Malta: my guide to an island full of sun, sea and history

Last autumn, we were looking for a destination that would provide that ‘summer feeling’: lots of sunshine and the chance to wear my summer dresses one last time before winter. We ended up chosing Malta and spent an almost perfect week on this island that, besides sun, also has a lot of history.

Malta had been on my wishlist for quite some time. In 2019, both me and my husband worked throughout the summer and desperately needed a holiday and some sunshine. Our first chance to take days off was in October, when temperatures in most of Europe aren’t that great anymore. Since Malta was not too far away by plane ánd the average temperatures looked promising, I was able to convince my husband to book a trip to Malta. Apart from a few minor setbacks (a storm and issues with our rental car reservation) we had a great week.

In this post, I have tried to put together my advice on where to stay, how to get around and which places to visit. Before we start, here’s some useful general information:

  • Malta consists of two islands: Malta is the main island and is home to the airport and capital city, Valletta. Gozo is smaller and has more nature.
  • The Maltese language looks and sounds ridiculously difficult. Luckily, almost everyone speaks English too (it is the second official language).
  • The national currency is the euro.
  • Most Maltese are religious (mostly Christians). There are many celebrations and most shops and supermarkets are closed on Sundays.
  • Power plugs and sockets are type G (the same as in the UK). So if you’re from the Netherlands, like us, make sure to bring adapters!

Where to stay
We chose to stay on the main island in Sliema, since it has good bus connections and is very close to Valletta – only 5 minutes by ferry or 15 by bus. We figured we would visit Valletta several times, so having easy access to the capital was important to us. We thought about staying in Valletta itself, but prices were high and we had booked a rental car that we wouldn’t be able to park there. Sliema worked perfectly and we would stay there again. It should also be interesting to stay in Gozo – the other island – for a few nights, but we didn’t want to change accommodation.

How to get around
Rental car
A rental car allows you to travel efficiently, so you will be able to make better use of your time. It’s the reason we initially planned to explore the island by car. Having a car also means freedom in chosing where to stay, since you are not bound to staying somewhere with good bus connections. Take into account that you cannot park a rental car in Valletta. In Sliema it’s possible but finding a spot can be challenging. Also keep in mind that Malta is small and has no endless supply of rental cars, so make sure to book a car well in advance!
Public transport
The busses on Malta are very affordable and will get you to most destinations, but they are very, very slow. They take long detours, meandering through narrow streets in tiny villages. Most busses only leave once per hour, so you have to really think about the timing of your stops. It often means chosing between staying a bit shorter than you’d ideally want or staying much longer and ending up bored. As mentioned, we stayed in Sliema. The busses to Medina, a major tourist attraction, leave from Valletta and then pass through Sliema. We were allowed in the bus, but after our stop the bus was full. Lots of people were waiting at the next stops in St. Julians, but the driver didn’t let anyone in. Those people had to wait another full hour or find alternative transport. So if you plan to travel by bus, I would suggest staying along the first part of the bus routes.

What to see & do
Unfortunately, the car rental company ‘forgot’ our reservation and there were no more cars available on the island.  We thus had to use public transport instead and weren’t able to see everything we wanted. Luckily we managed to visit the places that were most high on my list.

Valletta
My favourite place in Malta was the capital city of Valletta. It is just as pretty as I expected: steep streets, traditional wooden balconies painted in bright colors and many old sandstone buildings. We just took the ferry or bus and wandered around Valletta without a plan, occassionally stopping for drinks or something to eat. There are several museums that should be interesting, but since the weather was so nice we decided to spend our time outside.
vallettabalconiesThe Three Cities (Senglea, Vittoriosa & Cospicua)
Opposite of Valletta’s waterfront are three medieval fortified cities, together called The Three Cities. They are even older than Valletta is! The streets are very authentic, you will find some interesting sights in the area and Senglea’s waterfront offers great views of Valletta. And the best thing? We didn’t see any other tourists. To get there, we took a ferry from Valletta, that leaves from the waterfront near the Upper Barrakka Lift. This is the most easy and fast way to reach The Three Cities, but it’s also the cheapest and most fun!

