One of the two best pieces of advice my father ever gave me was to work to live, not live to work. We were very lucky to always take proper family holidays and all of them were spent in Malta. I was looking through some old photos recently so I thought I’d share my ten favourite things to see and do in Malta in this post, and enjoy a trip down memory lane at the same time.
Malta is the largest of three Mediterranean islands (Gozo and Comino being the others) which lie off the coasts of Sicily and Northern Africa. Although the currency is the Euro, just about everyone speaks English, they use 3-pin electrical plugs, and drive on the left hand side of the road. Malta’s strategic location and natural harbours were vital for many countries throughout history and its rulers included: the Romans, the Aragonese, the Knights of St John, the French (very briefly!), and the British up until 1964 when Malta became independent.
Next year, in 2019, the island’s capital, Valletta, will be the 2019 European Capital of Culture. A whole host of events and festivities are planned to celebrate this, revolving around the themes of generations, routes, cities and islands.
Most visitors come for the near year round sun, the swimming and the diving, but there’s so much more to Malta, as I hope my ten favourite things to see and do will show.
Valletta (see pic at the top of this post) was founded after the Knights of St John’s victory against the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565. It’s one of the most fascinating cities to walk around – although the hills are rather steep! But you can always stop for breath at any of the many open air cafes and ice cream shops. There are so many things to see and do here in just one city: museums, parks, shopping (the leather goods are amazing), eating out.
The Grand Harbour is well worth a boat trip – it’s one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Grand Harbour (and the rest of Malta) endured phenomenally heavy bombing during WW2 when the Axis powers tried to destroy British bases which were interfering with Rommel in North Africa. But Malta stood firm and in 1942 King George VI awarded the George Cross to the island to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people.”
Mdina used to be Malta’s capital. Also known as the Silent City, no cars (except for emergency vehicles) are allowed inside its walls. The streets are so narrow that it’s hard to see how cars could navigate it anyway. But it’s worth visiting at night when the tourists have gone and you can enjoy the peace while you sample some local cuisine one of many side street restaurants.
Just down the hill from Mdina is Ta’Qali, the old British air base. You must visit the Ta’ Qali craft village where you can watch Mdina glass being blown (I looked forward to this every holiday). The surrounding military huts and buildings have been converted into workshops where you can watch silver filigree jewellery being tooled, leather goods being made, and Maltese women making the most beautiful linen and lacework.
#3 Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples
I’m cheating slightly by lumping these into one but they’re all amongst the very oldest stone buildings in the world and all are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Hypogeum is a wonderfully preserved underground burial complex cut into solid rock. A true feat of prehistoric engineering, it’s the only one of its kind in the world. And the other prehistoric temples, built between 3600BC and 2500BC, are much older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. They’re all a fascinating glimpse of a golden Neolithic period, which died out although no-one knows why.
#4 Film locations
Film buffs will be in heaven. Malta is a favourite location for many tv shows and films. Popeye’s Village (Robin Williams) is now a popular tourist attraction. Troy and Gladiator were both filmed in Malta. And countless James Bond films were shot here too, most memorably (for me at any rate) was Never Say Never Again. More recently, Game of Thrones shot some sequences in neighbouring Gozo.
Gozo is accessible by boat from Malta and is another must see. Quieter than Malta but no less beautiful, it’s best known for supposedly being the home of Calypso, the nymph who held Odysseus captive for several years. Sadly, its Azure Window, a natural limestone arch that featured in a wedding scene from Game of Thrones, collapsed in 2017. Today, Gozo ranks as one of the top diving destinations in the Mediterranean and a centre for water sports – and it’s got more donkeys than I can remember ever seeing anywhere else.
#6 Take a Karozzin ride
When in Venice, you take a gondola, but when in Malta you should take a Karozzin ride. There’s something very touristy about it but it’s such good fun and I defy anyone not to enjoy being driven around the city sights by their very own horse and cart.
You’re really spoilt for choice with markets in Malta. Just about every village will have a market on one day or another. My favourites are the weekly ones in Valletta’s old bus depot and the daily ones in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, the next village on from Marsascala where I spent so much of my childhood.
You’ve probably seen pictures of Maltese fishing boats with the eyes painted on their prows to ward off evil and see their way back to harbour. The Luzzu are such an iconic image of the island and it’s one that I always think of first whenever Malta is mentioned. Most of the island’s fish are caught from Marsaxlokk and if you really want to sample fish at its finest and freshest, you need to eat it at one of the village’s numerous restaurants.
#9 Food and drink
Local cuisine, unsurprisingly, revolves around fish: swordfish, lampuki, red snapper, dott, grouper, and all manner of shellfish, including sea urchins. Rabbit stew and Kapunata, (Maltese ratatouille) are also popular, as is pasta. The local beer (Cisk) and wine (Marsovin) do not travel well (!) but quaffed alongside food next to the seafront, they are quite delicious.
#10 Swimming and diving
I’m mentioning this last because it really is the main reason the vast majority of people come to Malta. The northern end of the island has all the sandy beaches (Mellieha, Golden Bay, St Paul’s) but the southern end is the one I grew up with and prefer. The beaches (I use the word loosely) are mainly rocky: some are flat, others are more, well, rocky, and impossible to lie on. But as a child I was never bothered about sunbathing: it was all about snorkelling and rock pooling and the southern end is best for that.
The clear water around Malta is ideal for scuba diving. There are lots of caves and wrecks that offer diving opportunities suitable for novices as well as experienced divers. And of course you can train for your diving qualifications with any of the many dive centres around the island.
This was one of the hardest posts I’ve had to write! I spent so much of my childhood on Malta (virtually every school holiday in summer, Easter and Christmas) that I really struggled to choose ten favourite things to see and do in Malta for my list. I could have rambled on with another ten or even 20 but then this post would have become a real epic…
If you’re still reading this (thank you!) then I hope I’ve intrigued you sufficiently to think about visiting my favourite Mediterranean island yourself at some point. Or, if sea urchins and Neolithic temples aren’t your thing, you could try Spain. Holiday Gems * has some great deals on in lots of different locations – click here to see the range on offer.
And just in case you were curious about the second best piece of advice my father ever gave me. It’s slightly less inspirational, although probably still as important: always get your boiler serviced annually…
Have you ever been to Malta before? Which of my top ten favourites would tempt you to visit?
* This is a sponsored post.