For a printable bullet list of everything we recommend for Malta, click here: GoGoGordon Guide to Malta2
Scroll down for photos and commentary on our favorite Malta experiences.
We are always on the hunt for something different. A place that doesn’t feel like anywhere else we’ve been, but still has a storybook or fairytale feel to it. Malta fit that perfectly, and we ended up truly loving Malta, far more than we even expected to when we first planned our trip.
Malta felt like immersing yourself in Aladdin, but with equal parts Mediterranean playground. For anyone that wants to experience a pretty strong Middle East vibe but doesn’t actually want to go to a Middle East country, take a trip to Malta! Throw in a fascinating history, incredible landmarks, and of course those beautiful balconies, and Malta creates an environment that is truly special and conducive to both adventure and relaxation.
The day before our flight left, Lufthansa cancelled our flights. After four to five hours on the phone and online, I figured out a way to get to Malta about the same time as we had planned, but it meant we had to leave Austin a day early so we only had about an hour to go from “what do we do now” to fully packed and at the Austin airport. It’s the first time I actually bought a ticket at the airport for a flight that was about to board, so despite the stress and extra expense, at least I got to add that to my travel experience list!
We finally arrived in Malta after about 50 hours and an overnight stay in Frankfurt, but it was only a couple of hours later than originally planned (since we left a day earlier), and the night in Frankfurt meant we were more rested than we typically are when we first arrive in Europe.
Before staying a couple of nights in Valletta, the island’s current capital, we decided to stay two nights in Mdina, the fortified city in the center of the island and the ancient capital. We highly recommend staying a night or two in Mdina. Valletta is beautiful, and Marsaxlokk is like stepping into a different world, and driving through Malta we saw a few other nice looking towns and beach resort areas, but Mdina is perhaps the best preserved walled city we’ve ever visited, and staying there at night after all the tourists leave so you can walk almost alone through the ancient streets truly transports you to a different time.
We needed a snack before bed on our first night so we walked just outside the castle walls to Rabat, and found the highly-reviewed Crystal Palace. Basically every European country we visit has some specialty pastry that is unique to the area. In Malta, that’s a pastizzi. Pastizzi are a flaky pastry with various fillings, most commonly peas or ricotta cheese. Believe it or not, the best pastizzi in Malta are in this hole in the wall just a few steps from the gates of Mdina. It’s a perfect snack while exploring Rabat. You won’t want to go in, as you may start to think you’re in a sequel to “Taken” as you enter, but go, it’s cheap, safe and delicious. ORDER THE CHEESE ONE!!! AGAIN, THE CHEESE ONE!!!
We highly recommend staying a night or two in Mdina. Valletta is beautiful, and Marsaxlokk is like stepping into a different world, and driving through Malta we saw a few other nice looking towns and beach resort areas, but Mdina is perhaps the best preserved walled city we’ve visited, and it truly transports you to a different time.
The only hotel to even consider here is the only hotel within the walled gates, the Xara Palace Relias & Chateaux. It’s a five star property housed in a 17th century castle and our “Deluxe Suite with Terrace and Jacuzzi” was an absolute treasure. TIP: Don’t splurge for the Presidential Suite, as it doesn’t have the view or terrace that the Deluxe Suite enjoys.
The view from our terrace had a bit of everything. On the second day, with the clouds cleared out, we could see Valletta and the ocean.
We started each morning like this…
And finished each day like this…
After our breakfast on the terrace, we set out to explore Mdina. As you can see, in late November we had the entire city to ourselves, on a gorgeously blue-sky day. The first day in Europe is always a bit of a mind trip, but walking through this city with our voices being the loudest noise we could hear, with the stone shining golden in the sunlight, with the colors bright and the streets like a movie set, it was really magical.
Check out these knockers…
We hoped the nice weather would mean a rare opening to see the blue grotto in late November, so we decided to drive 15 minutes over to the grotto and check it out. Unfortunately, as seems to happen at least once per trip, the GPS tried to take us on a less than desirable route. We actually turned off of this road onto a SMALLER road where a local flagged us down and told us to turn around. For some reason backing up with walls on each side of you from the opposite side of the car that you’re used to driving on…well… I’ve said it before: always buy the insurance!
We made it to the Blue Grotto, but alas there were no tours as the sea was too rough. I knew there was at least a viewpoint nearby so we went looking for it. It’s a little tough to find, but if you turn right as you leave the little harbor town where the Blue Grotto boats depart from, just look for the line of cars and tour buses pulled over on the road. While you can’t see this from the road, walk down about 20 steps and enjoy the magnificence!
