Sexy, Sophisticated, and Sublime: A Non-Touristy Travel Guide to Malta

Malta is the type of destination that lures you in the minute you step off the airplane. It’s colorful and picturesque everywhere you turn. So of  course, I was itching to see everything on this small, Mediterranean island that spans 126 square miles. And, truth be told, after traveling all the way from Los Angeles I was tired. But, since it was a perfectly clear and sunny 71 degrees, I knew this would be prime time to capture great shots of the island. After all, the weather forecast said half of my time here would be cloudy and windy so I knew I needed to optimize my time.

Since I was staying at The George Urban Boutique Hotel in the village of St. Julian’s, I decided to stroll around that neighborhood first, right along St. George’s Road—the main thoroughfare. I was only a few minutes into my walk when I suddenly had an eyegasm after arriving at Spinola Bay.

At first glance, Spinola Bay is inarguably Malta’s unofficial postcard to the world. A large sun-filled panoramic bay with brightly colored boats makes it one of the most grandiose landscapes I’ve ever seen in all of the Mediterranean. Out of more than 30 beaches and bays on the Maltese archipelago, this U-shaped bay tops the list.

But, while Spinola Bay is breathtaking, it’s not unique on this tiny island. All of the Republic of Malta is gorgeous and that’s no exaggeration. The stunning scenery is the main reason I chose to visit and the reason many TV series and movies have filmed here as well.

Malta, Gozo, and Comino islands make up the Maltese archipelago. All three are distinct islands, with their own natural treasures and landmarks. But the Republic of Malta is so much more than a pretty face and a prime filming location. It’s a country with an emerging demographic, a rich history, a wealth of ancient landmarks, and a distinct cuisine and language like no other place. It’s also the perfect escape for people looking to be blown away by a travel experience.

St. Julian's Village in Malta
Side view of Spinola Bay in St. Julian’s Village in Malta

A sign of the times

There are more than 425,000 people living on the Maltese archipelago. More than 25,000 of them are foreigners, with British nationals making up the vast majority followed by Somalis and Italians. The Republic of Malta has grown into an ethnically diverse island complete with the usual growing pains shared by other nations that once had a homogenous population. With a high-rise building boom and more than one million tourists descending on the island annually, at times, Malta is like many major  metropolitan cities with traffic jams and lots of people taking public transit.

So much has changed here since the tiny country gained its independence from Britain in 1964. It’s now the most densely populated country in the EU, with nearly 3,000 people per square mile. Immigrants have also changed this island, culturally and psychologically. In 2010, there were only 175 asylum applications submitted in Malta. That number has gone up dramatically to 1,692 in 2015. Bound by EU laws, Malta, like other European countries, must accept asylum applications and grant asylum to qualifying people.

But, through all of this Malta’s economy is still one of the most advanced in the western world. The World Bank classifies Malta as a “high income country.” With a relative low rate of unemployment, this EU island-country’s economy relies heavily on tourism, foreign trade, financial services, and manufacturing. And, tourism continues to boom. In 2015, 1.7 million tourists visited. As Malta has become more culturally diverse over the last decade, it also strengthened and solidified its robust economy making it a perfect playground and summer vacation spot for many people.

Valletta, Malta
The city of Valletta in Malta

Malta by the seasons

I visited Malta in the winter. And, if you know anything about Malta, then you know summer and winter seasons are dramatically different with regard to the number of tourists and costs. Malta attracts many more people in the summer when it hosts a series of large film, music, and arts festivals.

Because of its Mediterranean location, Malta’s weather is very similar to Southern California. Summers are sunny, warm, and dry. August is the hottest month, where temperatures hover between the mid-80s and sometimes low-90s Fahrenheit during the day and dip into the low-60s at night. When I visited during the winter month of February, there were more sun-filled days than not during my week and a half there. But, every day was a windy one. Temperatures hovered around the low-60s during the day and were cooler at night in the low-50s and upper-40s. Overall, the rainfall average is low, which might explain why Malta was once given the title of the best climate in the world.

