A long weekend in MALTA

August

We came to Malta for a long weekend of sun, sea, scuba, and Caravaggio's paintings, and didn't leave disappointed on any front

Duration: 3 Days

We had been curious about Malta for years. The little island (actually it’s an archipelago) perched between Africa and Sicily has a rich history of rulers ranging from Romans to Moors to the Knights of Saint John, who ruled Malta as a vassal state of Sicily. Malta managed to fend off Ottomon invaders, and the forts and ramparts visible all along the seafront attest to a long history of contested rule and constant threat of invasion. Valletta is a World Heritage Site filled with Baroque cathedrals and charming building facades, while the island of Gozo offers sleepy fishing villages, beautiful beaches, and world class scuba diving. 

  • Sight Seeing 80% 80%
  • Food 80% 80%
  • Ease of Transportation 85% 85%
  • Activities 95% 95%

We flew Air Malta from Heathrow to Valletta after work Friday night, arriving just after 11pm. After a quick, 15 minute taxi (pre-arranged through our amazing hotel Casa Ellul) we were dropping our bags in our room, and heading out to grab a drink in the balmy Mediterranean evening. The streets were filled with people dining al fresco, eating gelato in the town squares, and sipping craft beers (we had heard Malta was known for its craft beer scene), but we were heading to catch the final minues of the Friday night live jazz at Bridge Bar. This popular bar spills out over a pedestrian bridge with just a few tables, but most people sit and stand on the steps and sidewalk to enjoy the music. The bar itself is tiny and we ducked in for an Aperol spritz to accompany the final few minutes of the night’s jazz set.

Our homebase for exploring Valletta was the aforementioned Casa Ellul, which we found thanks to Mr. & Mrs Smith. It’s an absolute jewel of a design hotel, located in the center of town in Malta. We stayed here for the first and last night of our visit (with Gozo in between), and on the final night, treated ourselves to an upgraded room with a private rooftop patio complete with hot tub, views of the enormous dome of the Carmelite church across the street, and views of St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral and the harbor beyond. Truly, it was one of the most spectacular hotel rooms we’ve ever stayed in (room #8) and we never wanted to leave. While it’s not cheap, at around £320/night this is one of the better value splurges we’ve come across. Just don’t plan for a big day of sightseeing as you’ll want to spend hours sitting on your patio, taking in the rooftop view and not moving. 

Valletta

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral: This cathedral was the primary attraction we didn’t want to miss in Valletta, as it’s home to two famous Caravaggio paintings, including his only signed work. After the tasty breakfast spread at Casa Ellul, we headed out to visit the Cathedral before the tourist crowds got going. This is Malta’s most popular church, and one of its most visited tourist sights, so the earlier you can arrive, the better. At 10am, we waited for about 15 minutes before we entered the Baroque explosion that is the interior of the cathedral. Even if you think you’ve seen your fair share of European Cathedrals, this one stands out in terms of opulence, gilding, and the variety of decorations inside. The audio guide is included in the ticket price (€10 for an adult entry), and is worth listening to in order to gain valuable context and insight behind the decor. The hightlights of the cathedral are the nine individual chapels, each dedicated to one of the Order’s languages (for example, the Chapel of the Langue of Aragon, the Anglo-Bavarian Lange, the Langue of Provence…). The style of each is unique, and reflects the power and patronage of the orders various members. The audio guide illuminates all of this. Don’t miss the upper gallery level where you can climb a winding staircase and get a better view of the entire cathedral below, as well as getting close to the ceiling frescoes above. Finally, the Oratory contains the two Caravaggio paintings, and we recommend visiting this part of the cathedral as soon as possible if there isn’t a line (don’t worry about listening to the audio guide out of order). The cathedral seems to get busier as the day goes on, and the Caravaggio paintings are one of the main attractions, with access to the Oratory moderated to avoid overcrowding, so beeline for this to ensure you have plenty of time to view The Beheading of St John the Baptist (much larger in person than we were expecting!) and Saint Jerome Writing.

Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens: For beautiful views overlooking the sea, and Malta’s fortifications, we headed to these gardens. The upper gardens have a shady park, statues, cannons (which are fired at noon daily), and a tour of underground tunnels and war rooms for the military history-inclined. Admission to the gardens is free, so we came here to enjoy the view before moving on. From here we walked beside the fortified wall along the water to the lower Barrakka gardens, which we much preferred. Far fewer tourists, far fewer people taking pictures of themselves, far more ‘garden’, and an all around more pleasant park surrounding a beautiful classical Doric temple monument. There are benches perfectly angled to give you views overlooking the sea, or places to sit in the shade, contemplating the classical architecture and rich gardens. This is a great spot to read, have a snack, and recharge, before continuing to explore Valletta. 

