I’ve been meaning to write this post, or something like it, for a while now. It’s not the first time a friend intending to visit the islands asked me for advice on when/where to go and what to do. This happened again a couple weeks ago, and this time I thought it would be best to write a blog post, that way it may be useful to others as well. As you read this bear in mind a few things: I don’t consider myself an expert, and my thoughts (as anyone else’s, I presume) evolve over time; what I state here is what I think now, and in any case de gustibus non est disputandum.
I’ll probably miss a few things the first time around, so if you’ve visited (or if you live here) and there is something you particularly like, let me know in the comments. I intend to update this post as things need to be added.
Also, in case there is any doubt, please note that I have no financial incentive to promote any of the places, activities, or organizations mentioned in this post.
When to go:
Let’s start with what I think is the easiest thing to answer. This is generally dictated by external factors (like when you can take vacation leave, or when school is out), in which case there is little to add. Otherwise, I’d avoid the peak of summer (about late Jun to early Sep) – it’s just too hot for comfort (upper 30s are not unusual, and only going down to upper 20s at night) and there are generally too many people around. Besides, it’s also peak holiday season, so travel and hotels will be more expensive. Personally, spring and autumn are best as the weather is generally good/perfect. You might hit rain in Sep onwards, in which case note it’s usually heavy and relatively brief. It causes chaos with roads and traffic, but it’s usually over quickly. Spring in Malta I think is just idyllic – the weather is warmer than winter and usually dry, but the countryside has had its winter soaking, and everything springs to life. The days are longer, and generally very warm. I’ve been known to go swimming as early as mid-Mar and as late as mid-Nov, when you basically have the beach to yourself. I didn’t mention winter, but that’s not to say it’s best avoided – winter here is very mild by most standards. It just tends to be humid rather often, and most dwellings will feel colder than outside. But then it rarely ever drops to freezing temperatures.
Where to stay:
Unless you plan to do specific things in specific places, central locations are probably best. That way you can reach most places in half an hour by car. Touristy places tend to be in the Sliema/St Julian’s area. Otherwise if you find accommodation in the three villages area (Attard/Balzan/Lija) or nearby Mosta and Birkirkara you’ll be very well connected. The Valletta/Floriana area is also good for connectivity (plus there’s a bunch to do in Valletta itself). Though frankly if you’ll have a car, it won’t matter much wherever you stay. Everything is nicely within reach.
Public transport is serviceable and relatively inexpensive. It will also get you almost anywhere, though it may take a while (and connections). If you plan to visit out of the way places, or if you want to cram as many things as you can in a few days, you’ll need a car. And nerves of steel to deal with the locals. Keep in mind that in Malta we drive on the left (ie cars are right-hand drive) and most cars are manual gearbox (stick-shift if you’re on the other side of the pond). If you want/need an automatic, make sure you make that clear to the rental agency.
Where to go:
I can only give a few pointers here as much depends on taste. For going out (restaurants, etc) the Sliema / St Julian’s area gives you many options. Local summer resort areas like Buġibba in the north and Marsascala in the south will also provide many options. I feel the best beaches are to the north, with Golden Bay and Għadira being the most popular, followed by Għajn Tuffieħa and Ġnejna. That’s if you actually like sand. Countryside is great along the western coast and cliffs, particularly in places like Dingli and Żurrieq. For old-world style, architecture, and cultural activities, little can beat Valletta (the current capital), Mdina (the former capital), and the citadel in Gozo.
If you have time, spending a day (or more) in the smaller island of Gozo is definitely worthwhile, as it’s less populated (except perhaps in the peak of summer around mid-Aug) and generally quieter and prettier.
If you have even more time, a day trip (or preferably longer) to Sicily is a worthwhile extension. Other than flights, you can reach Sicily by boat or catamaran.
What to do:
For this section I’ll just put a list up with ideas. Pick and mix according to taste.
