Tiny Malta doesn’t often feature on bucket lists, it is primarily known as a destination for sun-seeking British retirees. But the Mediterranean island not only has some incredible landscapes, it is also packed with history and makes for a great cultural destination. Although it is not exactly exotic, it has an interesting cultural blend of Italian, English and North African influences. Add to that some of the best diving in Europe, and I just had to go explore!
We went off-season, which I highly recommend if you want to be able to appreciate Malta’s natural beauty without the crowds. The sun shines most of the time here, but this island is also beautiful in stormy weather. All the activities and sights in this itinerary are good any time of year, but you might want to avoid sightseeing in the midday heat in summer. Because the sea stays relatively warm you can dive year-round, but of course getting into and out of the water is harder in the winter months. Swimming is another story… we were there in early November and the beaches were deserted, so this itinerary won’t cover swimming spots. If you are looking for tips on good beaches try here.
As the island is small, you can choose one location as a base, but we preferred to move around different hotels to see as much as possible. Gozo especially has a very different feel, it is worth spending at least a night here. A rental car gives you full flexibility but it is also doable to travel by bus and/or taxi. We had decided to pick up our rental car near Valletta on the second day, but it took quite long getting there from Senglea, where we were staying, so I recommend getting one straight away when you arrive at the airport.
Day 1: Valletta and the Three Cities
We decided to stay in Senglea, one of the so-called Three Cities (together with Vittoriosa and Cospicua) just across the harbor from Valletta, Malta’s capital. Here we had booked a very charming apartment with nice views over the harbor and Vittoriosa. There are very few tourists in Senglea, staying here gives you the opportunity to see real Maltese life. From Senglea you can easily walk to Vittoriosa, which is a lovely place to wander around, admiring the narrow streets and atmospheric plazas.
Valletta is only a short ferry-ride away from Senglea, but when we were there the boats didn’t go because of stormy weather. We ended up taking the bus instead, which takes much longer as it has to go all around the harbor through several villages. I can also imagine taking the ferry must be a very scenic way to arrive!
Valletta was built by the Order of St John, or the Knights Hospitaller, in the 16th century. The planned city’s architecture is a mix of impressive military fortifications, baroque palaces and churches, and long narrow streets lined with Malta’s typical wooden balconies. After WWII the city was largely abandoned by its rich inhabitants and a period of decline set in, but recent years have seen a revitalization. In 2018 Malta will be the European Capital of Culture.
Make sure you arrive in time to visit beautiful St John’s Co-Cathedral (the ticket office closes at 4 p.m. Mon-Fri and at 12 a.m. on Sat, on Sunday the cathedral is closed). The church was built in the 16th century by the Order of St John and looks rather austere from the outside. The interior was redecorated a century later in the high Baroque style. It is overwhelmingly ornate with a floor consisting of beautiful marble tombstones. The cathedral is filled with works of art, most notably Caravaggio’s impressive The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, still displayed in the chapel for which is was commissioned (Caravaggio briefly was a member of the Order, but his criminal behavior quickly led to his expulsion).
Afterwards, have a coffee (and maybe a traditional pastry) at the zinc counter at nearby Caffe Cordina, Valletta’s oldest and most characteristic café frequented by tourists and locals alike.
Picturesque Valletta is not big, an afternoon is enough to get a good idea. Don’t miss the striking new City Gate and adjoining Parliament House by architect Renzo Piano. Also make sure to include a walk from the Upper Barrakka Gardens (ferries from the Three Cities arrive just below) to the little temple in the Lower Barrakka Gardens and the Siege Bell Memorial (or vice versa) for great views over the harbor and fortifications.
We had dinner at Legliglin, a lovely little restaurant (reservations recommended). This cozy place serves a fixed tasting menu of various tapa-like dishes, a good introduction to Maltese cuisine. Other options include casual Guze or fancy Giannini.
Day 2: megalithic temples and Mdina
Time for some more ancient history. Malta has been inhabited since at least 5000 BC and is home to some of the oldest stone buildings in the world, pre-dating the pyramids in Egypt. The Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples, from around 3500 BC, are great examples. The ruins have a beautiful setting by the sea and show off the complex design and use of megaliths. Little is known for sure about their use, but the thought of their age alone is awe-inspiring. Driving here from Valletta, make sure to stop at the viewpoint for a peek at the famous Blue Grotto.
Closer to Valletta is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground burial complex dating from the same period. Unfortunately, at the time we were in Malta it was closed for renovation. It has since reopened, book your tickets as early as possible as places are limited and often fully booked weeks in advance.
From Hagar Qim, it’s a short drive towards the Dingli cliffs. Just after passing the little Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, scenically perched on the edge of the precipice, you’ll find restaurant The Cliffs, where we decided to stop for lunch. Popular with locals on the weekends, it serves great locally sourced food. We also heard good things about Diar il-Bniet, a rustic restaurant in Dingli village. Afterwards, take a digestive stroll along the impressive cliffs.
