Clash of civilisations: The Maltese archipelago boasts Baroque splendour on land and breathtaking views underwater.
Malta is like a living museum, with an extraordinary history and culture dating back 7,000 years. Its strategic location means that it has been invaded and occupied by a succession of different civilisations through the ages. Valletta, the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so, but if you do have time, the smaller, less developed islands of Gozo and Comino are also worth a visit.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
If there is a must-see sight, it’s the breathtaking Caravaggio painting The Beheading of St John the Baptist, which hangs in St John’s Co-Cathedral (stjohnscocathedral.com) in the heart of Valetta. The cathedral’s slightly drab exterior hides an incredibly ornate interior, with every conceivable space from the floor to the ceilings covered in art and 24-carat gold leaf. The Palace of the Grand Masters is where Malta’s parliament meets, and was once the headquarters of the Order of St John. You can admire the suits of armour that line the corridors, the wood-panelled rooms and the numerous paintings and tapestries.
The old city is laid out in a grid pattern with a main thoroughfare, Republic Street, where you can spot signs of the British colonial rule: red post boxes and phone boxes. The Upper Barracca Gardens, at the southern edge of the city, is a peaceful spot with wonderful views over the port. The walled city of Mdina is the island’s old capital, and is little changed from the Middle Ages, with tiny, winding streets, places and squares, and the beautiful Carmelite Monastery.
Malta is widely regarded as one of the best places to dive in the Med, with plenty of wrecks and the famous Blue Hole.
WHERE TO EAT
De Mondion Restaurant in the Xara Palace, Mdina (xarapalace.com), is regarded as one of the finest (and most expensive) restaurants on the island, serving a mix of French, Mediterranean and Maltese cuisine. Riviera della Marina, on the Vittorioso Waterfront, specialises in seafood and has great views. Giannini (gianninimalta.com) is an Italian restaurant on the third floor of a townhouse right at the edge of Valletta, with views over to Manoel Island.
WHERE TO DRINK
For drinking, head towards St Julian’s and Paceville, where you can have a sky-high drink at the Twenty-Two wine bar on the top floor of the Portomaso Business Tower (22.com.mt), or at the uber-hip Bedouin Bar in the Westin Hotel (westinmalta.com). Valletta is generally very quiet for most of the week, but there are a few fun places, including Q Bar (qbar.com.mt), a lovely spot for a waterside drink; 2.22, a wine bar inside the city walls with fine views; and Maestro, which holds a jazz night every week.
WHERE TO SHOP
The best shopping areas in Valletta are along Republic Street, the main thoroughfare that crosses the town, and Merchants Street, which is home to a daily open-air market. There is also a flea market on Sundays, outside Valletta’s city gate. In St Julian’s and Paceville, you can find designer boutiques and clothes stores. Malta is well known for its local crafts, including knitwear, basket-ware and lace, and jewellery. In the town of Victoria, on Gozo Island, visit the it-Tokk, meaning ‘meeting place,’ the daily market in the main square.
WHERE TO STAY
At the higher end are the cluster of hotel and resorts around St Julian’s, including The Hilton, which forms part of the trendy Portomaso marina and waterfront. This five-star hotel has 404 bedrooms with sea views, four swimming pools, a rocky beach, and some excellent restaurants (hilton.co.uk/malta). The next headland along is the Westin Dragonara (westinmalta.com), which has 340 rooms and suites, seven restaurants and bars, a spa and the island’s oldest casino. The George (thegeorgehotelmalta.com), in St Julian’s, is a mid-priced option with an urban-chic feel to it, smaller rooms, a hip bar and an indoor pool. If you’d prefer to be in Valletta, Hotel Castille (hotelcastillemalta.com) is an excellent three-star option, just yards from the Upper Baracca Gardens and with wonderful views over the harbour and a rooftop restaurant.
Typical Mediterranean: mild winters, hot summers, tempered by sea breezes
Maltese and English