Visiting Malta Valletta

The first thing that strikes me about Malta is the color. The entire country is light brown. Dry and arid landscapes peppered with muted olive trees, stacks of vertical limestone apartment buildings, fortification walls meters thick. The only splashes of color come from the brightly painted doors and the ocean.

While I’ve never been to Morocco, this is how I imagine it looks.

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Malta is a tiny nation, covering just 122 square miles (316 square kilometers), but it is the second most densely populated, next only to China. If you come expecting vast open spaces, think again. The population, 450,000, is crammed into an array of smallish cities and villages, most of the population living in close quarters. It feels cozy, not crowded, though from a distance the wall of tan windows is intimidating.

With just a weekend to explore Malta, we were in over our heads before we even begin. For a small country, there are enough interesting villages and natural wonders to fill a few weeks for the truly committed traveler.

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For us, we begin our usual whirlwind exploration by mapping out the food.

Thanks to some diligent research the day before we arrived, we identified a few can’t miss meals. A late night dinner at Ta’ Kris left us optimistic for the weekend of eating to come. Fortunately, we were spot on in our choices. Mint (a cafe in Sliema) became a quick favorite and we visited twice in 24 hours – almost unheard of for two self-proclaimed novelty seekers.

For lunch one afternoon, we sought out traditional Maltese pizza, called ftira, which is essentially a thick crust pie, heavy on the toppings, no sauce. The crust, rolled over the outer edge of the toppings and dusted with sesame seeds, is buttery and delicious. Always one for doughy pizza, this is right up my alley.

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Dinner at La Mere on Friday night was booked in advance (via an online form), and as we enjoyed a leisurely meal, we were surprised at the number of diners wandering in for dinner who were turned away.

Dense population + crowded restaurants = book early

A final meal at Il-Merill, on the street of our apartment rental, rounded out the weekend and we chowed down on pasta and ribs before rolling ourselves back up the hill to our flat to sleep off the food coma. Side note: we never tried Malta’s most famous ingredient, rabbit. We just kept saying, oh we’ll eventually try some, and then our last meal came around and the restaurant was sold out for the night. Oops.

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To explore Malta, it is relatively simple to figure out the public transportation system, a combination of ferries and buses. Together, they cover nearly the entire country, and one can certainly get to any frequently-visited place with a combination of the two.

We spent one day in Valletta, the walled capital city, a five-minute ferry ride from our location across the harbor. We enjoyed Valletta’s gorgeous city center, with elaborately finished buildings, pedestrian streets and lots of outdoor cafes. But, we equally enjoyed the side streets of Valletta, noticeably more dingy with peeling paint and rusty Catholic emblems gracing nearly every doorway.

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In Valletta, we stumbled upon an ongoing celebration for the Valletta Football Club, which recently won the local league. Apparently, this was the second weekend in a row for celebrations, and the previous weekend was much more insane, including a massive fireworks display. Unfortunately, it wasn’t repeated during our stay, despite fireworks being one of Malta’s principal exports.

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On our single full day of exploration, we planned an aggressive journey to the south coast of the country to visit the Blue Grotto, with its famous limestone arch. From there, the plan was to head north via bus to Rabat and M’dina, where we would have dinner at Malta’s annual food festival, held in M’dina over the weekend. A bus ride would bring us back to Sliema in the evening.

Oh, the best laid plans…

In real life, we woke to a day of rain. We underestimated the time it takes to get from place to place via public transportation, and one of us (ahem, Drew) forgot his sweater back at the apartment, spending the chilly day in a wet T-shirt. By the time we finally arrived in M’dina, after a crazy bus ride wherein our driver got stuck in a small town square and did a 50-point turn (a conservative estimate) to free us and then we wound our way around the country instead of taking the prescribed route, we were frazzled.

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We did a few rainy laps within the historic walled town of M’dina and caught the next bus home. When we finally pulled up at our stop we immediately went to the nearest chain grocery store where we bought cheap wine and BBQ potato chips and spent a few hours in our apartment decompressing and binge watching YouTube. As you do.

Sometimes we leave a weekend destination feeling like we’ve really covered the place. We see everything we hope to see, eat everything we plan on eating and collapse in our uncomfortable airplane seats ready to get home and go to bed.

In Malta, we left so much undone.

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I think that visiting Malta is probably best when savored. A day at the Blue Grotto, a day in M’dina, a day at an outdoor café in Valletta. The pace of life here is resolutely Mediterranean, and the slowness should really be embraced, not pushed against. By attempting to see it all in a day we went against Malta’s DNA and probably paid the price, finding ourselves stressed out and racing against the clock.

So we learned a thing or two. Which is what travel is all about, after all. I’m sure we’ll be recovered soon.

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Logistics for Visiting Malta:

We stayed at a lovely rental apartment that we would heartily recommend to anyone. The owners, Dave and Lisa, recently completed a multi-year renovation of the place. Also, the WiFi speed is AMAZING.

English is one of the primary languages in Malta, thanks to its relatively recent affiliation with the Brits. Maltese is the other language, totally complicated and difficult, but every sign and menu is in English so it’s easy to navigate.

