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Valletta: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital

Introducing Malta: My first impressions and some random facts

When Lonely Planet published its picks for the Top 10 cities to visit in 2015, I felt lukewarm about most of the cities they had chosen – I touched on the topic briefly in this article – but the one city where I wholeheartedly agreed was Valletta.valletta steep streetThis gem of a city is usually overlooked, Lonely Planet said, and I had to admit that I was guilty of that too. While I’ve told you all about my impressions of Malta, my road trip across the island, medieval Mdina and the delicious Maltese food, I didn’t tell you anything about the place I spent the most time in during my visit to Malta, Valletta – the tiny capital of the island nation.valletta balconies maltaValletta was announced ‘European Capital Of Culture’ for 2018, which means at the moment there is an extra boost in restorations and new developments, adding to the city’s attractiveness, and it will help to put Valletta slowly but surely on the list of Europe’s most charming capitals.valletta doors

I am sure that four years from now, nobody will see Valletta as underrated anymore.Malta VallettaLet me take you on a journey of Valletta in photos – because just as I think you shouldn’t skip Malta’s sister island Gozo when visiting the country, you can’t skip Valletta when you’re in Malta, even when you’re staying in one of the beach resorts.
Malta Valletta stairsI don’t think I’ve ever been to a capital city that small and that charming – Valletta is anything but a typical nation’s capital. It is not even the biggest city in Malta.valletta dome maltaThe tiny city with a population of just over 6,000 people is one of the smallest capitals in all of Europe (in fact, only Vaduz in Liechtenstein is smaller), and it is definitely one of the most – if not the most – endearing capitals, with so many picturesque buildings. I never got tired of wandering the streets and photographing the different colors and styles of wooden balconies.valletta colorful balconiesThese wooden balconies started to pop up around Valletta in the 18th century and are believed to derive from the Arab/ Islamic Muxrabija (look-out place), which is popular in northern African and other Islamic states.
malta valletta balconiesWith many ships from northern Africa docking in Malta on their way to the shores of the northern or eastern Mediterranean, it makes sense that the concept of the closed balconies was adopted by the Maltese.valletta street and balconiesThe fortified city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. The harbors of Valletta, Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour, are a reminder of what an important city it was for the sea trade of the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries.valletta harbor with legsThe well-preserved, precious buildings from that time also show that Malta was a very wealthy city back then, and most of the houses that are still inhabited today were built under the Hospitallers in the 16th century.malta valletta balconiesThanks to its tiny size – Valletta covers only 0.5 square miles (1.3 sq km) – you can aimlessly wander the streets without ever getting lost.valletta benchOn the fourth side, you’ll hit the old city walls at some point, a remnant of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who built the city in the 16th century.views over valletta and the portIt was the first planned city in Europe and instead of narrow winding roads like the ones you find in medieval towns in France or Italy (or even other towns in Malta), Valletta is outlined in a grid, with long straight roads. Set on a hill, Valletta’s location turns walking into a little workout every time you head up the hill from the water.Malta VallettaTo outline how tiny Valletta is, walking from south to north won’t take you long – the entire length of Republic Street is only 1 kilometre (0.62 miles). The width of the peninsula on which Valletta sits is even smaller, at only 600 meters (0.37 miles). You will find yourself huffing and puffing up the steep hills and stairs, but turning around and taking in the views of azure blue Mediterranean Sea makes it all worthwhile.valletta boatsThe ocher-colored houses that are typical for Malta and Gozo are prevalent here too, and look particularly beautiful in the golden hour just before sunset. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun the buildings look almost golden, and it is a great time of day to head to the Upper Barakka Gardens to enjoy the views from there with a cup of coffee (there is a small café in the gardens). Across the bay, you can see the Three Cities – Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa – and parts of the yacht harbor.malta harbor view valettaWalking down Merchant Street or Republic Street, you will pass the Co-Cathedral of St John, which one might almost decide to skip over, because of its unassuming facade.
valletta cathedralOnce you set foot inside though, be prepared to be wowed, since the inside is more elaborate than the outside would indicate. The cathedral was built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century and inside there are two large murals by Caravaggio, one of them being the largest painting he has ever produced. But all the murals in the cathedral are stunning, not only his, and the floors are covered with marble tombstones of the Knights.st johns cocathedral valletta insideThe Co-Cathedral is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4.30pm and from 9.30am to 12.30pm on Saturdays. Make sure to have your shoulders and knees covered and don’t wear high heels (because they could damage the marble floors).

Malta St johns cocathedral valletta
St John’s Co-Cathedral

Another church gem is the St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, which is equally as elaborate and also has some tombs in the floor and a gorgeous dome. The Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is also an architectural masterpiece that is awash with marble, gilt, and with ornate coats-of-arms.valletta malta skull sculptureThe Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is another architectural masterpiece, looking bright and shiny after its recent renovation.Malta VallettaThere are some museums in Valletta, such as the National Museum Of Fine Arts or the National Museum Of Archeology, but I’d recommend just wandering the streets, and enjoying a coffee in one the many cafes that offer street seating. Caffé Cordina is the most famous one, and if you decide to stop here make sure to peek inside as well, for the intricate interior of the nearly 200 year old café.Valletta Malta Caffe CordinaI loved exploring the city on early morning runs, when most of Valletta was still asleep, and I would enjoy the breeze from the ocean before the sun would get unbearably hot a couple of hours later. On my runs around the city walls, I’d always head down to the water to enjoy the smell of the water… and the incredible blue color.valletta mediterranean shoreIf you are looking for an off-season getaway from northern Europe, I highly recommend Valletta. The summer tourist crowds would have disappeared, the climate is pleasant year-round, airfare and hotel rates are back at affordable off-season prices (check out AirMalta for special fare deals!), and the unbearable summer heat is gone. You’ll have the city almost to yourself.valletta stairs

Where to eat in Valletta

The Grassy Hopper
The Grassy Hopper is a tiny hole in the wall place right by the Grand Master’s Palace, and even though it is tiny, it is a purely vegan place and the first place where I found some super healthy foods in Valletta – think Chia seeds, wheat grass, macca, spirulina or goji berries, all mixed into smoothies of which each sounded more mouthwatering than the next. The main dishes consist mainly of vegan burgers such as beet and bean or chickpea, but there are also some salads and other meatless dishes on the daily changing menu. In addition to the Valletta branch, there is a Grasshopper food truck down on the waterfront (Ta’Xbiex).

Address: #123 Old Theatre Street; open Monday to Fridays from 8am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 2pmMalta VallettaCaffé Cordina
The above-mentioned Caffé Cordina is a Valletta institution established in 1837, with a grand outside seating area that is great for people watching, and a beautiful inside area with intricately designed walls and ceilings. In addition to a wide selection of yummy Maltese pastries, you can try traditional Maltese dishes such as ricotta-stuffed ravioli or rabbit here.

Address: 244 Republic St, open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 7pm and from 8am to 3pm on Sundays

Cafe Jubilee
Café Jubilee is without a doubt the most charming café I came across in Malta. Decorated with old-fashioned pictures and memorabilia, walking through its doors feels like traveling back in time. The café has everything from hearty breakfasts to dinners, and proudly claims it makes some of the best pastizzi in Malta. It is also a good place for drinks in the evening.

Address: Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija; open daily from 8am to 1amMalta VallettaBadass Burger
A burger place might sound like nothing special, but once you look at the menu, you know that this place is. There is the Obama, the Daddy or the Rocky, and all of them are massive burgers with special toppings. Of course there is a veggie burger as well, and my salad with buffalo mozzarella and fresh parmigiano felt downright indulgent (especially for a burger place!), but what delighted me the most was the Banoffee Pie on the dessert menu! It was so good that I had to go back the next day and try the Banoffee milkshake. I think I would show up at Badass every day if I lived in Malta.

Address: Old Theatre Street

badass burger banoffee pieLa Mère
La Mere offers a mix of Maltese, Indian, Mediterranean and Arabian cuisines, and lots of vegetarian options! If you are looking for a break from Maltese cuisine, you’ll find classic Indian dishes (like Thali) here, Mediterranean salads, and Arab-influenced options.

Address: 174, Merchant Street

Where to stay in Valletta

I stayed at the Palazzo Prince D’Orange, a baroque palazzo that dates back to the 17th century and has been divided into three chic apartments (including a penthouse). Newly renovated, the apartments combine the historic style of the palazzo with modern appliances and the elegance of a noble residence. The Palazzo always offers special packages, for example €350 for 3 nights for 2 persons, which is an excellent deal for the comfort and amenities the palazzo offers (like a two shared rooftop terraces, a dining area, a lounge, fully equipped kitchens in each apartment). The Palazzo is right in the heart of Valletta, and within a two-minute walk I was on Republic Street where you’ll find tons of cafes and restaurants. Palazza Dorange Valletta Malta

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Easy-breezy Island Life: Highlights of a Malta Road Trip

malta road trip

“Don’t drive on Malta”.

This is a warning I kept hearing whenever I mentioned I wanted to see some more of the island by renting a car for a day, so that I could explore the beaches that Malta is famous for, the little fishing villages, scenic cliffs and coastal views.

Road Trip Malta

I decided to ignore the well-meant advice and the stories about the horrible Maltese drivers and rented a car anyway. Having driven in Rome’s mad traffic, in Mexico and in Argentina, I figured I’d be fine. Driving on the left side of the road also can’t scare me anymore after driving in Central London, so I was just silently praying all the crazy drivers would stay at home while I was cruising down the narrow country roads.While Malta has a pretty good public transportation network, driving yourself is still better – you can stop whenever and wherever you want, even if it’s just a quick photo stop, you don’t have to rely on the bus schedule, and you can also visit places that aren’t covered by the buses. I only paid €22 for a 24-hour rental, and you can add pick-up for an additional €10 (and drop-off for another €10). Even if you pay for pick-up, drop-off and the rental, I think this is a very affordable price, especially if you share the costs with someone.st julians bay at sunset maltaI had asked for the smallest car and this is what I got:malta road trip carIsn’t this the cutest car?!

I was happy when my friend Umei decided to join me and off we went to our first stop: Marsaxlokk, a traditional fishing village in the south of the island. I fell in love with it the minute we got out of the car – look at these colors:maltese fishing villageThe bay was filled with little fishing boats, called luzzu, which are known for being painted in bright colors and always having a pair of eyes on the front – supposedly to protect them from bad luck and the dangers out at sea.Malta luzzu boats in MarsaxlokkWhile the village seemed sleepy and laid-back when we visited it, Marsaxlokk is buzzing with people every Sunday, when a fish market takes place here. Fishermen arrive with their fresh catch in the port where dozens of stalls sell the seafood right on the spot.Malta MarsaxlokkSimilar to the medieval city of Mdina, I had the feeling I was stepping back in time here.marsaxlokk with boatsIt felt like not much had changed here in the last few decades – the village seemed to be exactly the way it was in a time before TVs, cell phones and the internet (if you blocked out the tourists who were sharing their experience with the world via Instagram and Facebook).MarsaxlokkWe continued on to the Dingli Cliffs from here, to take in some of the spectacular coastline. The Dingli Cliffs are the highest point in Malta, at 253 meters (830feet), and you can usually look out over the Mediterranean for miles and miles. When we were there it was slightly foggy, but we still got a sense for how majestic the cliffs are, and loved the surrounding countryside that was filled with spring wildflowers.dingli cliffs maltaIf you want to discover more of this area, you can take a Segway tour that allows you to glide along the cliffs, while you learn more about the history and the nature of Dingli, and it includes stops at some of the landmarks around here, like the Magdalena Chapel, Palazzo Verdala and Palazzo Girgenti, and the Boschetto Gardens.Dingli MaltaHere it is not uncommon to see horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned traveling merchants and village people who still travel on foot.malta wild flowerEven though the cliffs were stunning, we also wanted to see some of the amazing beaches that we had heard so much about.malta mellieha bayMalta is known to have some of the clearest waters in the Mediterranean, and when we finally reached Mellieha Bay, I wish it would’ve been warmer already so that I could’ve dipped more than just my toes into the crystal clear water…malta clear waterWhen we got to Golden Bay, clouds had started to cover the blue skies, but I could still imagine how gorgeous this place must be on a sunny summer day.malta golden bayWe had reached the northernmost point on our road trip – which was nearly the northernmost point of the island! Malta is just so compact that you really can fit in most of the island in a daylong road trip.malta st julians bay boatBefore heading south again, we stopped at a roadside stall that wasn’t much more than a table with a couple of boxes of strawberries on it – some of the biggest strawberries we’d ever seen! We couldn’t resist and had to pick up a box. They were the perfect road trip snack.malta strawberriesWe couldn’t pass through Mosta, one of the bigger cities on the island, with a population of nearly 20,000 people, without stopping at the Mosta Dome (also known as the Rotunda of Mosta), which is not only the third-largest unsupported dome in the world, but is also home to the Miracle Of Mosta: In 1942, during World War II, a 200kg bomb was dropped by the German Luftwaffe over the church in which 500 people were hiding and did NOT detonate. Mosta Dome is impressive, but Mosta itself was also really pleasant.mosta domemosta church domemosta maltaOn the way back to Valletta we passed through St Julian’s just in time to see Spinola Bay lit up during the twilight hours. St Julian’s is one of the most popular holiday spots on the island, with lots of hotels and restaurants, and we joined the wandering tourists for a stroll along the promenade where the gorgeous LOVE sculpture has become a popular place with lovers, who ‘lock’ up their love here.st julians bay love sculpturemalta lovelocks st juliansIf you are planning a visit to Malta, I highly recommend renting a car and seeing the island that way – at least for a day or two. Places you shouldn’t miss include Valletta, Mdina, Mellieha Bay, Marsaxlokk, the Dingli Cliffs and St Julian’s.malta flowersst julians bay at nightThis post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

