Malta, or the Republica of Malta, is an island nation in the central Mediterranean, located between Sicily and North Africa. It includes the main island of Malta (home to the capital city, Valletta), the smaller island of Gozo, and the tiny, barely populated island of Comino. Over the millennia, Malta's strategic position has made it a prized possession of civilizations, kingdoms, and regional powers seeking to control trade in the Mediterranean. As a result, Malta has a fascinating history, with influences of Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish and British cultures, among others—seen especially in its historic cities.
Malta is also known for the waters that surround it—the Mediterranean Sea around Malta and its associated islands is clear, deep, and very popular with divers and snorkelers. For Europeans, Malta is a quick island getaway for warm weather, beaches, and history.
Planning Your Trip
Here are some basics for planning your trip to Malta.
Best Time to Visit: Summers in Malta are hot, dry, and crowded, as July to September is peak season. To avoid the crowds but still be relatively sure of warm but not hot weather, the best time to visit is in the late spring to early summer, from April to June. By May, the sea is warm enough for swimming.
Language: The official languages of Malta are Maltese and English. The former is a Semitic language with its roots in the Arab-Sicilian domination of Malta in the Middle Ages. Italian is also widely spoken on the island. Why most Maltese speak the Maltese language among themselves, you'll find that most also speak English, especially in hotels, shops, and restaurants.
Currency: Malta is part of the European Union and uses the Euro as its currency. No other currencies are accepted.
Getting Around: Malta has an efficient public bus system that connects to the airport, cruise port, and most cities, towns, and tourist sites, including on Gozo. If you decide to rent a car, keep in mind that Malta adheres to British driving rules, meaning cars have their steering wheels on the car's righthand side, and driving is on the lefthand side of the road. Taxis are numerous and easy to find. Motor scooter and bicycle rentals are popular ways to get around, and a water taxi service carries passengers across Valletta's Grand Harbour.
Travel Tip: Malta is small but densely populated and congested. In high season and at morning and evening rush hour, expect to spend some time sitting in traffic.
Things to Do
Visitors to Malta mostly come for three reasons: history, the sea, and a fun, resort-like feel. You might pass a vacation here by visiting historical and archaeological sites one day, and beaches and swimming spots another. If you have the chance to get out on the water in a boat, whether it's a ferry, kayak, or chartered sailboat, don't miss it. In the evenings, the lively alleys of the capital city of Valletta are lined with open-air restaurants and bars.
Here are a few sights and activities not to be missed:
- Visit historic cities and sites. Valletta, the fortified capital city of Malta, dominates the Grand Harbour. The 16th-century city was built by the Knights of Malta in high Baroque style and has a well-preserved historic center. The fortress city of Mdina was built by the Arabs in the 11th century and served as Malta's capital until the 1500s. The Megalithic Temples of Malta, including Ħaġar Qim and four others, are the oldest free-standing stone structures globally and a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site. For some perspective: they predate the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and Ireland's New Grange.
- Get in the water. The islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino are ringed by dramatic rocky coves with stunningly clear water and a few sandy beaches. Top sandy beaches include Golden Bay Beach and red-hued Ramla Bay on Gozo. For swimming and snorkeling, On tiny Comino, the aptly named Blue Lagoon is famous for its otherworldly turquoise waters. On Malta, St. Peter's Pool has huge rock slabs for sunning in-between jumping into blue-green waters. From the beautiful swimming cove at Għar Lapsi, you can catch a boat to the Blue Grotto, the most famous of the many sea caves carved into the shorelines of Malta and Gozo.
- Party into the night. Malta is a party destination, attracting young and old revelers to dine out, drink and socialize at top spots all over the island. In Valletta's Old Town, narrow, steep alleyways are lined with bars and restaurants that buzz with activity from early evening. In the combined area of Sliema, St. Julian's, and St. George's Bay, modern luxury hotels, beach resorts, and shopping, dining, and entertainment complexes draw revelers from across Europe and beyond.
What to Eat and Drink
As with Maltese history and culture, Malta's cuisine has been greatly influenced by the many cultures that ruled the islands over thousands of years. Most prevalent is the Italian influence—there are Italian restaurants and pizzerias all over Malta and Gozo. But the cuisine also has elements of French, Greek, Arabic, Spanish and British cooking. Rabbit is among the most popular dishes in the country, prepared any number of ways but most often in a stew, called stuffat tal-fenek. Pastizzi are savory pastries filled with peas or a ricotta mixture. Another only-in-Malta dish is ftira, a flatbread that is either stuffed with savory ingredients or served like a pizza, with cheese, vegetables and often, sausage or other meat. Lampuki pie is a local fish pie baked with potatoes, mint, and capers.
Both red and white wines are developed in Malta. White wines are crisp and dry, and include Chardonnay, Vermentino, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Syrah and Merlot are two of the most commonly found reds on the island. Cisk is the local craft beer, and you'll find bartenders mixing up a range of international cocktails, including the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz.
Where to Stay
Where you base your stay in Malta depends largely on your interests. Keep in mind that the island is small and can be easily traversed by rental car or bus. Valletta, the capital city, has several important sights, is close to the airport, has a range of accommodation options, and is a good hub for exploring the rest of the country. Sliema, St. Julian's, and St. George's Bay have the largest concentration of luxury hotels, though there are less expensive options here as well. Families and couples come here for the beaches, and the younger crowd hits nearby Paceville for the nightlife. Quiet Mellieħa is favored by those who want to spend the majority of their time at the beach. Gozo is also much quieter and lower-key than the busiest parts of Malta and draws an older crowd looking for total relaxation and lots of time in the sun and sea.
Small, easily navigable Malta International Airport (MLA) is the country's only airport. While there are no direct flights between Malta and the U.S., the airport is well-connected to Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. Air Malta, Alitalia, RyanAir, EasyJet, and Wizz Air are among the carriers with the most frequent flights in and out. The airport is about 10 kilometers from downtown Valletta and is connected to Valletta and the rest of the island by bus or taxi.
Gozo is only reachable by ferry or private boat, or charter. Ferries depart about every 30 minutes from the port at Ċirkewwa, on the northern tip of Malta, for the 25-minute ride to Gozo. Vehicle, foot, and bike passengers are welcomed on board.
Culture and Customs
Malta ranks only behind Romania as the most religious country in Europe. And despite its reputation as a European party destination, its population is devout, with a wide majority identifying as Roman Catholic and attending mass regularly. When entering any church, be sure that your shoulders and chest are covered and that your legs are covered from the knees up—this goes for all genders.
In restaurants, tip about 5-10 percent of the bill. If a service charge has been added, you don't need to tip, though a euro or two extra for good service is always appreciated.
In terms of vacation costs, Malta falls right about in the middle of the rest of Europe—cheaper than destinations like Paris and Venice, but more expensive than Eastern Europe, for example. Here are a few ways to save money on your vacation to Malta:
- Buy the Malta Pass. If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing in one day or a few days, the Malta Pass is a good investment. It includes admission to more than 35 top attractions, plus a sightseeing bus to get around on.
- For meals, go casual. The Maltese snacks of ftira and pastizzi are cheap, handheld meals in themselves. They're sold, along with tasty sandwiches and pizza, just about everywhere, especially near beaches and other destinations where tourists gather.
European Union, The euro as the official currency, 2020
UNESCO, Megalithic Temples of Malta