The Hidden Gem of the Mediterranean
Malta has for centuries been known as the crossroad of the Mediterranean. The Republic of Malta comprises three islands: Malta, the largest; Gozo, and Comino. Their strategic location, south of Sicily and north of Africa, has led to many invasions. It has been said that “Everybody colonized Malta at one time or another!” This blending of many cultures, including the Romans, Normans, Arabs, Turks, French, and British, makes Malta so rich. UNESCO has named three sites as World Heritage Sites.
Team rich history with beautiful beaches, world-class diving, nearly perfect climate, fabulous hotels, great wines, and fine dining, and now is the time to visit Marvelous Malta.
Major airlines fly into Malta International Airport (www.maltairport.com) from various hubs around Europe. I flew in from London and out through Naples.
A short 15-minute taxi ride to the center of Valletta, the capital city, brings you to the luxurious 5-star hotel, The Phoenicia Malta (www.phoeniciamalta.com). Located near the historic city gate, the 1930’s hotel features a spa, outdoor heated pool, and seven acres of gardens overlooking the Grand Harbor. The hotel has enjoyed such notable guests as Queen Elizabeth and the late Prince Philip. Do plan on enjoying the high-class afternoon tea served British Style.
Other outstanding accommodation options include Iniala (https://inialamalta.com), Roselli (https://rossellimalta.com), and Xara Palace (https://xarapalace.com.mt), and outside of Valletta, adjacent to the Presidential Palace, the five star Corinthia Palace Hotel (www.corinthia.com) with its new state of the art Athenaeum Spa.
Valletta is the perfect location to stay for an entire visit to the islands. It is said that all roads led to Valletta, and it is easy to explore from this base.
Public transportation is very convenient, so there is no need to rent a car. I recommend the purchase of the 7-day Explore Card (www.publictransport.com.mt). It is much more economical than paying cash for individual rides.
UNESCO has named the entire city of Valletta a World Heritage City. One can stroll the narrow streets and find evidence of the rich history around every corner. Statues, fountains, commemorative plaques, and coats of arms all tell stories of the past. A great way to learn about history is to take the three-hour walking tour by Colour My Travel (www.colourmytravel.com).
As you stroll the streets, study the typical Maltese Balconies – wooden balconies popular in the mid-eighteenth century. Some think the balconies were constructed for the modesty and protection of women. Other theorists suggest the balconies resulted from the artistry and influence of Turkish slaves. During the mid-twentieth century, many balconies fell into disrepair and were declared “a heritage in danger.” Now there are regulations in place and grants available for restoration.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral, called the “Crown Jewel of Malta,” is dedicated to Saint John The Baptist. The cathedral, built in the 16th century by the Knights of Malta, is one of the best examples of European baroque architecture. Stroll the interior and marvel at the majestic ceiling. Study the hundreds of inlaid marble tombstones on the floors. Enjoy the two Caravaggio paintings, including the only canvas he signed, “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.”
A little-known gem is the Lascaris War Rooms. Deep underground in Valletta is the site where, during WWII, the Supreme Allied Commanders directed “Operation Husky’ which was instrumental in the Allied Victory. The admission fee includes a movie, visits to the operation rooms, and a guided tour.
Spend a morning exploring the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens for scenic views of the harbor. Wander the gardens to enjoy the beauty and explore monuments and memorials recounting historical events. Each day at noon and 4 pm, a cannon is fired from the Saluting Battery. Pause at the Memorial Seize Bell to honor those fallen during WWII.
Here you can also view Fort St. Elmo, the scene of some of the most intense battles during the Great Siege of 1565 and the aerial bombing during WWII. Take time to visit the National War Museum now housed there and explore war artifacts since prehistoric times.
Fine Dining in Valletta
Malta has been put on the gourmet cuisine map with five Michelin-starred restaurants and award winning chefs with a total of 31 restaurants listed in the Michelin 2021 guide, including 3 Bib Gourmand and 23 Michelin Plates. https://guide.michelin.com/en/mt/malta-south-eastern-region/valletta/restaurants
Rampila features award-winning Mediterranean Cuisine with both inside and outside seating available. Inside, enjoy the atmosphere of the 16th-century building constructed by the Knights of Saint John or dine outside on the terrace overlooking the Valletta City Gate.
Capo Crudo is known for its seafood and crudo, along with a retractable roof and spectacular views of Manoel Island.
I also recommend the award-winning Kings Own Band Club Bar & Restaurant for Maltese Traditional Cuisine. We enjoyed the Maltese Platter, stewed rabbit, and a variety of Maltese Wines.
