Though it can no longer claim to be a hidden gem, Malta is definitely still something of a surprise. Of course, it has the turquoise seas and idyllic beaches you’d hope for from an archipelago in the middle of the Med – but it’s the rich culture that it inherited from thousands of years of settling civilisations that really sets this country apart.
A land of deep Catholic faith steeped in history and laid-back living, this sun-soaked destination has something for everyone, whether they’re saints or sinners, young or old, and all those in between. Here are our top tips for getting the most out of Malta, from its largest namesake island to the history-filled island of Gozo.
Best for: sightseeing
Malta is a treasure trove of classic cities, impressive landmarks and relaxing beaches. The first thing you should think about is hiring a car; because the island’s so small, you’ll easily be able to explore every nook and cranny with your own set of wheels.
Culture vultures will no doubt make a beeline straight for Malta’s capital, Valletta, where you’ll be rewarded with pretty streets, a historic grand harbour, and one of Malta’s most magnificent Baroque masterpieces, St John’s Cathedral. If you want to beat the heat of the day, then head to St Elmo Bastions’ air-conditioned auditorium and discover The Malta Experience, a fascinating educational film that recounts 7,000 years of the country’s history.
Another top-billed location is Mdina, Malta’s capital from antiquity to medieval times – indeed, it’s said that St Paul the Apostle lived here when he was shipwrecked on the island. The city stands tall as one of the finest examples of ancient walled cities in all of Europe, and visitors flock here for its beauty: think winding cobbled streets, ivy climbing up ornate stone buildings, sun-lit squares, and impressive churches. Not only that, but it’s also known for its archaeological and historical sites including The Roman Villa, St Paul’s Grotto, and the extensive network of catacombs beneath its streets.
Best for: active escapes
There are also plenty of opportunities for water sports at one of the many beaches along the coast. Some are sandy, like Għajn Tuffieħa and Paradise Bay, whereas others like Sliema are rocky. Speaking of Sliema, it’s well connected and has a promenade full of atmospheric bars, like Surfside – a relaxing sports bar that’s ideal for grabbing a quick pizza, before you take a refreshing dip in the town’s Roman baths carved out of rock.
If you want a beach with an added element of adventure, then St Peter’s Pool is not only a little out of the way on the south side of the island, but it’s also where adrenaline junkies come to get their fix by hurling themselves off the high cliffs into deep pools below. Do you remember the cliff-diving Jack Russell who went viral some years ago? Well, Peter’s Pool is where the celebrity pooch became an internet sensation.
Best for: drinking and dining
Not only a marriage of eclectic Mediterranean cooking and fresh flavours, Maltese cuisine is the product of multiple civilisations who have occupied the land throughout history. Traditionally rustic, the food tends to be seasonal, with particular delicacies including rabbit stew, bragioli (sometimes called ‘beef olives’, which are surprisingly free of olives…) and kapunata, a Maltese variation of ratatouille.
You’ll get an authentic taste of Maltese cuisine at Tal-Petut, a characterful little eatery that’s tucked away in Birgu. Or, if you’re a fish lover, then you can do no better than a trip to Marsaxlokk; this pretty fishing village on the south side of the island gets the first pick of the day’s catch and is home to some of the best (and most understated) fish restaurants around. If eating with a view’s important to you, The Harbour Club looks out over the grand harbour in Valletta, and if you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy your favourite tipple as you watch the sun go down, Mdina’s Xara Palace or Fontanella will leave you with a smile on your face and a hefty amount of Insta-worthy snaps.
It doesn’t matter where you are in Malta: the streets are full of the most amazing bakeries where delicious savoury snacks are cooked onsite and sold for next to nothing. Pastizzi in particular are a must-have when in Malta; these little flaky pastry parcels are filled with ricotta or mushy peas and cost about 25 cents each. For a light lunch whilst on the move you can do no better than hobz biz-zejts, rounds of crusty bread dipped in olive oil and filled with ripe tomatoes and a mix of tuna, onion, garlic and capers.
In terms of drinks, no doubt you’ll see Kinnie advertised everywhere you go. This fizzy Maltese beverage is their version of Coke, but it has to be said, it’s definitely an acquired taste; it’s brewed from bitter oranges and extracts of wormwood, but the locals seem to love it. They even have their own national beer called Cisk, which, after a bottle of Kinnie, will taste like heavenly nectar.
Best for: partying
Surprisingly, given how quaint certain parts of the country are, Malta has a thriving party scene, thanks in part to the hordes of young Europeans who choose this island for their big summer blow-outs each year. They naturally gravitate towards Paceville in St Julian’s, and from about 8pm onwards the young – and young at heart – flock to the strip for cheap-as-chips shots, forever-flowing cocktails and a great selection of bars and clubs that stay open until the early hours.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for more exclusive and refined drinking dens, Malta has you covered, too. Café del Mar in St Paul’s Bay is as chic and fashionable as it gets. By day, this vibey beach bar is a trendy place to sozzle by the pool with a crisp beer or a couple of cocktails, but come evening the DJs descend and the dancing begins.
It should come as no surprise that Valletta brims with fantastic drinking spots as well. Age-old establishments such as Cafe Society and Bridge Bar – where the crowds spill out onto the streets and live jazz is played on Friday – are teeming with life and vibrancy. If you’re a Brit pining for home, The Pub is a fuss-free place that’s perfect for a pint.
Best for: history
If you think Malta is quaint, wait until you see its little sister, Gozo, where it still isn’t that unusual to witness a donkey pulling a cart now and again. The tiny island has almost as much to offer as Malta, with spectacular beaches, fortified cities, cathedrals, and the oldest standing structures in the world. Ferries from Malta are regular and cheap, and with your own car the island really is yours for the taking.
Start your Gozo expedition with a trip to the Ġgantija Temples. Built between 3600 and 3200 BC, they precede the pyramids, Stonehenge and the Colosseum by some thousands of years. Historically thought to have been created by giants, some of the megaliths exceed five metres in length and weigh over fifty tons. It’s highly advisable you book a visit here well in advance, because people travel from all over the world to see these temples.
Not nearly as ancient but arguably more visually magnificent, is The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu – or just Ta’Pinu for short – a gargantuan Roman Catholic basilica that sits proudly in the middle of the countryside. The hilltop citadel in Gozo’s capital, Victoria – called Rabat by the locals – is the best place to get picture-perfect panoramic views of the island.
Having exhausted yourself checking out these ancient curiosities, you’ll have thoroughly earned an afternoon lounging on the beach and drinking cocktails: the red-sanded Ramla Bay ticks all these boxes, but if you can only think about your stomach, then Xlendi is a pretty seaside village with an array of great restaurants and bars.There you have it; the Maltese archipelago is one of extraordinary beauty, good food, historical intrigue and exactly the sorts of climes you’d want on a summer holiday. It really isn’t that far away; if you leave the UK promptly in the morning, you can enjoy your first glass of rosé on the beach by lunchtime – and when it comes to leaving, it won’t be ‘goodbye’, it’ll be ‘see you soon’.