Things to do in Gozo
Rocky cliff faces and magical sunset locations, crystal blue waters that offer incredible diving and snorkelling opportunities, beaches, history and great food. Thinking about a trip to Malta? Be sure to leave some time for the island of Gozo. No trip to Malta is complete without it.
Why should you visit Gozo?
A visit to Malta is not complete without spending time on Gozo, the main island in the Maltese archipelago. Located a short ferry ride from the main island of Malta, Gozo is an interesting place, both in terms of its physical offerings, their way of life and their culture. I can almost hear the questions being thought about by you. Why would Gozo be any different to Malta? It’s part of Malta, isn’t it? Malta is so small that the chances of disparate groups would surely be unlikely, right? Whilst there are of course many similarities, the small divide created by the Mediterranean has allowed those who live on Gozo to create a lifestyle of their own making.
To understand why Gozo is different it is important to understand a little about the past. With temples touted to be the oldest in the world, it is thought that Gozo may, in fact, be older than the island of Malta. Dating right back to around 5,000 BC, Gozo has been inhabited by everyone from the Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, French, British, and many others in between. It has also been continually tormented over many centuries by pirates and others wishing to control the island.
With the earlier generations having to take shelter often from such invaders, it is little wonder they grew into a reserved population, wary of newcomers and changes in their world.
The perfect day trip (or stay longer if you can)
Visiting Gozo is a perfect day trip. With the majority of people visiting Malta for seven days, taking one day out to visit Gozo would be typical. If time is not on your side, spending half a day here would be fine, although possibly a little rushed. There are also some great locations on the way to the Ċirkewwa Harbour (where the ferry leaves from) that are worthy of a stop.
The drive along the coast towards the northern tip of Malta takes you out of the tight, narrow streets of the city. If leaving at peak hour, remember the traffic in the cities is quite bad and getting anywhere can take twice as long. If possible, get out quite early, or delay your trip until after 9 am. Once clear of the cities, however, the roads open up, affording you terrific views of the coastline in many areas.
It is along the coastline that further evidence of Malta’s economic progression can be seen, with the skyline dotted with cranes and other tools of construction. There are modern, mid-range highrises out here, many of them offering resort options to those who want to come and unwind in the one location.
St Pauls Bay is perhaps the most frequented beach area, and Qawra, one of the resort areas here, is instantly at aesthetic odds with the historical city of Valletta. With many hotels offering the all-inclusive resort style accommodation, it’s a great location for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere who are chasing the sun. Many Maltese also have summer houses here.
As we near the village of Manikata on the north-west coast of Malta, we passed through the main agricultural area of Malta. Here, amongst some of the most arid, rocky, desperate-looking land I’ve seen, is where most of the vegetables for Malta are grown. Coming from Australia and knowing how our own arid land and drought conditions impact our farmers, I’m equally impressed by those who are able to make a living on the land here. It can’t be an easy job.
Great places to stop along the way
Near Għajn Tuffieħa, there are three bays. All have beaches and swimming areas that are frequented by visitors, and each with their own unique qualities.
Golden Sands Beach
One of the few beaches with sand on the north-west coast, it offers easy access to beachgoers with the sand running immediately into the striking blue waters. It’s incredibly popular for that reason and as such there are beach clubs here and a hotel.
Għajn Tuffieħa Beach
Għajn Tuffieħa is a rocky red coloured beach nearby. A path winding down the hill and a staircase of around 200 steps provide access to this area.
The Maltese military history is also on display here, with an intact guard house overlooking the coastline. Built by the Knights of St John, there are 13 of these still remaining on the island.
Popeye’s Village in Mellieħa
No visit to Malta is complete without a visit to see Popeye’s Village. I say this but smile at the same time, as prior to coming to Malta, I had no idea this was here. Given my age when the Popeye movie was released, I’ll forgive myself for not remembering this!
The village in Mellieħa is just beautiful, in parts. As we came around the corner from the beaches where we had just stopped for a while, the village can be seen at the bottom of the cliffs, sitting alongside the clear, blue waters of Anchor Bay. It’s straight out of a fairytale and given it was created for one, why shouldn’t it be?
