Julianna Tolan explores the stunningly beautiful and diverse Mediterranean island of Malta.
Since the Phoenicians, every empire that laid eyes on the impossibly beautiful island of Malta has wanted to claim it. A succession of invasions over the ages has given Malta a rich tapestry of culture and history that's unrivalled by its European counterparts. The archipelago’s small but perfectly formed main city Valletta was recently crowned the European Capital of Culture for 2018. Before the inevitable stampede on this remote corner of the Mediterranean begins, Julianna Tolan explores the surprising diversity of this ancient republic.
Hollywood vacation in Valletta
The baroque architecture and landscapes of Valletta make this the go-to film location for Hollywood. When the A-List are in town, their hotel of choice is the seriously chic Casa Ellul, a boutique that has hosted Chris Hemsworth, Joseph Fiennes and Luke Evans amongst others.
Sightseers looking for a truly dramatic spectacle should head to St John’s Co-Cathedral. This opulent church displays some of Caravaggio’s most famous works and is considered to be one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.
Health conscious visitors should nab a spot at the popular vegan-friendly Soul Food, which provides an inexpensive menu of freshly squeezed juices, pastas and salads. And as the sun goes down on Valletta, dine out at the atmospheric San Paolo Naufrago; but those with vertigo beware, tables and chairs are positioned precariously down a flight of steps.
Finish your stay in the capital by raising a toast to legendary actor Oliver Reed, who whilst filming scenes for The Gladiator in Malta, died at the now infamous watering hole “The Pub” during a particularly heavy drinking session.
Mindfulness in Mdina
The ancient fortified city of Mdina will transport you back to another time. No vehicles are permitted within its walls, hence the nickname ‘The Silent City’, and its streets are illuminated to magical effect at night by lamps. The area is an Instagram favourite because of its perfectly preserved buildings and timeless atmosphere, so don’t forget your selfie stick.
The Xara Palace is also situated here, a hotel that schools its five star rivals on the meaning of traditional luxury. This place is the preserve of only the most affluent traveller, but mere mortals can have a taste of the good life at its restaurant Trattoria AD 1530, situated in a pretty courtyard next door.
Make sure to take a peak over the giant walls surrounding the city during your visit as the panoramic views across the island are pretty special.
Party hard in Paceville
The town of Saint Julian’s is Malta’s unanimous party hotspot. Situated in the buzzing Spinola Bay, it attracts an eclectic mix of wealthy European tourists, backpackers and local revellers. The Hotel Juliani holds an enviable position overlooking the bay in the heart of the action.
All party go-er tastes are accounted for in this corner of the island but The Dubliner is particularly popular with travellers on a budget craving a decent pint of beer. Paceville is conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk away, with a seemingly endless strip of bars and nightclubs.
For a more decadent experience, treat yourself to dinner at the theatrical Caviar & Bull restaurant followed by a night cap on the terrace at Tiffany’s Bar in the exlusive Portomaso Marina.
Meditate in Marsaxlokk
The quiet fishing village of Marsaxlokk is not an obvious choice for visitors to Malta but don’t miss out on this restorative retreat. The main draw of the area is its vibrantly coloured traditional Maltese fisherman boats or ‘luzzus’, but the village is also great for those seeking calm and tranquillity.
The highly rated Port View Guesthouse provides excellent, inexpensive accommodation moments from the water’s edge. The village’s best kept secret is restaurant Terrone. Its Australian-Maltese owner comes from the culinary institution River Café and specialises in creating masterful dishes from fresh local produce with a great wine list.
A short distance from the village is St Peter’s Pool, a beautiful, crystal clear natural swimming pool. Its azure and light green waters make it a picturesque sunbathing spot but more adventurous sun seekers can try snorkelling or cliff diving in its waters.
Sight-see in Dingli
On the less populated West coast of Malta are the sweeping Dingli cliffs, providing unspoilt views across the Mediterranean Sea. If you’ve left your hiking boots at home fear not, the Malta Segway Tours company provides a rather ingenious tour on two wheels, across the scenic cliffs and past Verdala Palace, guided by a local instructor.
The Terrace Restaurant at the Chateau Buskett has a charming view of the lush surrounding gardens, and makes a mean traditional Maltese delicacy, the pastizz (pastry filled with pea or ricotta cheese filling).
Ħaġar Qim megalithic temples, which are amongst the most ancient religious sites on earth, are also situated close by in Qrendi.
Gargle in Gozo
Malta’s sister islands of Gozo and Camino are both easily accessible by regular ferry services from the mainland. Camino is famed for the stunning Blue Lagoon, a surreally turquoise sheltered inlet of water. Swimmers flock here when the sun is out and it has seduced audiences as a film location for the Count of Monte Cristo and Troy.
Gozo is a more substantial island and so an overnight stay here is advisable. The Tal-Masshar Winery in Xaghra provides great views from which wine lovers can sample local Maltese produce. Nearby Cornucopia Hotel provides good value accommodation with an outdoor pool and an excellent vantage point from the roof terrace.
Don’t miss seeing the Azure Window, a natural limestone arch jutting out of the sea at Dwejra Bay, which was featured most recently in the Game of Thrones series.