CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Note: This is our second article about Malta. Our other article about Malta features a more relaxed trip with lots of time for trips to the spa! Click the link above to read more about it.
When I was younger my grandparents retired and started traveling the world. One of the places I remember best from their slideshows and stories was the island nation of Malta. They brought me a small Maltese cross necklace pendant, and both the pendant and the idea of visiting this island stuck with me.
We recently had the chance to go back with an RTT tour. They annually run this tour over the Thanksgiving break (Wednesday evening departure – Sunday evening return). We enjoyed taking a break from planning logistics and let RTT take care of everything, but Malta is easy to visit on your own as well.
What was included in the RTT Malta tour:
- Direct flights from Frankfurt to Malta. We also booked the separate bus trip from Ramstein to the Frankfurt airport. The Air Malta flights included a decent dinner.
- Hotel: The Dolmen Resort Hotel and Spa was our home for four nights in Malta. It’s located on St. Paul’s Bay. Breakfast was a large buffet every morning. Two of our dinners was at the hotel buffet as well. Since they knew a large group of American’s was staying with them, they had traditional Thanksgiving food at the buffet on Thursday evening.
- There were three other meal included:
In Downtown Valetta we ate at Nenu the Artisan Baker (more details below). On Gozo island we ate a rustic Gozo meal with tomatoes, cheeses, olives, onions and bread at Ta Rikardu. One of our dinners was served at a restaurant about a half hour walk from our hotel. The local specialty of rabbit was served along with sides and a desert.
- Guides: We had a local guide named Mary from Malta who was truly an expert about the Maltese history and culture. We also had an RTT escort named Nicole who helped with logistics and made sure everyone was happy.
- Transportation: We traveled by coach bus on both the main island and Gozo. The tickets for the ferry to Gozo were also included.
- Extras not included: We ate on our own for all other meals. One evening there was a harbor cruise offered for an additional fee of €20.00 per person. On the day of departure we could chose to have a slower morning and enjoy the hotel amenities or we could go to a small fishing village, Marsaxlokk. The fishing village trip was an extra €10.00 per person.
- Entrance fees: Malta Experience, Archeological Museum, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Ggantija, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Museum,
If you wanted to do it on your own:
Malta is pretty easy to navigate. There are three islands, one large(ish), one medium and one small (Malta, Gozo and Comino) with a regular ferry service between them. This former British colony only gained it’s independence 50 years ago. This means that both English and Maltese are the official languages so linguistic navigation is also easy. Another British influence is still obvious as soon as you step off the planes: driving is on the left. Luckily, both Malta and Gozo have hop on hop off busses as well as public busses and taxies. If you’re ready for left hand driving, you can also rent a car.
Malta Air has direct flights from Malta to seven German airports. Ryan Air flies out of Malta to their usual airports. Check your usual travel sites for deals.
Valletta is the capital of the country of Malta and is the only world capital entirely protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is naturally protected with deep bays on both sides of the peninsular city. Over centuries, through many conflicts, and by many different rulers the natural fortifications have been enhanced so the city resembles a fort when seen from outside.
Inside the city, the roads are laid out in a very organized grid pattern. The architecture is very monochromatic with pops of color. The creamy sandstone found on the island is used to build almost everything and the longer the buildings sit under the Mediterranean sun the more bleached the sandstone becomes. But the architectural detail that sticks out are small wooden enclosed balconies that are part of most residences. Each balcony is painted a solid bright color – a patchwork of color on a creamy background.
Once inside the city, you can easily get your bearings and walk around to see all of the sites:
St. John’s Co-cathedral
St. John’s Co-Cathedral website
This is an exquisite cathedral is the home to two Caravagio paintings. Throughout the cathedral’s detailed embellishments you will find the pattern of the Maltese cross repeated – in gold, in jewels, in paint and stone. I wondered about the title “Co-cathedral” and it turns out that there are two co-cathedrals, the other in M’dina, which both serve as seats of bishop
Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens
Barrakka Garden website
Both of these free public gardens overlook the Grand Harbor and are a great place to see the cities natural and human-made fortification. After WWII the entire population of Malta was awarded the George Cross Award, the highest British medal given to civilians, for the extreme price they paid in WWII. Monuments to these and other Maltese events are scattered over both these gardens.
