After spending my first afternoon in Malta wandering around Valletta, I began to think that I may have made a mistake by adding Malta into my off-season European itinerary… Don’t get me wrong, Valletta was charming – but after just a few hours, I felt as though I had explored the whole tiny capital on foot. What was I going to do with three whole days on the island?
If you’re unfamiliar with Malta, it’s a small island country located south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its location between Italy and North Africa, Malta’s people, history and cuisine is a melting pot of these cultures. When I told other travelers about my upcoming trip, their reactions ranged from “Where the heck is Malta?” to “Ah, really? What on earth are you going to do there? In winter?” to “I can’t wait to hear your thoughts – I love Malta!”
Traveling to Malta in winter meant that it would probably be too cold to partake in beach or diving activities, further limiting my options. Could I have spent three relaxing days strolling the historic streets of Valletta, shopping, eating and drinking? Probably so. But, that’s not my usual travel style – especially on my annual international girls trip where we typically jam-pack a handful of cities and countries into one whirlwind two week itinerary.
After less than a day off the plane, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have chosen a different destination – one that offered more options to satisfy my wanderlust.
But, luckily, Malta grew on me… slowly and steadily. Each day I spent there was better than the last, and when it came time for us to board our plane to Istanbul, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. To (loosely) quote a popular teen book-turned-movie, “I fell in love (with Malta) how you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” (Go ahead and judge me, I would too). Cheesy comparison? Admittedly, yes. But, so very true of my feelings towards this tiny island nation.
In all seriousness, I couldn’t be happier to have experienced Malta. Even at my quick paced sight-seeing speed, I could have easily stayed a few more days. In fact, I have so much to tell you that my Malta experience can’t be squeezed into just one post, so I’ll be doing a series of three Malta posts. First up, here are my recommendations on how to spend your initial day in Malta.
Day 1: Get Acquainted with the Island
Explore Vittoriosa, Marsarxlokk, Mdina, & Valletta
I’d recommend that upon your arrival you jump right in and get yourself acquainted with Malta’s main island. We chose to do this by purchasing a day pass on one of Malta’s hop-on hop-off buses. This option set us back about $17 euro a person, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t do it this way again. Although the bus was convenient, we weren’t able to squeeze in more than three stops the whole day because of the bus routes and running times. I’ve been told by locals that the best way to see the island is by renting a car, but if you prefer not to drive or don’t want to deal with parking, I’d recommend that you hire a driver for the day. Since I was traveling with three others, we probably could have hired a driver for just a bit more than what we paid for four hop-on hop-off tickets. If you’re traveling solo or on a budget, the city bus system is also a great option. From Valletta, you can easily catch a bus or a ferry to any other part of the island you’d like to visit. You can find more information on Malta’s public transportation here.
I’d suggest that you start your day in Vittoriosa, just across the harbor from Valletta. Vittoriosa is one of “The Three Cities” and offers gorgeous waterfront views. Less touristy than the other cities mentioned in this post, The Three Cities offer some insight into how the majority of Maletese people actually live. If you’ve only got enough time to visit one of the three, make it Vittoriosa.
Once you’ve photographed the yachts in the picturesque harbor, explore town and walk straight through the main square until you hit the sea again for gorgeous views of Valletta across the harbor.
Next, head to the picturesque fishing village of Marsarxlokk for lunch. The Marsarxlokk harbor is littered with brightly colored wooden fishing boats, and the village itself is packed with small, family owned restaurants where you can feast on ridiculously fresh fish at modest prices (by western standards). When I was there in November, the seasonal catch of the day was lampuka (or dolphin fish), which was a crowd pleaser with our group.
After lunch, head to the enchanting medieval walled city of Mdina. Mdina was easily one of my favorite places on the entire island and is a must-see. I could have explored Mdina’s narrow winding pathways all day, admiring the historic buildings which were adorned with brightly colored window shutters and interesting brass door knockers.
Most anyone you ask will tell you that you absolutely cannot go to Malta without grabbing dessert at Fontanella Tea Gardens. To be perfectly honest with you, my girlfriends and I found the cakes at Fontanella to be a bit disappointing. Maybe it was the build-up, maybe I ordered the wrong thing, or maybe I’m just spoiled by living in a large city with a plethora of “foodie” hotspots, but I wasn’t blown away by my chocolate cake. That said, the overall experience Fontanella provides (including the sweeping views from their elevated terrace and the deliciously decadent hot chocolate drinks) wasn’t overrated, so the Tea Garden is still worth a visit.
Once you’re able to pull yourself out of Mdina, head back to your base in Valletta. During summer, most tourists base themselves in the resort towns of St. Julian’s or Silema, but I found Valletta to be the perfect base for my trip. A UNESCO world heritage site and Europe’s smallest capital, Valletta is a unique and romantic city that seems to be stuck several decades in the past. But it’s the narrow cobblestone roads, traditional Maltese balconies, and vintage signage that makes Valletta so undeniably lovely!
When searching for hotel accommodations, I couldn’t help but notice that there aren’t an overabundance of hotels in Valletta, and that many of the “hotels” were walk-ups turned into luxury suites. If you’re in Valletta for a romantic getaway, these options would probably be perfect for you, but for a trip with my girlfriends where I knew we would be spending little time in the hotel room, I was more concerned about location than an ultra-luxury experience.
For this trip, I chose to stay at the historic British Hotel, which is the longest established family run hotel in Valletta. The location of the hotel was perfect: on a quiet street, but just a couple minutes walk from everywhere in the city you’ll want to go. If you’re looking for a great value, I’d highly recommend this no-frills hotel which offers spectacular views of Valletta’s Grand Harbor from its balconies.
If you’re on a budget and can’t spring for a sea view room (rooms 105 and 106 have huge outdoor balconies), don’t fret – you’ll still be privy to the view from the hotel’s common sitting area and the breakfast room.
Once you’ve freshened up, walk to the nearby Bridge Bar for a cocktail, before heading to Guze Bistro for dinner. This top-notch restaurant is located in the heart of downtown Valletta and is housed in a historic 16th century building. The service was as perfect as the food, which was mostly classic Maltese dishes prepared with a modern flair. The rabbit ravioli was fantastic, but the mushroom risotto with veal and fresh truffles was probably the most fantastic pasta I’ve ever eaten. Once your stomach reaches capacity, saunter down the road and pop into one of the numerous casual restaurant/bars for some house-made lemoncello (not only is it delicious, but it’s also a disgestif and will help settle your stomach), before you turn in for the night.
Sounds like a pretty fantastic day, eh?
So, was Malta a mistake?
No way! I had a lovely time exploring the beautiful and historic country and am certain I’ll be back in the future.
You may also be interested in this post: I almost Didn’t Go to Gozo…
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Full Disclosure: I was a guest of The British Hotel, but as always, all opinions are my own.