Wuestenwinds beach: Continuing on our walk from the lower Barrakka gardens, we walked along the wall and noticed people swimming in the sea below. It looked like there were a few ramshackle beach huts, and locals (and a few tourists) lay on the rocks sunning themselves before descending the ladders and ramps into the sea. With the sun blazing overhead, and a Maltese grandmother and her granddaughter leading the way down, we decided to follow. We spent a few hours baking in the sun, floating in the warm water alongside the locals, and enjoying the view of little boats heading in and out of the harbor. 

 

Where to eat in Valetta: 

Maltese cuisine brings the best of Mediterranean influences together, combining Italian, Spanish, Maghrebin, and Provençal elements with local produce, meats, and fish. In short, the food is fantasic. Aside from Maltese cuisine, good Italian restaurants are all over the place.

Legligin: If you only have one meal in Malta, make come here. Legligin is a cozy wine cellar with a great ambience, a fantastic winelist, and one of the best value meals we’ve had in Europe. For €30 you get a 7+ course tasting menu that spans the best of Maltese cuisine, all prepared according to what’s in season and procured locally. Our entire meal was unbelievable, not precious at all, filling, and left us feeling as though we had tried a bit of everything (because we had in fact eaten a bit of everything). When we arrived, a guitarist was strumming in the corner, candles were lit, bottles of wine lined the walls, and the staff were warm and welcoming (we didn’t have a reservation).

We selected a bottle of Sicilian red wine that was one of the specials, and the courses started coming. Red lentil soup, a mixture of mezzes including olives from Gozo, sheeps milk cheese with black pepper, caponata, tapenade, Maltese pork sausage, sliced pork, rabbit paté, even the bread and olive oil were especially good. A platter of seafood arrived with juicy mussels in a shallot cream sauce, tender, lemony grilled octapus, lightly grilled sea bream with dill, and sea bream fish cakes (easily the best fish cakes we’ve ever eaten). From here, there was a warm quail breast perched over bitter, peppery arugula with a strawberry vinaigrette and slices of juicy watermelon. Then on to the meat courses: braised lamb that melted in your mouth, and the infamous roast rabbit (rabbit being one of the most traditional dishes in Malta) served with a side of rich potatoes. It was one of the most memorable meals we’ve had in a long time and we would return here again and again. (The lunch tasting menu is €20).

Zero Sei Trattoria: Just down the block from our hotel, Casa Ellul, Zero Sei caught our attention with a sign that read ‘we speak a very poor English, but we cook a very good Carbonara.’ Say no more, we had to try it. Zero Sei is an authentic Roman trattoria in Malta. We sat outside watching the parade of pedestrians, and ordered a glass of chilled, house white wine. We began with the burrata appetizer, and while this cheese has become ubiquitous in recent years, the subtle drizzle of honey made for an out of this world pairing, accented with crumbled pistachio. Note to self: always serve burrata with honey. We also ordered one suppli (a ball of rice with tomato sauce fried into a perfect dumpling size), and were served an amuse bouche of a single, small bruschetta that somehow managed to be distill the essence of rich olive oil and ripe tomato flavor into one perfect bite. We ordered the classic cacio e pepe pasta for our main course, a dish that we’ve used as a barometer for Roman cooking in the past, and it was as good as the one we remember from L’Antica Enoteca in Rome. [See here for our rundown of pasta favourites from our trip to Rome].

Places we still want to try: 

Taproom: we saw this pop up on a few lists and it always had a lively crowd when we walked by (just down the street from Casa Ellul and Trattoria Romana Zero Sei).

Palazzo Preca: this came from the NY Times 36 hour writeup a few years ago and we really wanted to try it, but ran out of time (and meals). Two sisters serve up sophisticated Maltese fare with a seafood and shellfish menu that looks particularly extensive.

Rubino: this popped up on a few lists and looked good. It’s one of Valletta’s oldest restaurants, though it originally was a confectionary run by an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily. Today the menu serves hearty, traditional Maltese recipes. 

Piadina Caffe: for a quick bite, this sandich, salad, and breakfast bar comes highly recommended 

Cafe Society: perfect for late night drinks in the warm evening air

C. Camilleri Dolceria: we discovered this authentic bakery during our wanderings around Valletta and it looked amazing. 

Culto: supposed to have great coffee

GOZO: We came to Gozo just to scuba dive after hearing that Malta offered some of Europe’s best diving, and thank goodness we did. Any trip to Malta should include Gozo. While Valletta is beautiful and historic, Gozo is more relaxed, has beautiful beaches, small fishing towns, and medieval Citadels. We would advise maximizing your time on Gozo, and then allowing yourself at least one full day and evening to see Valletta.