malta lovelocks

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Gozo: Much more than just Malta’s little sister

gozo view with mediterranean

Going to Malta without visiting its little sister island Gozo would be like going to New York City without going to Brooklyn. Which is something a lot of people do, but in my opinion, they’re missing out on a big part of the overall experience. The same goes for Malta and Gozo. Of course you can visit just Malta and still love your time there, but taking the quick ferry ride over to Gozo just puts the finishing touch to your Malta experience.

Luckily Gozo is small enough to fit it in as a day trip from Malta. Remember Malta is so small that you can drive across the island from north to south in about 45 minutes, and Gozo is only 1/3 of Malta’s size! That should give you an idea of how little this island is. You can basically get off the ferry in the morning and hike across the island (14km long/7km wide) and catch a ride back on the evening ferry back to Malta.

gozo church2Despite the island’s teeny size, there’s no need to walk though (unless you want to!); there is actually a range of transportation options to choose from. My travel buddies Umei and Rob went for the easiest option: the hop-on hop-off bus that conveniently waits for day trippers right outside the ferry terminal and gives you the freedom to hop off at several points of interest in Gozo.

gozo street maltaWhile driving through the green, lush countryside, I already noticed that the island felt much more rural and laid-back than Malta – which is already a pretty laid-back and tranquil place! But, if you are looking for clubs or nightlife, you’ve come to the wrong place. Gozo is all about slowing down. If I was looking to go on a digital detox, Gozo would be a perfect place to do that.

gozo sea viewThere are a number of agriturismos, basically farmhouses turned into vacation homes, scattered across the island, some of them offering self-catering options, others providing full board including meals prepared with fresh, locally-grown produce.

gozo vinyardAnd that’s the right way to experience Malta anyway – by digging into the local cuisine, try Maltese cheeses (including Gozo’s own cheese named Gbejniet) and wine, olives and seafood, vegetables with fresh pasta. We chose to make Victoria, Gozo’s cute capital with a population of just over 6,000, our first stop.

Victoria Gozo MaltaAfter exploring the little town for a while, strolling through narrow cobble-stoned streets, across wide-open plazas and passing beautiful churches (Malta has 359 churches, 46 of which are on Gozo), it was time to head up the hill to visit the grand Citadel that sits on its throne above the city, and is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Churches of GozoVictoria GozoWe stopped for lunch at Ta’Rikardu inside the citadel, where everything that’s served is locally produced, including the wine. While it wasn’t the best wine we had tried (for an excellent selection of Maltese wines I recommend Gululu in St Julian’s on Malta), it was definitely the cheapest, at 6.50 Euros per bottle!

Ta Rikardu GozoWe enjoyed a plate of local vegetables and some home-made pasta stuffed with ricotta which I still think about, and we dined on the rooftop terrace. The views alone were worth the visit!

gozo views from cittadellaStuffed to the gills we continued our tour of Gozo, and I could see why some people choose to spend their entire vacation here and disregard the main island of Malta completely. With nothing to offer but its exceptional natural beauty, it is easy to recharge your batteries here and get away from the hectic city life and a stressful job.

