Jan 5, 2019
So you're in Malta, what should you do while you're here?
Malta is not a big country – it’s only 316km2, and it holds the 10th position on the list of the smallest countries in the world. But it is dense – though its nowhere near Macau or Monaco in that respect, there are 1510 people per square kilometre (Macau, the top of the list of most dense population territories, just for reference, is 20164).
Sidenote: I thought I’d start doing “guides” (sounds kind of absurd, when I think about it 😉), but with all the travelling I do, I like to note down some findings even if it’s for myself. I thought I’d start sharing these with others, so here goes…
What’s it like?
Malta is a Mediterranean country, and its small size and location has made it a mix of different cultural influences. Italian influence is obvious, and several factors including language has added a slightly Middle-Eastern touch to it as well. English is spoken fluently (natively in most cases, with a small, charming Mediterranean accent). You’re going to be hard pressed to go somewhere that does not speak English, in fact.
Malta has some very easy to live with residency rules, that is, if you own or rent property there. In fact, if you have an apartment on the island and live in it, you are able to get residency without having an EU passport. This has contributed to the real estate boom and a lot of construction and high end real estate sales are currently happening. Additionally, with Brexit coming up, look for more British to use Malta as a second home.
If you’re just looking to visit Malta, keep in mind that besides the Maltese people, you will find a lot of expats, many of them British. This is due to the previous factors but also the close historic relationship Malta has had with the United Kingdom.
The predominant faith is Catholicism, and you can find many churches, some of them very old and impressive. Mosta Dome in Mosta (official name is Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady) is for example a beautiful one based on the Pantheon of Rome. Malta’s society is fairly religious, with 86% of the population identifying as Catholic.
You will find that the main island is actually quite small indeed – you can drive from one coast to the other in half an hour. It is very much a driving culture, and if you stay longer than a week you will likely want to rent a car. As they drive as the British do, on the left side of the road, this will take some getting used to for some people!
Valletta is the capital city, but non Maltese people would likely consider it a district, since for the most part, the towns around and including it have basically merged into a single city. Places like St. Julian’s, Sliema, Pieta, Floriana, Hamrun and so fourth form a continuous sprawl, and unless you read the signs, you’re not going to notice where one might start and the next begins. They’ve basically grown into each other!
North and West of this meta-city, you will find more divisions between townships. By the time you get out to the old capital of Mdina, you will start seeing more breaks between them.
Valletta itself is an old city, dating back from the 16th century. You’ll find most of the culture tourism stuff here (though not all). If you’re a fan of Baroque art or architecture, you’ll be very interested in the UNESCO-protected centre.
Personally, next time I’m in Malta I’m going to stay in Valletta because I love the feel of it. I just love Old Mint Street at that perfect afternoon time when the sun is just about sinking behind the west of the city and the whole road lights up in reflection.
🚘 Renting a car is fairly cheap, and is by far the easiest. Driving is done on the left side of the road, and be prepared to make a few wrong turns in places while navigating, because sometimes, even following the highways can get a bit confusing due to the way they split and merge.
🚌 Transit in the form of busses are pretty easy to use as well and run fairly regularly, but sometimes are full so they might not stop to pick you up!
🚲 Bikes are also viable in the Valletta area especially, as nextbike operates several hubs where you can find unmanned bike racks which you can rent with their app.
⛴ A ferry, taking about 10 mins to cross, goes from Valletta to Sliema’s The Strand and back, close to The Point mall. Very convenient if you’re staying in St. Julian’s or Sliema!
⛴ A ferry connects to Gozo from a terminal on the north tip of the main island, where you pay on the way back. You can walk on or take your car. Go early or you might be stuck for a couple hours waiting!
🚕 Taxis are by far the priciest, but reasonable. From the airport, each township has a set rate (so for example anywhere in St. Julian’s will cost €20).
So what do I even do there?
Go out for a night in Valletta. Sit and enjoy a gin & tonic while looking down the sloping street with the Mediterranean in the distance.
Drive around the island. Mdina is a nice place to get amazing views of the island. In the north you’ll find some really nice sandy beaches, particularly around Golden Bay or St. Paul’s.
I don’t kite surf (yet) but there’s usually adequate wind on the east coast, and you should find places like in St. Paul’s good for it.
If you like to ride your motorbike, you’ll love the drives especially in the north of the island. Fantastic views, hills and twists and turns. You likely will not be bored!
Go to Gozo for the day. It’s charming and in places quieter than the main island. I’d stay away from Inland Sea (unless you fancy a boat trip or a dive in it, otherwise it’s not worth it). Azure Window collapsed in 2017 so I’d actually avoid driving out there at all. If you do, be prepared for a cockroach-like infestation of tourists scurring around their tour busses.
One of the tastiest things I found was aljotta, a tomato fish soup. Most places will serve this, and during Lent when religious people cannot eat meat, this becomes very popular. It’s super simple, but it’s a very flavourful dish and perfect for lunch or dinner.
In Valletta, I personally like to stay off the main tourist strips, but it is not a far walk to get great gastronomie! D’Office Bistro is an awesome place to eat, not far from the St. George Square, and serves a mix of Maltese kitchen and many fusion European dishes.
In St. Julian’s, look for Manouche for a fantastic French-style breakfast. Honourable mentions to Peperoncino for amazing Italian-style food and Fresco’s for a fun, chill place to go.
I must say, if you’re looking to do some cocktails on a patio and watch evening fall over Balluta Bay, go to Nori at the Villa. Yes, yes, it’s a hotel bar technically, but who could hate on them when they serve that delicious drink known as Strangers? Still wake up thinking about that one sometimes…
As for the rest, Cisk is the mainstay beer. It’s simple, easy to find and brewed locally. Don’t expect hipster taste, but it’s easy and fun. You’ll find plenty of places to drink. I’d stay off The Strand in Sliema if I were you, it’s a huge tourist trap. But a Cisk is a Cisk whether in a tourist bar or not, so enjoy it.
What to do with your kid(s)
Despite that one bitter father/mother friend you had warning you, you had a kid anyway. Well, you’re fucked now. So what do you do with the kid(s) when you bring them to Malta?
Well, as it happens, Malta houses a Playmobil factory. Next to it is the Playmobil Funpark. It’s a bit of a drive to get there, as it’s in an area not far from the container port in Birżebbuġa, but it has hours of independent play time for the little bundles of joy both with a massive collection of Playmobil sets and outside in a pretty cool playground with a pirate-theme. I even enjoyed climbing on that while my son was fixated on running in circles around a post.
I also loved taking my son to Manoel Island, which lies in the bay between Sliema and Valletta (you pass it on the ferry). There’s a funpark in the spring with rides, but we were not in season for that. What we did was check out the bird shelter – a cool potpourri of random decorations, thick colourful paintjobs and lots and lots of birds (there’s a miniature cat version of this called Cat Village in St. Julian’s). We also took a really nice relaxing walk to the end of the island for some nice views and to cool off in the green space.
If your kid is of the right age, there’s lots of coin-operated rides (the kind you find in grocery stores) in a few places peppered throughout particularly the water promenade between St. Julian’s and Sliema. Sitting in a fake spaceship that gently turns from left to right might not seem fun (or worth even 50 cents), it did give us some peace while we drank a mojito on a nearby patio.
We never did this, but Popeye’s Village happens to be on the island. Might be fun for the kids. But then maybe wait for the Popeye franchise to get a reboot in Hollywood before you take your kids there since they might not know who the hell this is.