I recently had the opportunity to discover Malta – officially the Republic of Malta. It’s an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea; almost halfway between the Italian peninsula and Africa and just over 50 miles south of Sicily. There are only 3 islands which are inhabited in this European island chain [Malta, Gozo, and Comino] and take up only 316 square kilometers [US folks that’s smaller than Rhode Island!]. To say the least, Malta is pretty damn small, so don’t beat yourself up too hard if you didn’t even know it existed until now.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
You know what they say about size… it doesn’t matter! 😉 Don’t let Malta’s seemingly slight stature influence your judgement of this tiny island nation. There’s a lot going on here [if you’re staying for no more than 5 days!]. There are not 1 or 2 but 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the capital, Valetta. And because the islands were first settled during the stone age [literally, around 5200 BC] there’s quite the collection of megalithic temples and a well preserved subterranean sanctuary, the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni. Jump ahead a few thousand years and Malta is occupied by Muslims [the Arabic language is the base for the Maltese language], Normans, Spanish, French, and finally the British. All lending to a pretty unique, albeit subjugated, heritage. After being dominated for so long, you’ll be happy to hear that Malta finally achieved independence in 1964.
If you’re visiting during the high-tourism summer months, you’ll obviously have plenty of sand and surf opportunities. You can tour a number of the historical temples, museums, or the Hypogeum. Keep in mind the Hypogeum has a daily visitor limit – check HERE to book tickets ahead of time. During any season, you can visit Malta’s natural attractions including Blue Grotto – try to go in the morning for best colors and remember to tip your local guide! Have some time? Book a trip to nearby Sicily; ferry takes about 90 minutes. Or opt for the much shorter 20-minute ferry to Gozo or Comino. In the off-season, the round trip ticket was only €1.50 (!) and you pay on the return. I found that most anywhere I wanted to go in Malta took an hour or more by bus [I was staying in St. Julian’s]. BUT I did find the buses to be reliable and didn’t feel the pressure to succumb to purchasing the ‘hop on hop off’ touring ticket. I picked up a bus pass – tallinja card – at the airport. My €15 card gave me 12 single day rides or 6 night rights or a combination of both. If you’re fortunate to have an international mobile plan, make Google Maps your best friend when looking up bus schedules as the posted times at the stops are not always correct.
Bonus Cut: If in St. Julian’s check out 1927 Restaurant. You’ll find a number of restaurants on St George’s Road but this is the best [or so I’m told by the locals]. No price gouging and the food was good. Really good.
OFF BEAT ATTRACTIONS
You may be surprised to learn there’s an impressive urban arts culture. I was, too! For the past three years, Malta has been host to an international street art festival, most recently hosted in the capital, Valetta. It’s a generous mix of street art and graffiti and if you happen to be in town while the event is going on [usually July] there will be a plethora of music stages, crazy party boat rides, all things hip and urban… [watch this video!]. You can walk around Sliema and Valetta anytime to search out past pieces – you may even be familiar with the work of street painter Leon Keer whose giant gummy bears can be found near the Valetta water polo club.
Or if you’re looking for a higher concentration of art you can visit the abandoned buildings of White Rocks or Jerma Palace. I took an afternoon and ventured out to Jerma Palace – a former 4-star hotel now in total disrepair. Ideal conditions for unsanctioned art. In its current derelict state, it’s hard to imagine what this grand building once represented as everything with the slightest value has been stripped. I didn’t make it to the massive White Rocks apartments in Pembroke, that take up 449,885 square meters, but imagine you’ll find a similar sampling as Jerma. Both areas are under proposed negations for redevelopment [so get there while you still can!] but unclear how long these changes will actually take. *Disclaimer: while I never felt threatened or in danger, one should venture with caution. As with many unclaimed buildings there’s potential for squatters, drugs, and other seedy activities. Go during daylight – always!*
Malta was a unique experience. It’s a bit more consumerized than I would have guessed – I saw more fast food chains during a 5 day trip then I have 1.5 months in Italy. But the relationship between visitor and resident was one of the most excepting I’ve encountered [I should mention English is the second official language]. It also may have helped that I befriended a local, Frankie, on the first day. 🙂 While I wouldn’t make it a top destination, I’d seriously consider a short visit to Discover Malta if the opportunity was presented.