Europe is so far away for Australians we try to make the most of the long journey to also discover a part of the world that we haven’t seen. This year that destination was Malta. A fascinating island nation that is a melting pot and cultural kaleidoscope we were quite blown away by what it has to offer. You really need at least a week to do it justice but, if like us you are restricted with time you can cover a lot of ground – lucky it’s not that big! Here’s how we made the most of 4 days in Malta.
* Note : some elements of this trip were hosted by the Malta Tourism Authority who were terrific to work with. All opinions, as always, remain my own.
The nation of Malta, sometimes called the Maltese islands, is made up of 3 islands – Malta island, Gozo and Comino. With a population of only 420,000 and spanning a total area of only 316 sqm it more than makes up for its size with a fascinating history and cultural legacy. Founded by the Knights of St John, who ruled from 1530 to 1798 the country has been occupied at various times by the Castilians, Arabs, Italians, French and British.
We flew to Malta on Aegean Airlines from Athens which is a two hour flight.
- Day 1 – check into hotel in Valetta and explore hotel and local area including St. Elmo’s Fort, The National War Museum and Marsamxett Harbour. Dinner at Legligin.
- Day 2 – meet our guide to explore Valetta and Sliema including St.Dominics Church, Casa Rocco Picollo, St George’s Square, St Johns Cathedral and Upper Barrakka Gardens. Lunch at Trabuxu.
- Day 3 – meet guide and travel to Gozo stopping at Popeye’s village. Gozo includes Saltpans, Wine & cheese tasting, Victoria and the Citadel and Ġgantija Temples. Lunch at T’Phillip. Drinks at Golden Sands Beach and Dinner at Dinner in the Sky.
- Day 4 – Mdina, The 3 cities and boating around Gozo and Comino.
Where we stayed
We stayed in the ancient heart of the nation, Valetta. Home to narrow alleys, historic cathedrals, great restaurants and surrounded on 3 sides by busy waterways I cannot stress enough how glad we were we picked this town. Many people end up staying in the new areas across the bay of Sliema and St Julians and we made sure to check them out but as irish bars, casinos and large-scale resorts are not our thing Valetta indeed turned out to be the right place for us.
We stayed in a very comfortable and quite quirky room in the restored former residence, Casa Ellul. With only 10 rooms and a great central location it has a very personal and homely feel about it and the service was excellent. It is literally 6 metres across from the big dome of St Mount Carmel church – the one you see in all the photos of Malta. There was a piano in our room and a fireplace in the bathroom !
To check availability at Casa Ellul HERE
What we did
Day 1 : Explored the streets of Valetta.
Valetta is a fortified peninsula overlooking Marsamxett Harbour on one side and the Grand Harbour on the other. Named after its founder, the respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Parisot de la Valette . Built in only 15 years having commenced construction in 1566 the grid of narrow streets boasts some of Europe’s finest art works, churches and palaces. Tiny alleys and side streets are full of small shops and quaint restaurants and it has a feel of shabby elegance throughout the city. There is a heavy venetian influence to the architecture with the wooden balconies on most homes and apartments and numerous baroque elements throughout. In particular they and all the other occupiers gave Valletta its splendid architecture and the gobsmacking harbour fortifications that make this such a great port to approach by cruise ship – or view from the battlements.
There are many restaurants and bars and when the shops and offices all close for the day the streets come alive with an eclectic mix of cuisines on offer as well as numerous arts performances.
Day 2 : Valletta and Sliema
Valletta is a city of plunging streets, shuttered buildings in gorgeous honey-coloured stone, saints statues at every corner, and mighty promenade-topped bastions from which you can see across the historic harbour. Late afternoon in Upper Barrakka Gardens you can witness the firing of the 4pm cannon. Its worth visiting the baroque Auberge de Castile and controversial, ultra-modern Parliament designed by Renzo Piano, the latest layer in a city whose striking architecture spans centuries.
Throughout Summer there is a religious festival or feast for some Saint or another at any given time. Our visit coincided with the 5 day Feast of St Dominic so the church of the same name, and much of the city, was decked out in all its finery for the celebrations. This involves draping the church walls in heavy red fabric, lowering and using the massive chandeliers and lining the streets with bright red and gold bunting and placards. There are processions every day and fireworks at night and the young boys of the local congregation jostle to carry statues of St Dominic through the streets.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to a private residence. Casa Rocco Piccolo is one of the last occupied aristocratic houses in Malta and we were very privileged to have a private tour where we met the Marquis and his quite famous parrot. It is open for small public tours every day except Sundays and it is possible to organise private tours with the Marquis and Marchioness.
For more information CLICK HERE
Even if you’ve overdosed on European churches, the frescoed ceiling, marble inlaid floors and lashings of gold baroque ornamentation at St.Johns Cathedral really are extraordinary. It is also home to Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Beheading of St John which really is magnificent ( sadly no photography allowed). The nearby Palace of the Grand Masters is swathed in tapestries, paintings and armour, and holds the council chamber of the Knights of St John.
