A Thorough Guide to Traveling in Malta
Malta is not a common European destination for Americans. In fact, I witnessed many blank faces when I told people that we would be traveling in Malta – followed by an explanation about its location. Malta can certainly get passed over by US travelers to Europe in favor of tourist hotspots like Paris and Rome and London.
But that’s a shame. A small European island nation located in the Mediterranean, steeped in a history dating several millennia, boasting one of the great harbors of the world, some of the oldest temples in the world, great food, friendly people, and a great coastline. And it’s English-speaking??!! Malta seems pretty ideal to me. Let me convince you with the highlights of our experiences traveling in Malta.
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A Quick Malta Geography Lesson
The country of Malta is made up of three small islands, located about 50 miles off the coast of Sicily. It’s one of the world’s smallest countries. Most of the population lives on the largest island – also called Malta (1 on the map below). Comino (2) is mostly uninhabited, but is a popular destination for its recreational opportunities. Gozo (3) is more rural and agricultural than the main island, and Gozitans very much have their own identity – we talked with a Gozitan at the airport who lumped both the Maltese and the British together as foreigners during our conversation.
And A Quick History Lesson Too
After many millennia of various inhabitants and rulers including Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians, Malta became the home to the Knights of St John in the 1500s. These were an order of crusading Knights very similar to the more famous Knights Templar. They were in need of a new home base and were invited to take over Malta, where they continued to rule for several hundred years. The Knights played the biggest role in establishing Malta as we know it today.
As you can imagine, if a bunch of Knights were to build your country, there will be forts – lots of forts, and ramparts, and city gates, and watchtowers, etc. Parts of Malta feel very fortified – especially all around its Grand Harbour.
But Malta is not just military architecture. Lots of the construction initiated by the Knights took place during the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries, so there are beautiful palaces and cathedrals as well.
After the Knights, it was the British who ruled Malta for a few hundred years until Malta’s independence in 1964. And British influences are still obvious throughout the country. English, for example, is an official language.
With this very long history of multiple ruling cultures and identities, Malta is truly a melting pot of architecture, customs, and cuisine. What an interesting place!
My 6 Favorite Sites in Malta
We spent three weeks traveling in Malta, so had a chance to visit plenty of its best sites – churches, forts, walled medieval cities, catacombs, megalithic temples, Roman ruins, and lots of unique geography. Here are my six personal favorites.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
This is Malta’s most famous church, located in the heart of Malta’s small capital city Valletta. It dates to the 16th century and was constructed by the Knights of St John. The Co-Cathedral was the most crowded and popular site we visited, by far, while traveling in Malta.
While the outside of the cathedral is fairly austere compared to many of Europe’s great Catholic cathedrals, the inside is highly decorated in a Baroque style. It’s actually can be a bit visually overwhelming. Even the floor is highly decorated – with the marble tombs of 400 Knights.
The cathedral also houses artwork including the famed Beheading of St John by the Italian artist Caravaggio. This painting is one of the Cathedral’s focal points for visitors.
The Inquisitor’s Palace is a museum located in Vittoriosa – one of Malta’s historic Three Cities. This large building was the center of Malta’s Roman Inquisition from 1561-1798, and is now used to explain this particular Inquisition’s fascinating and sad history.
During the two hundred plus years of the Roman Inquisition, the Catholic Church with the help of the ruling Knights of St John, did its best to make sure everyone in Malta was following its version of the straight and narrow.
Various displays throughout the Inquisitor’s Palace explain the typical “crimes”, the typical punishments, and the process of the Inquisition. We walked through these displays while visiting the very rooms where it all actually took place. Rooms that included the tribunal (where the trails occurred), the torture chamber (not a lot of actual physical torture occurred, but it did happen sometimes), and the jail cells.
Ggantija Megalithic Temple Complex
Malta is home to multiple prehistoric megalithic temples. Six of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And the oldest is on the island of Gozo. In fact – the Ggantija Temple on Gozo is the second oldest manmade monument on earth! Dating to 3600 BC!
