The three islands of Malta

malta-blue-grotto-2Malta is off the radar for many travellers, which makes it an even better pick for those who make the trip. The country is just off the southern tip of Italy and east of Tunisia, and the influences from both Africa and Europe are apparent the moment you touch down. The airport is located just a few kilometers from the capital of Valletta, near Luqa.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the brown, square houses with flat roofs, similar to ones you’d see in places like Morocco. That, combined with the desert landscape make you realize you are thisclose to Africa.

malta-valleta-house

The country is made up of three islands: Malta, Comino and Gozo. Malta is the more cosmopolitan area with walled cities, beautiful beaches and tourist attractions. This is also where cruise ships dock. Comino is a tiny island that makes for a great day trip (more on that later) while Gozo is a mysterious, rugged place complete with historic fortresses and a large number of churches.

Gozo.

Gozo.

Where to stay

Many visitors head to Malta as part of a package vacation from Europe, but it’s also easy to book on your own. At the airport you can catch a shuttle bus that will take you directly to your hotel or resort for a nominal cost, and you can also book a ride back at the same time. Just head to the information booth in Welcomers’ Hall after picking up your bags.

While there are hotels all around the country, a popular choice is to book a room at a resort, then make day trips from there since the islands are so small. Stay in Sliema or St. Julian’s if you’re looking for excitement and night life, Qawra, St. Paul’s Bay or Golden Bay if you’re looking to kick back on the beach, or Mellieha if you want history combined with access to the country’s largest sandy beach.

malta_beach

When I visited Malta, we made Mellieha our base camp by booking at the Seabank All-Inclusive Resort, which used to be owned by the RIU chain. A good budget pick, it features large but standard rooms, a great pool, restaurants, a bowling alley and is right across the street from L-Ghadira Bay. There is also a bus stop outside which will transfer you anywhere on the island. Just up the hill (OK it’s a big hill but hey, exercise is good!) is Mdina, a beautiful medieval walled town. There are a number of historical sites to wander through including an old church and a bomb shelter, as well as souvenir shops. Mdina also affords a stunning view of the countryside below.

Mdina.

Mdina.

What to do

Malta is blessed with a number of diverse coastlines, which makes it a haven for beach bums.

Many of the public beaches also have places where you can rent umbrellas and lounge chairs, and there is often a canteen where you can buy food nearby. To get your tan on while enjoying a phenomenal view, take a day trip to Comino. Your hotel can usually arrange the excursion for you, which consists of a boat ride to the island (which is a treat in itself) where they drop you off at the stunning Blue Lagoon.

The area is made up of a number of sea caverns that surround the breathtakingly turquoise bay. Tourists can also rent chairs which are perched precariously on the surrounding rock cliffs which make for a great view but an uncomfortable lounge space. Take a dip in the clear water or wander up the hill, where you can wander the paths or check out an imposing fortress that guards neighbouring Gozo.

malta-blue-grotto

Another popular day trip is to head to the capital of Valletta, aptly called ‘The Fortress City.’

Malta’s prime location has made it a target for conquest over the past few centuries, which led to Valletta’s fortification in hopes of scaring off the enemy. The result is a beautiful scene of high walls surrounding the beige and white buildings built into craggy rocks, complemented by bright blue waters.

The historic city is small enough that it’s walkable, although you might get tripped up by some of the many, many stairs. Buses drop tourists off just outside the city gates. Start with a visit to The Malta Experience, an audio-video show that tells Malta’s 7,000 year history in about an hour, in extremely entertaining fashion. Try to take in the show before exploring the rest of Valletta, as it will give you a better understanding of its landmarks. Admission is €10 with a number of shows daily.

Valletta.

Valletta.

Afterwards, explore the city, making sure to stop by the waterfront, Republic Street (where most of the action happens) and a watchtower that makes for some great pictures. Keep your eyes up to see the colourful shutters that adorn Valletta’s apartments, making for a quaint streetscape.

While Malta may be off the beaten track, it’s well-worth a visit for anyone who loves to combine a beach getaway with a history lesson, and won’t set you back as much as many European destinations.

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