Just like other island countries, peak seasons tend to be summer and spring, when tourists flock to the destination and everything is pricey. Since I was there in February, I was able to snag a great deal at a 4-star boutique hotel in one of the most tourist-filled areas of Malta—the village of St. Julian’s. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, Spinola Bay, and St. George’s Bay pack this neighborhood. I was able to find major discounts for The George Urban Boutique Hotel. An 8-night stay only set me back $602. In July, that same hotel for eight days would cost between $1,127 and $1,325, depending on discounts. But, even with discounts you can see the difference in price between summer and winter is nearly double when it comes to hotels. And, as expected, hotels with bay and beach views are often the most coveted and costly vacation rentals.

Airfare prices vary as well from season to season. A round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Malta in the month of February is as low as $728 with one layover using Turkish Airlines. In July, that same round-trip flight using the same airline will cost you nearly $1,200. So, factor in twice the cost on nearly everything if you visit in the summer months.

Valletta 2

Malta’s crown jewel—Valletta

No James Bond movie has ever been made in Valletta, but one should be. This city is intriguing, sexy, sophisticated, and sublime! The capital of Malta is so unique that UNESCO classified it as a World Heritage Site. This fortified city reminded me of the famous Wall of Dubrovnik in Croatia, which also has a similar series of defensive stone walls erected around its city. For such a small Mediterranean island, Valletta’s architecture is an ancient masterpiece with countless historically significant sites.

Valletta 3

Valletta has also been designated the “European Capital of Culture” for 2018, which is a title the European Union awards a worthy city for one year which then hosts culturally historical events. With more than 25 ornate and history-rich churches and cathedrals dotting this small town, it’s home to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, which is considered one of the greatest cathedrals in the world because of its high Baroque architecture. The late 16th century cathedral is open to the public and only cost 10 euro for adults. But, it’s well worth it if for no other reason than to take pictures of the church built for St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order.

Because of its small size, I was able to walk the entire perimeter of Valletta, stopping along the way to shoot pictures and video. I started my walk where many tourists do—the Valletta Commonwealth Walkway. This walkway is less than a year old, but rich in history. The stone walkway was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth back in November. It marks the 20 historic Valletta sites connected to the British Empire. It’s considered the first of its kind outside of the UK. It’s even got an app for visitors to download information illustrating points of interest as they stroll the walkway.

Commonwealth Valletta

 

The Malta at War Museum and the National Museum of Archaeology are not just for history buffs, but for anyone interested in how this tiny island played a role in world history. These museums feature relics from WWII and the prehistoric and Neolithic periods.

The lifeline of Valletta is Republic Street, which is the main pedestrian thoroughfare. One of the staples of Republic Street is the Wembley Store, which has been selling wine and other delicacies for 86 years. The street is part touristy shops and part historical landmarks. The largest palace in the city can be found on Republic Street. The Palace Armoury and a number of state rooms are all housed in what’s known as The Palace.

Wembley Valletta

One of the greatest things about Valletta is the wide selection of restaurants serving traditional Maltese cuisine (which more often than not includes stewed rabbit) and traditional Maltese Wine. Kantina Cafe is a great place to get a quick bite to eat for a reasonable price. Kantina’s menu is short, but sweet. You’ll find burgers and fries and some Italian dishes, but you can get a grilled Maltese sausage salad and Mediterranean focaccia as well.  For a memorable dinner in a luxurious setting, try Rampila. Because of its prime location and wide offerings, it’s best to make reservations. This establishment is a hybrid of a restaurant, terrace, museum, and exhibition. The museum showcases the history of the country while the terrace features dining with a postcard-worthy view of the walls of Valletta. Look for seafood, steak, and Maltese-inspired dishes and sip some wine from one of Malta’s five wine producers.

If you’re looking for a less touristy and more local activity, make sure to visit the Mediterranean Conference Centre. I was lucky enough to be in town when the center hosted the play, “The Life and Death of Martin Luther King.” The center is a former 16th century hospital and once housed the largest main hall in Europe with a length of nearly 500 feet. The large hospital was once considered one of Europe’s premier hospitals. Today, it’s a multifaceted historical building complete with some relics, but focuses on hosting weddings, theatrical performances, exhibitions, conventions, and classical concerts. Tickets to some events are pretty reasonable and can be bought for as little as 10 euro on the website.

Although Valletta is steep in ancient history, the city is also modern. It hosts the annual Valletta Film Festival, where short films, documentaries, feature films, actors and actresses compete for awards. This year, it will take place at venues all around the city from June 3-11. It also features the internationally recognized Malta Jazz Festival from July 21-23.

Tourist Meccas – St. Julian’s and Sliema

The towns of St. Julian’s and Sliema (pronounced Slee-Ma) are the epicenter of dayside dining and bustling nightlife. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pack these two locations, mainly in the summer.

I stayed at one of St. Julian’s premier boutique hotels, The George Urban Boutique Hotel. Nestled on Paceville Avenue in between wine shops, cafes, and boutique stores; it’s walking distance from most of the trendy bars, restaurants, clubs, and casinos. It was a prime location to get around the tourist haven neighborhood. More than 10,000 people are packed into less than one square mile in this village. St. Julian’s has the tallest skyscraper on the island, Portomaso Business Tower, and its own official soccer team. Hundreds of thousands of swimwear-clad millennials pack St. George’s Bay, Spinola Bay, and Balluta Bay during the summer months in St. Julian’s. One of the highlights of my trip was dining outside at some of the restaurants along Spinola Bay. The sweeping view is simply breathtaking. Gululu and Cafe Cuba are two restaurants that have the greatest views in the bay. A woman working the front desk of my hotel recommended Gululu and I wasn’t disappointed. Although it is known for serving up authentic Maltese food, I opted for a pasta dish, dessert, a glass of white wine, and some sparkling water and it only cost me 21.70 euro. Not bad for a late lunch! Cafe Cuba serves more casual American dishes with relatively low prices as well. For something different in St. Julian’s, try eating at the award-winning authentic Indian restaurant Shiva’s and Malta’s oldest pizzeria, Ir-Rokna.

Gululu2

 

Like St. Julian’s, Sliema is an area with its own soccer team and a large waterfront promenade which features MAC Cosmetics and Zara stores along its famed Tower Road. But, unlike St. Julian’s, Sliema has a number of English Language Schools, and a number of former artillery batteries. Today, Sliema Point Battery and Saint. Julian’s Tower have been converted into trendy eateries. Sliema Point Battery is now Fortizza Bar & Restaurant, with a modest menu and an impressive view of the peninsula. Saint. Julian’s Tower is now It-Torri Restaurant, featuring Italian fare, seafood, meat staples, and Maltese cuisine. And, just like Il-Fortizza, It-Torri is also on Tower Road and features an outside terrace with splendid views. Walking along the Sliema Promenade, is a photographer’s dream. I spent hours taking more than 50 pictures of the area’s landmarks as I walked past dozens of tourists dining at outdoor cafés and shopping in boutiques. Both Sliema and St. Julian’s feature a more contemporary, albeit more touristy side, of Malta.

stjulianwide

Ancient History—Mdina and Floriana

Valletta has history, but the fortified medieval towns of Mdina and Floriana are historical.

Before Valletta was dubbed the capital of Malta, Mdina held that title up until the medieval period. Today, less than 300 people live here, but more than 700,000 tourists visit every year, making it one of the main attractions on the island. Like other Maltese towns, it features Baroque architectural palaces, cathedrals, and chapels. But, it’s distinct. The entire city is still confined within walls and no cars are allowed to drive on its very narrow streets, with few exceptions given to emergency vehicles, residents, and wedding processions. The rare “no car” rule has even earned it the moniker, “The Silent City.” Although Mdina is uncharacteristic for many reasons, most people might be more familiar with it from a popular TV show. The main gate to the city, Mdina Gate, was used as the gate to King’s Landing in an episode HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series. The city’s walls have also undergone an extensive multiyear restoration which will surely keep it a premier attraction for many travelers.

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Photo of Mdina, Malta; Courtesy Image:www.viewingmalta.com/ photographer Clive Vella

With a little more than 2,000 residents and situated right next to Valletta, Floriana boasts a soccer, basketball, and hockey teams. It’s also home to Hotel Phoenicia, one of the oldest and most distinguished 5-star hotels on the island. Like nearly all the buildings on Malta, the Hotel Phoenicia is made of limestone, but unlike many hotels, it’s architecture is considered Art Deco.

To most Europeans, Floriana is perhaps best known for its annual music festival, “Isle of MTV.” The free summer concert has been held in Floriana since 2007. Rapper Wiz Khalifa and DJ Steve Aoki are headlining this year’s event on June 28.

Mdina

Photo of Floriana, Malta: ro431977 via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)

Spend Sunday at the Marsaxlokk Market

The best place to be on Sundays is in the quaint fishing town of Marxaxlokk. Nearly a 40-minute drive from the capital of Valletta, this quiet village transforms into a large farmers market. This tiny town of less than 4,000 people features dozens of vendors and merchants perched along the harbor selling fish, baked goods, homemade items, and arts and crafts. It’s a great place to get a deal on locally made items.

Marsaxlokk2

Just a few feet to the west of the market sits the Church of Our Lady of Pompei. The 19th century Roman Catholic Parish Church, like many other churches on the island, has architecture steeped in history and is listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands.

Marsaxlokk

Although Marsaxlokk is not within walking distance from Valletta or the touristy areas of Sliema and St. Julian’s, I found it rather easy to hop on a bus at the main bus terminal in Valletta. The bus terminals are numbered and list the locations of each town right next to their respective numbers. It costs between 1.50 to 3 euro, depending on the season and time of day. Not a bad bargain for a nearly hourlong ride.

Getaway to Gozo Island 

Malta is made up of a number of islands, but most people visit the main island—Malta. But, if you are going to visit Malta, then make sure you getaway to Gozo Island.

Neolithic temples and rolling hillsides are prominently featured all over this island. But, three places stood out to me. The first was the Inland Sea. This gorgeous limestone arch sits on a lagoon and features an opening which allows tourists to sail right through and out into the Mediterranean Sea. Make sure you head here first as people do line up for the opportunity to sail through it.

The second place is Xlendi Bay. I was lucky enough to have a local man recommend dining in this area. Once I hopped off my tour bus and saw Xlendi Bay, I knew why. It is by far the most impressive bay on Gozo. Xlendi bay is lined with restaurants and hotels right on the turquoise-colored waterfront. Dining near the embankment reminded me of my dining experiences along the coastal areas of Italy. It has that old-world European charm with gorgeous seafront, panoramic views. I was fortunate enough to grab the last table at the Hotel San Andrea’s packed restaurant, Zafiro, right along the promenade. Although this local hotspot was crowded, service was impeccable and the selection of food and wine was surprisingly extensive. Delicious, creamy pasta dishes, fresh seafood items, and a long list of wines, including signature Maltese wines are available at Zafiro. And, for the food and the view, the prices aren’t too expensive. Appetizers are between 7 to 11 euro, while main courses are between 16 to 24 euro.

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Photo of Xlendi Bay, Gozo Island in Malta; Courtesy Image: www.viewingmalta.com

The third and perhaps most congested sight to see is the Azure Window. Like the Inland Sea, the Azure Window is another natural limestone arch right near the Dwerja Bay. It’s the second oldest rock on the island and was formed after two limestone sea caves crashed into one another. Google images of Gozo Island, and Azure Window will surely pop up. The wide, picturesque arch is a favorite with tourists, including me. I had to wait a few minutes for visitors to get out of my shot before I was able to snap a clear photo of the age-old formation. It’s also a hot spot for scuba divers and was featured prominently in the films, “Clash of the Titans,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and on the HBO TV series “Game of Thrones.”

