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BY KERRI MCCONNEL
What to see in Malta – a five-day itinerary
The diverse and rich history of Malta is immediately evident from the moment you arrive. Ruled by everyone from the Romans, Phoenicians, Sicilians and most recently the British, the buildings, culture and language are an eclectic mix of them all. With beautiful weather and an air of the Greek Islands about it, a visit to one of the safest countries in Europe is a must. Whether you are spending a week here or coming for a short weekend break, Malta has plenty to offer. Here’s a great guide to what you can see, do and eat in Malta in five days.
Where is Malta?
Tucked away 90km to the south of Sicily and 294km to the north of Africa, the tiny 245 m2 country surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the least visited European countries. It’s a well-travelled summer holiday location for the English. Many return to the same places year after year and with a strong expat community, it appears that many have also stayed. Those with Maltese family usually make the pilgrimage semi-regularly as well.
For a tiny country, Malta has a big history, steeped in nobility and with a strong influence from several ethnic groups. In the early 6th and 7th centuries, the Phoenicians and Romans ruled the land. They were followed by the Arabs in 1070 who held control until 1530. At this time, Charles V changed the path of Malta by handing over rule to the Knights. More specifically, the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, they took Malta to a level previously unseen, especially in a cultural sense.
In 1758, the country received a dose of French influence, with Napolean overtaking the country as a strategic move en route to Egypt. But Napolean wasn’t liked by the Maltese and so when Lord Nelson of English fame offered to remove him, the Maltese took him up on his offer. English rule lasted from 1800 until Malta finally gained its independence in 1964. In 2004, Malta became a member of the EU and in 2008 adopted the Euro as its currency.
Staunchly Catholic, the people of Malta are warm and inviting, making you feel as though you are mixing in amongst family. Their language is familiar and yet strangely foreign all at once. If you listen closely you will hear the rolling of the tongue around enough words that I felt like I was in Italy. At other times, the Arabic phrases dominate and I couldn’t understand anything at all. Many of them speak very good English. To complicate matters, the residents of Gozo, a Maltese island speak their own dialect that even the Maltese will tell you they don’t understand!
They are a country of 430,00 people who have created untold congestion on their roads as a result of slow infrastructure growth and their passion for driving cars. 330,000 registered cars drive around this very small country, often in a way that resembles a race track. The Maltese like to talk with their hands too and it’s a common form of communication when you’re in the driver’s seat, especially if someone does you wrong!
They may be Catholic but they still know how to swear. Their cars are quite often old, blowing dark black smoke and associated fumes from their exhausts. Peak hour has become a real problem for the residents. Melanie, the Marketing Manager from Hilton Malta told us that “she lives 15 minutes away from work but it can take her an hour to get there”. Surrounded by the sea, Malta’s vehicle problem is not an easy one to fix. Unlike other parts of Europe, the use of motorcycles here is not common. Efforts by authorities to encourage such usage has been met with mixed reactions.
Valletta is the capital of Malta. Unlike any of the capital cities of Europe, this small city, located on a peninsula packs a punch. With stunning views across the harbour, incredible palaces built by the Knights, churches and museums, it’s an historical smorgasbord. So much so that the entire city has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Match it with great restaurants and street food vendors selling pastizzi and some of the oldest buildings in the world it’s a must visit when coming to Malta. If you walk the right way, the streets built up from the harbour offer amazing views to the water.
Here, the residents live in houses without gardens. As a city largely occupied by palaces, open green spaces are not common. In fact, green is not a colour generally associated with Malta at all. Its landscapes are more of the brown, dry and dusty variety, with cacti and other drought-resistant ground matter growing where it can.
Take a walk through St George’s (Palace) Square
European city squares are meant for strolling and wandering without any real purpose. Admire the beauty of the buildings here, watch the water popping up out of the ground in sequence with the music, or catch the Changing of the Guard in front of the Presidential Palace.
Visit Casa Rocca Piccola
Interested in what it’s like inside the houses of Maltese nobility? Be sure to visit the 16th-century palace, Casa Rocca Piccola. It is the family home of the 9th Marquis de Piro, who lived here until just recently.
Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral
This cathedral is one of the most beautiful you will find anywhere in the world. Built in the later 1500s, it’s full of Baroque art, evident in the sculptures and the building itself. It’s also a great example of the impact the Knights had on Maltese culture.
Visit Manoel Theatre and Museum
A striking building built by the Knights in 1731, it is one of the oldest working theatres in Europe.
Visit Upper Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery
The gardens are one of the few green spaces in Valletta. Overlooking the Grand Harbour, there’s plenty of opportunities to find that perfect view. The Saluting Battery is one of the oldest in the world, having protected its harbour for 500 years. Every day, the guns are fired at midday to a large crowd watching from upon the city ramparts.
Eat at Trabuxu
Located in the heart of Valletta, Trabuxu serves up modern Maltese cuisine, in a cozy bistro environment.
The hilltop city of Mdina Malta
Mdina is where you can really get a sense of another world, where the stone walls of the city still protect this city perched up high on a hill.
Take in the sights of the main areas and then slip quietly into the laneways for a more authentic wander through this beautiful city. With a population of under 300 people, the residents are long-standing noble families, where the houses have been handed down over generations. It’s a place where you feel as though you should only whisper, a testament to its nickname of the Silent City.
Get a view at the Dingli Cliffs
The views of the Mediterranean from the highest point in Malta are beautiful, as are the sheer cliffs running down into the rocky coastal edges. My tip for visiting here would be to come for sunset when the colour over the water makes the trip a little more worthwhile.
Eat at Diar il-Bniet
If you are anywhere near the Dingli Cliffs you must visit this fantastic restaurant. With a farm to table food philosophy, the owners have continued a lifetime of family food legacy to bring you traditional Maltese food.
Visit Mnajdra and Hagar Qim Temples in Qrendi
Malta has some of the oldest megalithic temples in the world. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are the best preserved and the stories of their making are fascinating. With views over the Mediterranean to the island of Filfa, it’s a stunning location.
Boat trip around Blue Grotto Caves
I’ve included the Blue Grotto in this list of things to do in Malta, as it is a common thing to do. From my perspective though, it is without a doubt the most over-rated and non-enjoyable event I undertook in Malta. This is a shame as the water really is incredibly blue. Unfortunately, the greed of tourism has overrun this activity. The boats are whisked in and out of the landing area in rapid succession and the boat drivers are gruff and just want you to sit down quickly.
They aren’t in it to enhance your experience, they just want to get you back as quickly as they can so they can take another boat load out. The time in the actual caves is fleeting and not worth the effort or the price.
Fishing remains an important part of the Maltese way of life and there’s nowhere better to see it all unfold than at Marsaxlokk. If you want to interact with the fisherman, the best times are in the morning when they are arriving back into the harbour.
The sandstone buildings with their colourful doors and the brightly coloured fishing boats bobbing calmly in the harbour make this town picture perfect.
Stop at Golden Sands Beach in Għajn Tuffieħa
Much of the Maltese coastline is rocky and difficult to access but Golden Sands Beach is known to be one of the best in the country. Set back in a bay surrounded by high cliffs, the beach has clear blue, protected waters. Many hotel resorts have set up here to accommodate holidaymakers who arrive for a beach holiday.
Drive by Popeye’s Village in Mellieħa
The wooden village where Popeye lived was created for the 1980 musical production of Popeye. Looking every bit the fairytale village, it sits overlooking aqua blue waters of Anchor Bay in Mellieha. Today, it’s been turned into a themed water park for children, which kind of spoils the view from some angles, but I can imagine the children would love it.
Take a ferry to Gozo
Gozo might be only a short 20-minute ferry away from the island of Malta but it could just as easily be a different country. With a slow, relaxed pace on the streets (no honking of car horns here) and a language all of their own, the Gozitans have deliberately set themselves aside from the regular Maltese. Their lifestyle remains very much attached to the ways of yesterday, preferring to stick with tradition rather than let themselves be modernised. Just don’t call them Maltese and you”’ stay on their good side.