Historic Buildings and Museums
Malta has history going back further than the pyramids and Stonehenge. You can visit museums dealing with art, archeology, and wartime. You can see buildings where Napoleon stayed, the president’s home and the war-torn ruins of the opera house, which is now an open-air performance space.
The Malta Experience
The Malta Experience website
This is a movie theater dedicated to showing a 40 minute documentary about 7,000 years of Maltese history. It’s a great way to take a break from walking and put what you have seen into context.
A harbor cruise is a great way to see Valletta from the water. We started in Marsamxett Harbor and cruising around the Valletta peninsula and then to the Grand Harbor. While cruising there was a tour guide that narrated the trip so that we all knew what we were looking at.
Nenu the Artisan Baker Restaurant
We enjoyed lunch here on our first day. The entrance to this restaurant isn’t incredible from the outside, but from the moment we stepped over the threshold we knew we were in for a treat. Through the glass floor was glass we could see statues making bread in a wood-fired brick oven.
This bakery has been baking with the same ovens since before WWI. We each received a ftira divided into sections. A ftira is flat bread almost like a thick crust pizza. The dough was topped with a great variety of local specialties like olives, garlic, eggplant and more. The portions were huge and I don’t think too many people could finish theirs off entirely.
Afterwards we were invited into the kitchen to see the working ovens and meet our chefs. If you are in Valletta and hungry, I highly suggest Nenu!
This city, high atop a hill in the center of the island of Malta, was once the capital before the seat of government was moved to Valletta. Like Valletta, it’s a walled city filled with sun-bleached sandstone buildings. But whereas Valletta’s streets are laid out in an organized grid, M’dina is a labyrinth of winding alleys. It’s a joy to wander into one end of any alley and find out where it takes you. Remember you are in a small walled city, so you can’t get too lost.
Remember the co-cathedral in Valletta? The other cathedral and other seat of the same bishop is St. Paul’s in the center of M’dina. Beside church there is also a St. Paul’s museum with a big display of engravings by Albrecht Dürer.
We ate at a small restaurant with a beautiful enclosed, but roofless courtyard. Ciapetti is a family run restaurant with traditional Maltese dishes and gluten-free choices.
This is a small fishing village with a beautiful harbor. Here the harbor’s beauty is not the dramatic fortification on display like Valletta, but the fishing boats. The boats all have their own set of eyes! The boat are brightly painted and the traditional design goes back to the time when the Phoenicians ruled the island. The eyes are called the Eye of Horus or Osiris and are said to protect the fishermen at sea.
Each Sunday the harbor is lined with market stalls selling almost everything! We saw novelty sweatshirts, fresh fish, wrapping paper, souvenir fishing boats, fresh fruit, knock-off purses, magnets and a bunch of stuff I can’t even remember. We bought a bunch of spices which made great stocking stuffers in Christmas packages.
If you are hungry, stop at any of the sea-front restaurants in Marsxlokk for some fresh from the sea.
This is the smaller island and has a even more laid-back feel, but it’s had a recent brush with fame. Angelina Jolie wrote and directed a movie, By the Sea, staring her and her husband, Brad Pit to be released in 2015. It was filmed on Gozo and this ultra famous couple resided there for the time of the filming. Even so, the island is so small that the comings and going of the regular ferry service influence the traffic all over the island.
The capital city of this island is Victoria and its imposing citadel has spent centuries defending the citizens of Gozo. Be sure to climb to the top of the guard towers and walls for wonderful panoramic views of practically the entire island.
Do you like history? How about history so old it’s verging on pre-history? Malta is the site of the world’s second-oldest man-made ruins. Ggantija is a megalithic temple over 5,500 years old, which is now protected by as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With that much time between then and now, there are many guesses about the how and why of this site, so let your imagination run wild. Why did they put those rocks here? Why did they put a hole in that stone? Your guess may be as good as the historians.
The Azure Window
Azure Window website
Fans of Game of Thrones may recognize this site. A huge stone bridge arches from the sea to the island. You can walk out onto a parallel fossil-filled plateau and check it out the blue window to the water. OR you can look for some small fishing boats. For a few euros, they will take you out so you can see the window from the sea. They will also take you into some of the sea caves and point out other interesting land formation.
If you are looking for a place to visit with lots of sun, centuries of history, easy linguistic and transportation navigation and beautiful ocean fronts, please consider Malta!