Megalithic temples are so-called because of the large slabs of stone used in their construction. The builders didn’t leave any written records, so it is unclear how or why they were built, but it is presumed they were used for religious ceremonies including animal sacrifice.
During our time traveling in Malta, we took a day trip to Gozo Island. The Ggantija temples topped my list of things to see while there. We couldn’t miss that – the second oldest manmade structure on earth!
On a different day, we also visited a second megalithic site – the Tarxien Temples – located in a residential neighborhood not far from our first apartment. These temples were just a little bit better preserved than Ggantija. But after all, they are much younger – 2500 BC 🙂
St Paul’s Catacombs
This is a huge underground Roman cemetery located in the town of Rabat. St Paul’s Catacombs were used for burials from the years 300-800 AD. During that time, a massive city of the dead was gradually carved out of the underground rock.
After spending some time in the above ground visitor’s center where we learned about the ancient methods of burial, we were then able to enter and explore this underground city through multiple above-ground access points. The catacombs were looted centuries ago and all their contents removed, but it’s still fascinating to walk through these carved structures.
Three Cities Waterfront and Grand Harbour Marina
This was my favorite place to hang out in all of Malta. Fortunately for us, our first apartment in Malta was only a few minutes walk from here. This beautiful marina is surrounded on three sides by Malta’s historic Three Cities – Senglea, Vittoriosa, and Cospicua. Malta’s capital city Valletta is easily seen across the way. Waterfront dining, constant boat traffic, centuries old buildings, and spectacular views. Perfection!
The Limestone Coast
Since Malta is composed of three islands in the middle of the Mediterranean, you would naturally expect plenty of beaches. And there are. But most of them are made of limestone. During our time traveling in Malta, I only saw one very small sandy beach. (There are others – just not where we visited.)
We loved the limestone beaches and coastline. I prefer to explore a coastline and walk along a beach, rather than swim in the ocean or “lay out” anyway. And the Malta coastline was perfect for exploration.
We found many instances of ancient salt pans carved out of the limestone for collecting sea salt…
We found endlessly interesting and unique beach geography….
There were many types of stunning limestone cliffs….
And beautiful pools of water surrounded by limestone.
Plus we also found that we could still “hang out” on the beach. And we didn’t have to clean off any sand when we were finished.
Our Lodging in Malta
As with any locale, where you stay will very much define your experience traveling in Malta. Malta has several different cities and districts, each with its own vibe.
The most popular areas for lodging in Malta typically include:
Valletta (1) – the most central location, lots of restaurants, lots of sites, but also the most crowded with tourists…
Sliema (2) – a more modern commercial and residential neighborhood…
St Julian’s (3)– also more modern, with Malta’s most renowned nightlife….
We tend to prefer quieter and more traditional. And since we are traveling slower now, we also choose apartment rentals whenever possible. We need space at a good price!
Here’s where we stayed while traveling in Malta…
Senglea in The Three Cities
Our first apartment was located in Senglea (4) – one of the Three Cities. This is one of Malta’s most historic areas. It’s here that the Knights of St John first settled in Malta. Each of the three cities is fortified with thick surrounding walls, has an entry gate, offers a maze of quiet streets, and offers easy access to the beautiful marina I mentioned above.
I found The Three Cities to be the perfect base for exploring Malta’s main sites. Several – like the Inquisitors Palace and Fort St Angelo – are located in the Three Cities themselves. But then we could also get to Valletta in about 20 minutes from our apartment by boat. And from there, a central bus terminal and various ferry services provides convenient access to the rest of the country.
And I loved just hanging out in Senglea too. In fact, I’ve already written all about that. Click here to read my post about all the wonderful little things we loved about Senglea and the Three Cities.
