Have you ever taken travel advice from your nan? Probably not. Nans are, well, nans. And they are also persistent. “Go to Malta,” my nan enthused – for 15 years. The thing is, I trust my nan. She has excellent taste in biscuits, she knows that L’Oreal Elnett hairspray is the best on the market and she makes a killer cuppa. But travel advice? No thanks, G’ma.
But then something unexpected happened. Malta – that compact 27km by 14km island off the southwest coast of Italy – started to get, dare I say it, cool. First there was the work of Renzo Piano, the world-acclaimed architect of the Shard, who was flown in to totally redesign the capital’s city wall, and more, in a controversially modern style. Then Brangelina chose the archipelago for their honeymoon.
Soon after, in spring 2015, EDM DJ Annie Mac debuted a dance festival on the island. Named Lost & Found, it takes in Malta’s prime sea-view spots with a line-up of big-name DJs who, for four days at the end of March, will fuel a 72-hour party for Mark Ronson and Groove Armada fans.
And so, finally, I went to Malta – and I’m still talking about it. This four-day breakdown shows you how to cover the best of the island – from empty beaches, to traditional Maltese snacks. The best bit? It won’t break the bank. Thanks, Nan.
Day one – see the capital
Valletta is the island’s capital city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the concentration of historic monuments. The city, which according to its founder was ‘built by gentlemen, for gentlemen’, is a grid of elegant 16th-century streets, steep steps and baroque architecture that’ll rival the prettiest European towns. In terms of sites, the plain-on-the-outside, ornate-on-the-inside St John’s Co-Cathedral is the most majestic church on the island, the type you’d wander around stroking the walls, because it’s that sumptuous (even my partner, the most reluctant church-goer, admitted he was impressed).
Malta - that compact island off Sicily - has started to get cool
For something more modern, architect Renzo Piano’s redesign of many city buildings has seen the first new additions to Valletta for hundreds of years; it includes a towering, modern city gate, a reworked parliament building and an open-air theatre in the ruins of the Second World War-bombed Royal Opera House (the island holds the record for the heaviest, sustained bombing attack during the war). The work has been controversially received, but for me at least, it’s well worth strolling by, not least to see the refreshing blend of old and new in a city that’s so steeped in history – so much so that UNESCO has described it as ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’. Like I said – cool.
Then, of course, there’s food. Try a coffee from Cafe Prego, a timewarp café with the same tiles from the 1960s and – judging by the speed I received my drink – the same waiters, too. For an island classic, ftira is a Maltese take on pizza (in the sense that it’s dough with more food on top) – although it irks the locals if you start calling it pizza. Served without cheese and tomato, typical toppings include a salt-fest of fennel, capers and anchovies – the best we had was at Nenu the Artisan Baker, a backstreet bakery that’s convenient for sightseeing-induced hunger pangs.
You’ll want a drink, or two, obviously. Back in the 19th century, Strait Street was the hangout of American and British sailors calling in the port of Valletta. The street, which at the time was named ‘The Gut’, featured a handy collection of brothels, bars and restaurants.
Now the far-from-gritty area is seeing a new wave of sophisticated wine bars and al fresco restaurants (for drinks, try Trabuxu, set in a 350-year-old wine cellar). For late-night eating, Badass Burgers serves beers alongside the best patties on the island, and the biggest I’ve seen, well, ever. Try one before or after a few vodka and Kinnies – Kinnie is the local, neon-orange fizzy drink, with a sweet and bitter Tango-meets-Aperol flavour.
Watch candy-coloured fishing boats bobbing, and fishermen hauling in their catch
Day two – tour the island
The good thing about Malta is that its small size means you can drive across to the other side of the island in no more than an hour, while car hire is crazy cheap (I’m talking around £10 a day). If you plan well, that means you can take in the best of the island’s villages and sights, while leaving the remainder of your trip to lap up the beaches.
