You would think it would be exceptionally easy for me to write about Malta. I mean over half my family live there, I have Maltese blood running through my veins and I’ve been going to Malta for as long as I can remember. So I guess the problem is I have too much to say about this little gem of a Mediterranean Island and feel more than a slight bit of pressure to make sure I do it justice.
Plus talking about Malta makes me more than a tiny bit desperate to return, you see – emotional attachment to it aside – I flippin’ love this place!
The sights, the people, the weather, the history, the food, the wine – oh the wine! And because it’s such a small island you can cover so much of it in a short space of time. Yes there is an awful lot to love about Malta (even if I am a little bit biased).
Without further ado, let’s kick-off my Happy Travels: Malta – mini-series, with…
10 things you should know about Malta
Despite being a really small island south of Sicily, Malta has its own language – Maltese. Which (disclaimer!) despite being a bit Maltese, I can’t speak hardly any of. But maybe that’s a story for another day?
Thankfully nearly everyone in Malta speaks English. Plus nearly every sign, menu etc. is written in English. So if you’re worried about a language barrier, don’t be.
If you’re going to Malta and want to be polite by attempting a few words in Maltese during your stay, here are some basic ones to help you:
One Maltese word that seems to cover everything and mean everything is Mela. You’ll hear this a lot. It gets dropped into conversations for so many reasons. To work out why it’s being said you just need to study the tone of voice and gesticulation. Asking what ‘Mela’ means kind of draws the same response as if you asked someone what Coca Cola tastes like:
You: What does Coca Cola taste like?
Random Person: It tastes like Coca Cola!
You: What does Mela mean?
Random Maltese Person: It means Mela (accompanied by lots of gesticulating)
02. There is a lot of history
The Maltese are exceptionally proud of their long and eventful history. And so they should be!
The Megalithic temples of Malta are the oldest free-standing structures in the world – even older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids!
In 60 AD St. Paul was shipwrecked on the Island on his way to Rome. They’ve been ruled by the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the French and the British (although that one was by request). The Knights of St. John gave Malta the cross we know and love today.
During WW2, Malta was horrifically bombed – they hold the record for the heaviest sustained bombing attack. For the bravery of the Maltese people and its strategic importance throughout the war, the island was awarded the George Cross for bravery by King George VI in 1942. Which is proudly displayed in the top left hand corner of their flag.
The history of the island is easily evident and you could spend a whole trip there not even scratching the service of all that has been before.
03. The Maltese (and we’re not talking puppies)
I never like to stereotype, but in general, Maltese people are warm, hospitable……feeders. Yes they want nothing more than to welcome you and feed you!
Maltese people are proud & patriotic, not surprising given their history. But here’s a word to the wise; you may hear them listing everything they’re not happy about within the country at the moment – but unless you’re Maltese – you are not permitted to join in! Family is family when you’re Maltese as is their country is their country, so unless you’ve something nice to say – keep it to yourself!
You could argue they need some practice at queuing, often sound like they’re shouting when they talk (I’ve definitely inherited this gene!), get particularly animated whilst driving, but at their heart, are passionate, sociable and helpful.
Often house proud – the understated facades of some of the houses have been know to hide pristine palaces within (visit my cousin’s place if you don’t believe me!)
They’re hard working but also very laid back. Stuff gets done when it gets done.
I just love them.
04. Exploring the Island
Travelling around in Malta could easily have its own post but here are the main things you need to know.
They drive on the left!
Which is great for us Brits but slightly confusing for the majority of other tourists.
Driving in Malta isn’t for the faint hearted!
Malta is like driving around central London if it was on steroids. I don’t drive over there, it’s too scary – but then I am a wimp! Loads of people though, and I mean loads, do drive – which is why, despite the island’s size – getting anywhere at peak times can take a long while. Keep this in mind if you’re planning on staying somewhere like Mellieħa and want to explore the island on a regular basis.
The key to driving in Malta is confidence, bucket loads of assertiveness, a calm head and your wits seriously switched on.
You can always take a bus!
