Photo by Joana Kruse/Alamy
In Malta, quirky details abound: whitewashed houses adorned with names, brass doorknobs shaped like whales, and a hodgepodge of cultural influences. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of Saint John, French, and British have all ruled this Mediterranean archipelago, which finally …gained independence in 1974. You’ll get a dose of the tropics here with an occasional palm or bougainvillea, but most of the landscape is arid and hilly—a popular filming location for dramatic epics like Gladiator, Troy, and Game of Thrones. Valletta, the capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was named a European Capital of Culture in 2018.
What to know before you go to Malta
Given their location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese islands are heavily affected by the wind and sea. In July and August, the days are long, sunny, and dry, making summer the perfect time to sunbathe on the archipelago's rocky shores and dive in one of its many grottoes or caves. Fall and spring tend to be cooler but more humid. Winters are mild but never outright cold, with temperatures averaging around 55 degrees. Early June or late September are often the best times to visit. There are fewer crowds on either end of the European vacation season, and the temperate weather is perfect for strolling the limestone-walled cities and rocky shores.
The Maltese islands are reachable by plane or boat. The three main islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino, are serviced by one airport, Malta International, which is known by locals as Luqa because of its location between the towns of Luqa and Gudja. While there are no direct flights from the United States, Air Malta code-shares with major airlines like Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Emirates, and British Airways. As for the sea journey, Malta’s main cruise port in Valletta services lines such as Celebrity, Princess, MSC, Norwegian, and Holland America as part of their Mediterranean itineraries. Alternatively, Virtu Ferries offers passenger boats and excursions to and from ports in Sicily. The voyage is a little under two hours, and rates start at around $75 one way, depending on the season.
Once you arrive on Maltese soil, rent a car. Both Gozo and the main island of Malta are large enough to warrant your own set of wheels. Without one, you’ll be reliant on expensive taxi rides—best arranged by your hotel to reduce exorbitant rates—or the local bus system, which is cheap but unreliable. Cars are permitted on the main ferry from Malta to Gozo, which departs from Cirkewwa Port and arrives at Mgarr Port on Gozo about 30 minutes later. Schedules vary depending on the season, but generally there’s about 90 minutes between crossings, and the cost is less than $6 on foot or $18 with a car. In and around the Valletta harbor, there are smaller ferry and taxi boats that leave regularly for the nearby towns of Saint Julian’s and Sliema.
Maltese cuisine is extremely diverse, influenced as it is by millennia of foreign settlement. You’ll have a taste of Italy, Turkey, and Britain, but local delicacies tend to be rustic: Rabbit stew and lampuki (dolphinfish) pie are advertised on menus everywhere. When dining by the shore, be prepared to choose your fish from a display before deciding how you want it filleted. Also expect to be spoiled by choice. You’ll come across varieties of fish you’ve never heard of (or at least different names for the ones you have), such as spnotta (bass), cerna (grouper), sargu (white bream), and trill (red mullet). Stews and red pasta sauces are often filled with octopus and squid.
Other native dishes include kapunata, a Maltese version of ratatouille, and widow’s soup, which includes a small round of gbejniet (sheep or goat cheese). Gbejniet can be found in various island dishes, especially on the typical antipasto plate, which also comes with olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, an eggplant spread, and pita crackers. It’s perfect as a late afternoon snack with a bottle of local white girgentina wine or a spritz—a Mediterranean favorite.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Malta during a festa (village feast) or an ode to a patron saint, you’re in for a treat. Starting in May and running through September, these celebrations see the towns filled with decorations—banners, flags, and twinkle lights—and joyful neighbors, who spill out into the streets to eat and drink. Some locals even go so far as to repaint their houses in the days leading up to a festa. Evenings often end with fireworks. The islands’ most prominent religious and historical festivals include the Mnarja, which is steeped in folklore, at the end of June and the Feast of Santa Marija in August. Visitors will also encounter a large number of more contemporary events throughout the year.
Carnival, in February, takes the form of a wild, raucous, and colorful festival in Valletta. In the town of Nadur on Gozo, however, it’s been nicknamed “Sobriquet”—the silent carnival—because people tend to dress and act more mysteriously. June brings the annual Valletta Film Festival, while July hosts the Malta Jazz Festival and Malta Arts Festival. The one-night-only Fjakkolata Festival of Lights in October sees Ghar Ilma Hill on Gozo lit up by hundreds of flaming lanterns.
Visitors from the United States to Malta must have a passport valid for at least three months upon entry, but do not need a visa to visit the country for up to 90 days. Maltese is the national language, but English is widely spoken. Given Malta’s close proximity to Italy, nearly 66 percent of the population also speaks Italian. The currency is the euro. Electricity is 230 volts, and sockets are type G (three rectangular pins in a triangle pattern).
read before you go
After more than a decade as an editor in New York, Sara Lieberman went freelance in 2013 to pursue the wandering life of a travel and lifestyle writer. When she’s not gallivanting around unfamiliar territory like the swimming coves of Malta’s Comino island or the crab shacks of Kep, Cambodia, she’s based in Paris, where she’s grown accustomed to practicing yoga in French and summering without air-conditioning. Her work also appears in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Hemispheres, and more.
Dave Seminara is a writer and former diplomat based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dave’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BBC Travel, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and many other publications. He is the author of Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats: Dispatches from the Margins of Europe, which chronicles how he created a diplomatic incident with Malta in 1986 and sought to remedy the offense he caused 25 years later, among many other European misadventures.