Malta is the 10th smallest country in the world, and it also qualifies as a microstate. When looking at a full map of Europe, Malta barely registers as a biscuit crumb under the Island of Sicily.
This was my first time in Malta, and for this trip, I just stayed on the island of Malta. There are three islands of Malta: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. I had enough things to see and do without feeling the need to go to every island.
I based myself in Valletta and travelled around from there. As usual with my travel notes, this post covers thoughts and observations rather than “things to do in Malta”, which you can find out anywhere.
During my time living in London, I became aware that Malta was a popular retirement destination for the British. As a former British protectorate and with one of the official languages being English, Malta is a natural choice as a place to retire.
I also learned that Malta was a popular beach destination. In London, I would always see travel agencies on high streets advertising resorts in Malta. As an Australian living in Southeast Asia, I have high standards for beaches, so I don’t visit the islands of the Mediterranean for a beach holiday. I’m here for old churches and medieval castles (stuff I can’t get where I live). Before I started planning my trip I knew I would stay in the historic capital of Valletta rather than a beach resort.
Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so there can be no new apartments built within the city. There is a lack of hotels in the old town, which explains why I couldn’t find many places to stay. I ended up renting a room in an Airbnb, and from there I enjoyed wandering around the old streets at my own leisure.
One of the things I was most interested to see were the actual streets of Valletta itself. The city is laid out on a grid, which is an unusual site for an old city in Europe. Valletta was built in the 16th century after the Great Siege of Malta, and the town planners of the day went with the grid format despite the new city being on an uneven peninsula.
[Valletta map from visitmalta.com.]
The main tourist site I wanted to see was St. John’s Co-Cathedral. There are so many good churches in Europe that are free that I rarely pay to go inside one. I made an exception for St. John’s Co-Cathedral as it’s so intertwined with the history of Valletta.
The outside is rather plain, and it reminded me of the many churches in Rome whose exterior doesn’t hint of what splendour lies within.
Inside the church is a dazzling display of wealth. Sections of the church are allocated to patron countries of the knights.
The floor is made of tombstones of the knights, which is an ingenious use of space.
The cathedral also holds the painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
For more contemporary sightseeing there is a movie trail where you can see the locations of famous films and TV shows.
Malta is a popular stop on the cruise circuit, and every day there were different cruise ships in the port.
The main street of Valletta (Republic Street) was the stuff of overtourism nightmares during the day.
But like many places that face overtourism struggles, you only have to walk a couple of blocks away and the streets were quiet. I walked around most of the streets and they were never overrun like the main street.
And for all the interesting museums in Valletta, I found myself drawn to all the old signs.
10km inland from Valletta is the former capital of Mdina. Having only been in Valletta my mind hadn’t fully grasped how small this island is. On the map it seemed far away, but from the city wall you can see Valletta in the distance. If I had of planned better I would have considered walking back instead of getting the bus.
Mdina is now home to around 300 people. There are no cars inside the city walls either, which gives the city its nickname of The Silent City. It’s the sort of place that would be an overtourism hotspot in the high season, but during my trip it didn’t feel crowded at all.
I had never heard of Mdina before coming to Malta, and it’s places like Mdina that keeps me coming back to Europe every year so I can explore more places like this.
If I was to come back again I would probably stay in Sliema. There are more amenities here, and you can easily get across to the old city by ferry. Plus the best views of Valletta are from Sliema.
The is no bridge between Valletta and Sliema, so there is a designated love lock platform overlooking the old city.
There are a lot of new luxury apartments on the waterfront that are being built to make the most of this view. Part of the apartment boom has been fuelled by the sale of Maltese passports. This controversial program allows people to buy a coveted EU passport through the Individual Investor Program. In one case it was reported that two Saudi families bought 62 Maltese passports.
I was in Cyprus last year, which is another small Mediterranean country that is offering passports for sale.
When I travel I look at each place as if I was a prospective resident. I ask myself if I could live there, and I’m also curious about future development plans. With that mindset I arrived in St. Julian’s. This part of Malta has been making a name for itself as a base for gaming and crypto companies.
It has a much younger feel to it than Sliema and Valletta, with far more nightlife options here.
And there are more big brand hotels here.
I got the bus here with the intention of walking along the coast back to Valletta. Without any better place to start I made my way to the tallest building in Malta and started exploring from there.
The Portomaso Building is part of a casino complex, and is next to the Hilton Malta.
I hadn’t seen a beach yet so I followed my Google Map to the nearest beach. This little strip of sand is a private beach for the Intercontinental Beach Club. I was happy with my choice of staying in the old city.
I saw another building under construction that looked like it was going to be bigger than the current tallest building.
I was excited to see that it’s a Zaha Hadid building, and it will eventually be the tallest building in Malta.
[Mercury Tower by Zaha Hadid Architects.]
While it’s great that this is being built, from my short visit it seemed that this little area doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a new business district. Getting the bus here was frustratingly slow given that it wasn’t that far. And the traffic in this area was constantly gridlocked.
Malta would be better served to build a new business district somewhere else on the island. Not that there’s much land, but just looking on the map there are some blank spaces where you could build a new city, rather than building more on the narrow old streets.
I checked if such a plan exists, because surely someone has thought that, and there is a masterplan for a “smart city”.
SmartCity is being planned by a Dubai-based company, and it looks like they are committing the same bad street designs of every other new city by creating a jumbled street layout. They should just build a new city on a grid like old Valletta.
I of course went hunting for cafes, though there weren’t a great deal to choose from. My favourite cafe was Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters in Valletta. In Saint Julian’s the best cafe I visited was a Costa Coffee, which won my heart for its amazing view from the first floor. And in what is becoming a rarity, I visited Malta before Starbucks arrived. The first Starbucks in Malta opened a couple of weeks after I was there.
Walking back to Valletta via the coast was worth the trip to Saint Julian’s.
I enjoyed my time in Malta and I would be happy to return if the opportunuty presented itself. I want to go to Sicily soon, which has ferries to Malta. and there are now flights with Qatar Airways, in addition to Emirates flights (via Larnaca).
Phillip L Hockings says
Nice post….always enjoy your insights rather than a collection of must see sights.Your post on Osaka actually inspired my to go over there and it was great. Been to Italy a few times but never made it south….this just might inspire me
James Clark says
Thanks Phillip. I still haven’t been south of Rome so I need to go back as well.
Kevin Revolinski says
Awesome! Glad you got to see that Caravaggio. One of my favorite parts of my visit.
coral waight says
Just loved the look of Mdina. There’s something so organic about those old places. They’re much more beautiful without the tall buildings, as far as I’m concerned.
I agree with you re lack of hotels in Valletta and the ones that were available were very expensive. I stayed in a private room in an Airbnb.
Victor E says
If you return you should explore the churches outside the main tourist destinations. The architecture and history is fascinating. Also you should try to attend one of the church festas to take in the local culture. Below is a website online that lists the festas by month. Some of my favorites are the ones in Zejtun, Zabbar, Qormi, Zurrieq, Lija and Mgarr. And of course don’t forget the food.