Just a few minutes drive from the Blue Grotto area (on brand new, very nice roads), are the Hagar Qim temples.
The Hagar Qim temples are among the (if not THE) oldest known religious structures on the planet. We had visited a similarly aged structure in Ireland and we were amazed in an X-files kind of was to find out that both structures used the precise angle of the solstice sun to shine light onto a specific area of the temple. Yep, in 3500 – 4000 BC both Malta and Dublin, which are currently about 1500 miles apart, had a civilization of people building structures that utilized the sun on a specific day of the year to shine light in a specific spot of their temple. How Indiana Jones, right!? Oh, also they made fat lady statues for some reason… Google it for more info if you like this kind of stuff, or just pay the temples a visit and stop by their museum.
The walk from the museum to the temple site is almost spiritual, and is further than you think when you start…
We were the only ones there when we arrived. Stonehenge is more famous, but Hagar Qim is older, more intact, and more impressive.
Slightly disappointed we didn’t uncover any secret portals or hidden rooms at Hagar Qim, but with an overall sense of wonder about the history and very impressed with the exhibit, we set off to Marsaxlokk for lunch.
Marsaxlokk was unlike anywhere we had ever been. The bright, Caribbean like boats juxtaposed against the desert dwelling backdrop sprinkled with palm trees and all sitting on a bed of clean, blue water. It’s a place you will want to eat sitting outside so you can soak in all it’s charm every minute you can.
I got the feeling he had done this before…
As I mentioned, most of the seaside restaurants in Marsaxlokk are very highly rated, and we chose the top ranked one – at the time- La Reggia. The calamari starter was highly memorable, Shea’s sea bass was simple but enjoyable, but my crab ravioli was a little fishy tasting. It didn’t matter much though, as the view and the weather and the wine were all we needed.
After our lunch we returned back to Mdina and decided to explore the neighboring town of Rabat. While not as grand as Valletta, Rabat is less crowded and more quaint, and if you came to Malta looking for their famous balconies, Rabat is no slouch in that area.
Back in Mdina, we decided to track down some gelato, as those that know us know Shea can’t go a day without ice cream or geleato. Fior di Latte was the highest rated on TA, so we gave it a shot. As we consider ourselves gelato experts after our tasting tour in Florence, we can say with a certain amount of authority that this place was outstanding and would hold it’s own even if it were located in Italy. My chocolate gelato was insanely thick, rich and flavorful. Look for the square on the North side of Mdina that has the buildings with blue and red shutters, Fior di Latte is in the square just on the other side of the building in this photo.
Although we could’ve easily just relaxed at our hotel and enjoyed another evening in Mdina, as we’d never get tired of walking around those streets, we’re the GoGoGordon’s so we decided to head over to Valletta – about a 20 min drive – to get a taste of where we’d be staying the next two nights.
Whenever you’re driving in Europe, you want to figure out a head of time where you’re going to park, and have the exact coordinates for your GPS. It’s no fun driving around looking for parking in the US, but that frustration is multiplied when you’re driving on narrow streets on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car and can’t read or understand most of the street signs. Yes, once in Germany I took a wrong turn looking for parking and drove through a restaurant zone where I literally could have reached out my window and picked food off of the people’s plates that were cursing at me as I slowly drove by them. In Valletta, park at the MCP Car Park right by the city entrance, or the Waterfront Car Park right by the Waterfront District.
The entrance to Valletta is currently a construction site, but it was complete enough for us to get a good idea of just how grand and impressive it will be when finished. After a short walk to the main square and locating the Co-Cathedral that we planned to visit on our final, full day in Valletta, we made our way to the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
As the sun was slowly starting to set, the view and colors from this vantage point was truly special. One of those meditation-worthy sunsets that helps put into perspective where you are and the experience you’re having.
Across the SW side of the City of Valletta sits the 3 cities. The view of the 3 cities from the Upper Barrakka Gardens is exceptional. In addition to the amazement I had at the walled structures, and how it caused my mind to drift off wondering how intimidating this must have seemed to any navy attempting to overtake Malta, I also couldn’t help but notice that some guys boat was as big as the freakin’ fortification!
I wanted a closer look, and my research informed me that just below where we were standing was a small terminal with ferries shuttling back and forth. We decided to see if we could beat the sun and get over there for a quick look.
the trip to and from upper and lower Valletta has recently been made much easier, at least for those that don’t like steps, with the addition of a wonderful looking elevator. While we wanted to take the stairs, of course, they were closed for repair so we bought a ticket for the elevator and headed down to the docks.
