This past weekend I was able to go on a small trip to Malta, and it was truly amazing! Unfortunately I was only there for two and a half days, but my schedule was jam packed with activities, so I got to see a lot of this tiny country. I would love to share with you some of the things I did and give my recommendations for where to go and what to see if you ever get the chance to go to Malta.
On our first full day in Malta we took the bus to Valletta, the capital of Malta. Sadly this city was extremely touristy and didn't have much of the "european charm" that you hope for. In fact, the main street actually reminded me of China Town in New York City. Most tourists books you find on Malta will tell you about twenty different places to go to in Valletta, but after spending an entire day there going to all these different sites, I can tell you that I think only a few are worth seeing.
Saint John's Co-Cathedral
AMAZING! I have been blessed enough to have been to a lot of beautiful churches, but this one may just be my favorite! There was not a single square inch of the inside of the church that was not covered in elaborate carvings, marble statues, or beautiful paintings. It was truly breathtaking. Even the floors were beautiful because it was entirely covered in marble tombstones of the Knights of St. John. Interestingly, the outside of the church was not anything special.
Make sure to plan on staying here for about two hours because upon buying tickets for entry, you are given an audio tour guide that will walk you through the history and significance of some of the most important things in the cathedral. I highly recommend taking advantage of this tool because it will provide you with some really interesting information about the church.
While we were touring the cathedral, we asked one of the employees about mass times, and she recommended that we go to the 9:15 service on Sunday mornings because it is the most beautiful mass. It could not have been a better recommendation! The choir that sang during the mass was beyond incredible, and the acoustics of the church made them echo slightly. You are also unable to see the choir, so it made it seem as though angels were singing from within the walls of the church. I was in awe the entire time! Even if you are not Catholic I recommend that you attend one of the masses in addition to doing the audio tour just to see how incredibly beautiful the services are! Just please be quiet and respectful to those who are worshipping there.
The Grand Master's Palace
Built in the late 16th century, this palace was originally the home of the Grand Master, the leader of the Knights of St. John. Today it is used as the offices for the Maltese Parliament and the President. Only a few rooms of the palace are open to the public, but there is an extensive armory that is available for touring. Like the Co-Cathedral, an audio tour set is given with the ticket, and it will walk you through all the different types of armor the Knights wore over the centuries as well as just about every type of weapon you could possibly imagine. If you listened to the entire audio tour, it would probably take about two and a half hours to go through the armory. I have to be honest though, I can only listen to information about weaponry and armory for so long before I completely lose my mind, so we ended up skipping around a bit towards the end.
Saint Paul's Shipwreck Church
In case you didn't know, Malta is actually mentioned in the Bible, in Acts 27:27 - 28:5. Saint Paul shipwrecked just off the coast of this small country while en route to Rome. While the shipwreck did not occur near Valletta - it was further Northwest along the coast - this church in Valletta is dedicated to the event. Unfortunately the church was under restoration when I was there, so some areas of the church were roped off, but it was still beautiful! I recommend going there if you have time!
Upper and Lower Barracca Gardens
Most tour books for Valletta will say that the upper gardens are better than the lower gardens, but I have to disagree. The lower gardens are much less crowded, and I actually think it is more beautiful than the upper one. However, the upper gardens do have a better view of The Grand Harbour, which is absolutely beautiful. It is best to go there in the evening to watch the sun set over the water and The Three Cities (Virtorriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua) on the other side of the harbor.
Soul Food- This small restaurant is not very far away from the Co-Cathedral, Grand Master's Palace, and St. Paul's Shipwreck Church, and best of all, it's not located on the main street, so it's away from most of the tourist chaos. The menu offers a wide variety of delicious, healthy options. I ordered the smoked salmon and cous cous salad with lettuce, rocket, lime juice, and sesame seeds, and my friend ordered the lentil piadina (kind of like a vegetarian hamburger but with a bread similar to pita bread rather than a bun) with tomatoes, caramelized onions, red cabbage, mixed greens, and mustard. Both items were amazing!
Gozo and Comino
These two small islands lie just off the coast of Malta. There are so many cool things to see on them that it is best to go with a tour group that can take you to all the highlights. Going to Gozo and Comino may have been my favorite part of our tip, so you definitely don't want to miss out!