GozoYou could rent a car to get around, but I’d probably take day hikes to the hidden bays and beaches of Gozo, where you’ll barely come across another soul, especially during the shoulder seasons in April/May and September/October. With all the hiking, I wouldn’t even have to feel guilty about devouring Maltese pastries and pastizzis, pasta and wine.

gozo boatsGozo is not only popular with hikers though, but also with divers. And when we reached the Azure Window in Dweijra, a magnificent 28m (92 ft) high limestone arch over the Mediterranean, I can see why. Right here next to this remarkable rock formation sits the Blue Hole, one of the most renowned diving locations in the world. Since there are no reefs around the island, you can dive deep into the Mediterranean right off the cliffs that border the island.

azure window gozoAs we passed little villages and untouched nature, terraced fields and little farmhouses surrounded by green meadows on our way back to the ferry, I wished I had more time there to take in the beauty of the island. Gozo, I have a feeling it’s not the last time I will see you.

Victoria Cittadella Gozo

Details:

You can get to Gozo in 25 minutes via ferry. If you rent a car at the airport in Luqa, just follow the road signs to Gozo and you’ll end up right at the ferry terminal in Cirkewwa.

gozo victoria vegetable shopIf you don’t have a car, you can take the public bus from Valletta or Sliema to the ferry terminal. Gozo has a good bus network and a day ticket is only 2.60. You can find an overview of public transport in Malta here.

Ferries run every 45 minutes during the summer, and a little less frequent during the winter. You can check the ferry timetable here. A ticket is 4.65 for a return ticket, or 4.05 in the off season.

gozo ferryTaking your rental car to Gozo will give you more flexibility and the chance to explore more of the island – and definitely consider staying for a night or two! The ferry ticket for a car plus driver is 12.80.

Hop-on hop-off buses leave right from the ferry terminal and go every 45 minutes. Make sure to take an early ferry to make the most of your day if you use the hop-on hop-off bus – the 45 minute wait is quite long in some places (like at the stunning church of Xewkija which you can visit in less time). A day ticket is €22.50 (including audio guide).

gozo street with balconiesPlaces you shouldn’t miss include: The Citadel and the town of Victoria, the former fishing village of Marsalforn with its long stretch of beach, the Azure Window and the Inland Sea near Dweijra (you can take a boat tour that combines both), the Blue Lagoon off the coast of neighboring Comino (ferries leave from Mgarr, the port town in Gozo, regularly – check times here), the Ggantija Temples, Ta’ Pinu Basilica, Ramla Bay for the best beach experience, and the picturesque villages of Gharb, Xewkija and San Lawrenz.

gozo ta pinu maltaYou can find some ideas for walks on Gozo here.

Check out Gozo.com for accommodation on the island, including farmhouses, B&Bs and hostels!

gozo agriturismoThis post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

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Eating my way through Malta

maltese food

When I traveled to Malta last month, I had no idea what to expect in regards to food. What exactly is Maltese food? And of course I worried a little that vegetarian options in Malta might be limited. I worried for no reason though! Even though the national dish of Malta is rabbit, Stuffat tal-fenek, there are plenty of vegetarian options in the Maltese cuisine.

maltese starter

Thanks to the perfect location of the islands right in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has always been on the trading route between Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe, which consequently influenced the country’s cuisine. With people from different cultures passing through Malta on their travels from north to south or east to west, plus the various civilizations that occupied Malta over the centuries, Malta benefited from many more culinary influences than most other Mediterranean countries (especially considering how tiny the island nation is!), but at the same time, its food has an inerrably Mediterranean note. Fruits and vegetables typical for southern Europe, such as tomatoes, olives, broad beans, citrus fruits and figs, are part of most meals, and surprisingly delicious locally produced Maltese wines and cheeses top off each meal.

mdina fruits

Let me take you on a tour of my favorite Maltese dishes and introduce you to some of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in Malta and Gozo!

Maltese Snacks

Maltese snacks are pretty addictive – especially the pastizzi. These little flaky dough parcels are filled either with ricotta cheese or with peas (the pea version is usually not vegetarian though). They reminded me a lot of Cornish pasties (a specialty from Cornwall that I love), clearly influenced by the British presence on the islands. You will find them all over the islands, from cafes and restaurants to dedicated pastizzerias. See below for my recommendations on where to try pastizzi.

