Posted in Budget Tips, International Travel, Photos

Malta: A Destination for Backpackers, History Lovers, Cruisers, and Sun Worshippers.

Overlooking the bay off Comino Island

I’ve been to Malta twice now– once on a budget trip with friends, and the second time on a luxury cruise with my grandfather. Both experiences were incredible, although sipping champagne in a fancy bathrobe on my balcony while overlooking Valletta was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment I’ll never forget. (Thanks, Pop!)

Just a regular day for me.

Malta is an up-and-coming travel destination, but for now, it’s not overrun by tourists. Unlike many hot Europe destinations, there are a lot of the things to see and do that don’t require a ticket! For the ones that do, they’re unlikely to sell out before you show up (looking at you, Sistine Chapel).

On my first visit, we stayed in Sliema, which is on the modern side of things in relation to the rest of the island. Sliema sits across the bay from the picturesque Valletta. Rentals and restaurants are cheaper here, and you get the added bonus of looking at the city throughout your stay. Our Airbnb was just a quick walk away from where the ferry leaves for Valletta, and around the block from a line of shops and restaurants. The ferry to Valletta goes all day and is very affordable, however you will want to arrive early to make sure you get a good seat (or any seat, if you are visiting during the late spring-summer).

Very important pro-tip: This is going to sound weird to some, but the one thing I wish I knew about visiting Malta was how aggressive the mosquitos are. Seriously, bring bug spray and pray. I won’t even tell you the total amount I had by the time I left the first time I visited. (My travel companions can tell you the number because I updated them every time I got a new one. I’m a delight, really.) The good news is that the local pharmacies in town all sell bug spray at a reasonable (for Europe) price.

Getting artsy on the cliffs on the south side of the island. This was taken near the Dingli Cliffs.

The Republic of Malta has been inhabited since at least 5900 BC. Due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the country has been occupied or conquered several times over the course of its existence. From the Phoenicians in 1000BC, to the Arabs during the Middle Ages, all the way through to becoming a British colony in the 1800s and key air base in World War II (just to name a few), this tiny island has played a key role throughout history.

You can see all of the different layers of history as you travel around the island (and its sister island, Gozo). It’s there in the street signs, the building style, the food, and the people. I know it’s cliché to say there’s something for everyone, but hear me out. There is LITERALLY something for everyone. The island is small but mighty, with enough sites and experiences to keep any tourist happy. Just don’t be scared to try the rabbit!

Below, I’ve outlined a (very) brief list of top things to do while visiting Malta. It was hard to narrow it down, so there is much more than what you see here. But this is a great jumping off point! I’d easily be able to fill an entire book with info on Malta’s historically significant sites, hiking trails, museums, and diving spots.

Ġgantija Temples

Malta is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including temples such as Ggantija, a Neolithic compound located on Gozo Island (just north of the mainland of Malta). Built in 3600 B.C., the Ggantija Temples were named so because the locals believed the enormous temples were built by giants. Over thousands of years, the temples have stayed fairly well-preserved (although adventuring Brits in the late 1800s were less than gentle with their excavation). The museum onsite houses many of the artifacts discovered during countless excavations. The museum also offers great info on the temple’s (re)discovery. Make sure to take time to check it out if you find yourself here!

Bonus: There are 5 other temple sites in Malta that are included under the UNESCO umbrella (Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’ Ħaġrat, and Skorba), some dating back further than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. Each of these temples offer a truly incredible site. The ingenuity and craftsmanship of these prehistoric people are fully on display, and careful study of each of these sites have given us amazing insight into how the ancient people lived, worked, and ate.

Mollie leads, and sometimes I follow.


Bonus-bonus: Not interested in visiting a temple but still want a taste of history? Keep an eye out while hiking- there are Bronze-Age dolmans hidden amongst the cliff sides.

Bonus-bonus-bonus: (Can you tell I’m struggling to leave stuff out? It’s all spectacular.) Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (located on the main island of Malta) is an underground, three-story complex filled with chambers and passageways and almost impeccably preserved. The structure was built around 3000 B.C., and is only open to a minimal amount of visitors per day (this is one of the few excursions that will require you to book in advance). Visiting this structure is my #1 reason to go back to Malta for a 3rd time. It’s Malta’s 2nd UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mdina (or Medina for the non-locals)

Sansa Stark, eat your heart out.


Although there are obvious signs of ancient inhabitants scattered around the Maltese countryside, the cities themselves are also a testament to the island’s long history. Mdina, or the Silent City, was Malta’s capital for thousands of years (before being replaced by Valletta). It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, before being turned over to the Romans. Quick to change hands, Mdina fell under the Byzantine rule until the Middle Ages. After enjoying a brief jaunt in the Dark Ages, Malta came under the rule of the Hospitallers in the mid 1500s. It was during this transition that Valletta replaced Mdina as capital de Malta. All of the changes and new owners resulted in a city filled with different architecture and traditions.

I never thought I’d be that person, but look at this door! I have a million pictures of doors.