Our beautifully decorated and updated one bedroom apartment in Senglea was named Dar Isla. It included a traditional Maltese porch which we used a lot. And our hosts Romina and Alessandro were the most attentive we’ve ever had anywhere. Click here to see more detail on Booking.com
Marsaskala – A Former Fishing Village in South Malta
When I first read about Marsaskala (5), I was immediately drawn to the idea of staying in a quieter less-touristy part of the island for part of our time in Malta. When I came across the view from the balcony at Seaside Apartments, while searching for places to stay, I immediately knew we would be spending time in Marsaskala.
These modern apartments are located directly on Marsaskala’s harbor-side promenade with a view out across all the small fishing boats that dot the small harbor. Click here to see more detail on Booking.com
Our time in Marsaskala was a more laid back portion of our time traveling in Malta. Even though we could reach the Three Cities in about 15 minutes by car, and then quickly cross to Valletta by boat if we wanted, we never did. By that time in our trip, we were finished sight-seeing, and ready to just relax.
We were content to spend that last week of our travels in Malta just hanging out in this smaller Maltese town, enjoying the cultural atmosphere from our balcony, and venturing out to explore the surrounding coastline and local restaurants. You can click here to read everything about we found in Marsaskala Malta.
Talbot and Bons Bed And Breakfast
I decided to reference our one night at Talbot and Bons (6) because it was such a unique place and definitely bears mention.
Typically, if we have a really early flight home, we’ll spend the last night of our trip at an airport hotel.
And in May 2022, we needed a negative COVID test before returning to the US. The most convenient place and time to obtain testing was at the airport on the day before we left. All the more reason to stay close to the airport on our final night.
There aren’t many options for lodging at the Malta airport. After all, Valletta is only about 15 minutes away. But, Talbot and Bons is by far the best “airport hotel” that we have ever stayed at.
It’s a beautifully remodeled 400 year farmhouse in a tiny Maltese village – just a 10 minute walk to the airport departures hall. Our room was large and unique with walls made from the limestone that so defines this island. There’s a beautiful central courtyard and even a wine cellar lounge. Plus, the nicest, most accommodating hotel manager we’ve ever met (Cherise). Click here to see more detail on Booking.com. Or I have a full post dedicated to Talbot and Bons alone.
Note though – the town of Gudja is so small that it doesn’t have any restaurants. We walked over to the airport for dinner, where we surprisingly found some really good places to eat in the commercial center next door.
A Look at Eating in Malta
As regular readers know, eating is one of my favorite things about travel. I love exploring new types of cuisine. Here are some of the best food we ate while traveling in Malta
I would have expected a seafood-dominant cuisine on a Mediterranean Island, and seafood can easily be found on any menu, especially octopus. But rabbit is the favorite protein of Malta.
I hadn’t eaten rabbit since I was a kid when it was forced upon me by my parents (and don’t even get me started on liver & onions). But I ordered traditional Rabbit Stew for my first Maltese lunch from Aaron’s Kitchen in Valletta
And for the uninitiated, it’s true what you hear. Tastes like chicken. In fact, I would have thought it was chicken if it had been served to me blindly.
On one of our final nights in Malta, we made it a point to eat at a favorite Marsaskala restaurant specializing in Maltese cuisine called Tiny Mint. I told the chef, who personally greeted us, that we would be leaving Malta soon, and asked him to cook for me the single menu item he would miss most if he was leaving Malta. He chose Bragioli for me.
Bragioli are stuffed beef rolls braised with red wine. Thin slices of beef are wrapped around a mixture of ground beef, bacon, eggs, bread crumbs, and herbs, and braised in red wine. It’s topped with a red wine “gravy” along with roasted potatoes and vegetables. It’s obviously quite meat-centric, but delicious.
The Maltese Platter
Most Maltese restaurants have a version of this as an appetizer. A Maltese platter generally includes a selection of sausage, bread or crackers, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, olives, and a dip called Bigilla made of broad beans, olive oil, and garlic. This beautiful version is from Ta’ Victor in Marsaxlokk.
