Top experiences in Malta & Gozo

2 November 2017

The combined surface area of Malta and Gozo is only 316 sq km, less than 20% the size of Stewart Island, but the compact Mediterranean country easily reached by direct flights from London and Dubai is packed with travellers' highlights. It's also possible to catch a fast ferry taking less than two hours south to Malta from the Italian island of Sicily.

A vegetable stall, Valetta. Photo: Pixabay

Valetta & the Knights of the Order of St John

Built by the Knights of the Order of St John, and best explored on a horse and carriage ride, Valetta's sublime 16th-century cityscape is squeezed onto a compact promontory measuring just 3 km by 1 km. From Valletta's southeastern edge, the fortified peninsulas of Vittoriosa and Senglea lie across Grand Harbour as fading echoes of the capital's glory. The slender bays and coves around Vittoriosa and Senglea were the Knight's first refuge on Malta in 1530 after they were ousted from the island of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire.

Mdina, Malta. Photo: Getty Images

The Elegant Streets of Mdina

Dating back to medieval times, Mdina was the original capital of Malta before the sea-going Knights of the Order of St John moved the seat of power to Valetta. Now the sleepy, walled labyrinth first constructed by the Arabs in the 9th century is known as the ‘Silent City’. Centuries-old cathedrals and monasteries share the stillness with mansions now transformed into alfresco courtyard restaurants.

Marsaxlokk’s Sunday Market

Head to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk on a Sunday morning. Stretched along the waterfront corniche crammed with colourful fishing boats is a riot of fish vendors, fruit and vege sellers. The sales pitches are all delivered in the Malti dialect, combining Arabic and Hebrew with an Italian accent, and peppered with very English phrases like "Orwight?"

A fisherman repairing nets on the quay at Marsaxlokk. Photo: Pixabay

Stepping Back in Time at the Hypogeum

The fascinating Hypogeum is an underground necropolis discovered during building work in 1902. Further investigation has revealed three different levels from as early as 3600 BC. The entire complex is arrayed across 500 metres, and the deepest and oldest temple is almost eleven metres underground.

A Copper Age temple at Mnajdra, Malta. Photo: Getty Images

Older than Stonehenge

Equally ancient are the megalithic temples at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta's southern coast. Predating Egypt’s pyramids by 500 years and Stonehenge by 1000 years, they are renowned as the world’s oldest free-standing stone structures. Imagination is needed to get the most out of what’s left standing, but the rugged cliff top location is a windswept beauty as Mediterranean gusts whip up the cobalt ocean.

Renting a farmhouse on Gozo

A Mediterranean villa stay doesn't need to mean just France or Italy. Move your focus a few hundred km south to the tiny island of Gozo off Malta’s northern coast instead: restored farmhouses, often with swimming pools, are dotted around Gozo's thirteen villages. Like Tuscany or Bordeaux there are local cafes and vineyards to explore – but unlike the Italian or French countryside, a great beach is always just a short drive away.

Taking photos of Ramla Bay, Gozo, from a high point near Calypso Cave. Photo: Getty Images

Winetasting on Gozo

Experience the emerging wine scene on tiny Gozo. Visit the Ta’Mena Estate for full-bodied Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, and grab essential picnic nibbles from village delicatessens. Don’t forget a few bottles of local Cisk (pronounced Chisk) lager for a lazy poolside barbecue.

Gozo’s thirteen villages

Each of Gozo’s thirteen villages has a church that seems out of all proportion with the surrounding hamlet. Ghasri (population 450) has its own cathedral but it is actually dwarfed by a few others on Gozo. In the nearby village of Xewkija, the church’s dome is actually higher than St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Unsurprisingly it’s visible from all parts of the island.

Brett Atkinson

Brett Atkinson is a full-time travel and food writer who specialises in adventure travel, unusual destinations, and surprising angles on more well-known destinations. He's based in Auckland but frequently on the road for Lonely Planet and other publishers in New Zealand and abroad. @travelwriterNZ