Travioor's founder and CEO, travel addict Irene Lopez Martinez, tells us about her favourite spots in Malta and gives us her recommendations for how to get the best out of a visit to the beautiful Mediterranean archipelago.
But boasting impressive Bronze Age ruins, Roman relics and a past full of Crusader tales, history buffs also feel a magnetic pull to the isle - most notably those interested in World War II. As an English possession and an important naval base, Malta was severely bombed by the Italians and Germans between 1940 and 1943 before becoming a key stronghold from which the Allied Forces were able to launch their attack on mainland Italy. Today, the Maltese flag bears the George Cross, earned by the bravery and sacrifice of the Maltese citizens during this damaging period.
Thanks to a mixed heritage, which includes Roman, Moorish and English influences, Malta has a unique culture that's unlike any of its Mediterranean counterparts. It's the most populous country per square metre in the European Union with a total of 400,000 inhabitants who speak the official languages of English and Maltese - a Semantic language descended from a Sicilian-Arabic dialect, as well as some Italian. Malta is very religious and you'll see Catholicism reflected in all its corners, from building facades and murals to the religious overtures of the country's public holidays and festivals. It's worth remembering that visitors to religious buildings should be prepared to cover up upon entry and avoid any bare shoulders, short skirts and shorts or deep necklines.
After a blissful stay on the isle, Malta has found a very special place in Travioor founder and CEO Irene Lopez Martinez's heart. She shares her favourite parts of the country with us as well as her recommendations for the best ways to discover it.
1. The Capital, Valetta
While party animals might be better heading to firm tourist favourite St. Julian's, if you're more interested in wandering ancient streets and exploring Maltese culture, then make your base in the capital Valletta.
It's rare for a whole capital to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but thanks to the density of its historical value, its stunning late Renaissance architectural beauty and the handsomeness of its city walls and natural sea-side surroundings, Valletta was inscribed on this prestigious list in its entirety in 1980. Wander down its narrow streets lined with old cars parked in front of splendidly crumbling facades, and you'll likely channel the majesty of other grande dame cities such as Venice and Havana. Part of its UNESCO eligibility lies in the fortune that the perimeter of the city has remained largely unchanged since the departure of the Knights of St John, despite the destruction wrought during World War II. For an excellent look at the country's turbulent history through Maltese eyes, head to the National War Museum at Fort Saint Elmo. Entry costs about €10 and it's worth the visit for the spectacular views of the city alone.
Malta is a country of many colours but it's a subtle, soft gold that stands out in Valletta because of the hue of the city's stone blocks and the interplay of sunshine and shadows down its slender streets. This mellowed backdrop is made even more special by the brightly painted wooden balconies, shutters and doors in reds, yellows, greens and blues. Take a wander, get a little lost and we guarantee that you'll come back with some postcard-worthy shots. Make it to the port by sunset for an incredible display - the reflections of sun and buildings in the water are something else - and build up an appetite for a well-deserved meal from one of the many port-side restaurants boasting great views and relatively inexpensive menus such as Scoglitti Restaurant.
2. Mdina and Rabat
Malta's capital city throughout the Middle Ages, Mdina is an ancient walled town in the North where horses and carriages are the main form of transport and cars are restricted, creating a wonderful ambiance of times gone by and earning it the nickname of the 'Silent City'.
Today, Mdina is one of Malta's major tourist attractions and as one of Malta's rare inland towns, it's one of the best destinations for sampling the traditional Maltese dish of braised rabbit served at a plethora of small restaurants with beautiful patios such as Medina Restaurant or opt for one that lets you appreciate the town's commanding central views over the rest of the country as at De Mondion Restaurant.
You can explore the town quite fully in about two hours on a tour, meaning that a visit to Mdina is easily paired with a trip to nearby Rabat. While tiny Mdina has only 250 inhabitants, Rabat is larger with about 11,000 residents. It's not quite as well kept as its sister, but its got an authentic atmosphere that more easily gives visitors a hint at Malta's local flavours. Once you're here, visit the truly awesome Cathedral of St. Paul and its catacombs where the Romans buried their loved ones in elaborate mazes. Excellently preserved, they rival even Rome's famous examples and provide a unique insight into Christianity in the historical period when its worship was banned in Rome.
3. The Fishing Village of Marsaxlokk
A mere 20-minute drive from the capital, Marsaxlokk is a charmingly small fishing village that's well known for its colorful little boats decorated in strong blues and all shades of greens, reds and yellows that wonderfully echo Valletta's wooden balconies, shutters and doors.
There's no better place to taste the very best and freshest fish on the island, evidenced by the common sight of fishermen plying their catches to the town's restaurants. The promenade is simply packed with great restaurants such Tartarun Fish Restaurant that overlook the sea and despite being quite a touristy spot, dishes are generally traditional and very reasonably priced. Don't leave without trying the octopus (which although it pains us to say, could rival that found even in Galicia), the prawns and barracuda.
If you visit on a Sunday, take a trip to the market on the waterfront and nab yourself a famous Maltese cotton tablecloth, a range of traditional souvenirs and if you're staying in an independent villa rather than a hotel, some incredible fresh fish to prepare for dinner.
4. Diving to Silema's Sunken Ships
Although most people think of Malta as a prime sun-lounging destination, while the waters are blue and inviting, the rocky Maltese beaches are not always quite so. One thing that Malta certainly does well however, is diving. Thanks to the warmth and clarity of its Mediterranean waters and large number of shipwrecks that harbour a varied ecosystem of octopus, squid, barracuda, sea scorpions and sting rays, Malta is recognised as one of the very best place in Europe to done your flippers and gear and fathom the depths.
From Valletta port, take the ferry to Silema for just €1.50 and you'll enjoy some of the best views of your stay before arriving at your choice of specialized diving clubs and schools, including the Travioor recommended DiveShack. Whether you're a fully licensed diver or just starting out, you'll find plenty of options to accommodate your level and leave with ever-lasting images of an underwater kingdom.
Like this? You might be interested in: