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How to spend a weekend in Malta

Beyond its ancient history and melting-pot cuisine, Malta’s islands offer striking, sun-blessed coastlines ripe for outdoor adventures.

Published 11 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 1 Mar 2021, 17:27 GMT
Dominated by the grand dome of St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta makes the ideal base for a ...

Dominated by the grand dome of St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta makes the ideal base for a weekend exploring the archipelago. 

Photograph by Malta Tourism Authority

Malta is often described as a microcosm of the Mediterranean, and the reputation is well-deserved: the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino have no shortage of sunny beaches, honey-bricked villages and rugged countryside. But this claim is perhaps most notable in regards to its culture. The archipelago’s location, plumb in the centre of the Med between Sicily and North Africa, means its language, food, architecture and traditions have been shaped by myriad occupations throughout the centuries. This is a place where British-era postboxes are dwarfed by Italianate baroque townhouses, and where a reimagined French bouillabaisse is served ahead of fig- and date-stuffed Arabic pastries. 

Some seven thousand years of human history are writ large across these islands: whether it’s Valletta’s Grand Harbour, battleground of the 1565 Great Siege of Malta; or Gozo’s Cittadella, whose ramparts have seen centuries of tragedies and jubilations. And that’s before you even begin to explore its storied natural landmarks, like the mysterious caves steeped in legend and ancient temples said to have been erected by giants.

Using Valletta, the capital, as a base, much of the archipelago can be explored at a relaxed pace — an ideal opportunity to absorb the islands’ fascinating past and present.

DAY ONE: GRAND DISCOVERIES


Morning
Panoramas abound in hilly Valletta, and its old city walls offer the ideal vantage point. Start with sunrise at the City Gate. As the light falls upon a swathe of church cupolas, absorb views from Msida in the west to Sliema in the north. Look out, too, to Manoel Island, site of a ruined 17th-century lazzaretto (plague hospital). Next, head to St John’s Co-Cathedral to see the final resting place of Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Order of St John’s most illustrious Grand Master, who laid the city’s first stone in 1566. The church is modest on the outside, but the interior is a different story: the floor is made up of 376 tombs decorated with inlaid marble, and Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, adorns the wall. 

Read more: Dining the Maltese way, where bread takes centre stage

Afternoon
Winding streets lead you to the remains of the 19th-century Royal Opera House, decimated during the Second World War but artfully restored by architect Renzo Piano to create today’s open-air theatre, Pjazza Teatru Rjal. It’s a short stroll across Republic Street to the Grandmaster’s Palace with its green gallariji (typically Maltese wooden balconies found all over Valletta). Rest your feet at the Upper Barrakka Gardens and gaze out to the Grand Harbour, where the Great Siege of Malta took place in 1565, before lunch at the elegant Harbour Club. Set inside a converted 17th-century boathouse, the restaurant serves tasty and beautifully presented dishes such as Acquerello risotto with calamari with chive oil.

Evening
Make your way down to the harbourside, and flag down a wooden dghajsa (traditional rowing boat) to cross to the tiny fortified city of Vittoriosa, known as Birgu in Maltese. Explore the Malta At War Museum to learn about its role in the Second World War, during which it endured more than 3,000 air raids. Next up, head to the Norman House, a rare 13th-century example of Sicolo-Norman architecture and believed to be one of the oldest buildings in Vittoriosa; owner and restorer Charlie Bugeja offers guided tours by appointment. No doubt you’ve worked up an appetite by now, so swing by Tal-Petut for some authentic Maltese cuisine, such as hearty stewed rabbit and twice-baked pork.

Villegaignon Street in Mdina, Malta’s former capital.

Photograph by 4Corners

DAY TWO: CAFES, CAVES AND CAPITALS


Morning
Make for the historic fishing village of Marsaxlokk in Malta’s south and marvel at the colourful luzzijiet — traditional fishing boats vibrantly painted with the Eye of Horus. Crunch into fresh pastizzi (filled savoury pastries) from one of the nearby cafes as you watch the fishermen varnish their boats and mend their nets before heading out to sea. Every Sunday, the village hosts a busy fish market — it’s one of Malta’s biggest and liveliest, where restaurateurs handpick the season’s best catch; typically lampuki (common dolphinfish), tuna and swordfish. As you leave, look out for Fort San Lucian on a nearby cliff. The early 17th-century fortress and watchtower was built following an Ottoman attack that a local woman had supposedly foreseen.

Afternoon
Pack a picnic and head west. The soaring cliffs at Had-Dingli, the islands’ highest point, mark the starting point of a wild and windswept seven-mile hike to the cobalt waters of the Blue Grotto. Follow the marked ‘red route’ past a number of ancient relics, including millennia-old cart ruts carved into the rock (the chaotic crisscrossings have earned the site the moniker of ‘Clapham Junction’) and the prehistoric temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim. The route ends at Wied iz-Zurrieq, where you can admire caverns, rock arches and the Blue Grotto (in fact a series of grottoes). From here, a bus can whisk you back to Had-Dingli for a pick-me-up of sweetly spiced Maltese coffee from Carmen’s refreshment truck.