As a child visiting Malta, my Nanna would take me on the bus into the capital Valletta. In those days the buses were iconic. They were unique to Malta and had zero air conditioning other than some open windows. The driver would surround himself with lots of religious trinkets and I swear they used to make the sign of the cross before setting off. Considering the way they would drive and the fact they were asking Jesus for intervention, did nothing to calm your nerves or give you confidence you would safely reach your destination!
However, made it we always did. Slightly shaky perhaps but in one piece nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the Maltese buses were phased out and Arriva took over, with your regular style UK bus. Disappointing to lose an icon of Malta, but I guess ultimately the air con is a welcome addition for many.
The buses cover the whole island, but they’ll arrive when they arrive. You can track them on the Tallinja app but it’s not 100%.
05. They like fireworks
OK well maybe not everyone likes the fireworks, but there is some serious firework action that incurs in Malta.
Every year, usually between May and September, around 60 Festas (village feasts) are held to celebrate each locality’s particular patron saint.
Festas are a religious event and involve a lot of celebrating. Each locality tends to want to out-do the other, so competition to be the best can be fierce. Hence the immense pyrotechnics.
I was in Gudja during their festa (15th August) last year and the fireworks there were some of the loudest I have ever heard.
What can you expect from a Festa?
My earliest memories of Festas are standing on my Great Aunt’s balcony in Ħamrun, showering the crowds below with confetti. As hundreds of people lined the streets, the village band club marched & played, a huge statue of the patron saint – San Gaetan – was carried along underneath us. We would then head into the street to witness the fireworks and eat traditional local sweet treats.
You can pretty much experience the same today, although unfortunately not from my Great Aunt’s balcony. The local sweet treats are also making way for fast food and deep-fried doughnuts.
If you really want to experience Malta, then a Festa is highly recommended. The energy is second to none. But just be prepared – especially if you have little ones in tow – they are very lively, which might not be for everyone.
06. Malta might not have a Starbucks on every corner but Churches they almost do!
Keeping with the religious theme, Malta is a predominantly Catholic country. There are over 300 churches on the island, you could almost visit a different church for every day of the year.
Even if you’re not religious, it’s definitely worth carving out some time to visit some of the many churches and Cathedrals.
In particular, St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta and St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina are worth a visit.
The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady – more commonly known as Mosta Dome, is my personal favourite for the miracle that occurred there. During WW2 a German bomb fell through the dome into the church during mass but failed to explode. That story has wowed me since childhood. A replica of the bomb is on display within the church.
As with any religious buildings, but particularly in Malta, you are required to act respectfully and wear appropriate clothing.
07. Food & Drink – Maltese style
You needn’t worry if you’re going to Malta, it’s not in the dark ages, most of what you love to eat and drink at home is available to you there.
However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to experience local food and drink. And believe me when I say, there is lots of it available.
We’ll start with food
Pastizzi – the nation’s snack! I guess the best way to describe them is like small pasties made out of filo pastry and filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. Available from Pastizzerias all over the Country, they are very cheap and are appropriate to eat at any time of day. Some hotels include them in their breakfast buffet!
Ħobż biż-Żejt – I eat this almost daily whenever I’m in Malta. This translates into bread with oil, of which my personal favourite is ftira (maltese flat bread). The ftira or ħobż tal-Malti is rubbed with maltese tomatoes or kunserva (tomato paste), drizzled with olive oil filled with tuna, capers, onions, olives, garlic. Although the bread can be filled with different ingredients as per your taste. Widely available at cafes throughout the island, but my favourite is from the La Fontella Tea Garden in Mdina – be sure to get a table upstairs to take in the views.
Timpana – Growing up, this was my family’s alternative offering to the Traditional Sunday Roast. It’s basically like a pasta cake. Macaroni is combined with a bolognese style sauce before the addition of egg to bind and then covered with a pastry lid and baked. Very carb heavy, but for me, the ultimate in comfort food. I have struggled to find it on the menu in a lot of restaurants but you can often find them for a really decent price from the kiosk vendors.