Start with a morning in Marsaxlokk, which every Sunday hosts Malta’s biggest fish market. At other times of the day you can find candy-hued fishing boats bobbing around the harbour, or watch the fishermen hauling in their morning’s catch from the comfort of a harbourside cafe.
For a mid-morning snack, make your way to the city of Rabat, and visit Crystal Palace, a bakery with a line down the street where locals leave with greasy paper bags full of cheese and pastry puffs – another Maltese delicacy known as pastizz. Fill up on cheesy pies before a walk through the adjoining hilltop city of Mdina, an elegant, golden-walled citadel with pricey mansions and narrow streets, whose history traces back 4,000 years. It’s one of Europe’s best, if somewhat overlooked, ancient walled cities, which balances an extraordinary mix of medieval and baroque architecture with mega views over the countryside.
Hopping in the car again, St Julian’s, on the north coast of the island, is a good place for an evening hang, and here you can try some of the heartiest food on the island (with mammoth portions). It’s not for everyone, but cooking with rabbit is a big deal in Malta, and one of the best local food experiences is at Gululu, a harbourside restaurant with Gozo pizza (different to Maltese ‘pizza’, it’s more doughy and has a hole in the centre). Try it, but make sure you leave room for the dish of the trip, al dente spaghetti tossed with generous chunks of seared rabbit and a garlic-infused, gravy-like sauce – a simple way to try the island’s most popular meat.
Day three – get active on Gozo
Eating your way around the cities is grand and all, but flying to Malta and not taking the short ferry ride over to Gozo would be mistake. The little sister island moves at a more leisurely pace and seems to step back in time, largely thanks to the heavy farming focus.
Ideal, then, that the best way to see it is on a chilled bike ride; we toured the island on two wheels in the capable hands of Walter, the guide from Gozo Adventures, who tells us how he’s seen the island’s visitors shift from ageing package holiday guests (my nan) to a younger, cooler crowd (us) looking for a mix of culture, activity, and beach which, crucially, won’t make your bank balance weep.
His half-day route bike tour has you climbing hills in lush, green countryside, skirting along clifftops (stopping at the limestone arch of the Azure Window) and admiring a skyline dominated by 46 grand churches that tower over sleepy villages. The neo-romantic Ta’Pinu basilica, which juts out from acres of green fields and is visible from several points on the island, is without question one of the most spectacular church façades I’ve seen.
A half-day bike tour has you climbing hills in lush, green countryside, skirting along clifftops and admiring a skyline dominated by 46 grand churches that tower over sleepy villages
Round off your day with a beachside meal in one of the tranquil coves dotting the island – in Mgarr ix-Xini, the restaurants serve well-priced fresh octopus salad and rabbit ravioli.
Day four - flop on the beaches
Malta’s beaches don’t get the attention they deserve – visit in June or September and you’ll have empty stretches of coastline all to yourself. If you really want to work for it, Formm i-Rin is one of the most remote, and located on the northwestern Maltese coast. Our visit included a 20-minute schlep down a heather-heavy path, but the reward is peace and quiet and clear, gentle waves.
The tiny island of Comino – population, one – is a must for the too-good-to-be-true beaches. Speedboats ferry locals and tourists over, whizzing into a cove of highlighter-blue water. Walk across the island (ten minutes max) and you’ll arrive at the Blue Lagoon – vodka-clear sea that takes on a dazzling turquoise hue in all your pictures (no filter necessary).
You could easily spend the day lapping up the sunshine here, but you’d be missing the main island of Malta’s own impressive offerings – including Golden Bay, a wide stretch of butterscotch-coloured sand with a few casual beach bars serving chilled Cisk, Malta’s local brew.
Air Malta offers flights from £75 one way, airmalta.com; Palazzo Prince D’Orange is a 17th-century boutique hotel in Valletta with nightly rates from £80 per room, palazzoprincemalta.com; use Airbnb for the rest of the island, airbnb.com; head to visitmalta.com for information.