Before I first visited it by chance, nearly ten years ago, I knew little about Malta. At the time all I was after was a bit of winter sun on a budget and Malta fitted the bill. Malta certainly has plenty of winter and summer sun (the average yearly temperature is around 23 °C), but as I soon discovered, this tiny country has a whole lot more to offer too. Malta captured my heart, I loved it so much that four years after that fateful first holiday I made Malta my permanent home.
Today I’d like to share with you the reasons why I fell in love with this mini, yet magnificent country. I can’t fit all of this into one article though, so for now I will just give you a tantalising taster of the sights that make Malta a must-see, plus some tips for getting around. If you’re interested in learning more, I can share with you another time my pick of the local ‘ road less travelled’ must sees; hidden beaches, bays and coves which are often overlooked by tourists; and some juicy insider information on how to get the immensely beautiful and popular Blue Lagoon, Comino almost to yourself.
The breath-takingly beautiful Blue Lagoon, Comino. This is not photo-shopped, the water really does have that intense blue-hue!
Something for Everyone
The country of Malta is actually made up of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino and has something to offer everyone: from prehistoric temples, medieval fortresses and World War II relics for the history buffs; to world-class diving and unique natural landscapes carved out of limestone for nature-lovers ( Gozo’s spectacular Azure Window is a prime example). For those inclined towards beach-bumming, the islands also offer a smattering of beautiful beaches, from soft golden sand, to rugged, rocky inlets and lagoons. On Malta you can choose from tourist favourites Golden Bayand Mellieħa Bay, or more ‘off the beaten track’ local favourites St Peter’s Pool and my personal favourite, Għajn Tuffieħa . Malta’s little sister island, Gozo has the stunning Ramla l-Ħamra beach and the teeny, uninhabited island of Comino has one of the most beautifully blue-hued lagoons I have ever seen, the aptly named Blue Lagoon.
Party animals can shimmy the night away in party capital-Paceville, or one of the outdoor clubs and venues where top name DJ’s and popstars regularly make appearances. I’ve danced my socks off to Armin Van Buuren, Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfield, David Guetta, Tiesto, Basement Jaxx, The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Ga Ga and Snoop Dogg amongst many others. All for a fraction of the price of gigs elsewhere in Europe and the last three listed I saw for free at yearly open-air Isle of MTV events.
Fans of the epic Game of Thrones can fill the void until the next series ( at least 10 months!) by visiting the places it was filmed in Gozo and Mdina.
The stunning Azure Window, Gozo, which featured in Daenerys Targaryens’s wedding scene in Game of Thrones
Last, but definitely not least, foodies (like me) will be kept happy, Malta serves up generous portions of fabulous and affordable food. Its close proximity to Italy means that Maltese food is heavily influenced by the country famous for pizza and pasta. However, Maltese cuisine also reflects a hotpot of influence from the many nationalities who occupied Malta over the centuries, specifically; the Middle East, France, Spain and my motherland, the UK. Traditional Maltese dishes are rustic, robust in flavour and feature ingredients typical of the central Mediterranean region. Rabbit stewed or fried with garlic and red wine (Fenkata) is the national dish. Another traditional staple is Ajotta, a fish broth infused with garlic, herbs and tomatoes that seems to be a Maltese adaption of France’s Bouillabaisse. Seriously stodgy staples such as Ross-fil-forn (baked rice) or Timpani (a rich pasta-dish baked in a pastry case) can be found on the menus of traditional Maltese restaurants .
My personal favourite Maltese dishes are the ones that originate from the sea. Maltese waters are home to an abundance of fish and seafood, including Lampuki, a fish which can only be found in Malta from around September to December when it migrates to Africa. Lampuki translates as ‘Dolphin fish’, but don’t worry, that’s because it resembles a dolphin, not because it is a Dolphin! Grilled Lampuki and Octopus stew (a heady broth of red wine and garlic and plenty of plump pieces of Octopus) are two of my favourite dishes. Marsaxlokk is the town where you can eat the freshest fish fare for the best price.
Dinner at Café De Paris, Marsaxlokk. All of this + fresh local bread and home-made dip, chips and a glass of wine for 15euro, bargaintastic!
The Maltese also excel at tasty snacks such as hobz biz-zejt, a freshly- baked crusty bread dipped in olive oil, rubbed with a rich juicy tomatoes and filled with a magnificent mix of tuna/ anchovies, onion, garlic, tomatoes and capers, cheese and a sprinkling of fresh mint; pastizzi-flaky filo-pastry parcels filled with lightly spiced peas or ricotta; pies filled with tuna and anchovies, chicken and mushroom or steak and onion (surely influenced by the British); Bigilla, a thick pate made from broad-beans and garlic and spread on fresh crusty bread; and Gbejniet, a peppery cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk.
You can pick up hobz biz-zejt , pastizzi and pies from hole-in-the wallPastizzerija’s (the Italian/Malti name for a small kind of bakery) dotted all over the island. Bigilla and Gbejniet can be found in local stores and supermarkets. Warning, pastizzi may be small and low on the cost-side (usually no more than 25 euro cents ), but they’re high in calories, so unless you’re blessed with a very speedy metabolism don’t tuck into too many of these! I did make this mistake and swiftly went up a dress size!
