For many of us, Malta is a bit of a mystery – nothing more than an unfamiliar port stop on some Mediterranean cruise itinerary we were perusing – and our knowledge of this tiny island country begins and ends there. (Hey, we can’t know everything. Even though I have a big, fat head, it’s full of Broadway lyrics, and there’s only so much room up there.)
But Malta is kind of magical – medieval towns and villages rimmed by truly beautiful beaches and azure waters. It’s a very Instagrammable place. (The city of Valletta is one of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Malta.) Because of its strategic naval location in the center of the Mediterranean, it has been ruled by many countries over the centuries – the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, French and British, among others – and the influences can be felt in both architecture and customs.
Before we get into the many wonderful sights, let’s cover the basics:
Like most of Europe, locals typically speak the language of their country (in this case, Maltese) as well as English. In Malta, nearly 90% speak English. If you should find yourself in a spot with someone whose English is iffy, though – say, an older person at a street market – there are two great apps for translating: the new Translate app on iPhone (it appears automatically as part of the newer IOS versions, like 16) or Google Translate. Note: as of this writing, the Apple app does not include Maltese. Google’s does.
With these apps, you can have them speak into the app and it will translate, or you can say in English what you want to communicate and a voice will repeat it to them in Maltese.
Malta is on the Euro. As with many smaller countries, it’s best to carry both a credit card (be warned that not everywhere in Malta accepts Amex) and some cash, which you can always obtain at an ATM. Most restaurants accept credit cards, but smaller stores and market vendors may not.
You probably know this trick; but check with your bank to see if they have a partner bank in Malta. If so, look for a branch of that bank, and you won’t have to pay ATM fees.
Malta is among the safest countries in the EU. Of course, as with travel anywhere, take the typical precautions, i.e. don’t bring the good tiara, don’t go promenading late at night outside of tourist areas, etc.
With a solidly Mediterranean climate, Malta is extremely temperate. In the winter, you’ll find temps between 50 and 60, while summer days range from the 70’s to around 90. (If you’re taking our August Venice to Malta cruise, it will be mostly in the 80’s in Malta.)
BEST SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
Okay, on to the sights!
Note: if you’re taking our 2024 Venice to Malta cruise, we offer a two-night extension package that includes hotel, a gastro tour, a gourmet lunch, and additional optional tours that will be announced soon (or are already available, depending on when you read this). Click on the link below, and scroll down to the bottom of the page.
Malta’s walled old town, Mdina, is extremely picturesque, set high on a hill with huge fortifications surrounding it. Wander the streets. Check out the churches, palaces and convents. Dine at the charming cafes. Mdina is about 8 miles from Valletta, so if you’re staying in Valletta, you’ll want to take a taxi (about $30-35).
Fort St. Elmo
The famous fort that sits in Valletta’s harbor (once intended to protect it) is fascinating and it (and the National War Museum enclosed within) are absolutely worth a guided tour. Built in the 16th century, it was the site of the Great Siege of 1565. During an almost month-long battle by the invading Ottomans, the fort was bombarded by cannon fire, and Malta ultimately surrendered to the Turks.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
These lovely gardens set atop a hill have the best views of Malta. Take a taxi up there if you’re mobility-challenged; the walk back down into Valletta is, obviously, much easier.
Grand Harbour Cruise
Malta is incredibly scenic from the water, and if you didn’t get your fill cruising into Valletta (or it occurred when you were asleep), take a harbour cruise. The cruise travels around the two natural harbours on either side of Valletta – Marsamxetto Harbour and the Grand Harbour – where you’ll view the magnificent forts and battlements situated in Valletta and the 3 Cities. The tour includes detailed commentary.
We recommend a sunset cruise for especially breathtaking views.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral & Rotunda Mosta
St. John’s is one of the largest churches in Europe (and as you likely know, Europe takes church size as a personal challenge). This 16th century cathedral has over-the-top baroque architecture and artwork that would make any Pope preen, and it’s considered the jewel of Malta.
Likewise, Rotuna Mosta takes the bigger-is-better approach. The dome is larger than St. Paul’s in London and was modeled after Rome’s Colosseum. If you like marble and gilt and massive pipe organs (theirs has 2,000 pipes), this is the church for you.
Lascaris War Rooms
If you’ve been into the Churchill War Rooms in London, you probably don’t need to see these, but if you haven’t, definitely take the tour. Built 15 stories underground, this is where war plans were devised for the defense of Malta against axis aggression during WWII. It’s fascinating to imagine having to live down here for weeks and months at a time.
Malta is actually made up of 3 primary islands. Valletta is, of course, the largest (and the one cruise ships dock at), and Comino is uninhabited (although there’s a good reason to go there. More on that below).
Gozo is the other long-inhabited island and is definitely worth a day trip. It’s easy to get here by ferry (45 minutes, about $8.50 each way, although seniors get it for $3.50).
Walk the charming streets of the Citadella (Victoria’s walled Old Town), including sights like the Old Prison – where you can see ancient prison cells – the market in Independence Square, and St. George’s Basilica.
If you’ve never seen salt pans (in places like Peru), visit the the Marsalforn salt pans, a two-square mile area where salt is harvested by several families in the summer (and available for sale on site).
Visit the Ggantija Temple complex – two huge temples comprised of massive stones, they were built before the Egyptian pyramids and before the invention of the wheel, which makes their construction a complete mystery. Hence the name (Temples of Giants).
Cave Diving on Comino
This is why you come to the uninhabited island of Comino. If you enjoy scuba diving, there are world-class caves here, along with an abundance of marine life like octopus and barracuda. As with Gojo, you need to take a ferry to the island, although they’re quick and inexpensive (Comino lies between Valletta and Gozo).
But, of course, scuba diving isn’t like snorkeling; if you’re not already certified, you have to take at least a day of instruction, which makes this a multi-day (and slightly expensive) excursion. But if this is a hobby you enjoy, it’s a fantastic place to indulge in it.
Also known as Sweethaven Village, this entire village was constructed for the Robin Williams movie, Popeye. You can visit the film set, learn about the history of the movie and village, and try spinach pie, which is a local delicacy. Be sure to take the boat ride for the best views of this cliffside village.
The site has earned multiple Tripadvisor Certificates of Excellence. But a word of caution: if a cruise ship will be in port that day (most particularly in summer), the site will likely be flooded with kids, since there are lots of specially-designed activities for the tots.
MALTA’S GAY SCENE
Malta has become extremely progressive in the past few years, legalizing both marriage equality and transgender rights. You can feel very comfortable being your big gay self, here.
Valletta, where you will likely be staying has a number of world-class hotels, virtually all of which are gay-friendly; but sadly, no LGBT-only B&B’s or other resorts.
There is only one gay bar (keep in mind that the population of the entire country is just half a million), called Michelangelo, which gets middling reviews, overall. It’s a two-floor space which can get fairly crowded, but at least you can drink in some hot Maltese locals.
There are, of course, a number of gay-friendly bars and lounges that are quite cool and sophisticated, like Alchemy, Kingsway and the Cheeky Monkey, where you’re likely to see groups of LGBT folk scattered throughout the crowds. If you’re up for an outdoor hangout, check out the uber-popular Bridge Bar, which has tables (other patrons just sit on the steps) and live jazz on a bridge.
As you can see, Malta may be small, but it gives you a LOT of bang for your buck. So, get ready to be banged!