Visit the Citadel
From up high, the views over Gozo’s countryside and city centre of Victoria are amazing. There is a significant restoration project being undertaken which will ensure the survival of this important religious icon for years to come.
Continue down the steps from the citadel to the town of Victoria and walk amongst the shopkeepers selling everything from fresh fruit, bakery items, household items and knitted jumpers.
Wine Tasting at Ta’ Mena
Agriculture is an important part of Gozo’s economy, and with a slightly greener landscape, more farming is done here. Run by Joseph Spiteri and his family, this olive producing farmland has been in the family since 1936. Now a fruit orchard as well, Joey produces and manufactures his own olive oil. Spending time with Joey as he extolls the virtues of good olive oil, and sampling a few of his wonderful house wines is a good way to spend an afternoon in Gozo.
Stop and revive at Ta’ Philip
An afternoon at Ta’ Mena is topped only by visiting his brother at Ta’ Philip restaurant. Philip’s exuberance balances out the quieter personality of Joey. They make a good combination and it’s great to see Joey’s Ta’ Mena olive oils being used proudly in this restaurant. This is a fine dining restaurant with plenty of flair and wonderful food. Philip is the consummate host and a meal here is sure to wow you.
Visit Ggantija Temples in Xagħra
In the North, on Gozo, the coastline is known for their salt pans, dating back approximately 350 years. The production of sea salt here has been passed down through families for many generations. Salt is generated here and then stored in the caves behind. Usually one of the family is on hand to sell you some freshly harvested sea salt to take home.
Immerse yourself in Three Cities
If getting away from the crowded cities is more your style then head to the “three cities” of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Just across the harbour from Valletta, these cities occupy the narrow peninsulas and cling together through a series of never-ending cobblestoned laneways and streets and a pedestrian bridge. There’s plenty to find in the backstreets and it’s a great opportunity to talk to the locals that pass you by.
Eat on the harbour at Don Berto
This restaurant is less traditional Maltese and more of a modern, chain feel about it but it still served good food. With a view over the multi-million dollar boats, who could really complain.
Hire a buggy from the Rolling Geeks
Self drive your own electric car and wind your way through the streets of Vittorioso and the narrow Collachio, built by the Knights.
Like any country that has been able to hide away from mainstream tourism, this won’t last forever. Malta is an up and coming destination for a very good reason. But, times are changing. Tourism is already the main industry in Malta and the government has a strong focus on it, even providing additional financial support for those wanting to study in this sector. Financially, it has been doing well with many foreign countries opening up offices here which in turn generates a strong expat community.
Unemployment is low, construction is thriving and the country is full of hard workers. However, it is a country that depends heavily on the welfare of the government and with the financial assistance of the EU ending in the not too distant future, this country will need to stand on its own feet.
Arriving in Malta
Most people arrive in Malta by air, although ferries do operate from Sicily. Full fare and low-cost airlines fly into Malta International Airport. Many European destinations are within a 2-2.5 hour flight time, making it the perfect weekend getaway. We flew from Italy with Ryanair and back to London with Easyjet. Both services, although budget airlines, offered a no-nonsense, direct flight to and from Malta.
Where to stay in Malta
We stayed for a week at the Hilton Malta, a beautiful five-star resort right on the Mediterranean. With a range of rooms from superior right through to executive suites, there are rooms here for families, couples, solo and business travellers. Its close proximity to public transport, the capital Valetta and the rest of the main destinations on the island make it a perfect spot to base yourself.
Alternatively, the Westin is also located nearby and Sliema, a neighbouring area has many three and four-star hotels. There are a variety of other hotels and resorts all over the country
Check out the reviews, prices, photos and availability of hotels in Malta on Trip Advisor.
Best time to visit Malta
Blessed with a wonderful climate and plenty of sunshine, Malta is one of those destinations where you could almost visit all year around. The summer months are undoubtedly the best, although of course, they are also the busiest. The rain usually stays away during summer as well, so the temptation is even stronger during June to August. Winter time in Malta still gets cold and many of the interesting locations are closed.
Great guides for Malta. Click on the images for more details.
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.
Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.