As much as I advocate planning and research, some of the best travel memories are always the improvisational ones. We reached the lower Barrakka Gardens and found the ferry terminal. I of course, in my research, had downloaded the ferry schedule. If you go to Valletta, I recommend keeping a copy of this on your phone: valletta ferry schedule.
Unfortunately, I realized we had just missed the ferry meaning it would be about a 25 minute wait for the next one. As we stood there debating about whether or not to wait, a small boat, similar to the ones we saw in Marsaxlokk but not quite as colorful, pulled up within earshot and a man that looked as if he were cast to play the part of local fisherman from Malta asked us if we’d like a ride over to 3 Cities for 5 Euro. While I hadn’t read about this, I could see a couple of other similar looking boats at various stages of the crossing with other passengers, so I decided to go for it and we climbed into the vessel laughing as it rocked precariously.
The short ride was spectacular. It was almost dusk now and the way the golden hour sunlight played off the ancient architecture was intoxicating. Being so low, practically sitting in the water surrounded by the massive forts, tiered city, and giant yachts was a humbling perspective.
We only walked around Cospicua – one of the 3 cities – for about an hour, admiring some of the worlds largest private yachts and getting a taste for the streets surrounding Fort Saint Angelo. While we really wanted to walk over to Hellen’s gate, my ferry schedule showed me the last ferry was leaving soon so we quickly made it back to the terminal and enjoyed another short, serene ride back to Valletta, this time on the second story of a larger boat. Even if you do catch the cheap, reliable, convenient ferry to/from Cospicua and Valletta, or Sliema, where we would be staying the next two nights, we also highly recommend seeking out a local “taxi” boat or hiring a boat (see my guide) to take you around the Valletta peninsula as the perspective and experience is memorable.
For dinner we stayed in Valletta and took a short walk to Nenu The Artisan Baker. While a little bit touristy, “Nenu” was highly rated and we felt like pizza after a couple days mostly of sea food. The pizza had thick crust and fresh ingredients…the kind of pizza that absorbs an entire day of alcohol if needed. Overall Nenu is the quintessential family restaurant with a wide menu that caters to both those that want to try traditional Maltese options and those that want something more familiar.
On the way home we were reminded that driving at night in a crowded city with a slow responding gps on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road is not easy. We literally had a “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament” moment as I couldn’t figure out how to exit a round-about and enter the highway to Mdina. We finally made it back to our room and enjoyed a final night in our hot tub on the terrace.
Day three started early, as we planned to make the journey over to the Island of Gozo. Part of why we’d chosen Malta on this trip is we wanted to see the Azure Window, and saw it was on all those lists of “see it while you can”. At the time, we had no idea just how prophetic that would be…
About a 40-minute, beautiful drive from Mdina, is the Cirkewwa Ferry Terminal. While driving onto the boat is fairly straight-forward, I would recommend finding your car a little before arriving at the dock in Gozo as we couldn’t find where we’d parked on the boat and cars starting taking off and it was a little stressful.
We arrived in Gozo and made our way to St. George’s Basilica in Victoria.
St George’s Basilica is definitely worth a visit. There’s a decent little museum you can knock out in 15 minutes, but the highlight is simply walking around the walls, soaking in the history, and looking out at the spectacular views. There is a tourist-friendly little café at the top where you can sit and really soak everything in over a drink or two if you have time, but we had a lot to see so we grabbed a bottle of water and moved on. At the top of the Basilica you are basically (maybe even literally) at the top of the island, and on a clear day as we enjoyed you can see the entire circumference of the island.
Gozo is somehow both dense Middle Eastern cityscape and roaming Tuscan hillside, with dramatic peaks, fields of green, and multiple imposing churches smack in the center of every “urban” area. It’s truly beautiful in a way that is unlike any landscape we’d seen before in our travels.
It was time for lunch so we took off to the West side of the island to an area that provided both highly rated seafood lunch options and was a reasonable drive to the main attraction: The Azure Window. The drive to Xlendi Bay was short, and wove it’s way through quaint little streets and a few nice views. As you can read about in my guide, there are a few highly reviewed places to eat in this area, and we chose The Boat House…mainly because the wait was too long at the other places.
Our lunch was okay but was nothing memorable. The fish was fresh, nicely plated, and the service was good, but it was just okay for us.
After lunch we walked off a few calories by following the harbor around to the path towards Xlendi Tower. Even in late November a few people were swimming in the now calm waters – there was even a diving board, well, a diving plank at least. The seaside cliffs against the deep blue color of the water with the hidden little harbor tucked away into the cove was the kind of place you go when you really want to completely relax and soak in the Mediterranean experience… either that or hide from the mafia.