One of Mdina’s many charms is just how small it is. It is only a quick walk through the winding and narrow streets to reach either end of this ancient metropolis. For any loyal Game of Throners out there, the outer walls may look familiar. Mdina’s walls were used in Season 1 of Game of Thrones as a setting for King’s Landing. But don’t worry- you won’t find any heads on a pike lining the fortifications. Although production eventually moved entirely to Dubrovnik for the remaining seasons, it’s easy to see why Mdina worked so well.

The city is full of hidden doorknobs, inner courtyards, and capers dangling from walls. There is a maze of catacombs just outside the city, which you can also visit during a day trip to Mdina. Nods to the Order of St. John, who were responsible for the more Baroque architectural elements, can also be spotted while wandering the city.

A gentleman and a scholar, and a suit of armor (Looking good, Pop!)


Mdina itself, although built on a hill, is relatively flat. For the older traveller (or if you’re traveling with someone who might not take to hills very well), it’s the perfect place to experience the sweeping history of Malta in a tiny little microcosm. Plus, depending on when you go there, you might stumble upon a festival complete with medieval jousting and falconers.

You can easily access Mdina by a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta. Tickets run about €1-2, and the buses leave every 10 minutes. You can also rent a car and drive around the island, but remember, these streets are from medieval days, so the driving is tight. Also, parking might be tricky, as there are a limited number of cars allowed within the city walls, and yours won’t be one of them, so spots nearby fill up quick. Uber and Lyft are not available on the island. Taxis can be called, or you can download the app Bolt to request a ride.

Valletta

Very proud to say I didn’t trip down steps once this trip.

Obviously if you’re visiting Malta, you’re inevitably going to end up in its capital city. UNESCO describes Valletta as one of the most concentrated historical sites in the world. The entire city is considered a World Heritage Site (ding ding! #3!). Since the Hospitallers were also responsible for the building of it, the architecture echoes much of Mdina.

In 1566, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Jean de Valette, commissioned the building of a fortified city to deepen the Order’s ties to Malta and protect its people from further invaders. He personally laid down the first stone to celebrate his victory after a four month siege by the Ottomans. Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out-planned (now you have that song stuck in your head, sorry!), the Order of Saint John miraculously held the island, and in battle after battle they pushed the Ottomans back into the sea, now red with their blood. (I’m rushing the history here because I know this article is bursting at the seams with it, but seriously, how cool is that story?) Although Jean de Valette didn’t live to see his city fully completed, he remains there to this day, buried in St. John’s Co-Cathedral along with several other Grand Masters (but we will act like that is not creepy).

Pro tip: The ferry from Sliema arrives at the lower dock of Valletta. If you travel with someone who isn’t a complete sadist, there is a lift you can take to the upper levels of Valletta, so you don’t have to walk up the enormous hills to get up there. I was not so lucky.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Much of Maltese culture centers on religion, and churches are plentiful in Valletta, as well as across all of Malta.

St. John’s is a good a place as any to start when visiting, and inside is a bonus for any art lover- a massive, spectacular Caravaggio that takes up basically an entire wall. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the artist’s largest work, and the only one he actually signed. The room it is displayed in is lined with other gorgeous pieces, but for obvious reasons, Caravaggio’s masterpiece is the standout. That’s not to say the rest of the Co-Cathedral isn’t just as incredible. Even the marble tombstones where prominent knights are buried are intricately carved.

Entrance to the Co-Cathedral costs €10, but a lot of the other churches around the city are free to visit.

An entire wall worth of beheading.

(Bonus- the Cathedral is the centerpiece of a lively square with restaurants, music, and plenty of gelato shops. One of my favorite moments during my first trip here was simply sitting on the steps enjoying an enormous chocolate gelato cone and people watching.)

Upper Barraka Gardens

The Baroque garden of your dreams

The Upper Barraka Gardens are high up in the hills towering over the lower end of Valletta, but the view is worth the sore calves. You can see the entire harbor from the walls of the garden, plus if you get there in time to get a good view, you’ll be able to watch the cannons go off at noon and 4pm. This tradition harkens back to the time when these cannons would welcome returning naval vessels, but now it’s purely ceremonial, and a lot of fun. Another bonus point? It is also free!

World War II history buffs should head down into the Lascaris War Rooms after watching the ceremony. These rooms were the site of the fighter control rooms where wartime operations against the Germans were planned.

Tick tick boom

Museums
Malta’s contributions to World War II were integral to British operations, and visiting the National War Museum is another great way to learn about how this island helped win the war. The museum is housed in Fort St. Elmo, built in the 1500s by the Order of St. John, but the museum itself specializes in WWII memorabilia.

The National Museum of Archaeology also focuses on Malta’s unique history, albeit much earlier than WWII. It’s filled with statues and artifacts from antiquity, and its prehistoric collection is unmatched. One of the most amazing things about this collection is the scope of what it holds. From Neolithic artifacts, to an Egyptian pendant, to beautifully preserved Roman statues, the museum spans most of human history.

Admission to this museum can be grouped with admission to other museums or historical sites around the country. Prices depend on when you go and what you see. Check out updated prices here.

The Blue Lagoon

WOWZA. Literally that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about visiting the Blue Lagoon.

Located on Comino Island, this lagoon offers impossibly blue water (hence the name, duh!), gorgeous views, and a chill party scene. Boats to the island leave every day from Sliema’s docks. You can book online through major tour sites or simply have dinner in Sliema and approach one of the many ticket counters lining the waterfront to book for the next day.

We took a boat that looked like a pirate ship there, because apparently my group watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. The large tour boats are about an hour ride, and not great for people who get sea sick (a.k.a. me). I will admit, though, that the destination is worth any sickness.

Once your boat docks in the Blue Lagoon, you step foot onto the banks and are greeted with stalls selling alcoholic drinks in pineapples and a scene straight out of a movie. Depending on your boat and how long you have here, you can spend the entire day hiking around the rocky outcroppings or swimming in the turquoise waters (just a warning- the ocean can be very chilly, especially in early summer). Stalls offer drinks, souvenirs, and food– though most tour boats will offer unlimited drinks and lunch as part of your ticket price. We paid €25 each for our boat ride, all-you-can-drink-and-puke drinks, lunch with snacks, and a beautiful cruise along the shores of Malta.

If you indulge in one thing while visiting Malta, let this be it. Just be sure to bring your Dramamine.

Pro Tip: If you walk up to the sellers instead of booking online, you can usually get a lower price. This also gives you the option to look at each boat, as the boats vary drastically without much difference in price. Our ticket was the same cost as the packed ferries we saw go by, and we had less people, a better boat, and more time on the island.


Food and Drink

The food in Malta has been heavily influenced by its long history of conquest, and popular dishes hint at Greek, Italian, and Arabic cuisine. Try the rabbit (I’m saying this again to convince you), indulge in the pasta, and don’t forget to grab a pastizzi from the local bakery on your morning walk! Maltese wines, although less recognized around the world, are certainly worth a sip or two (or a bottle or two, who are we kidding), and the island boasts 2 indigenous grape varieties.

The island is littered with olive trees, and the olive oil I bought from a small stand along the waterfront in Marsakloxx was the best I’ve ever tasted. I was so sad to use the last of it. If you want to bring home a souvenir, a bottle of olive oil is the perfect choice!

Honorable Mention:

Gozo

The Cliffs of Despair! (Just kidding, these are the sea cliffs surrounding Gozo).

It would be a mistake to visit Malta and not explore Gozo. When you’re checking out the Ġgantija Temples, be sure to stick around and tour the rest of the island. The streets are impeccably kept and the houses are beautiful. The island is home to a lot of natural wonders as well, including Fungus Rock and some really cool salt flats.

Popeyes Village
This is a weird one. In the late 1980s, Robin Williams filmed the live-action Popeye movie on Malta, complete with a very detailed set. When the movie was done, the set remained, and was turned into an amusement part of sorts for families and Robin Williams enthusiasts to visit.

Blue Grotto
Malta is bursting at the seams with geological formations, and the Blue Grotto is a great one to visit. Make sure to check the weather- on the day we went, the waters were too choppy and they had halted boat tours.

Marsaxlokk offers colorful fishing boats and tiny town feels.

Marsaxlokk
If you’ve been researching Malta, you’ve probably seen pictures of a harbor filled with colorful fishing boats. That’s Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village a short trip away from Valletta where you can dine on the freshest seafood around, shop at the stalls set up on street, and people watch to your hearts content. This is where I bought my olive oil, plus a really pretty pair of earrings. Treat yo’self!

Diving
There are several unique places to dive on Malta for the underwater enthusiast including WWII shipwrecks, reefs, caves, and the Blue Hole in Gozo, an upright tube-like underwater structure formed by thousands of years of water and wind erosion.

Sliema

Fine, I didn’t fall on the steps of Valetta, but I left this waterfront with a sore butt.

Since we weren’t in Malta for an extended period of time, we never really got to explore all the cool stuff that Sliema had to offer (too busy trying not to lose my lunch on a pirate ship, unfortunately) but there are plenty of historically significant and exciting things to see in this modern city. The promenade is full of great restaurants, ice cream shops, ancient towers, and Roman baths.

Getting around:

Public Transportation: We always love taking public transportation when visiting a new place, but ran into an interesting problem. The bus just…stopped. They kicked us all off, and told us to wait an hour for the next one. This ended up being a blessing- we just walked along the island instead, but something to be aware of when visiting! It certainly threw us off for a minute.

You can buy different levels of access cards, including a 1, 7, and 12-day Journey card for access to public transportation. They’re available all over the island at different info points. We had no trouble finding a booth to purchase ours. Remember- Malta is part of the EU, so bring your euros!

Traveling by car: You could rent a car here, but the roads are reallllllllly tiny. So tiny that I feared for my life while on a tour bus. You’re better off taking public transportation or hiring cars and leaving the driving to the pros. As we mentioned earlier, Uber and Lyft aren’t available in the country (as of 2022), but taxis can be called. You can also download the app, Bolt, to request rides.

Have you visited Malta? Leave a comment below with more tips, and any location we might have missed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s