The Azure Window, a limestone natural arch on the Maltese island of Gozo
Perhaps confusingly, Malta is both an island and an island nation – made up of Malta (the island itself) and its sister islands, Gozo and Comino. Found nestled between Sicily and the North African coast, the islands are all tiny (with Malta being the largest) and they receive an impressive 300 days of sun a year. Which means if you’re looking for a budget-friendly, hassle-free sunshine break (flights from London take only three hours) it could be just the ticket.
Malta’s capital, Valletta, was built by the Knights of Saint John, and the city is steeped in impressive history. But it’s not just ancient relics you’ll find here – plenty of new hotels, bars and restaurants have been converted and transformed in recent years.
We stayed in a small, chic boutique hotel called SU29, which was perfectly-placed for adventuring and a great spot for couples, single travellers and whisky fans (they have a seriously impressive selection). A word of warning, though – there’s no car access direct to the door, so you’ll need a very helpful taxi driver or serious muscle power if you’re laden with luggage.
It doesn’t take long to realise the official languages in Malta are English and Maltese, and helpfully, almost everybody speaks English. The Maltese are incredibly friendly, generous and welcoming (so it figures that Malta was deemed the 48th happiest country on earth, according to a 2013 UN report).
It also means if you choose to spend time wandering and exploring, you’re bound to pick up advice and tips from well-meaning locals (some of our best restaurant suggestions came that way). And because Malta is so small (the population is around 420,000, making it one of the world’s smallest, and most densely-populated countries) you won’t lose time travelling from A to B.
Maltese food is another great reason to head here for a short break. Influenced by Mediterranean cooking (mainly Italian) you’ll find delicious eateries everywhere you turn, and the portion sizes are huge.
Be sure to try plenty of local fresh fish dishes – swordfish and tuna are popular, as is lampuki (also known as the dorado fish). Beef olives (bragioli) are also a traditional dish here – thin slices of tasty steak rolled to hold a filling of chopped boiled egg, onion, bacon and parsley.
Maltese ravioli is worth a taste too, and is usually filled with ricotta and cut parsley, or gbejna, Malta’s famous cheese (made using sheep, or sometimes goat’s milk). When it comes to sweet treats, qaghaq tal-ghasel (‘honey rings’) are pastry treats with a treacle filling. You’ll find the best ones at the charming Caffe Cordina in Valletta (caffecordina.com), served with a cup of coffee at around 3pm.
Of course, a holiday to Malta without visiting Gozo would be foolish – the ferry trip takes just 30 minutes (gozochannel.com/en/home.htm) and costs less than five Euros.
Greener and more rural than Malta itself, Gozo’s spectacular landscape and coastline promises some of the Mediterranean’s best dive sites (Game Of Thrones fans might recognise some sights, too). Biking, rambling and rock-climbing are also on offer for the adventurous, but if that sounds too energetic, a stroll around the Citadel and its impressive Cathedral can’t fail to impress.
And it would be rude to leave without an obligatory dip in the sea, too. Head to Ramla Bay on the northern side of the island – referred to as Malta and Gozo’s best beach, with very good reason – then kick back, unwind and soak up that wonderful winter sunshine.
Way to go
The walled city of Mdina
Ten things you must do in Malta
1 Tuck into pastizzi at Crystal Palace in Rabat. A pastizz is a flaky, puff-pastry style parcel filled with ricotta or mushy peas (perfect for us Brits).
2 Take a Segway tour along the breathtaking Dingli cliffs. After a brief lesson, you’re off – and what better way to appreciate the incredible countryside? Visit segwaymalta.com.
3 Enjoy fresh fish at Guzé Bistro on Old Bakery Street, Valletta. Focusing on seasonal, local produce, this tiny restaurant is as friendly as it is delicious. See guzevalletta.com.
4 Travel to Gozo and meet local foodie Riccardo, known for his incredible cheeses and wines, made using produce from his own farm. Meet the man himself at his restaurant, Ta’ Rikardu, found in the historic Citadel.
5 Peer out of Gozo’s Azure Window, at Dwejra Bay. It’s a huge, natural window formed in a limestone cliff. Surrounded by deep, blue waters, it’s a truly incredible view.
6 Dine at Gozo’s Ta’ Frenc. An award-winning restaurant set in an old farmhouse, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the incredible food. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie once dined here, too. See tafrencrestaurant.com.
7 Enjoy high tea at Palazzo Parisio, in Naxxar (outside, if the weather’s good enough). With homemade cakes and pastries made by the Palazzo’s own patisserie, this very British tradition is made all the more enjoyable in the Maltese sunshine.
8 Taste the incredible squid ink pasta at Trabuxu Bistro, in Valletta. You’ll look like you’re wearing black lipstick by the end of your meal, but it’ll be worth it.
9 Visit Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. A Roman Catholic working church, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, you’ll also find work there by the artist Michelangelo Merisi (known as Caravaggio).
10 Soak in the peaceful atmosphere of Mdina, the beautiful walled city. No cars (except residents’) are allowed here, and it’s a very good thing indeed.