Stuffat tal fenek – This won’t be for everyone or any fans of Thumper, but rabbit strew is a popular Maltese dish. It’s a tomato based stew with onions, potatoes, carrots and garlic. My family add marrowfat peas to it and at home I substitute the rabbit for beef. This is a hearty stew – Malta on a plate.
Torta tal Lampuki – which is a pie made with Lampuki fish containing tomatoes, onions, olives, capers and spinach, placed in puff pastry before being baked. Head to Marsaxlokk for the freshest catches.
Twistees – Maltese Crisps. They’re a bit like Nik Naks and are flavoured with cheese powder. I have loved these for as long as I can remember and I’m delighted my kids are now fans of them too.
And you might also like to try…
ġbejniet – a traditional cheese made with milk from sheep or goats.
Bigilla – a mashed broad bean dip
ħelwa tat-tork – a sweet dessert, made of sugar, tahini and almonds.
How’s about a drink to wash it all down with?
Kinnie – the nations soft-drink is a bit like Dr Pepper in that you either love it or you don’t. I personally love it and was really happy when a diet version was introduced. It’s essentially a bittersweet fizzy drink made from brewing bitter oranges and aromatic herbs. There is only one way to know if you’ll like this and it’s just to go ahead and try it!
Cisk – The beer of Malta. It’s a crowd pleaser. If you prefer more of an ale, try Hopleaf.
Wine – Malta has really upped their wine game. Maltese wines have never failed to delight and when we’re over there it’s all we order. My personal recommendation is the Marsovin Carravaggio family of wines.
08. It’s really safe.
There are no ‘bad’ areas in Malta. You’re pretty safe wherever you head. Although gone are the days where doors are left unlocked. Petty crime does occur so as with anywhere you go around the globe, make sure you’re sensible with your belongings. But I would go so far as to say that Malta is one of the safest countries in Europe.
09. Culturally speaking
Malta is full of culture. Throughout the different periods of occupation plenty of different cultural influences have left their mark on the island.
You can visit art galleries, museums, the opera, the theatre. And all that’s before you stop to admire the buildings steeped in history.
Valetta was the 2018 European Capital of culture. Yes the Maltese capital (also a UNESCO world heritage site) took home the title.
In general terms though the culture is very laid back. Expect a lot of meals to be taken outside, a lot of time spent with family and friends, a lot of people watching going on.
If you want to move away from the laid back, head to Paceville, which is full of clubs and bars and P.S. – all the clubs in Malta are free!
10. If you want to take home a memento
You can trust Malta to send you home with lots of unique Maltese souvenirs.
Come to shop for Maltese lace crafted using unique techniques that date back to the time of the Knights of St. John or how about some handcrafted Mdina glass?
Fancy something a bit bling? What about a filigree Maltese cross? Filigree is a speciality of Malta, I head to Valetta for mine.
Replicas of the Sleeping Lady figurine (a figurine uncovered from the only underground pre-historic temple in the world, now residing in Malta’s Museum of Archaeology) are widely available. As are replicas of the Eye of Osiris which are often seen on the traditional Maltese Luzzu (fishing boats).
If you loved any of the Maltese food and drink products, you can also head home with these. Plus you might want to try a Maltese prickly pear jam or liquor.
You could go to the Ta’ Qali craft village for your souvenir shopping or try old-school Nanna haggling at one of the regular markets held across the island.
Get, set, going to Malta
If you want to experience a Mediterranean island which takes less than an hour to get around (traffic allowing), with glorious weather, culture, history, cuisine, uniqueness, oh and did I mention Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Popeye and tons of other films and shows (here’s the Wiki list of them) were made there? Well then, for me it’s a no-brainer – mela you’ve got to go to Malta!
Ready for even more Happy Travels? Read:
Have you been to Malta? Are you going to Malta soon? Or are you just considering it as a potential holiday destination? As I mentioned at the beginning, this is the first post in a mini-series on Malta, so I’d love to know your thoughts or anything else you would like to see covered within the series. As always, get in touch via the comments box below!
Grazzi ħafna to all the lovely Maltese people (my Maltese family & friends included) who contributed some of the images in this post!