Malta’s dynamic capital city, rich history, and festive atmosphere will offer you a delightful experience—if you come prepared.
It may be the smallest country in the European Union, but with abundant sunshine, fascinating history, and rugged terrain, Mediterranean Malta really packs a punch. If you’re thinking of visiting the Maltese Islands, whether to hit the beach, explore formidable fortifications, or try the beloved savory pastry called pastizzi, here are some tidbits to know before you go.
It Is Densely Populated, and It Can Take a Long Time to Cover Small Distances
Because the main island of Malta is so compact, you might assume it’s quick to get from one place to another. In reality, Malta’s high population density means it can take more than an hour just to travel a few miles. Malta’s sister island, Gozo, is less crowded, but even its roads can get congested.
To avoid being stuck in traffic, don’t travel during rush hour. Where possible, opt to travel by ferry instead. The Valletta to Sliema ferry is quick and scenic, offering postcard-worthy views of Valletta’s skyline. Another ferry that links Valletta and the Three Cities will take you through Malta’s famous Grand Harbour. A more memorable (but costly) alternative is to glide through the Grand Harbor in a dgħajsa, a colorful boat resembling a gondola.
Driving Is Crazy
The rules of the road are often ignored in Malta—think rampant double parking, ignoring stop signs, and incessant honking. Sure, you can rent a car or motorbike for ultimate independence. However, with bus passes offered at ridiculously-low rates, it’s better to leave the stress of driving to the locals.
This isn’t to say that bus travel is perfect. Buses are sometimes crowded and late. For these reasons, many locals snub mass transit. However, Malta Public Transport does do a good job of connecting points of interest on both Malta and Gozo. You’ll also breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you won’t have to worry about scarce parking spots or belligerent drivers.
INSIDER TIPYou can buy tickets directly from the bus driver, but if you’ll be doing a lot of exploring, save money by purchasing a multi-use card at one of these sales points.
Malta's History Is Fascinating
While Malta is celebrated for its sun and sea offerings, try to venture beyond the beach to learn about its complex history. Mysterious temples pre-dating Egypt’s pyramids dot the islands. Also, you’ll find Roman ruins, opulent churches, and mighty fortifications built by the Knights of Malta and the British.
The capital, Valletta, is also home to many great museums including Fort St. Elmo, the National Museum of Archaeology, and the Fortifications Interpretation Centre. But, if you like history, don’t stop there, for there are more museums to be found throughout Malta and Gozo.
The Capital City, Valletta, Is Having a Renaissance
Some visitors to Malta spend the bulk of their time at bland resorts, but Valletta is chock-full of attractions, shopping opportunities, and quirky character. With its hilly streets and peninsular setting, you might feel as though you’ve entered an Old World version of San Francisco. But, Valletta’s vibrant baroque buildings and imposing military architecture combine to create a setting all its own.
After suffering from an economic downturn over the past few decades, Valletta is in the midst of a revival. In 2018, the city will be a European Capital of Culture. As a result, real estate values have skyrocketed and properties are being polished after years of neglect. But much of the city’s charm can be found in the buildings that haven’t yet been restored, such as abandoned cabarets, confectionery shops, and even a glove boutique.
English Is An Official Language, But You Can Score Points With Locals by Learning Some Maltese Phrases
Malta was part of the British Empire for more than 150 years. Today, Maltese and English are official languages. Maltese is a Semitic language that’s related to Arabic but written in the Latin alphabet.
While many Maltese people speak English fluently, the locals will love it if you use a Maltese greeting or two. For starters, get your tongue around Grazzi ħafna (Thank you very much) and Jekk jogħġbok (Please). And if you find yourself trying the local prickly pear liqueur or Cisk beer, toss in a Saħħa (Cheers) for good measure.
Many People Are Passionate About Pyrotechnics
From amateurs setting off disruptive firecrackers at all hours to dazzling international competitions, many Maltese adore fireworks. You’ll either love or hate this about Malta. If you’re a fan, try to make your visit coincide with a fireworks spectacle or a festa (a village festival honoring a patron saint). If you don’t fancy fireworks, pack earplugs and know that you’re not alone. Some locals think fireworks amount to noise and air pollution, and there is currently a debate about what measures should be taken to regulate them.
It’s Not Just the Fireworks That Are Noisy
When you combine non-stop honking, a marching band in every village, boisterous conversations, around-the-clock construction projects, and vendors touting products via car loudspeakers, Malta can be a head-splitting place. To try and combat this, check reviews beforehand to see if your lodging has a rowdy reputation. And if all else fails, escape to the countryside—even though you might hear the sound of gunshots during hunting season.
Celebrations Are Plentiful
The Maltese are a high-spirited bunch, and chances are good that you’ll come across a festival or two. The king of Maltese celebrations is the festa. Dozens of these festivals are held annually, with most of the revelry taking place during the summer. Religious processions, fireworks, and tasty treats are ubiquitous. Also, the village church and main streets are elaborately decorated with colorful banners and hand-made statues of saints.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll be thrilled to hear that there are also food-themed festivals for everything from strawberries and oranges to olives and wine.
INSIDER TIPInput your travel dates on the tourism board’s event calendar to see what festivities you’ll encounter.
Finding Pristine Landscapes Can Be Tricky
While glossy brochures present Malta as a green paradise, the reality is that the country is largely built-up and lacking trees. Despite this, you can still come face-to-face with gorgeous Mediterranean flora if you seek out select beaches, gardens, and coastal spots. Choose beaches with the Blue Flag Beach distinction, pop into the San Anton Gardens (admission is free), and explore coastal areas such as the Dingli Cliffs (Malta) and the Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs (Gozo).
Insider Tip: Looking for more getaways in the countryside? Malta’s tourism board has highlighted some pleasant routes in these free brochures.
It's a Movie-Making Mecca
Gladiator, Popeye, and Game of Thrones were all filmed on Malta. Since the island nation is a popular filmmaking hub, it’s possible that you’ll stumble upon a film set. From a street in Valletta transformed into Constantinople circa 1915 (The Promise) to the Comino Watchtower turned into an imposing prison (The Count of Monte Cristo), Malta is a frequent choice for Hollywood producers.