I hadn’t expected to be packing my bags for a short stay in Malta and Gozo.
My brother was due to visit the UK for a few days (from Washington DC) and we had decided to squeeze a trip to either Montenegro, Slovenia or Romania in. I was excited by the prospect of a visit to any of these destinations, yet the airlines weren’t co-operating. Securing our flights was proving a nightmare.
And so it was that on a wing and a prayer my brother suggested a short break in Malta and Gozo. Had I been there? What did I think? Should we go? An hour later and our flights were booked.
I didn’t know too much about Malta and Gozo prior to our visit, aside from the fact that they seemed to be a holiday Mecca for my parent’s generation. Indeed, I had always associated both destinations as places frequented by older couples during the cold winter months; a peaceful place to reflect and warm one’s bones.
Yet a three hour flight later, and as our plane came into land over the golden cityscape of Valletta – Malta’s capital – I realised I’d been gravely mistaken. This was not a quiet resort dedicated to life’s later years, but an eye-wateringly beautiful place, complete with ancient ruins and turquoise seas.
Malta and Gozo, it seemed, were perfect weekend break material.
As we drove into the centre of Valletta, now incredibly excited for our short stay in Malta and Gozo, I was struck by just how incredibly handsome and historic this tiny capital was.
Ignorantly, I had assumed Valletta would feel fairly similar to most European cities: a destination filled with baroque architecture, recognisable European languages and a chaotic public transport system.
Yet, Valletta felt entirely different. Alien, almost.
Although a small country, proudly boasting the population of a mid-size town, Malta has a dazzlingly rich past. Having been occupied by Phoenicians; Carthaginians; Romans; Byzantines; Arabs; Normans; Sicilians; the Knights of St John; the French and the British, this tiny Island is awash with cultures and histories.
Due to these influences, and as Malta itself sits so tantalisingly close to North Africa, the country feels little like its European counterparts. Instead, it has come to possess an entirely unique character: a complicated mix of North African cultures, baroque architecture and a few British letter boxes thrown in for good measure.
As demanded by the Knights of St John, Valletta is a ‘gentleman’s city’. With long, wide streets, bordered by elegant mansions and trees, this is certainly a well-dressed capital.
Walking down its sand-coloured streets, I immediately spotted what would become an obsession: the Maltese balconies. Completely enclosed, yet teetering out over the streets below, these brightly painted balconies filled the city. They were beautiful.
For somewhere so small, there is an awful lot to do in Valletta.
Firstly, be sure to visit St John’s Co-Cathedral, built between 1573-1578. Having visited the incredible Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, I thought I’d seen all there was to see when it came to glamorous cathedrals. I was wrong; St John’s is truly dazzling. Full of treasures from the Knights of St John, it’s worth spending a while here, taking in every last detail (hint: take the audio tour if possible).
The Cathedral costs €10 to enter (for adults) and is closed to visitors on Sundays.
Next, we walked the steep hills of Valletta to experience the much admired Upper Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the city’s Grand Harbour. For truly picturesque scenes, be sure to visit at sunset, as the warm stone of the city seems to glow and the skies turn a blushing pink.
Entrance to the Gardens is free and they close daily at 10pm.
Malta’s history revolves tightly around three of its waterside cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Claiming to offer an authentic glimpse into Maltese life, each offer a peaceful and colourful escape from the heat and crowds of Valletta – and are a must-see during your short break to Malta and Gozo.
Accessing Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu), is incredibly easy from Valletta. Simply head to the city’s Grand Harbour, where a number of water taxis await. The ride itself takes just five minutes. As we pulled into the harbour front of Vittoriosa, it felt eerily quiet when compared to Valletta. In fact, it seemed that nobody was around at all. Finding a small restaurant overlooking the blue waters of the harbour, we enjoyed a meal of fresh fish before beginning a tour of the city’s winding streets.
Its name, translated as ‘Victorious Town’, was the original home of the Knights when they settled in Malta. Unsurprisingly, it is therefore filled with beautiful historical and cultural sights. Here you can view the original ‘auberges’ or ‘Inns of Residence’, where the Knights were housed, alongside their many churches and palaces.
Given Malta’s small size, I would highly recommend hiring a car during your short stay in Malta and Gozo; enabling you to travel easily and quickly to villages and towns across the Island. In order to get to Gozo, we drove just fifty minutes to the north of the Island, where we boarded a ferry for our short crossing to Gozo. The cost of crossing with a car is just €15.70 (including both car and driver), whilst pedestrians can make the journey for €4.65.
Driving through the streets of Gozo, the first thing I noticed was just how lush and green it was in comparison to Malta. It was also significantly smaller; with journeys between each small town taking around five to ten minutes each.
Our first top was the iridescently beautiful Xlendi: a small town perched on Gozo’s glittering coastline. The water in this small bay was beautiful – a swirling vortex of blues and greens, filled with swimmers and snorkelers. Here we enjoyed a small lunch at the Boat House – a local fish restaurant overlooking the water’s edge.
Next, we made our way to Dwejra, to see the infamous ‘Azure Window’: a natural rock arch. A popular tourist spot, there is also a small inland sea to explore here, filled with warm rock pools.
Lastly, and with our short stay in Malta and Gozo drawing to a close, we had just enough time to explore Gozo’s capital: Victoria (also known as Rabat). Perched at the top of the small town is a tiny Citadel – Il-Kastell – which dates back to the 15th Century. The once heart of this Roman town, the Citadel is a beautifully historic place to explore as the sun begins to set.
Although there remains much more to experience in both Malta and Gozo, three days offered the ideal amount of time to sample what each destination has to offer. Brimming with ancient history, astonishing landscapes, elegant buildings and that distinctly Maltese character, a short break to Malta and Gozo was an unexpected, yet incredibly enjoyable, experience.
I cannot wait to return.
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