Pastizzi in Malta

The other typical savory snack is the ‘ħobż biż-żejt’, a sourdough loaf of bread dipped in olive oil and rubbed with ripe tomatoes, and then filled with tomatoes, capers, tuna, garlic and onion. We tried a slightly different version of this dish – basically the ingredients (plus Gozitan cheese) not mixed together, served with bread and olive oil:

maltese lunch at ta rikardu gozo

As a starter or a side with meals, you usually also find some pastes and spreads, like hummus (the Middle Eastern influence), olive paste (Sicilian influence), bigilla (made from broad beans or tic beans – North African influence) or an anchovy paste, all served with delicious Maltese bread which is baked in wood-fired ovens – creating a dark, chewy crust and a soft, fluffy inside – or Maltese galletti, crackers that are normally homemade.

maltese dips

The best bread to try is Maltese ftira though, a flatbread with a hole in the middle and topped with amixture of tomatoes, eggplant, olives, capers (and anchovies for a non-vegetarian option). I (as a pizza lover) could’ve eaten this bread every day – for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

maltese ftira

You’ll also often find Gbejniet as a starter, a white cheese made from unpasteurized goat’s or sheep’s milk, which is then dried in baskets and served drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with crushed black pepper and sea salt.

maltese platter ta rikardu
Maltese cheese on the right

Maltese classics

While most of the classic Maltese dishes aren’t vegetarian – for example Aljotta (fish soup), Lampuki Pie (fish pie) and a variety of rabbit (fenek) dishes that include soups, stews, sauces, pastas and pies, there are several meat-free options. Soppa tal-armla, also known as Maltese Widow’s Soup, was one of the best soups I had eaten in months! It is actually a simple soup, made with broad beans, peas, carrots and other vegetables that you might have, plus a Gbejniet (the above mentioned Maltese cheese) thrown in at the end. It doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it is to die for. In fact, I will try to make it at home with the help of this recipe.

Maltese rabbit fernek
Malta’s specialty: Fernek (rabbit)

Kapunata is the Maltese version of French ratatouille or Sicilian caponata – kind of a vegetable stew with zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomato, garlic and onions which is easy to make and can be served with pasta or just bread.

Desserts & Sweet Treats

The Maltese love their sweets, and I found myself constantly surrounded by enticing bakeries and pastry shops. Having visited just before Easter, I was lucky enough to be able to try figolli, a traditional Easter biscuit filled with almond paste and decorated with icing sugar. They come in different shapes and colors, sometimes also chocolate covered, but some bakeries also had a small version (figollini).

valletta cafe cordina maltese easter treat

A popular sweet year round are cannoli, brought to Malta from nearby Sicily (supposedly home to the tastiest cannoli in the world). These little tubes of crispy fried dough are filled with fresh ricotta cheese, and sometimes chocolate chips are added to the ricotta filling, but I preferred the ones we were served with fresh strawberries. To die for!

maltese cannoli
malta kannoli

Luckily for me and my sweet tooth, I never had a hard time finding a treat with a good, strong cup of coffee. Even better: most of the pastries are filled with almonds or an almond paste, which I can’t get enough of.

maltese pastry valletta

Drinks

Malta isn’t necessarily known as a wine-producing country, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to make wine! Maltese and Gozitan wines have won several awards in international competitions, and the grape varieties grown on the islands can easily keep up with Italian or French grapes. You’ll find Maltese Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscato, Carignan and Chenin Blanc. The wines I tried were all fantastic.

Malta’s national beer is Cisk, founded in 1928, and is traditionally a light lager. The brewery now also produces some stouts and pale ales, and even the Cisk Chill – a beer lemon mix similar to a German Radler or a British shandy.

Farsons, the Cisk brewery, also makes Kinnie, Malta’s popular non-alcoholic soft drink. Kinnie is basically a bittersweet herb lemonade of dark color (lighter than Coke though), and reminded me more of a Campari Soda than a soft drink. I have a feeling it mixes well with wodka.

Maltese Drinks

Where to eat in Malta

Valletta

I spent most of my time in Valletta, which is why most of my recommendations are for Malta’s capital.

Café Jubilee

Café Jubilee is one of the cutest restaurants I’ve seen anywhere in the world – a dimly lit, cozy restaurant filled with nostalgia! The walls are covered in old-fashioned pictures and paintings, and there is memorabilia from a long time ago everywhere, like antique kettles, bottles and strollers.

They are famous for their homemade ravioli which are also sold in supermarkets throughout the islands (look out for Nanna’s Raviolis), but also have crunchy pastizzi bursting with flavor, a big breakfast menu and in addition to traditional Maltese cuisine, you can get trendy dishes here; like a yummy-sounding Quinoa salad, or a sandwich with roasted beets, spinach and goats cheese – the perfect combination! I know I’ll have to go back there the next time I’m in Malta because I didn’t get around to trying their dessert ravioli (filled with a chocolate hazelnut cream… need I say more?!).

