I have the perfect mother-in-law. She’s kind, generous and great with the grandkids. Best of all, she lives abroad. As you can imagine, that joke went down well in my wedding speech, and luckily she didn’t disown me completely because she lives in Malta, a charming, scruffy and underrated little island just to the south of Italy, which I love to visit.Worth considering for a weekend break or a longer holiday, there are enough historic and cultural sights to keep tourists busy, plus idyllic coves and beaches, and a burgeoning hotel and restaurant scene to get stuck into. Here’s a guide to getting the most out of Malta…
What to see
The Maltese capital Valletta, a Unesco world heritage site (and the place where Oliver Reed had his last drinking session before dropping dead), is a must-visit. Take the five-minute ferry over from Sliema for a dramatic approach to the city. It’s then a steep walk up to the centre where Valletta’s main attraction, the St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Knights of St John from 1572 to 1577, sits.
The audio guide provides a comprehensive overview of the place, but it’s the grand finale, Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist, (completed by the Italian master in 1608 when he was living in Malta as a guest of the Knights) which is what most visitors are here for – and rightly so. It’s a monumental and brutal masterpiece.
Outside the cathedral, those keeping up with Malta’s dodgy political status quo will notice the shrine to murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (that is, if thugs haven’t torn it down, as they regularly do). Elsewhere in the city, the National War Museumand the Museum of Archaeologywill get you up to speed on Maltese history and the Upper Barraka Gardens offers views across the Grand Harbour.
Leaving Valletta, the country’s two other Unesco-listed treasures are highlights to seek out: The Megalithic Temples of Malta are a collection of seven prehistoric sites dotted across the country, and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeumis a large underground structure that was used as a cemetery between 4000BC and 2500BC. For a more up-to-date attraction, and one that will definitely keep kids entertained for hours is the Malta National Aquariumin Triq it-Trunciera (Combine it with a visit to the neighbouring Café del Marpool club, if you fancy a swim and/or lunch with a sea-view)
Go to Gozo (and beyond)…
A trip to the idyllic island of Gozo should be a priority. There are hotels on the island, but it’s just as easy to visit for the day with it being just 25 minutes from the mainland by ferry. There are plenty of beaches and coves to check out, plus, for the more adventurous, historic sites to explore and opportunities to go walking, mountain biking and diving. Away from Gozo, the Blue Lagoon, in the island of Comino, is one of Malta’s main attractions, but can get very busy. If you have the time to spare, it’s also possible to spend a day or two in Sicily – a ferry from Malta takes approximately two hours.
Game of Thrones
With the final series of Game of Thrones fast approaching, it’s a good time for fans to head to Malta and relive episodes gone by. Scenes from many of the show’s early seasons were shot in Malta, with the Valletta skyline and the walled city of Mdina doubling up as King’s Landing. Sadly, on Gozo, the Azure Window, that provided the backdrop to Danerys and Kahl Drogo’s wedding is no more, after the natural arch collapsed following a storm in 2017.
Where to eat
Strangely, although Malta is situated so close to Italy, its food is generally not something to get too excited about. The national dish of rabbit stew is easy to find in numerous restaurants, and if you do want a traditional experience give Nenu The Artisan Baker, in Valletta, a try. As the name suggests, it specialises in bread, namely a Maltese speciality called ftira, served like a pizza, with toppings including beef and sliced potato, and tomatoes, anchovies and Maltese honey. A light meal, this ain’t.
If you don’t fancy traditional Maltese cooking, head to Cru, also in Valletta, which does small plates of cured meats, local seafood and adventurous salads, and has a carefully curated wine list. The premises is tiny, so you’ll most likely have to take a pew on the cobbled street outside – the steep angle makes for an interesting stumble home, especially after a couple of their head-spinning Negronis.
The Hole in the Wall, in Sliema, is an excellent coffee shop by day and bar by night (try the toasties), Fat Louie’s, in St Julian’s, is a popular barbecue restaurant that embraces nose to tail eating, and booking is essential for Ali Baba, in Il-Gżira, a superb Lebanese restaurant.
Where to stay
The Phoenicia– a large and luxurious hotel in the middle of Valletta, revamped by Scottish hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray in 2017.
The Xara Palace Relais and Chateaux– A historic and exclusive hotel which is housed in a 17thcentury palace in Mdina.
The Hilton– A dependable choice inPortomaso Yacht Marina – it’s huge with three restaurants, four bars, a spa andfour outdoor pools.