This summer, we had a delightful trip to the island of Malta for 3 days and 3 nights. It wasn’t a long enough stay to visit its outer islands, Comino or Gozo, but we did manage to cover many of the top sites on the main Malta island.
There is so much going for Malta: fascinating history, art, architecture as well as beaches, amazing coastline and some wild night life.
Here are our 6 top tips and recommendations for Malta:
1. Check opening times for St John’s Co-Cathedral
For us, if we saw one place and nothing else in Malta, it had to be St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The opulence of its ornate interior rivals even St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It was very evident, as soon as we stepped into the church, that its commissioner, the Order of St John, was a powerful and extremely wealthy Order. The grandiosity of the carvings and decorations all in gold was striking – we’ve never seen any other church quite like it.
Being the most famous and on everyone’s must visit list, you would think the church would be open for visitors all throughout the weekend right?
Well, no. The Co-Cathedral is only open in the mornings on Saturdays (9.30am to 12.30am) and being a church, it is closed for visitors all Sundays and public holidays. On Mondays to Fridays, it is opened from 9.30am to 4.30pm. We could have attended mass as a way to see the interior of the church on a Sunday, but other parts of the church, (including the Caravaggio paintings) would still be closed to the public.
Our visit to the Co-Cathedral was nothing short of a miracle. It was a Saturday, and we took our sweet time in the morning and only made our way to Valletta by bus just before lunch. Around 12.30pm, we sat down at one of the cafes opposite the church thinking that we would visit after a long relaxing lunch. After we ordered our meals, I suddenly had an urge to go check out the entrance tickets and perhaps buy them first so to avoid waiting in line later.
When I got to the ticket counter, the ladies advised me that on normal days, the Co-Cathedral would have already been closed (it was past its 12.30pm closing time on a Saturday). However, since there was a special function that very morning, the opening hours had been extended until 2.30pm just for that day. A little shocked and yet grateful it was still opened, I immediately ran back to the cafe, and spoke with our waiter to explain our conundrum. Luckily, we were able to place our lunch orders on hold and keep our table until we returned. Now, thinking back, we are so grateful for that special event and for my sudden instincts to go check things out. Otherwise, we would have come all the way to Malta and missed seeing its most incredible treasure.
2. Immerse yourself in the drama of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist
The Co-Cathedral houses one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, the Beheading of St John the Baptist. Caravaggio chose a precarious moment, a moment that elicits shock and apprehension to his viewers. It’s the precise moment just before the executioner completely cuts off John the Baptist’s head. His sword is poised, his arm muscles are all tense, St John’s neck is exposed, the large plate on which his head will be presented is held at the ready and the order has been made by the point of a finger. On top of all that is Caravaggio’s use of light and background shadows to accentuate the dramatic scene he wanted to illustrate. It is a gripping and tense composition which deserves the investment of time to really immerse yourself in. I really enjoyed spending some quiet time in this Caravaggio gallery savoring his masterpiece, and it elicited more emotions in me than I had expected.
In the same gallery is also another Caravaggio painting depicting St Jerome writing. St Jerome is often venerated as the person who translated the bible into Latin, and Caravaggio’s interpretation has a sense of raw honesty of an aging intellectual saint nearing his dying days.
Caravaggio’s paintings certainly lived up to its hype, and are definitely not to be missed.
3. Take the Valletta and 3 Cities Harbor Cruise
All along the Silema Ferries promenade, there are many boat companies offering their 90-minutes Valletta and 3 Cities Harbor Cruises. All the itineraries are the same, and it does seem like a very touristy thing to do. But in fact, it was one of our highlights in Malta.
The cruise is a perfect way to see the entire Valletta cityscape, to admire the outer walls and fortresses of the three fortified cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, to check out the dockyards and dream a little about all those luxury yachts docked in their marinas. The cruise came with a very detailed and informative commentary which covered Maltese history as well as being a guide to all the wonderful sights! Definitely well worth it!
The boat companies all offer a similar cruise departing every hour so pre-booking may not be necessary. However, to get better views and photos, probably best to choose one with a slightly bigger boat with an upstairs deck!
4. Rent a car for a day
In order see all the sights on the southern coast of Malta, I realised the best way was to rent a car for the day. This is because public transport doesn’t quite link these sights together, and often, the buses route back to central Malta before having to change to another bus, making it super inefficient. With our rental car, we were able to comfortably cover the following places in one day:
- Hagar Qim Temples – It is incredible to find out that this little Maltese island was inhabited more than 5000 years ago, and more incredible to fathom is that this ancient civilization built these planned large stone structures and buildings to presumably worship the sun or to mark or calculate time. And it’s not just the movement and placement of large stone slabs on the ground, these prehistoric temples had doorways, windows, walls and pillars as well as ornaments like statuettes and figurines. I think these temples are definitely more impressive than the Stonehenge.
Blue Grotto – (9 minutes away by car from Hagar Qim) – Maybe slightly commercialized, but the obligatory 25 mins boat ride to see the fascinating aqua-transparent waters in the grotto shouldn’t be missed. The boatmen were extremely friendly and even let the boys “drive” the boat on the way back to shore! There are a few cafes and restaurants here so it was a good place to break for lunch.
Dingli Cliffs – (25 minutes drive north-west from Blue Grotto). We didn’t know quite what to expect and was a little disappointed as its claim to fame is being the highest point of the Maltese islands. As we had no plans for hiking at the height of the summer heat, we could have given this a miss.