The concierge at our hotel arranged for us to go with this tour group because they offer a tour that includes both sailing around to some of the most popular water spots as well as a Jeep safari to the inland locations. This combination tour includes lunch and will take you to twenty-one different locations within and around these two islands for 70 euros. You also have the option of paying 5 euros more to go on a small speed boat to see some of the caves. Make sure and bring your swimsuit and a towel because there are some incredible places where you will definitely want to get in the water, especially the famous Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon can get really crowded in certain areas, but this tour group made sure to stay away from the crowds so that you had a lot of room to swim around and snorkel if you would like. The water here is the brightest blue you can possibly imagine, so bring your camera because pictures are required!
This beautiful town is located on the coast just a little further Northwest from Valletta. The main road runs right along the water and has many different shops and restaurants. In some parts of the town there are also stairs that look kind of like stadium seating that lead down to small beaches which are great for swimming or just relaxing by the water. The Bay is always full of anchored boats, which makes the view even more spectacular. I would recommend finding a hotel here rather in Valletta because it is not nearly as touristy or crowded, and it still feels like a European town. The bus ride from St. Julian's to Valletta takes about 45 minutes because of all the stops, but it only costs 2 euros per person. If you don't mind paying a little bit extra you can take a taxi to Valletta for a much shorter ride.
Where to Stay
Le Méridien - One of my friends and I stayed at the Le Méridien St. Julian's hotel, which was absolutely amazing. It's location right on the water is great because it is a very short walk from there to a lot of the main restaurants in St. Julian's. It is also only about a block away from the bus stop that will take you to Valletta. We lucked out because due to a mix-up in our original reservation, we were upgraded to a suite! Our room had two separate balconies overlooking Saint Julian's Bay, and the room was incredibly nice with a king sized bed, two and a half bathrooms, and a separate living room. I would definitely recommend staying here as the hotel was in a wonderful location and the staff were extremely helpful with helping us plan our short trip.
Bianco's- As per the hotel concierge's recommendation, we walked along the water for about ten minutes to a restaurant called Bianco's. The food here was delicious and moderately priced. My two friends and I decided to have a family-styled dinner and ordered several things to share. Here are some of my favorite things we had that are definite musts if you come here:
Vegetarian Salad- Rucola salad with peppers, spring onions, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, baked brie, green apples, and walnuts with a honey and herb dressing
Fresh Local Ravioli- Ravioli filled with local goat cheese and a butter and sage sauce, topped with rucola, parmesan shavings, and toasted pine nuts
Bianco's Special - Pizza topped with a pomodoro sauce, mozzarella, gorgonzola, honey, giant red grapes, and crushed walnuts.
Raffael- This restaurant is located right on the water of Spinola Bay and is the perfect dinner spot if you are wanting a nicer place that still isn't too pricey. It's probably best to make a reservation in advance if you want a table right by the water because it can get pretty busy here. One of my friends and I shared the Farfalle al Salmon and the Ravioli con Funghi Porcini, both of which were amazing! The menu also offered a variety of seafood dishes at a slightly higher price.
Fun Places to Hang Out
Dubliner- If you are interested in going out after dinner, this is the perfect place to go. This small irish pub is not too crowded and has a very calm atmosphere, so it is a great place to hang out and talk with friends.
Seats along the water- As I mentioned previously, there are several areas along the main road where you can walk down to the water. These stairs are a great place to sit and relax and look over the bay. You will have a wonderful view of the moon, which comes up right over the water and reflects across the surface.
There are so many other places in Malta that I wish I could have visited, but we just didn't have the time on our short two and a half day trip there. One place in particular that I wish we could have gone to was the city of Mdina, which some of my other friends say was actually their favorite place on Malta. In Mdina you can see Malta's other cathedral, St. Paul's, as well as several catacombs including the one that St. Agatha stayed in while hiding from the Romans.
Even though it's a very small country, there are so many amazing things to do and see in Malta. My friends and I had a wonderful time on our short weekend vacation away from our study abroad program in Sicily (more posts to come on that soon). I don't think you need to spend more than about five days here in order to see all of the highlights, but it is definitely a place you should put on your bucket list!