Evening
Continue up the coast and veer inland to historic Mdina, Malta’s former capital, dubbed the ‘Silent City’. It’s anything but silent by day, but an evening stroll here reveals the fortified city at its mellow, lamplit best. Only around 250 people reside inside the walls and vehicle access is mostly off-limits. Time here is best-spent strolling the angular streets (designed both for defence and to keep the city cool), dotted with baroque palazzi, small galleries and museums. Make your way to Bastion Square for sweeping views of the Maltese countryside, then while away the evening at The Medina Restaurant, set in a romantic, vine-covered courtyard. Try the local imqaret dessert: date fritters with helwa tat-tork (tahini fudge) ice cream.

Traditional fishing boats line up in the fishing village, Marsaxlokk.

Photograph by AWL Images

Gozo walking routes: three of the best

The tiny island of Gozo covers an area of just 26 square miles, and with little road traffic and a variety of jaw-dropping coastal scenery, it’s ideal for exploring on foot or by bicycle. These three routes — each around six miles in length — take in some of the island’s highlights.

Best for nature
Set off from the village of San Lawrenz over the hills and along the island’s rugged northeastern coast to Marsalforn. The walk takes in some of the island’s most beautiful scenery, passing gaping caves, fossil-studded cliffs and sun-baked scrubland. It’s a beautiful backdrop that’s distinctly Gozitan, dotted with clumps of prickly pear cacti, hay bales and swaying wild fennel.
En route, take time to admire Wied il-Mielah, a dramatic limestone arch over the sea — a smaller but excellent alternative to the now-collapsed Azure Window — before taking a refreshing dip in the Wied il-Ghasri inlet, whose rocky slopes are covered in wildflowers.

Best for intrigue
Begin at the basilica of Ta’ Pinu, a revered site of pilgrimage and one of the island’s most famous churches. Next, journey to the Cittadella in Victoria, the heart of Gozo’s military history, including the tragic Ottoman siege of 1551. A plaque marks the home of Bernardo Dupuo, who took his and his family’s lives to spare them from being enslaved by the Ottomans. Finish up at Ramla Bay, location of Calypso’s Cave, believed to be the home of the famous nymph in Homer’s Odyssey. You can’t miss the statue of the Madonna on the red-sand beach, either; it was erected by three fishermen in the 19th century following their safe return after a storm at sea.

Best for traditions
Silver filigree, lacemaking and glassblowing are among Gozo’s most famous crafts, and though the handmade goods can be found in Victoria’s shops and surrounding villages, you can observe the artisans at work in open studios at the Ta’ Dbiegi Crafts Village in Kercem, set in a former military barracks. From there, head to Mekren’s Bakery in Nadur, a tiny establishment churning out ftira (Maltese-style pizza) and qassatat (ricotta pies) from its stone oven. Next, make your way to the coast west of Marsalforn, where the Cini family has been harvesting sea salt on the Xwejni Salt Pans for generations, in a practice said to have been started by the Romans.  

Looking out over Ramla Bay from Calypso’s Cave, Gozo.

Photograph by 4Corners

Five feasts and festivals to celebrate


1. Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck, Valletta
Honouring the arrival of Christianity in Malta, the winter feast sees the islands’ streets festooned in bright garlands and showered with paper confetti, as devotees follow a trail led by the clergy. 10 February.

2. Holy Week
Widely considered the most exciting time to experience Malta’s culture, Holy Week sees towns and villages throughout the islands celebrate time-honoured traditions in the days leading up Good Friday. 

3. Feast of the Assumption, Gozo
Sleepy Gozo gets woken up each August as marching bands and revelling locals parade through candle-lit streets, with festivities reaching a crescendo in Victoria on the final day. Celebrations take place for around a week either side of 15 August.

4. Karnival Ta’Malta
The Maltese spend the week preceding Ash Wednesday parading floats through the streets, hosting balls and comparing grotesque masks and elaborate fancy dress. The tradition is believed to have been introduced by Grand Master Piero de Ponte in the 1500s. 

5. Notte Bianca, Valletta
For one night only each October, the capital’s museums, palaces and galleries open their doors to the public free of charge, and streets, piazzas and gardens — including those belonging to some of Valletta’s major landmarks — play host to performances by local and international artists.

Top three prehistoric sites


1. Ggantija Temples
A majestic sight on a Gozo hilltop, these limestone megaliths are among the planet’s most ancient freestanding prehistoric structures, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The stones are believed to form a temple where fertility rituals were practised by an ancient cult and local lore says they were laid by a giantess.

2. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni
This underground necropolis in Paola is where 7,000 people were laid to rest; their remains, and the network of chambers they were entombed in, were discovered following a construction accident in 1902. One of the site’s best-known figurines, The Sleeping Lady, is now on display at Valletta’s Museum of Archaeology. Tickets to the Hypogeum are extremely limited, so book well ahead. 

3. Tarxien Temples
A huddle of megaliths forming a series of interconnected chambers make these unusually ornate temples. Phallic structures and carved stone spirals said to represent ovaries are believed to convey the temples’ purpose as a place of ritualistic fertility sacrifice.

More info:
visitmalta.com
visitgozo.com
heritagemalta.org

How to do it

Air Malta, EasyJet and British Airways fly direct to Malta Luqa International Airport, where car rentals and public transport services to Valletta are available. 

The ferry to Gozo departs from Cirkewwa every 45 minutes, arriving in Mgarr, where public transport is available. 

Rooms at the Rosselli in Valletta are available from £193, B&B. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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