I flew into Malta with zero expectations of the country. I did my bit of pre-departure research and looked up some good spots for photos, places to see, food to eat, but that was all. I knew that Malta had some of the oldest archaeological sites to visit, and some of the oldest history as well.
Flying over the islands and into Malta gave an idea of the geographical landscape. The island is rocky with cliffs dropping off into the sea around the island, providing a natural barrier in wartime situations.
When traveling to a new place I can generally get an instant general feel for it. For example, Italy has a very ‘Italian’ vibe going on and is evident through their pasta, wines, language, lack of personal barriers (love you Italy!), friendliness, architecture, and more. In Malta, however, everything was such a blend and mix of cultures from that defining what it was to be Maltese was a challenge for me.
The country has been run by the French and also Arab nations in past history, and most recently was part of the British Empire (you can read all about it here). It wasn’t until 1964 that Malta gained their independence. Today you can still see the red telephone booths scattered around the islands.
The Malta we experienced was lively at night, and bustling yet laid back during the day. We ate some really fantastic food, which ranged widely from local Maltese Pastizzii’s to many Italian places. The people were friendly and helpful, and I would recommend everyone visit, especially sun-seekers and divers.
Know Before You Go!
- Currency: Euro
- The People and Language: Very friendly and everyone speaks perfect or near-perfect English.
- Traveling In January: Malta in January is just about as offseason as it gets. Tours by boat are minimal. I think there was one running around the main harbor by Captain Morgan Cruises, and another if you wanted to see the blue grotto. But I think that was about it. It was a little disappointing, but then again it gets pretty chilly out on that water.
- Gozo: If you want to go to Gozo the ferry runs regularly. They seemed really worried about bad weather when we were there, but I didn’t think 50 degrees was bad at all.
We only needed a light jacket for the breeze that would blow through, but otherwise it was between 50 – 60F. In the sun you could easily wear a t-shirt. Coming from Germany this was a nice change. At night, however, it does cool off quite a bit so a warmer layer is needed if you plan to walk around.
By Car: We didn’t rent a car since public transportation was more than enough for us. However, if you do decide to rent a car know that you will be driving on the left hand side of the road and parking looked like it could be problematic. I was also surprised at how many cars and how much traffic we encountered.
By Bus: We took the bus to get to Gozo and back. From Sliema to the Gozo station it’s about an hour ride, then a short ferry across the water. There are water taxis from Sliema that will take you over to Valletta as well. Bus tickets were inexpensive.
By Taxi: Taxi prices were reasonable and an easy way to get around. We took a taxi from the airport and also one night when we were in St. Julians Bay.
By Jeep Safari: Okay, so this one is not a regular way to get around Malta but we actually did drive around in a jeep one day! We went on a tour around the island and saw basically the entire island. There are also quad tours and full-day tours in Gozo as well.
This is the waterfront area of Sliema
Our Stay in Sliema
Sliema is a good starting point and has fairly easy access to St Julian’s Bay as well as Valletta. I slightly preferred St Julians over Sliema just because it seemed more lively and had easier access to restaurants on the water, but both were fine.
If you’re looking for waterfront or a beach type of place, Sliema is not the place to be. They didn’t have any cafes or restaurants directly on the water, they were across the street which gave views of traffic instead of the bay. However, much of Malta is like this so I don’t know if a different area would have been better.
Along the walk from Sliema to St Julians (about 30-45 min) there are some cafes and good restaurants. We ate at a delicious Italian restaurant the first night we arrived.
Sliema has a slew of bars and restaurants that come alive at night. We found ourselves at the Black Gold Saloon more than once, which is just one of many along the main street.
Things to Do
Valletta was my favorite place to explore and to walk around. I really wish we hadn’t waited until the last day to go! The capital is lively, has markets, a few large squares with restaurants, shops, and bars.
My favorite stop was Cafe Cordina, a beautiful cafe that is the oldest and most famous in the area. There is a large outdoor seating area surrounded by beautiful architecture, and the inside of the cafe is even more stunning. When you go, be sure to walk in and look around, and try one of their famous desserts.
