour that also takes you to Comino Island.
Instead of swimming in the famous but crowded Blue Lagoon, you could be here:
I wrote an entire post about this experience. Yes that’s how much I liked it! I will tell you exactly how to reach this secret lagoon. This was my favorite day of entire trip.
Read More: Trekking Comino Island
Mdina is the old capital of Malta. It is a typical medieval town and referred to as “The Silent City”, specially because of its quiet nights. I loved the narrow cobbled streets and the city walls. The whole city is essentially an open air museum and one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city.
The first season of Game of Thrones was filmed here before they decided to make Dubrovnik King’s Landing, so you may see some familiar sights!
I can totally imagine Cersei or Littlefinger plotting in these alleys.
I came here early around 9:00 am and essentially had the city to myself. It was so peaceful.
Take a break and try the hazelnut chocolate caramel cake at Fontanella Tea Garden
Gozo Island is a short ferry ride from Malta. Just like for Comino island, take the #11 bus to Il Cerkiwwa and then take a ferry to Gozo.
This is where the magnificent Azure window once stood.
The famous Azure Window (backdrop of Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding in Game of Thrones), sadly collapsed into the sea last year. Locals were concerned how this loss would affect tourism in Gozo but apparently this is the best thing to happen for divers! These huge impressive white rock structure are now forming a new reef. Read more here in The Telegraph
Gozo has more to show you of course, like it’s impressive capital Victoria.
This is St. George’s Basilica
Check out Arzella Restaurant in Marsalforn Bay for a great lunch with a view!
Note: there are several boat trips advertised everywhere that will take you to both Gozo and Comino in one day. If you are really short on time you can do this but I heard mixed reviews. To me, Comino is worth a full day since the best parts are the non-touristy ones!
The Blue Grotto is a grouo of sea caves on the southern coast close to Zurrieq and then Qrendi Village. It is famous for the sea reflections within the caves.
A boat trip in the blue grotto is best way to experience it. This costs 8 euros.
Cafe Del Mar is a swanky pool bar with a stunning view. A lounge chair here is 15 euros at the pool that allows children and 20 euros for the adult’s only section (you can guess where I went!). I went on a Saturday in early August and by 1130 am it was 3/4 full.
Food here is just ok. I had a nice pasta dish and Aperol spritz by the pool. The service was pretty bad. Can’t lie. It reminded me of the old days in South Beach before the table service improved to match the prices. However I enjoyed a relaxing day here and the sunsets are incredible!
If you don’t have a week, you can still do all these things, maybe not in a leisurely way, but if you are sufficiently motivated, no problem. Mdina and Blue Grotto only require half a day each. You could do Mdina in the morning, then relax in the afternoon and see sunset at Cafe Del Mar. You could do Blue Grotto in the morning and then see the Three Cities in the afternoon/early evening followed by dinner in Valletta. It’s easy to mix and match!
Other options if you have time: Explore the port of Marsaxlokk and St. Peter’s Pool, both in the southeast, easily accessible from Valletta.
Food in Malta is no joke. I definitely added some inches here. Due to their proximity to Sicily, many Sicilians live and work here, spreading the joy of their cuisine. You will find lots of fresh pasta, arancini (frie rice balls), pasta bakes, etc. You also see the delightful blend of Italian and Arabic culture in much of the food. Here are some things to eat and places to check out.
These are basically everywhere. I had them for breakfast and snacks quite a bit. They remind me a bit of Middle-Eastern or Greek cheese pies, except the crust is different. Not all of them were filled with cheese…some had mushy peas, a throwback to the British colonialism perhaps?
In Valetta, one of my favorite meals was here. I tried one of the local specialties here, Ajotta (Maltese Fish Stew) and Imqaret. This stew had a delicious unique flavor and I honestly could have had two bowls.
Good thing I saved room for dessert because it was bomb! This is Imqaret (pronounced Im-AR-et…good to know if you’re going to run around asking for it, like I did). This is a sweet date-filled pastry, most often found during local festivals and also at food stands at the Valetta Bus Station. Other than that, they aren’t easy to find. This cafe had a version served with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I didn’t leave a drop on this plate! Bonus…great wifi here! Two glasses of wine, water, cappuccino, soup and dessert came to 32 euro.
This is also in Valletta, and is one of best pasta places I have ever seen. The owner/chef is the nicest Sicilian man and you immediately feel welcomed the second you walk in the door. This was not the case everywhere here. Literally, every person that walks in is greeted and asked if it’s their first time. Then they are given a “tour” of the pasta, all freshly made that day. They offer a crazy cool variety: hempseed pasta (high protein), spelt pasta, pasta made from chickpeas, buckwheat and egg (gluten free), spinach pasta and traditional egg pasta. All made daily of course.
You choose your pasta and sauce combo. So fun! They have traditional sauces like Bolognese, Carbonara, etc but some really foodie unique creative ones too like limoncello, parmesan cream, white ragu, and thyme or mushrooms, speck, rocket, sesame seeds in pink sauce. I’m drooling, are you?
This large restaurant in Valletta has a great scene with outdoor tables. It gets crowded and the service is a bit slow, although pleasant. I had a decent pasta with seafood and some local wine.
Here you can have a drink sitting outside on pillows on the stairs while listening to live jazz on certain nights.
Very cute cafe/bar found on some steps leading down from the center.
This is a tiny local spot away from touristy area on a quiet pretty street. I enjoyed a great breakfast here of avocado toast with fried egg. So hipster of me, huh? Also great coffe, fresh OJ and pastizzi.
This is in Sliema and is considered fine dining. This place had amazing table service, definitely on par with any NYC restaurant. I enjoyed fresh fish here and soup.
Most popular neighborhoods for tourists are:
I absolutely loved Valletta, although it doesn’t have too much nightlife and it does seem a bit dead at night, which didn’t bother me. There was definitely enough to do!
Valletta only has a couple hotels. I stayed in an amazing Airbnb. Be warned with summer travel, many places have limited AC! The views and location of this apartment can’t be beat and the hosts were an adorable couple that couldn’t have been nicer.
Use my AirBnb Link to book your perfect apartment in Valletta! Type in “Heart of Valletta, lovely bedroom in penthous” to find where I stayed.
Sliema is resorty with large hotels and many tourist shops. Malta’s largest mall, The Point, is here. They have a long seaside promenade which is a great place for a stroll. There are beautiful views across the harbour of Valetta from here. You can have beach time here at the Sliema beach club.
St. Julian’s is really chill and is in a good location to explore the other neighborhoods, as well as the rest of the island. There is small man-made beach here at St. George’s bay.
The Meridien Hotel is super nice and well located. Expensive so better if you have SPG points! You can also find Airbnb places here.
Both St. Julian’s and Sliema are popular residential areas and have a cosmopolitan vibe. They have great bus services to get you around the whole island. There are bars, restaurants, clubs and nightlife all within walking distance.
Paceville is a few streets near St. Julian’s that is the entertainment and clubbing center. It is the party area and is loud. I spent part of my time in Malta at a hostel here, which I really can’t recommend for various reasons. Look for that story in one of my upcoming “Tales and Fails” series. I will say that the location is nice and central. You are closer to Mdina and Gozo/Comino than in Valletta or St. Julian’s. See how I find the silver lining?
Malta is a unique country with tons to do. You have history, culture, good food and beautiful ocean landscapes all at your disposal here. The summers are busy and hot and prices will be higher. I think April or October may be ideal times to go.
Have you been to Malta? Did I leave your favorite activity off the list?