- Stroll around the old winding streets of Mdina
- Unwind among the trees, flowers, ducks, and turtles in San Anton Palace Gardens, Attard; depending on the time you visit you’ll find lots of parents (or grandparents) with young children; these are part of the presidential palace, parts of which may also be open (depends on time of year)
- Walk along the cliffs on the west coast: good places to start include Dingli, Żurrieq, and Mġarr or Għajn Tuffieħa
- See the coastal defence towers at close range; possibly the easiest to reach is the one atop the ridge between Golden Bay and Għajn Tuffieħa; these were mostly built in the de Redin era (Knights of St John)
- Watch the sun set somewhere on said cliffs or western beaches
- Walk along the promenade in Sliema and/or Buġibba
- Lose yourself in the capital city (Valletta), built specifically as a fortified city in a single plan in the early 1600s, with all its palaces, churches, etc; it’s also a lived-in city with restaurants, a regular open air market, etc.
- Visit the co-cathedral of St John in Valletta, and see Caravaggio’s beheading of St John [entrance fee]
- Take in the smells and sounds of an authentic fishing village; best bet for me is Marsaxlokk in the south, ideally on a day when the fish market opens (if I remember correctly this is on Sunday mornings)
- Neolithic Malta: the temples at Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim, the Hypogeum in Saflieni (you’ll need to book this months ahead, online, as a limited number of visitors are allowed in every day by timed ticket), Ġgantija in Gozo; a less-visited gem is Ta’ Ħaġrat in Mġarr [all have an entrance fee, though you can get combo tickets from Heritage Malta, except I think for the Hypogeum]
- Roman Malta: the Domus in Rabat, the catacombs of St Paul and St Agatha also in Rabat [entrance fee, also Heritage Malta]
- The Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, primarily for the Mattia Preti paintings [entrance fee, also Heritage Malta]
- The Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, houses most of the artifacts from the various neolithic sites [entrance fee, also Heritage Malta]
- Sports: there’s a range of outdoor pursuits available, many connected with the sea and coastline; links below for target archery, rock climbing, historical fencing.
What to try:
Again, just a list with ideas. Pick and mix according to taste.
- The food, of course! Fresh fish, in season, in a good restaurant (there’s good ones in Sliema, and many in Marsaxlokk). Rabbit stew and pasta in rabbit sauce, probably in Mġarr. For relaxed fare, you should be able to find good pasta and pizza in many places.
- If you’re into beer, try the local offerings. Cisk lager is still (I think) the most popular local beer. If you prefer ales, try Blue Label and Hopleaf; the latter is in the IPA style.
- Kinnie is something you need to sample at least once. Very popular with the locals (yours truly included) but it’s unlike most soft drinks you’ll have tried.
- Local sweets like Qubbajt (available at any village feast in summer), Kannoli bl-irkotta (any good pastry shop will have these), Ħelwa tat-Tork (not sure where to get this other than most groceries/supermarkets)
- Maltese street food: pastizzi (try both irkotta and piżelli) from some corner shop popular with locals, imqaret from a kiosk (e.g. there is one just outside city gate, Valletta)
Be aware that many websites for Maltese groups and companies contain hopelessly out of date information. Often the best way to get accurate information is to call and ask.
- Heritage Malta
- Din l-Art Ħelwa (the National Trust of Malta, has reciprocal agreements with other NT’s worldwide, notably those in the UK and Australia)
- Malta Climbing Club (the club manages the small bouldering wall at the Sliema Scouts HQ, usually open every Tue+Thu evening; when the days are longer they also hold regular club meets after work for some outdoors climbing, and are very welcoming of people of all abilities)
- Malta Archery Association (the association has a small indoor range on the grounds of St Clare’s College in Pembroke, and an outdoor range accessible through the Marsa Sports Complex)
- Malta Historical Fencing Association (if you’re into HEMA, check this group out)
At a practical level, a few things to know:
- Currency in Malta is the Euro (€), same as much of mainland Europe.
- Common European credit cards (e.g. Mastercard/Visa) are widely accepted, but not for everything. You’ll find you need to use cash for certain things or in certain places. ATMs are widely available.
- Electricity is identical to UK: 230V, 50Hz, 3-pin UK plug. Voltage is compatible with mainland Europe, you’ll just need a socket adapter. For US visitors, electronics will work if you have a travel / multivoltage adapter, which thankfully are what you usually get nowadays.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a gallery of photos from this blog.