After eating out Maltese- style you most likely will feel that you don’t have room for dessert, but don’t make the mistake of never ordering one, they won’t disappoint those with a sweet-tooth! My favourite is Sicilian-influenced Kannoli, a crispy tube of fried pastry filled with sweetened, custard-like ricotta. A lighter alternative is Arabic-influenced Helwa tat-Tork, a sticky, sweet sugary mixture of Tahini, honey and almonds.
Malta has as strong a café culture as neighbouring Italy does and cafes all over the island offer tantalizing cakes such as Cassata (sweetened ricotta- filled sponge with marzipan) to accompany a cup of fine Italian style coffee. For the best views whilst having your cake and eating it (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) visit Fontanella Tea Garden perched up high in medieval Mdina.
Portions of food in Malta are very much on the generous side, a starter-sized plate of pasta is usually more than enough for me, the main-meal-sized pasta dishes are huge. Even better, they’re pretty cheap, starting at as little as €15 for a starter, main meal and a glass of house wine. Given the high amount of carbs in their food, as well as the big portions and the cheap prices, it’s not really surprising that Malta has one of the highest obesity rates in the world!
A Living, Breathing Museum
It may be a country that’s small in size (just over 316 km2/122 square miles), but it’s big on history, with many parts functioning as a kind of living, breathing museum.
The isles of Malta are a mecca of mysterious megalithic monuments and temples and the proud home of no less than 3 Unesco World Heritage sites: the capital city of Valletta, one of the smallest capitals in the EU, yet one of the highest concentrated historic areas in the world, brimming with beautiful baroque architecture, palaces, gardens and monuments; Ggantija Temples in Gozo, some of the oldest free-standing temples in the world; and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a huge underground burial chamber dating back to around 3600 B.C. Be sure to book ahead (up to a month in advance during high season) for the Hypogeum since it only allows a limited amount of visitors per day. You can book on this website; http://heritagemalta.org/.
Fortresses, fortifications, bastions, and watch towers built during the reign of the Knights of Malta aretestament to the many battles fought to protect it from a constant onslaught of invaders. You can view these ancient defence systems for free by wandering around Valletta, The Three Cities and Mdina. Taking a stroll through the city of Mdina is like travelling back hundreds of years in a time machine, traffic is banned on its cobbled streets. This coupled with its towering medieval walls give it an eerily quiet atmosphere, earning it the nicknames, ‘the silent city’ and ‘the walled city. It’s thanks to this unique historical atmosphere that blockbusters, Gladiator, Troy, World War Z and the first season of the epic TV show, Game of Thrones, were filmed in Malta and Gozo.
Ggantija Temples, Gozo, some of the oldest free-standing temples in the world, built around 3500 BC (older than Stone Henge). Photo courtesy of Ronny Siegel
The shores of Malta shelter one of the world’s prime dive sites, not just for its reefs and caves and clear, warm waters almost year-round, but more uniquely for the opportunity to swim through World War II relics. Malta was the most bombed place on earth during WW2, due to being a British military base strategically placed between Italy and North Africa. The opportunity to swim through WWII shipwrecks and aircrafts adds an underwater dimension to Malta’s open-air museum aspect. For a list of Dive Centres, visit this link; http://www.visitmalta.com/en/dive-centres. I’ve been too much of a chicken to dive so far, but braver friends have said good things about Selkies Dive Centre in Sliema.
Blue hole, Gozo. Photo courtesy of Martin Lopatka
Friendly, English-Speaking Locals and a Melting Hotpot of Nationalities
Whilst the Maltese do have their own language, a strange-sounding semantic language which is written in the Roman alphabet, English is also the official language. This is a leftover from the 160 years of British colonisation in Malta. This (the English-speaking bit, not the colonisation) is obviously a great bonus for native English-speaking people such as myself and makes it one of the easiest countries in Europe to properly integrate with locals. It also helps that the Maltese are a friendly bunch with great pride for their country who love making foreign friends and showing them the sights.
I’m certainly not the only expat that has chosen to relocate to Malta for a better life, it’s also home to a melting hotpot of nationalities including British, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Latvian, Scandinavian and Eastern European. I love living somewhere where I get to hang out with such an international crowd.
Me and some of my ‘Maltese’ pals at the Marsovin Wine Festival–Verena from Germany, Liga from Latvia, Nicki from the UK, Anna from Russia and Stefan and Marco who are actually from Malta.
Featured Image: Valletta, the baroque city by the sea. (Photo courtesy ofPaul Stephenson)
Kirsty was born and bred in Britain, has a penchant for travel and is lucky enough to have a career that facilitates it. She combines EFL teaching, travel writing and proofreading with travelling and volunteering.
She’s been in Vietnam for over a year now, prior to that she spent 4 months getting acquainted with down under (New Zealand and Australia) and 5 years living and working in Malta.