Trip made in April 2016
There are two inhabited islands, Malta and Gozo, linked by a car ferry (sails every 45 minutes, 1/2 hour ride).Malta has all the main cities and is quite developed, Gozo is still very tranquil.
While Malta does cater to the mainstream beach/yacht/party tourism (primarily in the North East of Malta island, around Saint Paul’s Bay and the town of Saint Julian) we avoided those areas and focused on the wealth of photo opportunities afforded by the country’s often extraordinary topography, and its rich and unique history and culture.
The strongest and most visible influence on that history and culture comes from the Knights of Malta, an order founded in 1048 in Jerusalem, which took possession of Malta in 1530 and held it until 1798 when Napoleon’s troops dislodged them (Malta then became part of the British Empire in 1800, and gained independence in 1964). That influence manifests in the fortified sites and walled medieval cities, the ubiquitous nature of religious statuary in the streets, the great number of splendid churches even in smaller towns, and the pervasiveness of religious iconography in public places. All of these provide the opportunity for striking narrative images. It’s also the reason for the splendid baroque architecture which makes Malta’s towns (Valletta in particular) beautifully picturesque.
Less widespread but equally fascinating and photogenic is the evidence of what’s known as the Temple Period of Maltese history. Starting at around 3600 BC this civilization created numerous monolithic free-standing structures, some of which (like Gjantija) are the world’s oldest, before mysteriously disappearing around 2500 BC.
More generally Malta is a place where, in many ways, time has stopped and left behind an anachronistic charm that is as pleasurable to experience as it is to photograph. One example are the centuries-old musical societies that exist in every town, housed in beautiful old buildings that hold their meeting facilities and historical collections. These societies have often allowed cafés to operate on their ground floor, thus giving access to the public. Some of our best images were taken in those places.
Last but hardly least, while Malta is a well-run place it’s drenched in Mediterranean charm, and offers excellent local wines and cuisine.
A romantic city that lends itself to dreaming of adventure. Saint John’s co-Cathedral is probably the most impressive Christian religious monument in the world outside the Vatican, and includes a room full of Caravaggios. But the smaller churches are great too, just walk around and enter - for instance the church of St. Paul the Shipwrecked and the Carmelite Church. Valletta, a magnificent and exotic city, is in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s all in a baroque style with enclosed balconies and beautiful old statuary (mostly religious) everywhere. But it’s also a living city with shops (tourist ones only on the main drag), cafes, little outdoor eating places in cobblestoned streets, great restaurants and a very active night life.
There are numerous muséums, generally small in size and set in handsome classic buildings, often old-fashioned – which we like, as they make wonderful backgrounds for photographic compositions. We particularly liked the Museum of Archeology and the Fine Arts museum. Not a museum as such, but equally worth a visit : The Teatru Manoel, built in 1731 and one of the world’s oldest performance spaces still in opération. Taking in a show there is an unforgettable experience with great photo possibilities.
Valletta is a place to just walk around without a plan, you’ll run into many inspiring scenes that will have you reaching for your camera. And it’s a must to hang out at Caffé Cordina. There are many outdoor cafes in Valetta, but Cordina is the institution. There are also many good restaurants, including Legliglin for a delicious maltese tasting menu, restaurant Ambrosia, the City Lounge with its terrace overlooking St. George’s Square – all are also wonderful photo playgrounds thanks to their interesting décor.
Malta is home to the oldest free-standing structures in the world, they predate the pyramids and Stonehenge by several hundred years. The main ones are Tarxien, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra near Valletta, Skorba, Ta’ Hagrat and Mgarr in the Northwest of Malta Island, and Gjantija on Gozo.
The Gjantija temple is the oldest of all, at over 5600 years. It’s also the grandest and best preserved – and unlike the other two large complexes, Tarxien and Hagar Qim - it hasn’t been tented with a cloth roof. Therefore it isn’t visually removed from its context by a modern addition, and offers many more photo possibilities than Tarxien and Hagar Qim where it’s necessary to either integrate the tent into the image (which is challenging) or focus on details (which can be unsatisfying).