We decided to eat outside the cafe in their large seating area. There were pigeons everywhere, and they quickly took over the table next to us as soon as the other customers got up to leave. There were probably 15 pigeons on this one small cafe table. The three of us each had our dessert and cafe and were getting uneasy that there were that many pigeons aggressively eating every morsel they could find. Well, before we knew it, one of the pigeons flew over to our table and started eating my friend’s dessert. She screamed, we screamed, and we all jumped out of our seats. As you can imagine, the rest of them were on our table in a few seconds and we sadly lost our beautiful desserts. Moral of the story: watch out for those pigeons.
We spent the entire day walking around, drinking wine, and navigating the narrow and sometimes steep streets.
Take a Jeep or Driving Tour
In the winter there aren’t as near as many outdoor activities open or available. Most of the boat cruises and water related activities aren’t running, but there are some land tours available in the winter. We booked a jeep safari tour ahead of time and saw all of the island of Malta in a day.
We also had the added perk of this being an off-road safari so we went down many bumpy dirt roads and hills. Our guide was having a great time, and truthfully it was really fun bouncing around in the back seat.
Visit Popeye’s Village
The cutest village in all of Malta. Popeye’s Village is the film set for the famous 1980 musical production Popeye. This place really sticks out with its vibrant colors and wooden decorated facade. It’s definitely a must-see. If you want to walk around inside there is a surcharge of about 12-14 Euro.
Did you know? Malta is the most popular filming location in Europe. Gladiator, Troy, and Munich were a few of the many films shot here.
Explore the Blue Grotto
So I have a confession, we didn’t end up actually taking a boat into the famous grotto. Our Jeep tour guide told us since it was afternoon, we wouldn’t be able to see much inside. He said in January the best time is early morning when the sun is rising. The sun lights up the grotto and is more beautiful than any other time of the day.
Take a Ferry to Gozo
Gozo is just a short 15-minute ferry ride away (from the north harbor of Malta). Travel across and get on one of the hop-on hop-off bus tours to see the entire island. The bus is really the only way to get around in the winter unless you wanted to pay for a private cab to drive you around, which was considerably more.
I really enjoyed our bus ride. It’s a double decker with an exposed rooftop to enjoy the sights (see photo below). If you can catch Gozo on a nice day, that makes it all the more better. We loved it until it started raining and we had to stay put on the roof of the bus (there were no seats below and standing wasn’t allowed).
Gozo has a lot to see and you will want a full day to tour the entire island. In the winter it is VERY sleepy. Most of the buildings looked abandoned with the exception of the town of Victoria, the capital of Gozo. It was more lively and had shops and restaurants. If you decide to stay overnight I would recommend staying in Victoria.
Visit the Ancient City of Mdina
Mdina is a walled city atop a hill and used to be the old capital. It’s full of windy stone streets that can feel a bit like a maze (luckily it’s not too big). This can be done in a few hours depending on your preference. We only had about an hour, and I think more time was needed for me to take more photos and stroll all the streets.
View from Mdina….
Where to Stay
Since it’s the off season, hotel prices drop a lot so it could be a great time to stay at a nicer place than you normally would. We booked a hotel room with three guest beds for a really great price. It was about 120 Euro for all 3 of us for 3 nights. Not too bad!
Our hotel promoted an outdoor jacuzzi, but when we arrived they told us it was too cold for a jacuzzi. I am still confused by this. We tried to explain why a hot tub is nice in the winter, but were met with strange looks. I clearly don’t think they get the point of having one, and from that experience I would recommend ALWAYS checking with the hotel before you go!
Here are my top recommendations of places to stay:
- Sliema – It was easy to get around from here, and you can get the best views of Valletta. Prices are reasonable, and there’s a fun little bar strip near the water.
- Valletta – If I were to go again, I would stay at least one night in Valletta. It is the capital and much bigger than Sliema. It’s also high up on a hill and has a great vantage point for photos. I loved walking around looking at the architecture and meandering up and down the steep stairways.
Have you been to Malta? Would you ever want to visit in the winter?