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 you 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, bardolinos, language, personal barriers, friendliness, architecture, and more. In Malta, however, everything was such a blend and mix of cultures that defining what it was to be Maltese was difficult. 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 looking back I would recommend a visit to anyone, especially sun seekers and divers.
Know Before You Go
The People and Language: Very friendly and everyone speaks perfect or near perfect english.
Traveling In January: Malta in January is just about as off season 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.
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.
Weather: We only needed a light jacket for the breeze that would blow through, but otherwise it was between the 50's - 60's. 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. I personally wouldn't want to drive there just for that reason, and it looked like parking could be a problem.
By Bus: We took the bus to get to Gozo and back, and then walked, took a taxi, and went on a water taxis as well. The bus from Sliema to the Gozo station is 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.
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. We didn't bring jackets that night and the walk would have taken about 45 minutes in the dark.
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 country (Malta isn't all that big).
Our Stay in Sliema
Sliema is a good starting point and has fairly easy access to St Julians Bay as well as Valletta. I slightly preferred St Julians better than 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 isn't 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 provided sitting on the waters edge.
Along the walk from Sliema to St Julians (about 30-45 minute walk) there are some cafes and good restaurants. We ate at a delicious Italian restaurant overlooking the water on 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 facing the water.
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 walk in and look around you'll see what I mean, and also be sure to try one of their famous desserts.
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. This mostly pertains to water activities, with a few exceptions. The Captain Morgan tour industry runs the show in Malta, and you can easily get on one of these tours. 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. 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.
When in Rome, right?! ....or Malta in this case...
Explore the Blue Grotto
So I have a confession, we didn't end up actually taking a boat into the famous grotto. The reason why is because we were on the tour and the guide told us at the time of day (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. I really enjoyed the bus though, it's a double decker with an exposed rooftop to enjoy the sights. 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. Our hotel promoted an outdoor jacuzzi, but when we arrived they told us it was too cold for a jacuzzi. So people only go in hot tubs in the blazing heat? 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!
Have you been to Malta? Would you ever want to visit in the winter?