In addition to these outdoor structures the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, in a suburb of Valletta, is a remarkable 5000 year old 4-story underground structure. Sadly there’s no photography allowed, but it’s still well worth doing. The tour lasts an hour and only 10 people at a time can go, so don’t bother showing up without a ticket. They’re available online, plus a limited number go on sale the day before each tour at two museums in Valetta. It’s best to be there at opening time (9 AM) or they could all be gone.
Let’s start with a few locations accessible from Valletta as excursions, and move North as we make our way to the island of Gozo.
Just a short and very beautiful ferry ride across the bay from Valletta are “The Three Cities” – Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu) which has existed since the middle ages, Senglea and Cospicua which were founded by the order of St. John in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sadly we were only able to have a cursory look at this area, but it seemed promising. Unless you have an interest in the subject matter, we wouldn’t recommend spending much time in the two Birgu museums that are heavily promoted: The Inquisitor’s Palace and the Maritime Museum.
They’re low on photo opportunities. But we wish we’d had more time to stroll the streets, as all three locations appear to have great charm.
Also easily accessible from Valletta, by bus or otherwise, is the seaside village of Marsaxlokk. Yes, it’s a tourist destination, but the many cafes lining the waterside offer very good fresh fish and the harbor is lined with brightly painted fishing boats featuring the eye design descending from Malta’s Phoenician period. The towers of the Delimara power station rise in the background which, depending on your esthetics, will either damage the charm of the view or, on the contrary, provide a striking visual contrast.
Leaving Valletta the first destination North is the twin cities of Mdina and Rabat. You’ll hear a lot about Mdina, a fortified city which served as the island's capital from antiquity to the medieval period (Rabat is its more contemporary extension). It’s so beautiful, it’s so romantic, etc.
We found it so disappointing, with the lifeless quality of a manicured tourist attraction. Our favorite location there was the National Museum of Natural History, a delightfully old-fashioned venue featuring some charmingly odd exhibits. We found strolling through Rabat much more rewarding.
Continuing in a Northern direction you’ll find the town of Naxxar, home to the Palacio Parizio. originally built as a hunting lodge in 1733 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Order of Malta. It was acquired by the Marquis Scicluna in 1898 who embellished the building in the early 20th century, turning it into a baroque fantasy of gold leaf and mirrors.
Fun to visit, and the lovely gardens house a very good restaurant.
We’d also recommend a stop in the villare of Melieha to visit Rebekah’s restaurant for dinner.
Finally, two miles from Melieha and a 10 minutes drive from the terminal for the Gozo ferry you’ll find the Popeye Village amusement park, also known as Sweethaven Village, in Anchor Bay.
In 1980, Robert Altman released Popeye, a live-action film adaptation of the Popeye cartoons, which starred Robin Williams as the sailor in his first-ever big-screen role and Shellye Duvall as Olive Oyl. The set was turned into a tourist attraction with rides, shows, memorabilia about the movie, etc. It’s a truly surreal vision against a background of barren cliffs, deep blue and azure waters when it appears as you round a bend in the road, and the site itself offers some interesting photo opportunities.
As soon as the ferry arrives in Gozo you know you’ve changed speeds – from the bustle and traffic of Malta to a much calmer pace of life. This is why the majority of visitors here are Maltese who come to relax on weekends, or own a vacation home.
We chose as our base the small coastal town of Sannat with a pleasant hotel and very few tourist facilities.
The best restaurant in town, Ta’ Rosina, seats at most a dozen people. Sanna is a tranquil place to walk and photograph, even late at night when the old walls, vegetation and statuary can create magical tableaus.
In addition to Gjantija (discussed in the “Prehistory” section) the main destinations on Gozo are the main city, Victoria, also known as Rabat (not to be confused with the identically named city on the island of Malta) and the coastal area of San Lawrenz, where the famous Azure Window, Tieqa tad-Dwejra, used to stand until destroyed by a storm in March of 2017. While that landmark is gone, the area is still well worth visiting for spectacular vies and photographs of deep blue and azure waves, the Blue Hole and the Inland Sea.