 

Malta 2

Gozo Island 2

Though smaller than the island of Malta, Gozo is 26 square miles and has more than 35,000 residents. And, because of its easy access, traveling from the island of Malta to the island of Gozo is relatively easy. The Gozo Channel Line is a public ferry that travels back and forth every 45 minutes depending on the season and costs less than 5 euro one way. It also accommodates hundreds of people.

Essential Malta Travel Tips:

  • Electrical supply is 230 volts.
  • Adapters are the same as the U.K.—the three-pin rectangular
  • Currency is the euro.
  • Maltese and English are the official languages
  • American, British, Australian, and Canadian residents only need passports to visit Malta.
  • All taxis at the Malta International Airport have set prices based on the area that the tourist is traveling to. Click here for exact rates for each region.
  • Malta Public Transport operates public buses all over the island. Fares are between 1.50 euro and 3 euro depending on season and time of day. Click here for more information on the bus line.
  • There are no American-based airlines flying directly to Malta; however, British Airways and a number of other European airlines fly to Malta.
  • A number of FREE Wi-Fi hotspots and ATMs can be found all over both Malta and Gozo islands.
  • Malta recently added tourism police to the most heavily visited tourist areas and party spots in St. Julian’s and Sliema. The goal is to assist visitors with local laws and customs.

Luxury Hotels:

The Phoenicia Malta

Located in the town of Floriana, this 5-star luxury hotel is a member of the leading hotels of the world and was awarded a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award. It is currently undergoing a major renovation and slated to re-open in the coming months.

Grand Hotel Excelsior

Also located in the town of Floriana, the Grand Hotel Excelsior is another 5-star luxury hotel, awarded with a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award and a Certificate of Excellence. It offers majestic views of the Marsamxett Harbour and Fort Manoel.

Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa

There are two Corinthia hotels in Malta. This one is located in Attard near the president’s palace and minutes away from the Valletta waterfront. It was named Malta’s Leading Spa Resort at the World Travel Awards.

Corinthia Hotel St. George’s Bay

Located in St. Julian’s village, this 5-star premier hotel is minutes away from St. George’s Bay.

The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux

The 5-star Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux Hotel won the Best Leading Boutique Hotel in Malta Award by World Travel Awards. And, its restaurant, de Mondion, won the prestigious Best Overall Restaurant Award. The regal hotel is within the fortified walls of Mdina.

Boutique Hotels

The George Urban Boutique Hotel 

This 4-star St. Julian’s hotel is centrally located minutes away from Spinola Bay and the touristy district of Paceville. Although it’s located in a heavily visited area, it’s on a small street secluded from the main attractions.

Hotel Juliani

Located in St. Julian’s Village facing Spinola Bay, Hotel Juliani is family run hotel which has been awarded with a number of TripAdvisor awards.

Hotel Argento St. Julian’s Malta

This is another 4-star boutique hotel situated in St. Julian’s, just walking distance from the Portomaso Marina and St. George’s Bay beach.

The Host Boutique Experience

Located in Sliema, this guesthouse might feel more like a second home with large rooms and private bathrooms. To make sure guests can relax, it doesn’t feature telephones or TVs.

Budget-friendly hotels

St. Julian’s Bay Hotel Malta

This 3-star hotel is right on St. Julian’s Bay. And, it features 85 guest rooms and is walking distance from a main bus stop in the town.

Plevna Hotel

Away from the bustling nightlife of Sliema, this hotel is in the quiet residential part of town. But, it’s still walking distance from the city’s promenade.

115 The Strand Hotel 

This 3-star hotel sits right on the Sliema waterfront nestled next to all the shops and restaurants along the promenade.

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