There's lot packed into this tiny island country. Neolithic temples, crystal clear diving sites, ancient citadels and scenic walks mean Malta has a lot to offer for a short break away. Oh, and the weather’s decent too.
The summers are hot, so it makes it great for swimming off the island of Gozo but it’s also the busiest time of year and there can be queues for a lot of the sites. We went at the end of January and were lucky enough to have sunny, warm, T-shirt weather during the day, although it did cool down to single figures in the evenings. While the water was chilly, there were few crowds (except for some sites which I’ll go into more detail on), and it was no problem getting to and from places on the ferries.
Car hire is really cheap on Malta. One big advantage is that all of the road signs are in English and an even bigger advantage if you’re from the UK, is that vehicles drive on the left. Despite it being a small island though, the Maltese love their cars. Driving styles are typically continental European in the sense that if someone is behind you, all they’ll want to do is get in front of you. Roundabouts aren’t used in the way they’re designed to be and you’ll often find people pulling out in front of you despite you having the right of way. It’s not quite chaos, but it’s certainly enough to put drivers of a nervous disposition off finding their own way around.
It doesn’t take long to get used to things though and with a cheap little car to get around in, it’s possible to see pretty much everything Malta has to offer in less than a week.
Buses are a good option though, routes go all over the island and the bus services are cheap and frequent. All of the tourist destinations are covered, and there’s a hop-on, hop-off bus that also goes to and from the main sites.
Where to go
The UNESCO city of Valletta is tiny but getting lost in its narrow streets and taking in the coastal views are a great way to while away a couple of hours. At the tip of the peninsula is Fort St Elmo and National War Museum which is fantastic value for money and affords some of the best views from Valletta.
Just outside of Valletta city are the Tarxien temples and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the latter of which is a spectacular underground necropolis carved from rock. In low season, you can get standby reserve tickets by turning up on the day but for any other time of year, you’ll need to book months in advance. A little taster with audio intro is available for about five euros but it isn’t really worth the time.
The Tarxien temples are a short walk away and are dated to about 3600 BC. Now under cover to protect the sensitive limestone from the elements, it’s still incredible to think how and why this stone carved town and temple was constructed.
What are two of Malta’s prettiest towns are also the busiest, mainly because of a certain hit TV show, Game of Thrones. The narrow streets of Mdina and Rabat were crammed with tourists on GOT tours in the quiet off season at the end of January so I can only imagine what they would be like in the middle of summer. If you’re a fan of the show (and why wouldn’t you be, it’s brilliant), you’ll be in your element as you recreate your favourite scenes but what’s more spectacular is taking in how this ancient city was built in real life as you meander through the narrow, high walled streets.
Rabat is also where you can dip in and out of St Paul’s Catacombs, an extensive underground burial site where the sheer scale of this underground necropolis is brought to life.
Walk the walks
The Dingli Cliffs on the southern coast have some incredible viewpoints and are easy to navigate and walk along.
If you have a car, you can walk the cliffs and then check out the ancient cart ruts - stone tracks worn into the rock by an unknown people for unknown reasons in neolithic times.
A short but beautiful ferry ride from the main island of Malta takes you to Gozo and this is where the hustle and bustle of the main island begins to peter off and you can actually see some countryside.
It’s on Gozo where the most spectacular walking trails are. The Xlendi walk precariously hugs the southern coastline but it’s a relatively easy walk with stunning vantage points along the way. Don’t forget your camera!
It’s on Gozo where the incredible Il-Kastell can be found. This restored citadel and its gardens yet another meandering stone complex where you’re happy to hit a dead end and have to turn back on yourself to find a way out. This is a real life citadel that you’re free to walk around. Fans of Skyrim will be delighted.
Back on the main island, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra megalithic temples are huge stone structures, aligned by the sun and it’s still almost incomprehensible how some of these stone slabs were moved. An audio guide for a few extra euros is worth it.
If you’re into diving, you won’t be disappointed. There are great dive spots all over the island and numerous dive companies ready to take you out. For plain swimming, the best clear waters and breathtaking views can be found at the blue lagoon on Comino island. It’s a short ferry hop from both the main island and Gozo but gets packed in the summer. Get there early if you’re visiting at peak times of year.
Food and drink
There’s some good seafood to be had but if you’re coming to Malta for a unique culinary experience, you’ll most likely be disappointed. There’s a good mix of places to eat but in the whole time I was there, there was only a couple of meals I ate that I was impressed with.
It’s close proximity to Italy means that there are plenty of pizza places about and they’re generally pretty decent. There’s also a lot of meat and veg but nothing that is particularly special, especially when the average price for a main meal is between 15 and 30 euros.
Better value are lunches, where you can pick up a pastizzi, a delicious pastry parcel filled with peas or cheese. They’re sold in most towns and villages from bakeries or stalls and will only set you back between about 0.80 cents and 1.50 euros.
Where to stay
Malta is such a small island, choosing where to stay isn’t too much of a problem as you’ll be close by to most things anyway. St Julian’s is where the main bars, pubs, clubs and eateries are and is a short ferry hop or bus ride to Valletta. It’s also one of the busier areas but after a day exploring the island, it’s good to not have to walk too far of an evening to find dinner.
If you’d like somewhere quieter though, head for any of the other towns and cities, Mdina and Rabat look great of a night and are much more peaceful. For an even quieter experience, Gozo is the quietest area and farmstays are popular there. The only problem with staying on Gozo is that you’d have to catch the ferry to the main island every day. The ferry ride is such a nice one though, you may not see it as a problem at all!
Some useful bits
We stayed at The Valley in St Julian’s which is just a short walk from the main part of town, does a good breakfast and has both an indoor and outdoor swimming pools. They also do a good breakfast buffet and it’s only been open about 10 months at the time of writing so eveything’s still nice and new. Go to http://thevalleymalta.com for more info.
Buses and ferries are frequent and cheap and go to all areas of the island.
Car rental is also cheap, I booked through Zest car rental which is often cheaper than booking directly and also adds on a free second passenger. I’d recommend paying about 5 euros a day extra for the full, no excess insurance as a lot of the roads are tight squeezes, have high kerbs and for the sake of just a few euros a day, gives you piece of mind when all the locals are doing their best to force you off the road or pull out in front of you.
One last thing to bear in mind is that Malta’s not a quiet island, there are a lot of people of cars crammed into this tiny space so unless you head over to Gozo, don’t expect a peaceful, island paradise! With this in mind though, the hustle and bustle adds to the atmosphere and after a week, you’ll feel like one of the locals.