Unfortunately, from a purist view, it’s now been transformed into a theme park of sorts. Whilst I can understand it would be a kids dream to bounce around on the water trampolines now floating on the bay, and playing in the water adventure park, it’s just not quite the same. I chose to look at it out of “one eye”, focussing on the village and forgetting that there are now huge brightly coloured toys bobbing around in front of it. For sake of honesty though, the fuller “picture” is shown below so you can make your own mind up.
Remember though, I’m not writing these articles with kids in mind. I’m sure that aesthetics aside, it would be a fun day out for the family.
Catching the ferry to Gozo
The ferry ride to Gozo is painless, once you get there. With transfers occurring from the port at Ċirkewwa every 45 minutes, it offers both pedestrian and vehicle passage to the island of Gozo in around 30 minutes. At €4.65 return for an adult, it’s a reasonable fare for the journey. There are seats both inside and outside the boat and a shop onboard to buy refreshments. In a location such as this, I recommend getting a seat, or a standing spot, outside. The fresh sea air in your face adds to the atmosphere, and it’s usually much cooler outside on a hot Maltese day than being inside.
On the way, you will pass the island of Comino, famous for its blue lagoon. Separate ferries are also available from Ċirkewwa to Comino, should you wish to check it out. Only four people from the same family have lived here, but with the passing of a sibling in 2017, only three permanent residents remain. It doesn’t get more secluded than that! The Hotel Comino – Blue Lagoon is the only hotel on the island, opening from May to October each year.
It’s also best to be at the front of the boat, giving you access to the city of Gozo as it comes into view.
Is Gozo worth visiting?
The ferry brings you into the port of Mġarr, and like any port area, it’s a busy place. Inbound and outbound passengers jostle to find some space to sit and a path to walk. Immediately outside, you could be forgiven for thinking that Gozo isn’t any different to a mainstream tourism location, with tour operators and drivers vying for your attention. Once away from the port, however, the frenzied feel disappears in an instant and it becomes evident that life in Gozo is conducted at a much slower pace.
Funnily enough, the first thing I noticed was the absence of horns. The Maltese, with their blended cultural norms, clearly align themselves with the Italians when it comes to horn blowing. Yet here in Gozo, the drivers are patient, courteous, drive more slowly, and could quite easily sell their cars with the horn in perfect condition. The second significant thing I noticed was their approach to security. There was none. According to Maria, our guide, “They can leave the key in their front door”. Indeed it seems they can.
Gozo packs 13 villages into its 65km² and 30,000 people call Gozo their home, working predominantly in tourism, fishing and agriculture. It’s visibly greener here, which isn’t hard when compared to Malta, but it’s nice to see a softening of the tough landscape.
With a name that translates to “joy”, Gozo is the place to come to for relaxation. A place where time is of no consequence that they don’t wear watches. In a nod to these attributes, many Maltese own a second home here.
The people of Gozo
People on Gozo are called Gozitans and they speak their own dialect, further distancing themselves from those who would identify as Maltese. To avoid offending a Gozitan, never call them Maltese. It might seem right to you, but this subtle naming convention means the world to the local population.
“The Gozitans can speak Maltese, but Maltese don’t speak Gozitan”, Maria tells us. In fact, I remember Melanie the Marketing Manager from the Hilton Malta tell us “I don’t understand a word they are saying!”. It’s a strange situation, but one that has been definitively carved out as a unique identifier of this small population.
What to see and do in Gozo
During British rule, the name of the capital was changed to Victoria but will be forever known as Rabat to the Maltese. Victoria is all about the citadel, sitting on the highest part of Victoria and making its power known to the surrounding areas.
This site is of great significance to the people of Gozo and bears the scars of years of occupation. Back in the 1550’s when the Turks and various other invaders were operating at their peak, the population of Gozo spent each night inside the walls of the citadel for their protection. Eventually, the citadel was ravaged and destroyed. Today’s citadel and surrounding Bishops Palace and Law Courts are the results of rebuilding, many years later.
It also came as no surprise to me, given their years of attack, and considering what a monstrous structure the citadel is that it would also be used as part of the protection strategy during World War Two. We saw many of these bunkers during our time in Gozo and in Malta.