We stopped for lunch at a charming bistro in the heart of Valetta called Trabuxu. Some great food and wine in a lovely setting that made for a nice relaxed few hours.
Late in the day we had a drive and walk around St Julians and Sliema. These are newly developed waterfront suburbs to the north of Valetta that are home to many glitzy hotels, shopping malls and casinos. As you can imagine it is pretty crowded and there is not a lot of culture to be found so we didn’t spend much time there. If you prefer to spend your time in high street shops and hang out at Irish pubs then this is the place for you.
There are some great marinas and waterfront eateries and there are thousands of boats both here and throughout the harbours surrounding Valetta. I swear everyone in Malta has a boat and if they don’t they wish they did !
Day 3 : Popeye’s village and Gozo
We again met Mariella at our hotel and set off for a day trip to Gozo. There is so much to do and see on Gozo that it could well warrant a stay on its own. We covered a lot of ground so I’ve written a separate post about it. It was fantastic !
Read about our day on Gozo HERE
On our way to the ferry at Cirkewwa at the very end of the island ( 45 minutes from Valetta) we stopped by Popeye Village. This was the set where the 1980 movie Popeye starring Robin Williams was shot and the entire set has been retained to this day as a tourist attraction. Its been very well maintained and is really something different !
To finish the day we decided to splurge and do something really different ! There are a number of ‘Dinner in the Sky’ places around the world but none in Australia ( and not likely to be) so we thought we’d push ourselves and my vertigo and give it a try !
With a heat wave gripping the whole mediterranean and having knackered ourselves racing around all of Gozo we were hot and feeling pretty tired by the time we got the driver to drop us at Golden Beach where the dinner is located. We managed to sneak into the nearby Radisson for a quick freshen up and change of clothes and then also managed to walk in the wrong direction to the dinner facility, despite being able to clearly see the crane in the sky !
Finally we arrived and I have to say it was a great experience. The food was nothing special as it is all pre-made and reheated and plated ‘in flight’ but the views were amazing, the drinks were excellent and the service from the very charming and playful staff was fantastic. If you ever do one of these things make sure you book for sunset as it really is quite incredible to see it dangling 40 metres in the air !
Day 4 : The 3 cities & Mdina & a boat trip!
4 days in Malta isn’t very long but we had a late flight on our last day so needed to really make the most of the things. We had booked a private charter boat through our Casa that again left from Ċirkewwa so we decided to spend a few hours on the way quickly seeing some of the other main cities.
We stopped at the ancient capital of Malta Mdina which means ‘Walled City’ from the Arabic ‘medina’. The encircling battlements of Mdina have amazing views of the surrounding hills and the city dates back over 3000 years. Known as the ‘silent city’, it is a labyrinth of yellow-stoned architecture and truly inspiring balconies, balustrades and baroque invention. The story is Malta welcomed the apostle St. Paul as a long-standing guest after his shipwreck on the island. It’s apparently quite magical at night and I wish we had time to see it like that.
One the way back from boating we visited The 3 cities, also known as Birgu, Isla and Bormla. The Three Cities have fringed the Grand Harbour since Phoenician times. They are predominantly maritime cities and have been doorways to commerce, migration, encounters and cultural exchange in Malta’s long history.
Birgu was where the Knights of St. John established their first capital, and held the legendary siege of 1565, during which 8000 men opposed a Turkish armada of more than 30,000 for more than 4 months. The final victory inspired the renaming of Birgu in Vittoriosa and earned the Knights an honoured place in military history. Though the Order eventually moved their base to Valletta, much of the architecture they established remains on view in the narrow streets and alleys. There is an excellent and newly renovated marina waterfront with many cafes and restaurants and again, lots of boats !
As mentioned we booked a great little speedboat through Casa Ellul called Vitamin Sea and spend a fabulous half day exploring the beaches, coves and caves of Comino and Southern Gozo . Some of the more famous spots like The Blue Lagoon were extremely crowded with large tour boats dropping up to 400 people at a time onto the small beach and rocky pier. However just minutes away there are coves and bays with almost no-body so it really was worth every penny to do this activity privately!
Rumour has it that there are more Maltese in Australia than in Malta. Certainly there was a huge migration after the second world war as there was with the Greeks and Italians. However many Maltese have returned to Malta but retain a fond and deep connection with Australia which is perhaps why we found everyone so incredible friendly and welcoming. They are a proud nation and it shows in their passionate approach to their food, their history and their surroundings.
We were quite amazed by the amount of things to do and see in such a small space and regret not planning a longer stay. A week is probably a better length of time to enjoy most things but you could easily stay longer. We plan to return when we eventually visit Portugal and the eastern Coast of Morocco.
Still with only 4 days in Malta we covered a lot of ground and loved every minute. We hope this helps and inspires you for your visit too !
fOOTNOTE : iF YOU WOULD LIKE TO USE mARIELLA AS YOUR GUIDE PLEASE CONTACT HER AT firstname.lastname@example.org. sHE IS A VERY KNOWLEDGABLE EXPERT ON ALL THINGS mALTESE !