For many in Europe, Malta has a reputation for being a rather genteel holiday destination for older holidaymakers. The island is trying hard to shift that perception, with youth-oriented music festivals and a growing awareness of the LGBTI tourism market. It’s also an increasingly popular spot for those with a passion for diving.
However, for many, its main attraction remains its tranquil, Mediterranean charm.
Most holidaymakers head for Valletta, the capital city. It’s also a major harbor which plays host to cruise ships throughout the year.
Malta is actually three islands. Malta itself has a population of 400,000, while the smaller Gozo has 30,000. Comino, the smallest part of the archipelago, is almost uninhabited.
Approximately 1.6million tourists swell Malta’s population each year. The UK accounts for around 450,000 of those.
The island nation has a fascinating history. It has been tussled over by various factions, including Arab invaders, the Normans, the Knights of Malta and French. It was a major British naval base between the early 1800s and 1964, and elements of Britishness persist, such as red phone boxes.
What dominates greater is the Maltese limestone from which almost all the buildings are built. Valletta was built along a grid system. Narrow streets are lined with buildings dating back to the 1600 and 1700s. Figures of saints and the Virgin Mary abound.
Over 90% of the population are Catholic, and there are over 400 churches dotted around the island. Demonstrating its Catholic roots, the Maltese only voted to legalize divorce five years ago, and abortion remain illegal. However, it has perhaps surprisingly made great strides recently in relation to LGBTI rights.
Civil unions became law in 2014, and same-sex couples can now adopt. Late last year, it became the first country in Europe to ban so-called conversion therapy, and in the last couple of months, it passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage.
In fact, the head of the United Nation’s LGBTI Equality Campaign, Charles Radcliffe, last month described Malta as the ‘gold standard’ in terms of LGBTI reforms, saying it had undergone a ‘quiet revolution’: ‘Malta has become a beacon of hope in the struggle for these rights.’
Valletta is gearing up to be European Capital of Culture in 2018, so it’s now the perfect time to plan your first trip. Here are some suggestions for things to do.
1. Malta Pride
The annual Malta Pride first began back in 2004, when it attracted around 75 brave activists. However, it has consistently grown. The 2016 event attracted around 900 and the 2017 celebration – which I enjoyed during my visit – had over 2,000. The rise in numbers mirrors the acceptance of LGBTI legislation on the island and an increasingly visual community.
2. Harbour Club
A wonderful, Maltese restaurant embedded in the harbor walls of Valletta – just south of the Victoria Gate and overlooking the grand harbor. I can personally vouch for the home-made suckling pig sausage, and grilled Maltese Bluefin tuna and vegetables ‘tagliolini’ in a shallot, chives and soya dressing. Take a virtual tour at theharbourclubmalta.com
3. Bridge Bar
The Bridge Bar, at the foot of St Ursula Street, is literally a bar spanning a small bridge. On balmy summer evenings, customers can grab a cushion outside and sit on the steps looking down on the bridge and Victoria Gate (a relic from when the British Navy dominated the island). The venue has built a reputation for hosting jazz musicians from all over Europe, with popular Friday night sessions running from May to October.
4. Charles Grech
The history of this cozy café and bar (above) dates all the way back to 1881. It’s situated on Republic Street, Valletta’s main shopping street, which makes it the perfect spot to people watch during the afternoon or evening. The brand has expanded into to include a bistro in Silema and beach club, but it’s the Valletta café that remains the original deal – with a bewildering array of liqueurs, wines and cocktails.
5. Casa Rocca Piccola
This stunning house is a fine example of a typical 16th century palace for a well-to-do Maltese Family. It remains a home to this day – as you will see from the framed photographs of family members still dotted around.
Fortunately for us, the family tend to occupy a private apartment upstairs while visitors mill around below. Admire the stunning art collection and antique furniture, and make sure to check out the subterranean bomb shelter (Valletta was heavily targeted during the war). casaroccapiccola.com
6. Upper Barrakka Gardens
Upper Barrakka Gardens lies on the upper tier of the St Peter and St Paul Bastion, which dates back the late 1500s.
Although relatively small, it’s one of Valletta’s most popular tourist spots because of the stunning view it offers of the Grand Harbor and the cities on the other side of the harbor. It’s the highest spot along the city’s famed and historic walls.
7. St John’s Co-Cathedral
As mentioned, Malta is littered with churches and many of them are baroque in style. However, the most baroque of all has to be St John’s Co-Cathedral. It is a jaw-dropping creation of intricate carvings, gold leaf and art depicting various highlights of Malta’s sometimes violent history.
The church also holds two original paintings by Caravaggio – who spent 18 months on the island. His massive masterpiece, the Beheading of St John the Baptist is gory, majestic and timeless.
A traditional and long-running Maltese bakery and restaurant in the heart of Valletta. This family-run business was launched in the 70s and is famed for its traditional Maltese cooking and bread. It offers up traditional Maltese ftira, a rectangular-shaped pizza. Check out the Anġla l- Furnara: topped with tomatoes, onions, Maltese honey, anchovies, basil, garlic and olive oil. nenuthebaker.com
Across the stretch of water from Valletta are the three cities of the Cottonera District. Tourists may think it’s all part of the same city, but locals are quite insistent that these are three distinct cities (despite having a combined population of only 10,000).
Although some parts have had to be heavily rebuilt since the bombings of the Second World War, the narrow, quiet streets of Vittoriosa retain their medieval charm.
Expect to see religious icons attached to most homes, an abundance of wooden balconies (a hallmark of Maltese townhouses) and distinctive fish-shaped door knockers. On a quiet Sunday stroll, the only sound to punctuate the calm were the occasional ringing or a nearby church bell (and there’s always a church nearby, wherever you stroll).
10. Phoenicia Hotel
The Phoenicia Hotel, which lies just outside Valletta city walls, is one of the city’s best-established five-star hotels. Even if you can’t afford a stay, consider visiting for a meal or afternoon tea.
The dining areas are sumptuously decorated in white and blue, with a pretty veranda area for al fresco eating. A simple dessert of poached peaches was the perfect end to a gourmet lunch.
Take a break from Valletta for a sightseeing trip to Mdina. This medieval walled city was the former capital city, and is around a 20 minute drive away (you can cross Malta by car in 40 minutes).
Wandering the inner streets really does feel a little like stepping back in time. You’ll pass palatial, high-walled townhouses, nunneries and churches, all built in the island’s distinct limestone.
Day excursions and tours are easy to arrange. Try to take one that also includes the nearby Dingli Cliffs. The highest point on the island, they offer a stunning view over the Mediterranean.
David Hudson stayed at SU29 Boutique Hotel. This charming hotel is on St Ursula Steps, five minutes from Upper Barrakka Gardens. Read a full review here.
EasyJet flights from London Gatwick to Malta from £32.49 each way. Suites at the SU29 from £118 per night. For more information about the Maltese archipelago visit maltauk.com.