Delving into Malta’s past is like flicking through a who’s who of European history. Everyone from the Phoenicians and Romans, through to the Greeks and the British Empire have breezed through this beach kissed island nation. All have left their mark and help make Malta the intriguing destination it is today. It’s hard to believe this exotic escape lies within such easy reach to both Europe and Africa.
Travelling around Malta is strangely familiar for British visitors. There are the sort of old fashioned red post boxes and phone boxes that you don’t even see so much in the UK anymore and you will still find a few of the island’s buses are old British classics. Bumping around in Leyland buses from the 1950s and 1960s makes you feel like you are pleasantly wrapped in a timewarp.
The Capital City Of Valletta
A good place to start your own exploration is in the capital of Valletta. This gorgeous but tiny capital well deserves its place on the coveted UNESCO World Heritage list. It was also a European City of Culture in 2018. The hulking old walls and chunky bastions of this fortress city are as striking as the sweeping harbour and sea views that swim all around. You'll love the balconies too, which hang charmingly over the streets.
Valletta is tiny with its old core crammed into a tiny 1 x 0.5 kilometre area. Add in the northern ‘suburbs’ of Sliema and St. Julian’s, though, and you have an urban spread that boasts everything from historic sights through to top end restaurants and beaches.
A great way to really appreciate Valletta’s massive harbour is to take a boat cruise. They come with commentary and sweep around the rapidly changing Grand Harbour, taking in the ‘Three Cities’ of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua as you go, as well as the northern suburb of Sliema.
Back on land a walk around the hulking fortifications of UNESCO World Heritage listed Valletta is essential. Start at the city gate and then head up on to the walls. Chunky bastions, ornate churches and relaxed parks accompany the dramatic vistas of the harbour and the flurry of suburbs (many actually designated cities in their own right) that spill all around.
Before you run out of photo space, take a rest and enjoy a drink in one of Valletta’s characterful old cafes. A favourite for many is the legendary Caffe Cordina, a local institution that has been going strong since the 19th-century.
Suitably re-energised, head for one of Valletta’s core attractions. The Malta Experience is housed in an exquisite old building and the unintentionally retro chic audiovisual presentation fills you in on great swathes of history. For a more detailed focus on World War Two check out the Wartime Experience.
The single most striking building in Valletta is St. John’s Cathedral. You can tell just how rich the Knights of St. John (the order that built Valletta into a fortress city) were when you delve inside this masterpiece. The façade may be austere, but the interior is a riot of baroque, with ornate sculptures and figures adorning the various chapels. Check out the cathedral’s museum for more artistic treasures.
Pushing beyond Valletta the most attractive settlement on the island is Mdina. Everything is magical about this hideaway from the moment you cross on foot or on horse and cart through the old stone gate. There are a flurry of churches to explore and plenty of restaurants and bars, but you might enjoy just walking around the narrow streets, admiring the ornate doorways and balconies, before strolling up and down the ramparts taking in the sweeping views of the rest of the island unfolding below.
The Maltese Landscape
Malta is also great for walking despite its lack of real hills. Head out for a coastal foray just north of the resort of St. Paul’s. The scenery and terrain en route were pleasantly mixed with the off shore island of St. Paul’s and the end of the journey at Golden Sands, the finest sandy beach on the Maltese mainland and a great place to reward yourself for the effort with a sundowner. As with many of Malta’s beaches it feels less Mediterranean and more tropical, all golden sands and crystal clear turquoise waters.
Comino And Gozo Island
Comino is the smallest of the three main islands. It is best explored on a day trip from either the main island or Gozo. Much of the island is protected as part of a nature reserve. The scenic highlight is the famous Blue Lagoon. Ease in here by boat and you will feel like you have been transported to a tropical island escape. The aquarium clear waters are ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving as you look out for all manner of marine life, including turtles.
Of Malta’s other two islands, Gozo and Comino, Gozo is the most compelling for culture. It has always trod a separate path to the mainland in many ways, although it shares much of the same influences with the Romans and the Phoenicians having breezed through, leaving their indelible traces as they went. During World War Two the islands escaped the wrath of the Luftwaffe (the German Airforce) and today it has to a large extent avoided the big hotel developments that blight some parts of the mainland.
Victoria The Capital Of Gozo
The best views on Gozo come from our favourite attraction, the lofty citadel in the island capital of Victoria where the locals used to barricade themselves away against rampaging pirate attacks. This rambling monument in stone dominates the island and the town with its riot of sturdy fortified walls and church spires. You'll love just wandering around the ramparts and taking in a new view of the island at every turn.
Gozo is also a surprisingly green place, especially outside of the baking hot summer, as you'll discover. It enjoys a landscape of rolling hills that are topped with tiny villages and vaulting church spires. Then there is the dramatic coastline that is alive with all manner of sea cliffs, caves and bays such as the famous Azure window which due to a storm came to its watery end on 8 March 2017. Still the air is often humming with bird song with thousands of birds choosing to migrate via the island.
The most important site on Gozo for many visitors are the Ggantija temples. Stretching back into the mists of time before Stonehenge was even thought of, before the Pyramids were constructed, these rocky remains are some of the oldest standing structures in the world! There is not much to actually ‘see’ so it is worth getting a guide to illuminate the site and its history for you. Up on the temples site the views are impressive too with a whole swathe of the island opening up.
Odysseus And Calypso
One legend on Gozo surrounds the mythical hero Odysseus. The story has it that Odysseus was waylaid here after being seduced by the temptress Calypso. Taking a shine to him she trapped him and he did not escape for another seven years. Watching the sea crashing into the dramatic coastline outside the cave after a day exploring one of Europe’s most charming and exotic nations I could understand why Odysseus might have been in no real hurry to leave.
Written by Robin Mckelvie
Photography by André Graver