And now for the main event. We drove 30 minutes to the Azure Window and were thrilled to see all the empty spots in the parking lot. As the Azure Window appeared over the horizon as we approached, it instantly catapulted itself into my top list of landmarks that far exceed expectations and are much more incredible in person than any photograph, no matter the filter, can convey.
We didn’t say a word for about 30 minutes. Shea sat and enjoyed the majesty of this magical, isolated spot on the planet, as I used every camera at my disposal to take as many different shots as I could.
Despite all of the warnings we had read about in regard to the Azure Window’s existence being on a day-to-day basis, we were shocked and saddened to see the headlines in March of 2017 of the complete destruction of the regal and inspiring natural landmark.
We were of course even more thankful that we had visited Gozo just 2.5 months prior, and that we have both memories and plenty of pictures from that spot.
I was actually on my way up to the top, as I’m the type to ignore warning signs and typically have a “that probably won’t happen to me” kind of approach to life. However, my wife was adamant that we shouldn’t go up to the bridge part because it wasn’t safe, and after zooming in and seeing these cracks, I agreed and we stayed put. I bet whomever was sitting there in this pic, or anyone walking on that bridge the day before the storm really had a weird feeling when they saw how then entire structure collapsed.
In GoGoGordon fashion, we decided to head out and make a stop at the Wied II-Mielah, which is a similar shaped monument to the Azure Window, but as we would come to find out much less dramatic and visibly stunning. On the plus side, at the time, we were the only ones there – I have a feeling that would now no longer be the case.
In order to get to Wied II-Mielah, we had to off-road a little bit over some rocks and dirt, which made me nervous as we were in a rental car and my experience renting cars in Europe is that the tiniest scratch is penalized with reckless exertion.
As we left, the car was acting funny, making a noise, and I was having trouble driving it. I instantly had visions of the car breaking down and us being stranded in a remote part of a remote island in a foreign country, as well as the horrific financial ramifications and overall hassle that would surely be involved.
It turned out, I had the emergency brake on… Deep breath, and, continue vacation…
Our relaxed state after the sunset boat ride quickly faded as we got a full taste of Malta’s famous traffic. It is a highly congested island so, if you go, definitely read my tips about how to travel to crowded places and minimize main from crowds.
We eventually made it through the traffic and arrived hungry and a bit exhausted at our new hotel, The Palace Hotel in Sliema. It was late and we were getting close to “hangry” territory, so we decided to forego the taxi in to Valletta and eat somewhere right there in Sliema. Luckily, I always have a few restaurants on my list anywhere we might end up, so I had the Ta’Kris Restaurant identified and we made the 10 minute walk to dinner.
The dinner was the best seafood we had anywhere during our stay in Malta, and the pasta was very good as well. It’s definitely a safe and enjoyable choice if you’re in Sliema.
The next morning, we stepped out on our balcony to enjoy the sunrise and what I can only describe without being hyperbolic as the single most amazing view of Valletta and the surrounding area found anywhere in Malta. We had the View Suite at the Palace Hotel, and it was a fantastic choice.
The View Suite at the Palace Hotel has an incredible wrap around balcony, and even a telescope if you want to zoom in around Valletta. Stay here! Wake up at sunrise and watch the sun come up over Valletta with an espresso or relax in the lounger with a glass of wine as the sun sets and Valletta lights up golden yellow. You will remember it forever. We got a peak at a standard room and it was fairly ordinary looking, so if the View Suite isn’t available be sure to do your research before booking!
The hotel also had wonderfully helpful and friendly staff – we even enjoyed a very civil and informed political debate after stopping by the front desk to set a wake up call. Oh yeah, one more thing…
…how about this pool?
On our last day in Malta we had a full itinerary to cover in Valletta. Fortunately, we were able to spend a little extra time in the city two nights before, but we still had a lot to do and not a lot of time left. It’s GoGoGordon time!
We started out with the main course, going to the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. For those unfamiliar with Malta’s past, it’s full of history and a little mythology around the Knights of Malta, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. There are plenty of websites with all the fascinating background and history of Malta, so I’m not going to type it all out here, but whether you’re a history buff or not, you’ll find the Co-Cathedral to be spectacular.
Again, traveling in Europe in November can be a negative, with an increased likelihood for rain, sleet, grey skies, and all-in-all poor weather, but we had 4 days of clear blue skies and also got to enjoy all the benefits of traveling in low tourist season.
The Co-Cathedral was empty when we entered, and we shared the sacred and sensational space with only a couple of people for the entirety of the hour we looked around and admired its grandeur. Even the room holding the prized Caravaggio painting, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist”, was completely empty except for us.
