Photo Courtesy of Dave Barlow
Quirky nuances abound in Malta: whitewashed houses adorned with names, brass doorknobs shaped like whales, and a hodgepodge of cultural influences. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St. John, French, and British have all ruled this Mediterranean archipelago, which finally gai…ned 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. Valletta, the capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been named 2018 European Capital of Culture.
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Given its location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the weather of the Maltese Islands is highly dependent upon the wind and the 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. In fact, those with sea legs—or flippers, as it were—have been known to sneak in a swim come December. 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. AirMalta codeshares with major airlines like Turkish Airways, Swiss Air, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Virgin; there are stopovers in many major cities, but no direct flights from the United States. As for the sea journey: Malta’s main cruise port in Valletta services lines like Celebrity, Princess, MSC, Norwegian, and Costa 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 €69 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 can be unreliable. Cars are permitted on the main ferry from Malta to Gozo, which leaves at the Cirkewwa Port and arrives at Mgarr Port in Gozo about 20 minutes later. Schedules vary depending on the season, but generally there’s about 90 minutes between crossings. The cost is a mere €4.65 on foot or €15.70 with a car. In and around the Valletta harbor, there are smaller ferry and taxi boats that leave regularly for the nearby towns of St. Julian’s and Sliema.
There is one other public transport alternative on the islands: the Hop On/Hop Off bus routes, which many visitors swear by. The thing with this €20 option is that you’re beholden to a schedule, and some of the sites worth visiting are actually pretty far apart in distance, The bus arrives at each destination every 45 minutes, and you'd need at least eight hours to feasibly complete one route in a full day, with ample time to stop for a snorkel or to peel some shrimp at any one destination.
Maltese cuisine is extremely diverse, influenced as it is by milennia of foreign settlement. You’ll taste Italy, Turkey, and Britain, but local delicacies tend to be rustic: “Rabbit Stew” and “Lampuki Pie” (fish 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. Expect to be spoiled by choice, too: You’ll come across varieties you’ve never heard of (or at least different names for ones you have), such as spnotta (bass), dott (stone fish), 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—which is a Maltese version of ratatouille—and “Widow's Soup,” which includes a small round of gbejniet (sheep or goat's cheese). Gbejniet can be found in various island dishes, especially on the typical antipasto plate, which also comes with olives, capers, sundried tomatoes, an eggplant spread, and pita crackers. It’s perfect as a late afternoon snack with a bottle of local white Ghirghentina wine or a spritz—a Mediterranean favorite.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Malta during a village festa 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 decked out in decorations—banners, flags, and twinkle lights—and filled with joyful neighbors who spill out in 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 feast of Santa Marija in August, and the Mnarja—which is steeped in folklore—at the end of June. Visitors will also encounter a large number of more contemporary events throughout the year.
July brings the annual Malta Jazz Festival and the Malta Arts Festival, both of which feature local and international artists. Late June caters to a rowdier set with the Isle of MTV festival, which has been taking over the area between Valletta and St. Julian’s since 2007. 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 2016 saw the second annual Valletta Film Festival, where Maltese and international filmmakers debuted films at various venues around town—including the incredible outdoor amphitheater near the harbor, Fort St. Elmo. The one-night-only Fjakkolata Festival of Lights on October 9 sees the Ghar Ilma hill on Gozo lit up by hundreds of flaming lanterns.
Sara Lieberman AFAR Contributor
After over a decade as an editor in New York, Sara went freelance in 2013 to pursue the wandering life of a travel and lifestyle writer. When she's not gallivanting around unfamiliar territories like the swimming coves of Comino, Malta 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.