Advertisement | In October I was invited by VisitMalta for the annual Notte Bianca festival and to explore some of the island's highlights. If you want to jump ahead to cool things to do in Malta click here or here for Malta travel tips. But this wasn't my first encounter with Europe's fifth smallest country and you want to read how far Malta and I go back, start at the beginning...
My history with Malta
One of the questions I get most when I meet new people is where I am from. This question usually comes from native English speakers who seem incredibly surprised that I am in fact, German. I guess their surprised faces are flattering to my command of the English language but not so much to the rest of English-speaking Germans everywhere. So this is usually the time when I go into my history of studying in the States, working in Cape Town and generally preferring English as my language of communication. What I tend to forget to mention is that I actually 'blame' Malta for my somewhat good grasp of the English language.
When I was 12 years old I had been learning English in school for two years. I don't remember my teacher and don't want to blame him/her but let's just say that English classes in my days weren't really the best. It was all about grammar and spelling and little about speaking and getting an actual feel for a language. Mind you, maybe I was just lazy but either way, my grades weren't the greatest. For a straight A student, a C+ in English wasn't an okay mark for my father and I needed punishment/ inspiration to improve my grades.
I don't remember the details of this discussion but I do remember that I eventually found myself on a plane to Malta with my best friend Bibi and her mother who accompanied us for the flight. We were supposed to spend our summer holidays taking English classes on the island.
Needless to say, we did that and so much more. We spent on days exploring the infamous nightlife of St. Julian's (there was no carding back then) with our hosting family's sons, oddly enough named Hans and Klaus. On the weekend we took trips to the beach and Comino island where I had my first encounter with black snails which Hamilda, the matron of our family prepared in a big pot for lunch.
And yes, we learned English too. Not thanks to some cute boys because Bibi and I had promptly managed to fall for head over heels for the two guys who only spoke Italian (the one language our host family didn't speak). Love conquers all and Bibi even managed to get her first ever kiss from her boy, Italian or not. I wasn't so lucky but that didn't dampen my spirits - this trip to Malta was the best punishment ever!
Our English classes took place poolside at Sprachcaffe, an international language school. We were by far the youngest in class, having to read and interpret newspaper articles we wouldn't have been able to comprehend in German but we didn't mind. What we didn't understand we made up for in enthusiasm - this was the time I completely lost my fear of speaking a different language. It wasn't about perfect grammar or sentence structure or even pronunciation (still getting those Vs and Ws mixed up to this day, I like to think it's charming!), it was about conversing and just talking.
Cue forward 25 years and I still remember my first trip to Malta fondly. Whether it was the boys, the snails or my then-found love for the English language I was keen to return and excited to be invited to explore the island on a trip with VisitMalta. It was a short trip honoring the yearly Notte Bianca festival in Valletta and I decided to add two nights in Gozo, Malta's little sister island, to dive in the infamous Blue Hole.
I don't know what I expected but there were no cute boys, Italian or other, and when dinner time came around there was not even a pot with snails to be found. Unknowingly I had booked myself into the charming but desolate village of Sannat in Gozo that didn't think it necessary to keep restaurants open on a Wednesday. After a hungry day of traveling and an unsuccessful hour to score some pasta, I resorted to the one and only open store for a bag of chips and a bottle of wine. It was probably the universe's way of showing me that it was high time to go on a diet after eating my way around Greece for the two weeks prior.
The next day I consoled myself with pasta for lunch and dinner and hoped for a better time on Malta itself. And what can I say? Malta and I had a blast, once again, the fifth smallest country in Europe really packs a punch. Want to know what to do in Malta? Read on...
Cool Things to do in Malta
#1 Nightwalk in Mdina
Due to Malta's location, it was always important when it came to European politics and trade, a heritage that still shows today in the old alleys of Mdina, Malta's former capital. Especially at night, a walk through Mdina is atmospheric, a little eery and definitely not your average nighttime stroll. I was pleasantly surprised how safe I felt traveling as a woman in Malta in general and Mdina even in the evening was no exception.
#2 Visit Game of Thrones locations
Any film buff will be delighted because Malta sightseeing inevitably includes seeing some film locations from favorites like Murder on the Orient Express, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Troy. Of course, there are also quite a few GoT locations in Malta (where has this series not been??) and one of them is the gate to Mdina. If you are keen to see all the locations and what they represent in the series check out this post to all the Game of Thrones locations in Malta.
#3 Attend a Maltese Festival
We went to Malta to attend the Notte Bianca, a cultural festival that turns the whole of Valletta into a playground at night with art and light installations, performances and concerts. All palaces and museums are open and can be explored literally in a whole new light. And while it has just passed, Notte Bianca happens every year in Malta in October so you can start planning your trip for next year now.
Alternatively visit for L-Imnarja, the festival of light and one of the oldest celebrations in Malta and Gozo when the islands are being illuminated by countless candles or the Karnival Ta’Malta. For music and film fans film is the Malta Jazz Festival and the Valletta Film Festival - check the calendar because Malta always gives you a few good reasons for a visit and that not just in high season.