Spend the afternoon discovering Mdina, Malta’s medieval capital. The small fortified city is only accessible on foot, its narrow alleys giving onto charming squares and its thick walls hiding the palaces of the old nobility. Be sure to visit St Paul’s Cathedral and museum, and enjoy a drink and the view from the terrace of Fontanella Tea Garden.
Roaming the deserted alleys at night, you feel transported to another time… which is why I highly recommend spending a night here. We stayed at lovely Melitte B&B. For dinner we opted for Trattoria AD 1530, part of The Xara Palace boutique hotel. It has a beautiful setting, both inside and outside, but the food was nothing special. You might want to try Medina instead.
Day 3: Gozo classics
Before leaving Mdina, make sure to stock up on some pastizzi (delicious pastry parcels filled with peas or ricotta) at Crystal Palace, just outside the Greek’s Gate.
On your way to Gozo, make a quick stop to admire the Rotunda or Mosta Dome in Mosta, one of the largest unsupported domes in the world. Also make sure to take time for a walk on the western point of rugged Marfa Peninsula. Turn off the main road towards the Red Tower and drive all the way to the radar station at the end of the road. Park here for a cliff-side walk with spectacular views over the coast and Gozo.
The ferry to Gozo leaves from Cirkewwa and takes about 25 minutes, check here for the schedule. Sit on the sundeck for great views over Comino island. You’ll arrive in Mgarr, a pretty harbor town. Consider having a seafood lunch at Tmun Mgarr (unfortunately closed on Tuesdays, when we were there).
Instead, we headed straight to Victoria (previously called Rabat) and its citadel of Il-Kastell. The highest vantage point of the island, there are some amazing panoramic views from the city walls. We had lunch at the only restaurant in the citadel, Ta Rikardu. Although inevitably full of tourists, it serves simple but tasty traditional food in a great setting (go for the top floor terrace).
Have a stroll around the (relatively) newer part of town, too. It-Tokk market, on the Pjazza Indipendenza next to the citadel, is a bit too touristy, but wander off a little and you’ll find some charming meandering streets.
Our hotel for the next two nights was Ta’ Cenc near Sannat, a 10-minute drive from Victoria on the southern coast. One of the more luxurious hotels in Gozo, the location is gorgeous and it has all the facilities. It did feel a little over its prime however, not quite 5-star… We went for a lovely walk around the extensive hotel grounds, before heading to Ta’ Frenc for dinner. The restaurant is in a beautiful old farmhouse and the service was impeccable, but the food lacked originality and refinement and was not quite up to expectations.
Day 4: diving Gozo’s North coast
There are several dive sites along the north-western coast of Gozo, and plenty of dive schools. We had booked a double dive with Bubbles Dive Centre in Marsalforn. While there is more marine life in Malta than most of the Mediterranean, diving here is primarily about the beautiful underwater scenery: strange rock formations, caves and tunnels. Although we didn’t get a chance to try them, around Malta’s main island are also several wreck dives. The water has very good visibility and remains quite warm all year round.
Above water the scenery is no less beautiful. Don’t miss the salt pans just north of Marsalforn (we went for a dive right from there), and the sublime coastal geography on towards Reqqa Point and Wied-il-Ghasri. Consider bringing a packed lunch for a seaside picnic (diving always makes me hungry), otherwise head back to Marsalforn for lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the bay.
Drive back inland a little to rejoin the road to Dwerja. Gozo’s Western coast has a different feel to it but looks just as impressive. Dwerja point allows for some amazing views, scramble over the rocks and you’ll soon find yourself alone. The Azure Window, the main draw, sadly collapsed last winter, just after our trip. But the rest of the scenery still merits a visit… and maybe now it will be a little less crowded.
Exhausted from all this natural beauty, we decided to head back to our hotel. We had dinner at Il Girna, just next to Ta’ Cenc. The food was very good, although the place was a bit deserted, it is probably more fun in high season.
Day 5: back to Malta
Take the ferry back to Malta and slowly make your way to the airport, maybe driving along the north-east coast and stopping for lunch by the sea. Try Baia Beach Club (open May to September) or any of the casual eateries lining the waterfront in Bugibba. Because the country is so small, you probably even have the time to go back to Valletta for some last minute sight-seeing if you’ve missed anything!
All in all, Malta might not be the most exciting destination, but its natural beauty is remarkable and it has just the right mix of culture and relaxation. October-november is not an easy time to find a place to enjoy some sunshine in Europe, and Malta definitely has enough to keep you busy for a few days. Alternatively, check out my 4-day trip to Cyprus!