Every inch of the Co-Cathedral is covered with layers of impossibly detailed carving, woodwork, statues and other ornate paraphernalia. It’s hard to find the words to describe the pageantry and extravagance, and on top of that my wife had a blast looking for secret doors and clues otherwise reserved for the National Treasure sequel.
Whether or not you’re religious, a history buff, an appreciator of architecture, a lover of art, a conspiracy theorist, or a master craftsman, you’ll enjoy a walk through of this fantastic cathedral.
After the Cathedral we walked over to the Siege Bell War Memorial to enjoy another view of the 3 Cities.
I like this pic. You can squint a little and pretend you’re standing on the wall of Valletta with invading ships coming in on the horizon.
Oh yeah, did I mention the modern Malta has some money…
It was lunch time, and we walked from the Siege Bell War Memorial about 30 minutes to the Waterfront district. Be careful if you eat in this area, as almost all of the restaurants were built to cater to ill-informed, gullible cruise passengers. There are a couple of exceptions. If you want to explore this area and you need a meal, stop at either Q Bar and Restaurant or Brown’s Restaurant.
From the waterfront we walked back along the water and then took the elevator again up to Upper Barrakka Gardens. We had intended to go to the Lascaris War Room but decided against it. That said, it did look like a great exhibit and it gets fabulous reviews, so definitely consider it if you’re in Malta.
In almost every city in Europe there’s a tourist exhibit which is basically “walk through this rich family’s house and see what life was like as an aristocrat back in the day”. In Valletta, that honor goes to the Casa Rocca Piccola.
As we are HGTV junkies, we love walking through these old mansions and seeing the furniture, décor, craftsmanship and antiquities. Casa Rocca Piccola is one of the best of this tourist attraction genre, and we highly recommend it. We hate guided tours, as those that read this blog know, and we actually tried to bail after we found out we had to wait for the guided tour, but we were very glad we stuck it out. The tour moved quickly, was full of interesting anecdotes, and included some truly museum quality pieces.
Don’t miss the tour of the bomb shelter below the home, and do you see the dresser in the picture below? The guide will ask if anyone knows what it is… I asked if it’s where they kept their television, which I thought was funnier than the response I got from the stuck up artistic types taking the tour with us, but it turns out it’s a portable chapel. You can kind of see in the picture next to it, the thing opens up and, BAM, your prayers are instantly 40% more powerful!
We had one last thing on our to do list before we switched focus over to how many local pubs can we try out before having to head back to the hotel… The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck.
St. Paul is a key figure in Malta’s history, and he is often referred to as Malta’s spiritual father. While it’s St. John’s Co-Cathedral that typically gets the top billing, St. Paul’s Church is no slouch, with a magnificent altarpiece, the famous wooden statue of St. Paul that is paraded around annually, and some gruesome yet interesting memorabilia. For those with a bucket list of religious artifacts, this Church includes part of the column on which the saint was beheaded in Rome, as well as a relic.
We took a last walk around Malta and tried to soak it in, taking a last look at their iconic balconies. I took about 400 photos of said balconies, here are a few of my favorites. Also, if you do a little research, there are blogs and guides to where to find all the unique and original balconies, as well as which streets to be sure and see.
Quick question to the Maltese people, what exactly is this outlawing?
As we began our pub tour we came across this sign. Talk about being conflicted… I was so excited to see the indication that craft beer was available, yet defacing a Guinness sign, the king of all beers, just didn’t feel right…
We found a couple of great pubs with good beer selection while we caught up on Instagram and reminisced on Malta. We ended up having our last meal in Malta at a little café with an outstanding beer selection called il kapitali. It was the best meal of the trip and we highly recommend the place. Also, my guide to Malta lists all the other pubs, coffee joints, and places we ate, as well as a few others we recommend but didn’t get to try for ourselves.
Thank you Malta, your architecture was enchanting, your balconies and streets were something unlike anywhere in Europe we’d been before, driving on your streets was an exciting adventure, your people were friendly and spoke excellent English, learning your history was fascinating, but most of all your vistas are breathtakingly spectacular. We loved Malta, and it would pair perfectly with a trip to Naples, Sicily, Spain, or Southern France as it’s a short, inexpensive, direct flight. We hope to go back when we have time to sail around the island and enjoy the amazing water features such as the Blue Lagoon, the Blue Grotto, and the Crystal Lagoon. Next time…
Again, for a document of all the places we stayed, ate, drank and enjoyed in Malta, click here: GoGoGordon Guide to Malta
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