#4 Palazzo Parisio, Naxxar
Since Malta is a very dry island there are only a few gardens and the prominent color seems to be beige. A glorious exception is the garden of the Palazzo Parisio purchased by Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna in 1898. Its foundations go back to Manoel de Vilhena, the Portuguese Grand Master in 1733 and were kept by the Knights of St John for the years to come until it became part of the Parisio family which gave it its name.
While the Palazzo and especially the grand golden ballroom are well worth a visit, I definitely preferred strolling around the gardens - they are the only privately owned gardens in Malta open to the public; one of the best places to visit in Malta and finally something green amongst all the sand colors.
#5 Hagar Qim & Mnajdra Temples
For those ticking off UNESCO Heritage Sites - don't miss a visit to the prehistoric Mnajdra Temples and the Hagar Qim, a collection of megalithic buildings. Dating to 3000 BC the Mnajdra Temple is considered one of the most ancient religious sites and especially during the equinoxes the Solar Temple is world renowned for its way of channeling the sunlight to the inside altar.
#6 Eat Pastizzi
What to do in Malta? One of my highlights was eating pastizzi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This puff pastry snack is either filled with ricotta cheese or mushy peas and incredible buttery and yummy. Apparently, Is-Serkin has the best ones of all of Malta.
Have your pastizzi with a glass of milky tea (though to be honest, the Maltese tea doesn't compare to a proper Indian chai) or Kinnie, Malta's delicious and slightly bitter answer to Coke & Co.
I have already raved about this pasta dish in a post about the best pasta dishes from around the world but I need to say it again - if you visit Malta and you didn't eat at least a big plate of ravjul, you did it wrong.
Ravjul is basically a kind of ravioli with a slightly thicker dough and a bit rustic (my favorite kind!), filled with ricotta and usually served with a simple yet delicious tomato sauce.
It seems that every Maltese has their own local favorite on where to eat them so make friends and ask around for a recommendation.
I ate them at Pebbles in Gozo and while I haven't done an extensive study on the best ravjul in Malta (yet) they were damn delicious.
#8 Dinner at King's Own Band Club
The King's Own Band got its name by King Edward VII and is a Maltese philharmonic band formerly known as La Stella and La Nazionale. The King’s Own Band Club was a local band club in Valletta and not only known for its music but also as a social and political club.
Today you can eat in the restaurant located on the club's premises and have a great meal under the patronage of one of Malta's most prominent restauranteur families. The menu offers Mediterranean and traditional Maltese dishes and the atmosphere is really one of a kind thanks to the historic setting.
#9 Marsaxlokk Fish Market
Take a stroll on a Sunday morning at the Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-sch-lokk) fish market and soak up the harbor atmosphere of colorful boats and fishmongers selling their wares. Whether you want to buy a whole fish or just do some 'window shopping', get yourself a coffee from the little coffee car at the beginning of the market and don't forget your camera - Marsaxlokk is as picturesque as it gets.
#10 Have a Sundowner
While I decided to forego the infamous nightlife of St. Julian's this time around I will never say no to a sundowner with a nice view. In Malta Café Del Mar in St Paul's Bay is just the place. If you are not into the fancy crowds come on a weekday when you can still enjoy a DJ and some stunning views with your Pina Colada (yes, you may judge me...).
#11 Stroll through Valletta
Vallette is not only a UNESCO World Heritage City but was also European Capital of Culture 2018 which means there is plenty to see and explore for you. Best of all - Malta's current capital is easily explored on foot and you can just put together your own Valletta walking tour. Unlike other old cities, even the cobblestones are manageable here and the historical buildings mix nicely with some more modern parts of the cityscape like the Parliament House.
There is your usual array of designer stores but personally, Valletta shopping wasn't on my agenda until I saw the Panini store - remember those sticker books? Oh, what would I have given for such a shop when I was little!!
#12 Malta's Grand Harbour & Upper Barrakka Gardens
The Upper Barrakka Gardens should definitely be on your what to see in Valletta list because from here you have the most stunning view of Malta's Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. Unfortunately, Valletta is a cruise port offering space for up to 5 cruise ships at a time. While I know this is good for the island's tourism I must admit big cruises scare me a bit as do the masses of people they spit out every day. If you want to enjoy the views without this influx of visitors come later in the day when the ships have left.
#13 Take a ferry to Three Cities
Take the elevator down from the Upper Barrakka Gardens to cross the Malta port with the ferry or one of the private boat taxis to visit the Three Cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. Their harbors have been in use since the Phoenician times and still tell stories of Malta's history.
Today you can take a stroll along the marina with its many sailing boats, beautiful historic streets, and piazzas and best of all - get lost because there are so few visitors here.
#14 Beheading of St John the Baptist
One of the most important buildings in Malta telling you about its Templar history is St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta. If you are interested to learn more about the Order of the Knights of St John a visit at the cathedral is one of the most important things to do in Valletta. Personally, I found the cathedral way too crowded to enjoy it, however, seeing the oratory was worth it. Here you will find the "Beheading of St John the Baptist" by Caravaggio, called his masterpiece of harsh realism. While I don't know much about art and things like the chiaroscuro technique which he was known for (using light and shadow to create the illusion of a light source in a painting), I just enjoyed spending some time studying the picture and Caravaggio's technique after having read up on it before. It is nice to see how these things really come to life and leave an impression if you are seeing an original painting.