Address: 125 St Lucia Street, Valletta | (Their original branch is in Gozo, see below)

Cafe Jubilee

Caffe Cordina

This is the oldest (and probably most famous) café in Malta, worth a visit just for its decadent interior, which includes elaborate mirrors, frescoes on the ceiling and a long wooden bar. An even bigger draw is their huge outdoor sitting area though, right on Victoria Square.

Caffe Cordina Malta Valletta

You can try qaghaq ta’ l-ghasel, honey rings, a typical Maltese sweet, here, the famous savory bread snack ħobż biż-żejt’ (see Maltese Snacks above), or pick up some figolli around Easter. They also have a huge selection of pastizzi, or you could go for a rabbit dish or the Maltese Platter which includes most of the snacks mentioned above, plus the tasty Maltese bread and galletti.

Address: 244 Republic Street, Valletta

Caffe Cordina in Malta

Badass Burger

As the name indicates, this place serves truly Badass Burgers, but also plenty of options for vegetarians, including a veggie burger, sandwiches and salads – my rucola spinach salad with buffalo mozzarella and roasted sunflower seeds was divine!

badass burger valletta

I also love that their dessert menu includes Banoffee Pie – my favorite British sweet treat! I was beyond excited to find a Banoffee Pie after so many years without and I had to order it. In fact, I had to go back the next day to also try their Banoffee milkshake which didn’t disappoint – not only because it came in a huge milk bottle!

Address: 46, Old Theatre Street

They also have a branch in St Julian’s.

badass burger banoffee pie

Dolci Peccati

Even though this is actually an Italian café with some of the most sophisticated and decadent cakes and tarts I’ve seen outside of France, this place also has some of the most inexpensive and mouthwatering vegetarian lunches in Valletta, like a chickpea & chestnut soup, a veggie burger, or a vegetarian pasta dish with eggplant. Plus, this being an Italian-owned café, you can rest assured that you’ll find some really good gelato here.

And: Dolci Peccati has fantastic coffee! Their main branch is in Sliema (268 Tower Road).

Address: St John Street (near the corner of Republic Street), Valletta

malta valletta pastry shop

La Mere

La Mere is a solid choice right on Merchant Street in the heart of Valletta, and they basically have something for every palate: Maltese, Indian, Arabian and Mediterranean cuisine. You can get anything from an authentic Indian curry to fresh fish or salads or a typical Maltese Platter with Bigilla, Maltese cheese and galletti. Tip: they have a large lunch menu that is great value for money.

Address: 174 Merchant Street, Valletta

La Mere Restaurant

The Grassy Hopper

The Grassy Hopper is a small but excellent vegetarian/vegan restaurant that is not much more than a hole in the wall in Valletta. They also have a food truck that you’ll find in Gzira. Here you find all the things that make a healthy eater’s heart beat fast – smoothies spiked with spirulina, wheatgrass, raw cacao, macca or bee pollen; salads with kale and buckwheat, and a number of vegetarian burgers that leave nothing to be desired. Due to the tiny size of their shopfront, they have a daily changing menu, which you can always find updated on Facebook regularly.

Address: 123 Old Theatre Street in Valletta or the food truck in Ix-Xatt ta Ta’Xbiex – Opposite Atlas Insurance (right on the waterfront).

valletta the grassy hopper

St Julian’s

Gululu

Gululu was my absolute favorite restaurant in Malta – I’d consider staying in Sliema next time just so that I can eat at Gululu’s every day. And even if you’re not staying in Sliema or St Julian’s, Gululu is worth the trip there (super easy & quick from Valletta on the bus). This is the place to go if you want to try some really good Maltese food and wines, at surprisingly low prices.

Ftira at Gululu

The ftira here is out of this world, ranging from traditional toppings to more exotic, modern versions. If you’d like to try one of the famous Maltese rabbit dishes – this is the right place for you. You can also devour fresh fish, homemade pasta or a yummy salad. My rucola, honey-roasted pumpkin and goats cheese salad was simple, but heavenly nonetheless.

gululu restaurant salad

Address: 133 Triq Spinola, St Julian’s

Café Cuba

I can’t write about food in Malta without mentioning at least one pizza place – and look at this pizza:

cuba restaurant pizza

If you need your pizza fix on a regular basis (like I do!), Café Cuba can definitely satisfy your cravings. The large menu of pizzas fresh out of a wood-fired oven is almost overwhelming, but you’ll most likely find yourself coming back here for more. If you’re not into pizza, you’ll love the pastas, burgers and salads. The best time to eat here is during sunset – grab a table on the terrace and enjoy the views over the bay – but apparently the coffee here is superb, too, so if you’re strolling along the promenade, why not pause here for a coffee pit stop.

wine with a view in st julians

Address: Spinola Bay, St Julian’s. They have another branch in Triq Ix – Xatt, Sliema.

