As part of a month-long European adventure, my family and I spent a week in the island nation of Malta.
Why Malta? And where is Malta?
The Republic of Malta is a member of the European Union, lying in the Mediterranean Sea due east of the African nation of Tunisia and directly south of Sicily.
In January, the climate is mild for Europe, with highs approaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit and lows in the 40s. That’s a good 40 degrees above the typical highs and lows in the upper Midwest of the U.S. that time of year, so we figured it would be a great place to spend some time between our weeks in Athens and Sicily.
With a rich history dating back 8,000 years, there’s plenty to see and do, and we made the most of our seven days there.
An Affordable Destination in the Winter
Arriving on a direct flight from Athens, we were out of the airport and into our rental car before 8 a.m.
The flights on Ryan Air were an incredible value at a little over $130 USD. total for four one-way flights. We carried four fairly small backpacks and one rolling carry-on. The rental car was equally cheap, costing me about $75 USD for the week.
As we often do, we stayed in an Airbnb, a modern and spacious 6th floor apartment with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a full kitchen in the heart of Sliema, one block from the ocean. This set us back just under $500 USD for the week.
Our food and drink costs were split between groceries, the bulk of which we picked up on our first morning at the PAVI supermarket on the way to our apartment, and dining / drinking out, which we did a few times during the week. I’d guesstimate we spent another $500 or so on food and drink for the four of us.
Altogether, it was a very affordable place to spend a week. We did have to spend more than we planned to fly out of Malta and into Sicily. Our $20 Ryan Air flights were canceled, but we were able to get one-way flights on Malta Air for about $60 USD apiece.
On the downside, it wasn’t exactly a tropical destination in January, and it would obviously cost a lot more to get to if you were flying round trip from North America. For us, it was just the second of four stops on a month-long trip to Europe.
Driving in Malta
If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road from the right side of the car, you’re in for a treat. Add in a few hundred roundabouts where you circle to the left and yield to the right, along with narrow streets lined with walls of craggy rock four to six feet high and you’ll have good reason to be concerned that you may not get that $10,000 deposit back from Hertz.
I wasn’t actually that concerned about wrecking the car or having to pay for it. I booked the rental with a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers primary rental car insurance at no additional cost, and like Rain Man, I consider myself to be an excellent driver. Still, it was a nerve-wracking experience for both me and my navigator / wife.
Parking can also be an issue, as it’s a densely populated place, especially near the water, but we were always able to find a spot within a block of our apartment.
We returned the car a week later unharmed, and this was the only driving I did during our entire month in Europe. We could have gotten by without the car, but we would have seen less while spending more on just a few taxi rides, and there are a lot of places that would be difficult and time-consuming to try to get to by bus.
History of Malta
You can find an exhaustive history of Malta elsewhere, but I’d like to give a brief overview, as it’s difficult to appreciate the sites and highlights of the place without a little knowledge of its background.
Given its location in the heart of the Mediterranean, the archipelago has been a strategic outpost for every seafaring population that has ruled in North Africa and Europe.
There is evidence of humans in Malta as long as 8,000 years ago, and it has been populated by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, French, and British, to name a few.
The religious order known as the Knights of St. John (later known as the Knights of Malta) ruled from the 16th to late 18th century, and to this day, a large majority of the population practices the Catholic religion.
During World War I, Malta was known as the “Nurse of the Mediterranean,” where many wounded soldiers were treated. The island also played a prominent role in World War II as a British Colony and outpost. The Axis powers attempted a Siege of Malta (not to be confused with the 16th Century Great Siege of Malta), but the Allied powers prevailed.
Malta declared independence from Great Britain in 1964. Today, there are three inhabited islands. The 122-square-mile main island of Malta has over 400,000 residents in an oval-shaped island of about 17 miles by 9 miles.
The smaller Gozo island, with 26 square miles, is home to about 30,000 residents. The third populated island, Comino, boasts two permanent residents, 1.2 square miles, and the popular Blue Lagoon.
There are two official languages, Maltese and English, and as Americans, we had no issues whatsoever with communication.
Highlights of Malta
I’ll be including numerous photos, but a good video tour better captures the beauty of the island’s natural features and architecture. Here’s one of many you’ll find on Youtube:
It is a truly picturesque place, which helps explain why so many movies and shows have been filmed in Malta.
In the center of the island, you’ll find the fortified sandstone city of Mdina surrounded by massive walls of light beige rock.
Today, it houses a cathedral, small museums, artisan shops, restaurants, and lodgings. Cars are few and far between, and you can opt for a horse-drawn buggy tour, but it’s easy enough to walk around and see all there is to see in an hour or two.
We skipped the Torture Museum and Knights of Malta movie; we’d see a similar show documenting the history of Malta later in the week. Just taking in the panoramic views from various outposts and reading a bit of the history of the hilltop city that dates back to the 8th century BC was impressive enough.
Just outside of the walled city, you’ll find St. Paul’s Catacombs, an archeological museum that’s well worth a visit. You’re able to explore a couple dozen of the hypogea that were once part of a system of tunnels that ran for many miles beneath the surface.
Valletta and Fort St. Elmo
The capital of Malta is a finger outcropping known as Valletta on the northeast side of the island. We stayed just across the bay in Sliema, a long walk or short ferry ride away from the capital. We did both, walking one way and taking the ferry back.
