The islands of Malta feel at once ancient and modern, with history, hi-tech adventures, traditions, and tasty 21st-century food scenes all awaiting the visitor
I didn’t know how jarring my alarm clock was until I was gently roused from sleep by the sounds of an awakening Maltese town. The mellifluous wake-up call started at precisely 8am with a church-bell rendition of Ave Maria. It lured me out of bed and onto the balcony of my St Julian’s Bay hotel room, where I watched, coffee in hand, as the seafront town slowly sprung to life.
Waves softly lapped against the shore below, a chorus of birdsong echoed through the crisp morning air, and the bells continued to chime in perfect harmony. As wake-ups go, it was a damn sight better than the snooze button…
I’d like to tell you the name of the church that provided the unexpected symphony, but with 365 churches and chapels dotted throughout the islands of Malta, it’s almost impossible to know. What I do know is that church bells can be both a delight and an occasional annoyance for Maltese residents, especially during festa season, which peaks in mid-August. “They ring the bells for any excuse,” says our tour guide, Darrell, when we meet later that day. “And sometimes they compete with each other.”
Still, what’s seldom is wonderful and, for visitors at least, the church bells serve as both an anchor to the present moment and a reminder of Malta’s Catholic legacy. Faith runs deep here, and just as every village celebrates its own patron saint during festa season, almost every home features a religious symbol or icon in its front window.
You could spend your entire trip exploring Malta’s churches, which range from lavish cathedrals to tiny, picture-postcard chapels, but if you can only visit one, make it St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. Built by the Knights of Saint John, it houses Caravaggio’s works The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome Writing, and features a fairly ostentatious decorative scheme.
If you have time, do some research on Caravaggio’s stay in Malta before you visit. The Italian master was on the run after killing a man in Rome when he arrived here in 1607. He was ordained as a Knight of St John and later secured a papal pardon, but his new-found status didn’t last long. He was expelled from the Knights a few months later on charges of being “foul and rotten”, and died in mysterious circumstances in 1610.
After admiring the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s work — and staring open-mouthed at the staggeringly detailed barrel-vaulted ceiling — stroll over to Caffe Cordina (caffecordina.com) on St George’s Square for coffee, people-watching and a kannol rikotta. It was the first Maltese café to introduce an espresso machine in the 1950s, and the menu epitomises Malta’s links to neighbouring Sicily.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens, once used as a private garden by the Knights of Saint John, are also within striking distance. It’s a peaceful retreat after a day of sightseeing, and views across Grand Harbour to the so-called Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua) are spectacular.
If you want to explore every inch of the Three Cities, the Rolling Geeks electric car tour (rolling-geeks.com) is the only way to do it. The self-drive electric cars come stowed with pre-programmed GPS and take visitors on a guided journey through the winding streets. Want to see the medieval fortified cities from a different perspective? Take a dgħajsa — a traditional Maltese gondola-shaped boat — around Grand Harbour, and listen out for the twice-daily (midday and 4pm) cannon fire from the Saluting Battery. The former Ottoman stronghold once fired ceremonial salutes to visiting naval vessels.
I was a guest of the recently renovated Marriott Hotel & Spa (marriott.com), which is located just metres from the sandy beach of Balluta Bay. It’s a stylish spot with relaxed coastal-inspired interiors, a rooftop pool and gorgeous spa, and it’s the ideal base from which to explore St Julian’s Bay’s buzzy restaurants and bars.
Everything is on your doorstep here but committed carnivores will probably beat a path to the family-run Wigi’s Kitchen (wigiskitchen.com), where waiters proudly showcase a butcher’s selection of fresh cuts and plump fish fillets while giving out the menus. It’s right beside the hotel but, be warned, you need to book well in advance. If you want to experience more traditional Maltese fare and Italian dishes, a 20-minute taxi ride will take you to Rubino, a charming Valletta bistro that started life in 1906 as a confectionery shop (rubinomalta.com).
Malta was part of the British Empire for more than 150 years, and locals tell me there was a time when their restaurants were dominated by British cuisine. Today, there’s more emphasis on traditional recipes and local ingredients, and an appreciation for the country’s wine industry.
But still, it can sometimes feel like a tale of two cities, especially if you do as I did and follow up a traditional Maltese lunch in the colourful fishing village of Marsaxlokk with afternoon tea in the stately Corinthia Palace Hotel (corinthiagroup.com).
For an even sharper contrast, you could try a twin-centre holiday, spending half your trip in glamorous St Julian’s Bay, and the other half in laid-back Gozo. The second-largest of the Maltese islands is a short ferry ride away, and stepping off the boat is like stepping back in time.
That’s the charm of Malta, an island that feels at once ancient and modern. Adventure seekers come here to dive in the crystal-clear waters of Comino; flop-and-droppers come for the beachside resorts. Older people love it for its mild winters, while younger people are beginning to visit for music festivals such as Annie Mac’s Lost & Found.
Lord Byron famously described Malta as “an island of yells, bells and smells” when he visited for the first time in 1809. Today, more than 200 years later, the bells are still ringing, but Malta offers so much more.
In Victoria, on Gozo island, Maldonado Bistro is a restaurant with locally sourced, seasonal produce. It runs weekly cooking classes, where you can learn to make Maltese dishes, like its famous roasted nut and lemon nougat. maldonado.com.mt
Ryanair flies to Malta from Dublin and Shannon (ryanair.ie). Irish tour operators Sunway, Cassidy Travel and Budget Travel also do packages.
Passengers from Ireland must show proof of vaccination, recovery, or the negative result of a PCR (taken within 72 hours of arrival) or antigen test (24 hours). You must also submit a Passenger Locator Form and Public Health Declaration form. See dfa.ie/travel and reopen.europa.eu for latest details.
Katie was a guest of Visit Malta. visitmalta.com