One big complaint: while the bus system covers much of the country, be warned that the frequency of buses is very, very sparse. Once an hour or so is normal in many areas. Therefore, when you’re at the Blue Grotto waiting for a lift to M’dina, be prepared to spend some time waiting for a bus, and then a similarly long time on the bus covering a small distance (twisty roads, big vehicles, etc). In the more populated areas, infrequent buses leads to very crowded buses. Despite four different bus lines running in our direction one day, multiple buses passed, completely full, before one stopped and we were able to cram on. And then it was only because the driver probably sensed our desperation as we flagged him down.

Visiting Malta in 48 Hours

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  • May 13, 2016

    What a beautiful island! It’s still high on my wishlist, but it’s good to know 48 hours isn’t really enough!
    Dominique recently posted…Curaçao – Wine and DineMy Profile

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      I have seen some tour companies offer week-long trips to Malta and now I can definitely see why. It is totally worth visiting but give yourself more than a weekend. I was just looking back at my original planning notes for Malta, and I had planned for 5 days, which would have probably been a better choice! (just blame work and good ticket prices on the eventual plan!)

  • May 14, 2016

    Julie, This was a really helpful article and your images are breathtaking. I just hope that we can take advantage of your insights someday.
    Arnie recently posted…Chic Cotton Sail Hotel ReviewMy Profile

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      Malta is certainly worth a look. I know it’s not always first on people’s lists of places to visit in Europe, but it certainly is unique and totally unlike anything else we’ve seen!

  • May 14, 2016

    It’s amazing sometimes how much we think we can do especially in the span of 122 square miles. We see this all the time at Disney’s 26 square miles and are full aware that you cannot and will not see it all. Though I’d bargain to say you saw more than most, it’s good to plan out a bit more time. Photos on the shore are gorgeous!
    Tonya recently posted…Exploring the Grand Central District of St. Petersburg, FLMy Profile

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      I completely agree. Even when a place seems small, it is always a bit of a deception 🙂

  • May 15, 2016

    I’ve been hearing so much about Malta lately! I’d love to visit. I didn’t realize how densely populated it was though. I think I’d make the trip out there for that pizza alone though, it looks delicious!

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      Oh, that pizza. I loved it. I had no idea about the dense population either but I will say that it mostly just felt like city living, nothing too crazy or too crowded! You and Buddy would love it 🙂

  • May 15, 2016

    I second the comment about hearing so much about Malta. I honestly didn’t know it was so tiny or that it was so tightly packed. Good call on the unwinding with cheap wine and crisps.
    Carly recently posted…Traveling With Migraines – This Daith Piercing Just Fixed My LifeMy Profile

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      Cheap wine for the win!

  • May 15, 2016

    A 50 point turn things like that can only happen in the small squares and streets of Europe lol I love it. malta looks amazing the coastline, the food, the building wow. Your pictures make me want to grab a bag and head there now

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      Malta is really beautiful and was a real pleasant surprise for us. So much to see and do. The 50 point turn was certainly not a highlight, though it was mildly entertaining!

  • May 15, 2016

    Gosh, I didn’t realise how pretty Malta was. It actually reminds me of Sicily, which probably isn’t surprising as they were both part of the same ‘kingdoms’ at various points in history
    Fiona Maclean recently posted…Genoa – the strangest contrastsMy Profile

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      Good point. Sicily is only about 70 miles north of Malta, so they are very similar and have had quite a number of outside influences on their cultures and architecture.

  • May 16, 2016

    And this is why I’m a stickler when it comes to brown and blue combinations. Even Malta shares my taste and that city view is just so beautiful in all its glory. And that pizza? Oh my, that will hit me right in the spot. Thank you for sharing this wonderful place.

    • May 16, 2016
      Julie

      We are now singing the praises of this tiny island. For anyone looking for a new and different European destination, Malta is our top pick!

  • May 17, 2016

    i really agree with the sea of “brown” everywhere! definitely something to get used to at first. How long would you say would be needed to enjoy the big sites such as Blue Grotto, a day in M’dina, a day at a café in Valletta. would three days be better than the two you tried to squeeze them into?
    Lindsay Nieminen recently posted…Travel Bloggers Share Over 30 of The Best Disney TipsMy Profile

    • May 18, 2016
      Julie

      Three days minimum. Even though the distance is not great, taking a bus to M’Dina or Blue Grotto will take an 1hr, and it took us an hour to go between M’Dina and the Blue Grotto, even though they are not very far apart. The more time the better to enjoy Malta at a relaxing pace!

  • May 18, 2016

    Malta looks amazing. I love how the building fit in with the landscape. great advice about the buses, it must hurt when the bus drives by without stopping.
    Jennifer recently posted…15 Traveler Regrets About Hometown AttractionsMy Profile

    • May 18, 2016
      Julie

      beautiful country. The public transportation system does cover the entire island, but it would be great if they had more buses running!

  • May 29, 2016

    Beautiful photos, as usual! I have a friend who lives in Malta and I have heard nothing but good things about it!
    Trisha Velarmino recently posted…No visa? No problem! The journey to visa free countries for Filipinos continuesMy Profile

    • May 30, 2016
      Julie

      Thanks Trisha! We have some friends there on a week-long holiday with little kiddos, and they are exploring a whole different side of the country. I really am convinced that this is a place to make time for, you should totally go visit 🙂

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