As you approach the old walled city, you’re greeted by a massive fountain followed by a stone walkway leading over a deep trench into the heart of the city.
In town, you’ll see modern and historic government buildings, intricate public gardens, and if you time your visit right, you can hear the blast of the canyons over the water that once protected the city from intruders.
Roughly 200,000 people live here, too, and you’ll find hundreds of artisan shops, cafes, and restaurants with both indoor and outdoor seating.
At the north end of Valletta is Fort St. Elmo, a military installation that now houses the National War Museum and a neighboring movie theater. The show was a perfect accompaniment to what we had seen and learned meandering through the museum and the city’s many narrow streets.
Knowing that we’d be visiting a number of churches and cathedrals in Italy before the month was out, we opted not to visit the most ornate and well-known one in Malta, St. John’s Co-Cathedral. If we weren’t about to tour St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican, we might have planned differently.
Gozo and The Citadel
On our last day in Malta, with our flight to Sicily leaving late in the afternoon and our Airbnb requiring a morning checkout, we decided to use that time to take the car ferry to the island of Gozo and back.
The highlight here is the quaint old city of Victoria and its Citadel, a castle and cathedral that dates back to the 13th century. Much of its current form was constructed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The Citadel is open to the public and free to roam. From here, you can see the sea in every direction, despite being smack dab in the middle of Gozo.
We got a better look at the sea from the Tal-Mixta cave, which was down a bumpy two-track road and on private land, but the property owner clearly allows visitors and has put up signs directing foot traffic to the right place.
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Before returning to the airport on our final day, we drove a few miles past it to the fishing village of Marslaxlokk. The day’s fish market had been packed up, but evidence remained in the form of melting ice and that unmistakable fish market smell.
The bay was filled with fishing boats painted in bright primary colors, and the boardwalk was lined with one outdoor restaurant after another, each of them displaying the catch of the day in a cooler and on the plates of many patrons.
On the other end of the trip, when we first arrived, I saw Pretty Bay on the map in the opposite direction of the densely populated capital, and I figured I might as well learn to drive on the wrong side of the road by avoiding the city for as long as possible.
The place lived up to its name. Of note were salt beds carved into the rock and the sausage rolls that really hit the spot, providing 110% of my daily recommended allowance of saturated fat in one handheld taste treat.
A quick 5-minute, white-knuckle drive to the South, you’ll find a path along the sea leading to Għar Ħasan Cave.
In 1979, a live-action musical Popeye movie was filmed on a set built into a hillside along the ocean on the northwest corner of the main island. Starring Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall (of The Shining fame), it had some star power at the time.
It looks like a dreadful movie based on the trailer, but the critics didn’t hate it. I must admit that the set does look pretty cool, and inexplicably, it looks the same today as it did more than 40 years ago when the movie was filmed.
The set has been preserved and used as a little theme park of sorts, with mini-golf, character appearances, various animated shows, and a mini-documentary on the film. Popeye Village wasn’t open when we visited, probably due to the pandemic. We got some good pics from across the little bay, and that was good enough for me.
Malta does brew some malt beverages on the island, but there’s not what I would call a thriving local craft beer scene. Farsons and their Cisk brand are the local “big beer.”
There are a few other breweries, notably Lord Chambray, which seemed to be available at a number of bars; they made a decent IPA.
The silver lining of the lackluster local beer scene was the abundance of outstanding Belgian beers. Compared to the other places we visited in the Mediterranean on this trip, there was plenty of Duvel, St. Bernardus, Draak, La Chouffe, Delerium Tremens, Chimay, etc… on the shelves and tap lists around town. I found good German beers, too.
We didn’t have to go more than a block or two from our flat on Triq Mons. G. Depiro to enjoy these at Simons’ Pub, Jack of All Trades, and BeerMeUp.
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Apparently, fried rabbit is a big deal here in Malta. I figured I’d try it at some point, but alas, it didn’t happen. That’s alright; I’ve never been big on trying every “must-try” local cuisine.
Our favorite spot to eat was one of those conveyor-belt-sushi places off of St. Julien’s Bay, an easy walk from our home base in Sliema. We stopped in once and had to go back before the week was over.
The most picturesque spot we dined in was Il Fortizza, a castle overlooking the sea in Sliema. I almost got the rabbit dish here, but I was tempted instead by a green curry dish, which was an excellent choice.
In the bay that separates Sliema from Valletta, there’s a sizeable island connected by a land bridge that houses Fort Manoel.
Currently, you’re able to walk around the island and the fort, but extensive renovations are planned, and I suspect this will be yet another outstanding historic attraction when complete. At the moment, there seem to be more cats than people on the island. Below, you’ll see the island, cats, and random pictures from all around Malta.
Malta was a mighty fine place to spend a week. The history is rich, and it’s all around you.
There’s no language barrier for English-speakers, and despite the country being a small archipelago, there’s a pleasant mix of big city living, green countryside, sandy beaches, and seaside cliffs.
While the weather in January was relatively mild, I’d love to visit in a warmer month when the beaches and ocean would be more inviting.
Have you visited Malta? What did you find to be most memorable?