Note that there is usually a separate line to go into the oratory from the nave and you will have a limited time window with the Caravaggio. And while that should be obvious - you need to have your shoulders and knees covered when visiting St John's Co-Cathedral. If you don't you will get a little Templar cape to cover up which quite frankly does not look as cool as I just made it sound.
Entrance fee for adults is €10 including the use of an audio guide.
#15 Dingli Cliffs
The Dingli Cliffs are the highest landmass of Malta and from here you have some great views over the ocean. Unless you come for a service at the tiny St. Mary Magdalene Chapel there is not much to do here but take your camera as the views are spectacular and make for a good road trip pitstop - there are also some snack carts with local specialties.
#16 Casa Rocca Piccola
Visiting the Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta was one of my favorite things to do in Malta. This 16th-century palace still belongs to a Maltese noble family called de Piro and merges museum with private family home. Inside you will find the most astonishing collection of artifacts from paintings to altarpieces, jewelry, fashion, books, scrolls, and various nicknacks including an invitation to the Queen's coronation.
The current owner, the 9th Marquis de Piro, happened to be home when we went for a visit and we got lucky enough to get a private tour led by him. With incredible humor and knowledge, he told us about his house, its history and all the pieces on display and I could have stayed there for hours. Chances are you won't get so lucky but all the tour guides are quite wonderful and a visit to the Casa Rocca Piccola is the one thing to do in Vallette you shouldn't miss out on.
#17 Popeye Village
While I was never a huge fan of Popeye I will admit that I really enjoyed our trip to the Popeye Village in Malta which used to be home to the film set of the 1980s classic with Robin Williams but has since become a small Popeye theme park.
If you are looking for things to do in Malta with kids, this is the place for you. There are plenty of original film houses to explore, an extensive animation program, and a small set up with sun loungers right by the ocean including slides and overwater bounce platforms.
Admission in high season is € 17 for adults and € 11 in winter - each includes a 15-minute boat ride around the bay and various gimmicks.
#18 Blue Grotto
Seeing the Blue Grotto is a highlight for many Malta visitors and once you see the pictures it becomes quite clear why. These sea caverns closed to the fishing village Wied iz-Zurrieq are 50 brilliant shades of blue and incredibly beautiful.
There is a boat service leaving from the village that will take you into the Blue Grotto or you can take a car to the viewpoint above which I thought was stunning in its own right.
Boat trips start at € 8 and are weather dependent.
#19 Malta 5D
To be honest, I didn't think I would enjoy the Malta 5D experience because I don't even like going to the movies in general and this seemed just too touristy to be good. With that said I was pleasantly surprised because the short film gives you a good overview of Malta's fascinating history and while the special effects in addition to 3D glasses you are wearing are somewhat gimmicky they are rather fun and had me screech in delight a few times.
If you are traveling to Malta with kids, this is a great way to teach them something about the country's history in a very kid-friendly way. Mind you, it is not cheap since tickets for adults are € 9 and for children € 6 with the film being no longer than 20 minutes.
#20 Rabat & the St. Paul's Catacombs
Strolling through Rabat was one of my favorite things to do in Malta and it is a photographer's dream. Cute cafes, tiny alleys and a visit to Freddie Caruana are part of its charm. Freddie is a shoemaker who already made shoes for Queen Elizabeth when she came to Malta back in the day and has stories to tell like no other. Don't be shy - just pop in when his shop is open and say hi to him and his friends when you are on the way to the Catacombs.
As weird as this may sound but the St. Paul's Catacombs came as a very pleasant surprise. These underground Roman cemeteries from 4th century AD give yet another glimpse into the fascinating history of Malta through the times and are equally spooky and informative.
Practical Tips for your Malta Visit
- Air Malta offers direct flights from all over Europe to Luqa and the Malta International Airport. I was able to fly directly to Malta coming from Athens and back to Frankfurt.
- To get around in Malta you will need a rental car (driving on the left side), take taxis or use the bus. If you are commuting between Malta and Gozo there is a ferry from Mgarr and a round trip costs € 4.65 per passenger. Note that you only need to pay once you are returning to Malta.
If you chose to drive yourself be careful because I found the traffic quite crazy at times - while there are not so many cars on the road, the streets are often small and people drive fast.
- We stayed at the Seashell Resort in Qawra, one of the bigger Malta Hotels. However next time I'd prefer to find a boutique hotel in Valletta or even stay in Mdina which apparently has many converted old houses now functioning as chic Airbnb.
- Malta is part of the EU and thus uses the Euro. There are plenty of banks and ATMs where you can draw money but in hotels, bigger restaurants, and shops credit cards are also accepted.
- Malta's official languages are Maltese and English but since Italian was one of them until 1934 it is still widely spoken - seems I really got unlucky with my teenage love interest.
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