Vittoriosa is also known as Birgu, and once a year (in October) they organize BirguFest. During this festival, the streets are lit by thousands of candles. We were in Malta during this festival and the flyer said it lasted until Sunday. So on Sunday afternoon we headed to Birgu. When we arrived, we didn’t see any signs of the festival. A local told us the festival lasted until Saturday, so we missed it… I’m still a bit mad about the flyer since I was looking forward to it so much!
threecities
Marsaxlokk

A relatively small town with a harbour, that most tourists visit on Sunday, when its famous fish market is being held. Since we prefer less crowds, we visited on a Saturday. Traveling by bus, it took around 1,5 hours to get there, with a stopover in Valletta. We enjoyed just walking along the water, admiring the traditional wooden fishing boats. Of course this is also a great place to eat fresh fish. You will find lots of fish restaurants here, many of them right on the waterfront.

When we walked along the harbour, several boat owners offered us private boat tours to St. Peter’s Pool, a natural swimming pool with crystal clear waters. Since it was quite cold for a swim in the ocean, we didn’t take the offer. In summer it should be a really nice trip though and costs only a few euros, so bring your swimsuit and go for it!
marsaxlokkMedina & Rabat
Medina is probably the most famous place in Malta after Valletta, and Instagram is full of pictures taken here. My expectations of it were high, so we decided to make the 1,5 hour one-way journey by bus. We wandered around the old streets, took some pictures and had a coffee. Then we walked to Rabat, which is just on the other side of the road, and walked around there for a bit. Both towns are pretty and their history is interesting, but they are really small, so we didn’t need long to explore. After maybe 2 hours, we decided to buy some ‘pastizzi’ (typical Maltese savory warm pastries) from a place that Lonely Planet recommended. We enjoyed our €2 lunch in the sun, whilst waiting for our bus.
medinaHagar Qim temple 
This temple complex is one (if not THE) oldest man-made structures still standing in the world. My husband wasn’t particularly interested in Medina (okay, not at all), but if we combined it with a visit to Hagar Qim, he was in. Luckily it’s quite easy to visit both places by public transport in one day. From Medina, you can catch a bus that stops right at the entrance of Hagar Qim. The temple itself might not look that interesting, but the stories behind it certainly are. The way in which the massive stone slabs were transported and put into place, such a long time ago, is fascinating. There are also some interesting theories about astronomy influencing the temple’s design. Therefore, visiting the museum before actually visiting the temple site is really important in order to get a good understanding of this place.
templeSliema
Sliema is not super interesting and I wouldn’t make an effort to visit it. But if you’re staying there (or nearby), it is a nice place to spend a few hours. Along the ocean side is a walking path that offers pretty views of Valletta. Especially around sunset, the views are really beautiful. The streets in the old part of Sliema (walking uphill from the ferry, bending slightly towards Valletta) are lined with old houses with the typical Maltese balconies. Some of these streets are just as pretty as Valletta’s streets! Being quite a big city, Sliema has a lot of restaurants, bars and shops (including a big mall, ‘The Point’), perfect for a rainy day!

dsc08847.jpg
View on Valletta from Sliema

Some places we didn’t visit during this trip, due to our lack of a rental car, but should be really beautiful:

Gozo
We had originally planned to visit Gozo for a day by rental car, taking the car with us on the ferry. It is possible to visit Gozo by public transport as well, but it takes a lot of time and isn’t easy. We figured it wouldn’t be worth it for a day trip.

Blue Grotto / Comino
There were several boat tours available from Sliema to the Blue Grotto and Comino. But they were all on larger vessels (meaning: in large groups), included an open bar and a bus tour on Gozo stopping at each sight for a few minutes so you can snap some pictures. Frankly, it sounded like our worst nightmare, and a private boat tour wasn’t exactly affordable. If you’re into meeting other people and like the party vibe, it might be interesting for you though!

Let me know if you have any other questions!


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