I recommend the food tour offered by Offbeat Malta Food Trails (https://offbeatmaltafoodtrails.com). During the 3-hour tour held each Saturday morning, one discovers Malta “one bite at a time.” Also included is a copy of the book “The Definite(ly) Good Guide to Restaurants in Malta & Gozo!” This is a great restaurant guide for the rest of the visit!
Located only nine miles from Valletta, the historic walled city of Mdina is a must-visit. Start your visit by viewing the excellent documentary titled The Mdina Experience to learn the history of the complex. Dating back 4,000 years, Mdina is “one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city.” Take time to stroll the narrow cobblestone streets and admire the historic buildings and the beautiful 17th century St. Paul’s Cathedral. Explore the Cathedral Museum, considered one of Europe’s “outstanding religious museums,” and the Natural History Museum with its impressive reference collection.
Marsaxlokk Markets & Fishing Village
The fishing village of Marsaxlokk is located on the southeast coast, about 8 miles from Valletta. Enjoy strolling the harbor and admiring the traditional fishing boats, called Luzzu, painted in bright colors with the traditional eyes. The eyes are believed to protect one from evil. The Marsaxlokk Market is where you can find everything from food, beverages, clothing, housewares, trinkets, and souvenirs. On Sundays, the fishermen sell their catch directly to consumers. It is best to arrive early in the morning as it gets very crowded. There is no direct bus to Marsaxlokk, so I suggest a taxi. Do negotiate the taxi price before you step into the vehicle.
The islands of Malta and Gozo are home to seven megalithic temples. The two temples on Gozo are considered the oldest, free-standing monuments globally and date back at least one thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids. UNESCO has declared the sites as World Heritage Sites.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Paola
The ancient underground burial chamber, Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, is also honored as a World Heritage Center by UNESCO. The three levels date from 3600 to 2400 BC and are considered “one of the most essential prehistoric monuments in the world.” A limited number of tourists are allowed daily to ensure the site’s conservation, so it is best to book ahead. https://www.visitmalta.com/en/a/info/hypogeum.
Spectacular Film & TV Locations
The beauty, landscape, architecture, near-perfect weather, and long hours of sunlight of the Maltese Islands have led to many filming locations that movie buffs will enjoy visiting. Since 1925, over 150 films have had scenes shot in Malta, and several such as Popeye have been filmed entirely in Malta.
In 2020 and the beginning of 2021, eleven productions, including Foundation, the Apple TV sci-fi thriller, and Jurassic World: Dominion will excite movie fans.
Valletta’s forts and walled sections are popular filming sites. Fort Ricasoli was built during the late 16th century by the Order of Saint John’s to guard the entrance to the Grand Harbor along with Fort Saint Elmo. Now closed to the public, it is used as a movie set by the Malta Film Commission. Productions have included Troy, Gladiator, and the HBO Series Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones fans will enjoy a full-day guided tour.
Popeye Village, located approximately 14 miles from Valletta, was built for the 1980’s Popeye Movie. Sitting on the cliffs of Anchor Bay, it is now a popular theme park.
Movie buffs will recognize The Blue Lagoon in scenes from the movie Troy (2004) with Brad Pitt.
Enjoy World-Class Wines
Spend a delightful afternoon at Meridiana Wine Estate. Nested in the valley below historic Mdina, one can explore the challenges of turning a WWII airfield into a wine estate setting the standards for quality Maltese wines. Then, of course, it is time for a tasting! Currently, the estate produces ten labels: four whites, a rose, and five reds. Be sure to team the wines with the Maltese Platter featuring local cheeses, meats, breads, olives, and vegetables. One must order the platter in advance. http://meridiana.com.mt
Water Sports and Diving
Scuba diving in Malta is recognized as the “second best diving destination in the world” due to the crystal clear waters, the number of dive sites, and the number of WWII sea wrecks that have formed artificial reefs. Many local dive centers offer lessons, guided dives, and equipment rentals. Other water sports include snorkeling, sailing, jet-skiing, and kayaking.
Gozo and Comino – Not to be Missed
A trip to Malta isn’t complete without a visit to Malta’s two sister islands, Gozo and Comino. The more rural island, Gozo, is a perfect change of pace for those looking for authenticity and a more relaxed and quaint stay. The island also comes complete with historical sites, forts and amazing panoramas, as well as one of the archipelago’s best-preserved prehistoric temples, Ggantija. Situated between Malta and Gozo, Comino is a water lover’s paradise. Home to the most spectacular diving, snorkeling and boating experiences, the car-less island is home to the magnificent Blue Lagoon and the one single hotel on the island offers guests the most tranquil getaway.
Visit the official tourism site for Malta at www.visitmalta.com
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