The ferry to Gozo operates continously in the summer months, and every 30 minutes in less busy seasons. The view is beautiful, the ticket only costs €4, and taxis are waiting upon arrival in Gozo to get you anywhere on the island. One thing we didn’t anticipate was how far it is between Valletta and the ferry terminal in Malta. It’s on the opposite side of the island, around 25 minutes in no traffic, or 45 to an hour with typical weekender traffic. If you are diving in Gozo, we would strongly advise arriving the night prior so you don’t have to make this journey in the morning.

Immediately upon arrival, we told a taxi to take us straight to Ramla Beach, one of the island’s most famous beaches. Allegedly, Calypso’s cave from the Odyssey is said to be right around here, and there’s a lively snack bar, chair rentals, and lifeguards on duty here if you’re looking for more contemporary comforts.

Stay: We stayed at Maria Giovanna Guesthouse, since it was located in Marsalforn Bay where our dive departed from. For €70 we had a comfortable, air conditioned room with a little patio from where we could see a sliver of the bay, and an included breakfast that is outstanding (The homemade jams included tangerine and lemon jams that were insanely delicious, served along think homemade cookies perfect for slathering jam. There was an insane homemade lemon meringue pie that we ate at 8:00am, in addition to typical fruit, granola, yoghurt, and egg options).

Marsalforn Bay is a charming fishing town. Part of the harbor is a designated swim area, and families and local elders lined the shore swimming all day and well into the evening.

Eat: 

Il Kartell Restaurant: We had dinner overlooking the harbor at this restaurant that serves fresh, high quality seafood. We had a fantastic octapus salad and grilled swordfish with roasted vegetables and potatoes. It was a lot of food, well prepared, and reasonably priced.

Dive: We went diving with Bubbles Dive Centre and can’t recommend them enough. We spent a full day doing three dives (many people did two 2-dive days, but we didn’t have that kind of time with only a long weekend). Two of our dives only had four people (including the dive master) and the last dive of the day, to the famous Blue Hole, was essentially a private session with the dive master. Whether you’re diving, or just swimming or snorkelling, this is a beautiful site and a must visit while in Gozo (though it does get quite crowded with tourists). Another dive site took us past the salt pans which are beautiful and dramatic overlooking the expanse of Mediterranean sea beyond.

Still want to try: 

With more time in Gozo, we would have liked to explore the town of Xlendi in particular. We heard that Ta’Karolina Restaurant is THE spot to try here.

We didn’t make it to Victoria, the largest town in Gozo with its stunning citadel (though we could see this citadel any time we were driving along the main roads criss crossing Gozo). In terms of dining in Victoria, we heard that Maldonado Bistro, La Stanza Bar & Restaurant, and Coffee Break are all good.

Two final Malta superlatives: 

It bears mentioning that we had some of the best fruit we’ve ever eaten in Malta. Easily the best peaches (huge, sweet, perfectly ripe) were purchased from simple fruit stands in Valletta. Nectarines were amazing too. (One of these stands appears on Google maps as ‘Valetta fresh fruits and vegetables’ on St. Christopher’s Street, Il-Belt Valletta). We also had the best tangerines we’ve ever eated – seedless, with minimal pulp, and maximum sweetness and juicyness. The homemade tangerine jam that was part of the breakfast spread at Maria Giovanna’s guest house in Gozo was also some of the best jam we’ve ever tried. 

Another ‘best’ for Malta goes to the La Valette Club airport lounge at the Malta International Airport, which is easily the best airport lounge we’ve been to in Europe. La Valette Club participates in the Priority Pass program, which we use all the time in Europe as part of the membership benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (easily the best card for frequent travellers to accrue points that can be used across a variety of airlines and hotels).  What made this airport lounge so special? First, is the large, comfortable, outdoor terrace complete with cushioned lounge chairs and olive trees. It looked more like a restaurant in Mykonos than any part of an airport and, with our departure flight delayed by an hour, we spent the time soaking up the last rays of Maltese sun. The interior of the lounge was more spacious and comfortable than most, with plenty of seating options, good air conditioning, and a good selection of hot and cold food (and beverages). It might sound weird to call out an airport lounge but, given we travel every other weekend, and are constantly passing through these lounges, it bears mentioning when one knocks your socks off by being so much better than the rest. 

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