Once you’ve seen everything of interest up here, and taken in some long looks at the 360-degree views, exit onto Republic Street and head down into the town. This is where you are likely to come across plenty of tourists, but also the locals too.
St Georges Basilica and square
The square near St Georges Basilica is always a lively place to hang out and grab a beer or bite to eat.
A small market is held every day here.
The town of Marsalforn is one of the most popular on the island, with beaches, a shallow area for swimming and snorkelling and access to offshore diving locations. Many locals from Victoria also own beach houses here, even though it is only five minutes away. There is also a large amount of short stay accommodation here.
Nearby are the Xewejni salt pans, operated personally by the Cini family for over 150 years. We were thrilled to meet Mr Cini, a talkative, spritely man of over 80 who has been working here harvesting the salt for 49 years. As time marches on, he is handing the business over to his daughter, who with 26 staff, will continue to run this business. Mr Cini’s only admission of a change in the process was when he told us “we once hand bucketed water from the ocean, now we use pumps”. A process improvement I’m sure he was thankful for.
Talking to Mr Cini, he learned we were from Australia. Malta and Australia enjoy strong cultural ties, with many Maltese emigrating to Australia in the 1950’s. He told us that he flew “on a plane with the big kangaroo on it”, our national carrier Qantas, making his way to a regional town to see his extended family. After such a wonderful visit, we were only too happy to buy some of his salt.
Visit Ġgantija Temples in Xagħra
It was hot and our stomachs were full when we left Ta’ Philip and headed to the Ġgantija Temples in Xagħra. My tip would be to try and do these in the morning, before the heat intensifies if you are doing this in summer, and before you fill yourself with beautiful food! Nonetheless, we couldn’t miss seeing the oldest freestanding structures in the world. From 1816-1820 they were excavated, uncovering two Neolithic temples dating back to 3500 BC.
Wine Tasting at Ta’ Mena
Behind a small fruit and vegetable offering, more streetside vendor than shop, lies Ta’ Mena Estate, the love and livelihood of Joe Spiteri. Established in 1936 by Joe’s grandfather. In the late 1960’s Joe’s mother took over, creating Ta’ Mena and building a legacy built around winemaking. In 1972, she opened the shop selling fruit and vegetables, to which Joe’s father responded, “We will be the laughing stock of the Maltese Island”.
Today everything produced on site is done with traditional agricultural methods, with no pesticides, only natural fertilisers from the farm being used. This methodology is further supported by what Joe calls “the island effect”, the sea breezes that blow salt over the land, preventing the need to treat with chemicals. It’s also believed that it adds a unique flavour to the wines of Gozo. When you see the land they use to grown on, you’d wonder how they grew anything at all.
As we sat and listened to the stories of Joe, it became evidently clear that the life they were born into was not one they loved. With four brothers and one sister, Joe grew up “hating the place”, mainly because they “always had to work on their holidays”. With the death of their mother, their father continued to run the estate but by this time most of the family had left. Joe eventually returned with a love for this place that had become his legacy, growing two hectares of land into 25, stocking over 200,000 vines, 1,500 olive trees and a large orange grove.
Having recently completed our first olive oil tasting in Bologna we had our second olive oil experience here. We didn’t actually get to participate, which is a shame, as I think it is an important aspect of trying to understand the differences between good and bad olive oils.
Over 100 beehives help produce flavoured honey (clover, fennel, rosemary, oranges and thyme) and capers are grown, collected and preserved.
We ended our tour with an array of fresh foods put together for us, and a glass or two of the Ta’ Mena Estate’s Vermentino and Rose, both perfect drops for a sticky, hot day in Gozo.
Where: Rabat Road, Xaghra XRA 9010, Malta
Places to eat and drink
Bread is eaten prolifically in Malta and on Gozo, so the bakeries are always a key part of daily life. We visited the third generation Mekrens Bakery, an unspectacular looking place from the front, full of amazing traditional bread, pastries and pizza inside. We watched, fascinated by the way in which the traditional delicacy Ftira were made. From rolling out the dough, filling with a mix of fresh ricotta and spinach, egg washing and then seeing them pushed into a woodfired oven, we could have easily hung around to eat the finished product.