Ftira is a traditional Maltese flat bread similar to ciabatta. Simple sandwiches using Ftira are a staple of Maltese cuisine, and was one of my favorite choices for a quick lunch. Ingredients such as tuna, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes are commonly used. Or I frequently came across a version that combined all the ingredients of a Maltese platter like the one pictured from Chalk Cafe in Rabat.
And we didn’t only find Maltese cuisine in Malta. Italian cuisine was everywhere to be found too. After all, the Sicilian coast is only 50 miles away. In fact, most Maltese restaurants we visited featured not only Maltese selections, but also a wide-variety of pasta choices, many types of pizza, and….hamburgers. Yes, hamburgers. Hamburgers seemed to be very popular in Malta.
Plus there were many restaurants in Malta focused exclusively on Italian food. And lots of pizzerias too. And all the Italian food was outstanding.
How We Got Around While Traveling in Malta
Valletta, The Three Cities, and Sliema all surround a complex of harbors. So if you love traveling by ferry like I do, then Malta is the perfect place to visit. We used the ferries and water taxis almost exclusively for our transportation needs while we were staying in The Three Cities.
The Dghajsa Water Taxi
I’ve sung the praises of these Maltese water taxis called Dghajsa elsewhere on this blog, but let me say here that riding the dghajsa back and forth across the Grand Harbour between The Three Cities and Valletta was my single most favorite thing to do in Malta. Cost 2 Euro
Valletta Ferry Service
A larger commercial ferry connects Valletta and The Three Cities through one harbor, and Valletta and Sliema through the other harbor. Because the water taxis were much more convenient for us – and much more charming – we never rode the larger ferry from the Three Cities. But we did use it to visit Sliema. Cost 1.50 Euro
Gozo Fast Ferry
Gozo is Malta’s other inhabited island. It’s more rural than Malta’s main island and boasts some important sites like the Ggantji temples. A day trip to Gozo is an essential while traveling in Malta. We did spend a day on Gozo and I wish in retrospect that we could have spent longer. As our travels in Malta evolved, we couldn’t work out a second visit.
The most convenient way to get to Gozo from the Valletta area is via the Gozo Fast Ferry. This high speed catamaran took us from Valletta’s Grand Harbour to Gozo in just 40 minutes and only cost 15 Euro for the round trip.
(Once we arrived in Gozo we rented a RZR 4×4 to explore the island. More on that in a future blog post. Various other forms of transportation can be rented to explore Gozo as well – jeeps, ATVs, scooters, etc. We used Mgarr Tourist Services. There is also a Hop-on Hop-off bus that will take you to the major sites on Gozo if you want to do it the easy way.)
Malta has an extensive bus network and this is the chief form of public transportation available. Malta doesn’t have any trains or a light-rail system. Buses can get you anywhere on the island. However, we seldom used them. Most routes have lots of stops and consequently aren’t the quickest way to get from point A to point B. I instead found that eCabs was much more convenient.
eCabs is Malta’s version of Uber. And we used it whenever we needed to get anywhere that wasn’t served by a ferry or the walking distance was unreasonable. I found that it was relatively inexpensive and very reliable. The drivers were all friendly and the cars were universally nice and clean. Our average ride cost was around 10 Euro.
We were forced to take a regular cab on one occasion (we temporarily lost our cell network), and had a terrible experience. The driver claims to have misunderstood where we wanted to go, took us halfway to a different town before I recognized that we were headed to the wrong place, and it ended up costing 2.5X what an eCabs ride would have cost. Plus the driver was surly and the cab was dirty inside.
Having a destination and a price already already agreed upon via an app is just so much better.
Bolt is another ride share application in Malta and I used it on a few occasions when an eCab car wasn’t available in my area. And while its cars usually came a few minutes quicker than eCabs, I found that it generally cost a few more Euros per ride.
We walk when we travel. A lot! Burning calories by walking allows us to eat more 🙂 The main tourists areas of Malta are all very walkable. In fact, Valletta is only 1km long and 0.5 km across.
