The Mediterranean Beckons in Malta
Malta’s history, culture, stunning seascapes and mild winter weather make it a top choice for cold-avoiding travellers.
From luxury sailing around Valletta’s Grand Harbour at sunset to ancient architecture straight out of Game of Thrones, there’s no place like Malta for an extended winter break.
This small island nation, located between Sicily and North Africa, is made up of three islands — Malta, smaller Gozo and tiny Comino. It has long held strategic importance to civilizations looking to control Mediterranean trade, which has left Roman, British, Spanish and Arabic influences. Combine Malta’s fascinating past with unbeatable seascapes and year-round sunshine and you’ve got the ideal vacation destination.
While the summer season offers swimming and water sports, it’s less than ideal in terms of heat and crowds. However, vacationers who visit in the winter months will find a more leisurely pace and plenty of room to explore the sites.
START IN VALLETTA
Malta’s capital, Valletta, makes a logical base for first-time visitors since it’s close to the airport and many main attractions. The highlight is its historic UNESCO-designated centre and its ornate and abundant Baroque architecture, from beautifully restored palaces to those in glorious states of decay. Set high above the sea, the city centre is so entirely walkable that my family and I never needed to hail a taxi while we were based there.
The Auberge de Castille and the Grandmaster’s Palace should be included on any walking tour of Valletta, but the true masterpiece of the city is the St. John’s Co- Cathedral. I live in Italy, so I’ve seen my share of ornate churches, but nothing quite like this one and its gilded, sculpted and frescoed surfaces. The church is also home to Caravaggio’s monumental work, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
Across the Grand Harbour from Valletta — and best accessed via a dgħajsa, or colourful water taxi, the historic fortress towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, known as The Three Cities, are also ideal for strolling. These oceanfront towns have pretty harbours, narrow streets and cozy familyowned restaurants. The Three Cities have a more local feel than Valletta, but they’re still just a short boat trip from the capital.
A HAVEN FOR HISTORY
Malta’s history is long indeed — its megalithic temples date to between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are a combined World Heritage Site. The temple complex at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra comprise the oldest freestanding stone structures in the world. It feels like a cliché to call them “awe-inspiring,” but as I stood in a site 1,000 years older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza, those words truly fit.
Mdina, the island’s former capital, is known as the ‘Silent City,’ thanks to its soaring defensive walls and sanctuary-like interior. Wander its narrow stone alleys just before sunset, when streetlamps glow and the golden sunlight fades away. It feels like stepping back in time and is a dreamy setting for a romantic dinner.
Make time for a trip to Marsaxlokk, a much-photographed fishing village famous for its colourful luzzu boats painted with a pair of eyes on the prow — for warding off evil and bringing good luck to fishermen. Quaint seafood restaurants line this picturesque harbour, making it a great stop for an alfresco lunch.
HEAD TO THE SEA
If the seaside is calling your name, explore the modern beach resorts at St. Julian’s, Sliema and Paceville, where seafront promenades are lined with long-term stay condos and luxury hotels, open-air restaurants and bars, and fashionable boutiques. If you want a more low-key experience, smaller Gozo has a more relaxed ambience.
Depending on your tolerance for chilly water, you may not be up for swimming in the winter months. At the very least, do get out on the water, either in an organized boat tour or with a private tender. The view from the sea really is one of the best things about the islands of Malta, from its rocky coves and cliffs to its unbelievably clear blue water.
Take a trip to the Blue Lagoon of Comino, where the water is so calm and shallow you can see the shadow of your boat on the white sandy bottom. You can get there from Valletta, other points on Malta and from Gozo, via ferry or private boat hire. Or you can get really adventurous and paddle a kayak over from Gozo. I didn’t cross the channel to the Blue Lagoon, but my kayak guide did take our group on a paddle along the Gozo coastline, which offered a foray into a narrow sea cave, a close-up look at imposing rock formations, and a “secret” beach, not reachable by land.
I’d also recommend booking a sunset sail from Valletta to take in the view of the city lights reflected off Grand Harbour with a glass of champagne in hand. There are few better ways to appreciate the city’s beauty.
TASTY MALTESE MUST-TRIES
The dining scene in Malta offers a mix of casual sidewalk cafés, somewhat pricey waterfront restaurants and fine dining establishments perfect for leisurely meals on warm evenings. With such a diverse history, Maltese cuisine has elements of Italian, Arabic and Spanish culture.
Local favourites include a traditional rabbit stew (stuffat tal-fenek). I also loved the savoury pastizzi pastries and flatbread pizzas. And don’t miss imqaret, a dense pastry made of dates, which grow abundantly in Malta.
Seafood is prominent on Maltese menus, and two of my favourite places feature truly elegant settings. In Valletta, Palazzo Preca is in a glittering Baroque dining room while at St. Julian’s, ACQUA Terra e Mare is a high-end spot for open-air dining with a view of moored superyachts. Malta’s arid climate manages to produce quality wines, so accompany your meal with a crisp, local white, or a full-bodied red (Syrah or Merlot).
By the end of my stay in Malta, it was easy to see why it has been a top destination for those seeking a winter escape. Whether you stay for months or just for a week, you’ll be sad to leave behind the warmth of a Maltese winter. The good news? Your memories of this sun-kissed Mediterranean outpost will help you power through the rest of the season back home.
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MALTA BY CRUISE SHIP
Malta is a popular destination on many Mediterranean cruise itineraries. Calling into the port at the Valletta Waterfront complex, passengers typically have a full day to explore the city of Valletta via a guided tour, hop-on hop-off bus rides, or Segway tours of the historic city centre. Those who prefer to explore on their own will find they’re just a short walk away from Valletta’s sights — a walk made easier thanks to the Barrakka Lift, an elevator that takes visitors up to the centre of the city.
You can also book excursions to some of Malta’s most popular destinations, including Mdina, the megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim, Marsaxlokk and the Blue Grotto. Horseback riding, scuba diving and winery tours are also great day-trip options.
A few cruise ships stop at the port on Gozo, at Mġarr Harbour. On Gozo, passengers can opt to jump on a tuk-tuk tour, hire a Jeep for self-exploration, or take a boat tour to enjoy the island’s beaches.