The ovens aren’t just used for the bakery. In a process almost too old-fashioned to believe, on Sundays, the women of the families prepare a roast meal for their family lunch at home, and then bring everything down to the bakery to be cooked in the wood oven. All I needed was a personal invitation to a local home to complete the image I had in my mind of a chicken, roasting away with crispy skin, or a piece of pork creating the best crackling anyone has ever seen!
Where: Triq Hanaq, Gozo
Lunch at Ta’ Philip
Our food experiences continued at Ta’ Philip, with a strong connection to our visit to Ta’ Mena. Owner of Ta’ Philip, Philip Spiteri, is Joe’s brother. Having been in the restaurant game for over 25 years, Philip uses his upbringing on the Ta’ Mena estate to full advantage in his own restaurant, understanding the true value of fresh, organic produce and its linkages to producing great food. Philip supports his brother Joe by stocking and using products produced on the farm.
From the moment we walked through the front door covered with hanging wine corks, we knew we were in for a great food experience. Philip welcome us effusively and lead us to a table down the back, near the courtyard. He was keen to feed us, but halfway through a week in Malta we were learning fast! The food portions served are massive! Huge! We had dinner planned in the evening at the Blue Elephant in the Hilton Malta and we needed to make sure we had the ability to eat there too.
I was pleased we mentioned this to Philip (tongue firmly in my cheek). I would have hated to see what he served for us if we said were starving. Make no mistake, even at fine restaurants in Malta, you will never go hungry.
We started off with a “little” antipasti comprised of sun-dried tomatoes, salad, marinated grilled eggplant, fresh tomatoes, basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella.
This was followed by peppered Gbejniet, a Maltese cheese that has been dried. We were lucky enough to try this cheese both fresh and dried and just loved it. Too much cheese in this world, never enough time to eat it all! Most of the Gbejniet is air dried, with the salty sea air crucial to the process.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Philip’s restaurant if he didn’t serve some of his brother Joe’s wonderful konserva. I could eat this stuff all day. Thankfully, we bought some from Joe’s store to bring home with us.
In this modern looking restaurant, Philip delivers traditional food, often with a twist, and centred around a huge wood-fired oven. Daily specials are offered and the menu changes weekly (except for regular local items). There is always a soup of the day, some pasta and according to Philip himself, “always a rabbit, pig, goat and sometimes lamb on the menu”.
Food is served at the table here, and usually with great flair. Philip wanted us to have pasta, but we were adamant that pasta was too much. With a sad face, he appealed to my husband with “just a little for you”, and well, who could refuse him. Next thing we knew, he had whipped up something that wasn’t on the menu. I’m glad I wasn’t contributing to this offering. As good as it looked, the serving was very large.
Two of the proteins that we were very keen to try in Malta, such is its reputation, was goat and rabbit. Since we’d already had rabbit elsewhere, when we saw locally farmed goat on the menu, we knew it would be an easy decision. I got sidetracked however by the locally farmed suckling pig. I defy any meat eater to read “braised and slow roasted in our wood burning oven” and be able to pass it up. We were served up a piece each, making sharing an easy option. Seriously though, we could have shared this with about five other people. It was a meat lovers paradise. Did the meat live up to expectation? It sure did, falling off the bone at every mouthful.
Open for lunch and dinner on weekends and dinner during the week, there’s plenty to love about this bright and airy space, with a courtyard out the back and a more dimly lit lounge area to relax in downstairs.
Where: Triq Sant’ Antnin, Ghajnsielem, Mgarr, Malta
As mentioned, getting to Gozo is usually done via ferry, an easy and inexpensive process. If you are wanting to travel around the island, hiring a car at the ferry terminal would be the best option. If you are just planning on staying in Victoria it’s just easy to use public transport. Buses operate around Gozo and the major points of interest.
Alternatively, if you are looking to make it as easy as possible, there are many tours, including the Hop-on Hop-off bus operating on Gozo.
We were guests of the Malta Tourism Authority for the duration of our time in Malta. We greatly appreciated this, but as always, all opinions are always our own. A very special thank you to Maria, our personal, professional and wonderful guide for the week.