Plus it’s while walking that you come across beauty you might not otherwise see
Other Tips for Traveling in Malta
Two Other Popular Sites
I haven’t yet mentioned two of Malta’s most popular sites. Mdina – the original medieval capital city of Malta. And the Blue Lagoon – a section of beautiful blue ocean adjoining Malta’s third island called Comino.
We went to Mdina but I chose not to include it in my list of my favorite sites above. It’s a beautifully preserved medieval walled city that sits on the highest point of Malta’s main island. It’s called the “Silent City” because no vehicles are allowed inside. Mdina is often used for movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon had just filmed there a few days before our visit.
And that was the problem for me. It felt like a movie set. Sort of like when we toured the silent streets of the Warner Bros Studio. Lots of tourists wandering around a bunch of pristine buildings through otherwise empty streets with few obvious traces of real life (though I do understand that Mdina has residents, and in fairness, there were scattered souvenir shops and a few restaurants)
I think I might have enjoyed it more had we taken an organized tour. Something to at least bring its history a little more alive for us. So that would be my recommendation for Mdina – definitely go, but walk through with a guide (like this tour on Viator)
The Blue Lagoon
As we were first landing in Malta, we flew over the Blue Lagoon. And from the air, I could see what I had already surmised through my pre-trip research. It was packed with boats and with people. Not necessarily my kind of place. Plus our May visit meant a cold ocean – attempting to enjoy its calm shallow blue waters didn’t sound appealing.
But for those who want to go, plenty of tourist boats leave from various points around Malta and Gozo like these on Viator
Malta has two official languages – Maltese and English. The locals mostly spoke Maltese to each other, but we never came across anyone who didn’t at least speak some English for our interactions.
We visited in the month of May. Sadly, as often happens to us, it was unseasonably cool (in the mid 60s), windy, and rainy at the beginning of our time traveling in Malta. But after the first week, we experienced what I consider near-perfect weather – mid-70 degrees every day. But the locals warned us frequently that it would be getting very hot and uncomfortably humid come summer though. Here’s a look at Malta’s averages through the year.
Whereas I hardly use cash at all now in the US, cash still seemed to be the preferred form of currency in Malta. My American Express card was accepted nowhere. My chip Visa debit card seemed to work in the card readers of only about 60% of the restaurants. I ultimately resorted to visiting the ATM often and paying for most things in cash. Plus, I noticed a slightly better exchange rate from the local ATMs than paying by card anyway.
I felt very safe while traveling in Malta. Malta is known for its low crime rate compared to other parts of Europe. I did read that in areas with more night life and tourists like St Julian’s, that a little more vigilance is necessary.
After spending 3 weeks traveling in Malta, we had enough time to really get to the heart of this great country, and we loved it! Malta has everything I look for in a great European destination – a sense of history, cool architecture, great places to hang out, wonderful food, and nice people. Plus some pretty awesome coastline as a bonus.
Malta should definitely be on everyone’s travel list!
If you would like to read some of my other Thorough Guides, then check these out:
I just love your “Thorough” posts! I have never considered Malta but definitely will after reading this. Your pictures are absolutely beautiful. I know that I would feel like you about the Dghajsa Water Taxi – I would spend hours just riding around.
Thanks Peggy. Malta is easy to photograph 🙂
Wow your photos here are spectacular! Those buildings and the pops of bright colours are so pretty! What an interesting place to visit and one I’ve heard more people travelling to lately. Im really enjoy your posts! I am curious about what camera and lens or lenses you travel with.
Thanks for checking them out Linda! I love simplicity 🙂 Never have liked carrying around a bunch of stuff when I travel. So, all the pictures on my blog have been taken with whichever iPhone version I owned at the moment. All the Spain and Malta pictures are taken with an iPhone 13 Pro
Travel for a while
That qualifies as a thourough guide indeed. I wish I had the time to visit Gozo as well. Lovely pictures as always. and that ftira photo made me instantly hungry!