Victoria, the capital of Gozo, is hardly a metropolis with its population of around seven thousand. The heart of the city is the massive citadel (Cittadella) which dominates it. Victoria has been the centre of activity in Gozo since possibly Neolithic times, but is known to have first been fortified during the Bronze Age. It was later developed by the Phoenicians, then became a complex Acropolis by Roman times. Apart from sweeping city views the Citadel contains several interesting sites including the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Old Prison, a Museum of Archaeology, a folklore museum, and a Natural Science Museum which we particularly enjoyed. The town center, outlined by Triq (the maltese word for street) Giorgio Borg Olivier, Pjazza San Frangisk and Triq ir-Repubblika bustles with little shops and cafés, and we particularly enjoyed walking and photographing in the old town, known as Il-Borgo, a maze of narrow, meandering alleys around Pjazza San Ġorġ.
Driving around to explore Gozo free form can be challenging. Things that appear as roads on your GPS may well turn out to be rocky trails that even an off road vehicle will have trouble navigating. One-way streets as well as closures (due for instance to construction) seem to appear randomly and with no warning. But it’s well worth doing in order to discover less well-known locations such as the coastal village of Marsalforn with its seaside cafés (we particularly enjoyed Otters Bistro) or the small towns of Xewkija and Xhagra, where we found wonderful photo opportunities. And of course there is Għarb, with its massive Ta’ Pinu basilica in the middle of nowhere, and the nearby Stations of the Cross, a hillside walk punctuated by 14 groups of statuary depicting Christ on the day of his crucifixion. which culminates in an amphitheater overlooking the region.
The food in Malta is really, really good, whether you go for gourmet restaurants or street stalls. Seafood is of course a standout, from a simple grilled bream at a café on the bay in Marsaxxlok to the divine prawn carpaccio at Rebekah’s in Melieha. But there’s plenty more, from unique dishes of meat, rabbit (a specialty) and poultry to a wide range of snacks including the flaky pastizzi filled with ricotta or peas that you find in little shops at every street corner, along with other savory snacks like chicken pies, sausage rolls (the best !), bombettas, arancinis, ftira sandwiches, and on and on.
Sweet pastries are a definite highlight, from very simple not too sweet dry items flavored with almonds, pistachios, honey or dates to very elaborate and rich concoctions, like an amazing 3-layer dessert I had: pistachio mousse, white chocolate mousse, and bits of caramelized figs in dark honey. Anything made with dates is a guaranteed winner. Ice cream is usually made on the premises and is excellent. Coffee as you would expect is perfect. There are many, many local wines. In whites I never got around to tasting the premium stuff, but the low-end table wines disappointed me. However in reds even the house “by the glass” pours were good. At the higher end a winery called Marsovin makes several excellent bottles including the Marnisi, Antonin, and Antonin Noir. These wines typically go in a restaurant for about 35 Euros (20 Euros in a shop)
Don’t rent a car. I did, and all things considered I think it was the wrong decision. Distances in Malta are small. There’s excellent (in my experience) public transportation, and taxis/hire cars are inexpensive. So you will probably end up saving money over renting a car, not to mention making your life easier. That’s because, as it turns out, having to drive on the left is the least of the challenges you’ll encounter. On the main thoroughfares traffic is horrendous. The smaller roads are often unpaved, rocky and rutted (which is why you’ll frequently see signs pointing to puncture repair services) and there’s barely space for one car to get through – only they’re two way! This is also true of many of the town streets, so driving through them is really challenging, And they’re a maze that was clearly not designed with cars in mind, so I had to navigate by GPS all the time - and even so, I frequently made mistakes and got stuck. More reasons? There are frequent street/road closures that the GPS (I used Waze, which I found more accurate there than Google Maps) doesn’t know about. All in all by passing on a rental you’ll lose a bit of flexibility, but gain a lot of relaxation.
Be aware of Sundays. Towns are dead as a dodo bird on Sunday. Go visit some archeological sites or museums and leave the towns for weekdays.
I would pass on:
Mdina. You’ll hear a lot about Mdina. It’s so beautiful, it’s so romantic, bla bla. My take: It’s so BORING and totally touristy. At first I thought I should have spent a day there instead of 3. In fact I should have skipped it altogether.
Also widely recommended by tour guides etc: The Maritime Museum and the Inquisitor’s Palace, both in Birggu (3 Cities). Unless you’re a naval history buff or an inquisition buff (there must be some, right?) they’re a big waste of time.