- Marsaxlokk and St Peter’s Pool – (around 40 mins from Dingli Cliffs or 30 mins from the Blue Grotto) The fishing village of Marsaxlokk is very quiet and picturesque, worth a stroll around, wander through its open air markets and stop for a coffee or snack and take in what the local fishermen are up to. See point 5 below for more info on St Peter’s Pool.
- Rabat – (30 mins from Marsaxlokk) We arrived into Rabat, a tiny village in the foot of Mdina, just as St Paul’s Catacombs and St Paul’s church were closing for the day! If only we had spent less time looking for the Dingli Cliffs!
- Mdina – (5 mins drive from Rabat) Our final destination for the day was the ancient Maltese fortified capital of Mdina. I read that Mdina was most beautiful in the afternoon where the sun-setting rays bring out the best through the narrow streets of this “Silent City”. Compared to Silema/St Julian’s buzz and Valletta’s grandeur, Mdina has an understated charm and tranquility to it. We ended the day enjoying a traditional Maltese dinner at The Medina Restaurant of the Xara Palace Relais & Chateux
5. Make more than a splash at St Peter’s Pool
St Peter’s Pool is a large natural pool carved in the rocks over millions of years by wind and water, and its surrounding edges are of different heights. Brave souls take turns in jumping off the edges into the welcoming crystal blue waters. Watching them jump in is quite an exciting sport in itself!
It’s a stunning place to spend the day swimming, snorkeling and relaxing under the sun. Further along on the right hand side of St Peters Pools is a whole flat area full of eroded stones and dry pools, appropriately called Remarkable Stones. Here, nature has really picked up its chisels and carved some amazing shapes and grooves!
Despite its popularity, this area is somewhat remote to get to. The closest bus stop, Abdosir, is still around a 2.3km (around 30 mins) walk on dirt village roads to St Peter’s Pool. We drove in through the narrow roads and were lucky that there were no other cars coming the other way!! Also, there are no amenities there other than an ice-cream truck selling cold drinks, slurpees and ice-cream, so bring all things you need.
6. Book a table at Barracuda
Seafood! Come to Malta and you must have seafood! One of the best places to enjoy Malta’s abundance of fresh seafood is Barracuda restaurant right on the seaside along the St Julian’s promenade. Book a table by the windows for dinner with sun setting views – it’s a romantic setting with exquisite fine dining cuisine.
The red prawn carpaccio was so delicate in both knife skills and taste, while the freshness and sweetness of the raw scampis made us feel like we were in heaven. The Chef’s signature Bouillabaisse was an excellent choice though it was quite a meal in terms of its generous size. My favorite was the Iberian Secreto – whatever the secret, this was by far the best pork main I’ve ever had. The problem is, they have hidden the secret well and I don’t know how they have cooked it! You just have to order it!
1. Book a Reliable Taxi Service
When I was doing research on booking a taxi or car service for airport transfers, too many Tripadvisor commentaries complained about drivers not turning up or taxis not being too reliable in Malta, even after bookings were made and confirmed with payment. That got me a bit worried as I didn’t want us to be stuck at the airport stressing out whether our paid driver was going to turn up.
Luckily, I found Kurt Mallia (Whatpsapp +356 7999 6500; email address firstname.lastname@example.org ) who runs his own “White Taxi Service” in Malta. He offered us 20 euros one way transfer to Silema in a sedan or 30 euros in a van/people mover. We found him extremely reliable and timely, and more importantly, responsive to messages and calls. When our flight from Catania was delayed by a few hours, he wasn’t able to pick us up, but arranged an alternate driver to wait for us at the airport. Likewise when we left Malta, his car was right on time, giving us the peace of mind without any worries. I know these should be basic expectations for a car service but after all the horror stories I read on Tripadvisor, I was just grateful we got picked up and dropped off on time!
If renting a car is too much of a hassle, Kurt also offers day tours to most of the places I mentioned above (around 150 euros for 6 hours; 180 euros for 8 hours).
2. Car rental – Hertz
The closest car rental to us was the Hertz office in Silema at the Preluna Hotel. It was our most unique car rental experience so far!
Given parking space is a premium around Silema, we were given details and description of our rental car and the appropriate address in which it is parked around Silema. So after all the paperwork at Hertz, we had to wander around the back streets of Silema looking for our rental car!! In the evening when it was time to return the car, we drove all around Silema looking for a street park (car spot with white lines) which was no mean feat!! Once we found one and parked the car, we then jotted down the address, took a photo of where we left the car, and proceeded to walk all the way back to the Hertz office to drop off the car keys.
It’s certainly not how we usually rent cars, but one thing is for sure, the whole process took twice as long! It’s also worth noting that there are limited petrol stations around Malta so its important to have them all identified on a map before leaving Hertz!
Despite all the troubles, I would still recommend renting a car and having that flexibility of exploring Malta independently and at our own pace.
Given that many of the restaurants and eateries are situated within walking distance between Silema and St Julian, we thought it best to find accommodation near the promenade around St Julian’s Bay. The promenade was also a great stroll to walk off a sumptuous meal, and a good location to catch regular buses to Valletta, Mosta Rotunda and Mdina.
Our 3 bedroom Airbnb apartment was in the most central location in Belmonte Heights close to the Antik bus stop – in fact, in my view, anywhere close to George Borg Olivier Street and Tower Road would be the most convenient location for a short Maltese stay.