Gozo

Ta’ Rikardu

Ta’ Rikardu needs to be on your list of places to visit for the views alone! Head up to the rooftop terrace of the historic medieval building inside of Victoria’s Citadel and take in the stunning vistas, with a glass of wine and some traditional Gozitan cheese (Gbejniet) – both made on the family’s vineyard and farm. The food is not unforgettably good, but the views will stick with you forever.

Address: Triq il-Fosos, Victoria

maltese homemade pasta

Café Jubilee

This is the original Café Jubilee, well worth a visit for the cozy atmosphere and all the tasty dishes mentioned above (see Valletta).

Address: 8 Independence Square, Victoria

maltese pasties
Delicious vegetarian Maltese pasties

Have you been to Malta? If you have any recommendations for dishes and restaurants that shouldn’t be missed, feel free to share them in the comments below!

This post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

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Medieval Mdina: Stepping back in time in Malta

Mdina Malta

The minute we stepped through the massive gates that are built into the thick sandstone walls I felt like I had been transported back to the 16th century, when the Knights of St John arrived in Malta and lived in this fortified city, perched high on a hill that made it possible for them to look out over the entire island.

mdina stone lion kings landing

I heard galloping hooves come close behind me and had to jump to the side and press myself against the wall, letting the horse carriage pass by. I wouldn’t have been surprised had a noble lady been sitting in the carriage instead the two wide-eyed tourists who were marvelling at the tall sandy buildings that make up the medieval town.

Horse carriages in Mdina Malta

We walked slowly through the narrow alleys, most of which wouldn’t even fit a normal-sized car (in fact, only a limited number of vehicles are allowed to drive within the city walls), and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live here during the time of the knights.

mdina malta street

Since the city is confined by the thick city walls, it is easy to just stroll aimlessly without worrying that you’ll get lost somewhere. At some point, you’ll always reach a wall. And with only around 400 people living within the walls, Mdina is tiny.

 

Mdina actually dates back much further than medieval times – the city goes back more than 4,000 years! Over the centuries, or better, the millennia, the city has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Normans and the Arabs.
malta mdina door
Apparently it was here where the Apostle St Paul lived in 60 AD after being shipwrecked on Malta, and the St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat (outside of Mdina’s city walls) shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Mdina.
Mdina Malta
The inhabitation of the city by different cultural groups resulted in a fascinating and quite unique mix of architecture which you can still see throughout town– especially the Arab influence.

Mdina in Malta

The other notable architectural influence is Baroque, which arrived in Malta in the early 17th century. Mdina’s grand cathedral is a fine example of this architectural style.

mdina cathedral

I loved how Mdina still feels and looks the same way it would have looked hundreds of years ago, with well-preserved homes and palazzos and historic churches.
mdina building
The town was actually home to Malta’s most noble families, something that hasn’t changed even today.

mdina balconies

Looking at the fancy buildings, passing by the churches and monasteries, I could picture horse carriages waiting in front of the houses for the noble family to head out into the countryside for a day of hunting.

mdina horse carriages

One thing that struck me about Mdina was how quiet it was. Unless you stumbled upon a tour group, the city was as silent as its nickname, The Silent City, promises. Sometimes we would walk through streets all by ourselves, not a single other person in sight, and just enjoy the quietness. Spending most of my time in big cities, I absorbed as much as possible of the peaceful atmosphere.

mdina limestone buildings malta

I wasn’t the only one who noticed the timelessness of medieval Mdina. When the makers of ‘Game Of Thrones’ first set off to find filming locations, they came here and decided to make it the location for King’s Landing. If you watch Game Of Thrones, some of the places in the pictures might look familiar to you.

Entrance gates Mdina Malta

On the recommendation of a friend, we headed to Fontanella, a restaurant right on top of the thick city walls that offers sweeping views over the countryside surrounding the city and far over the Mediterranean Sea. The selection of cakes at Fontanella is huge so if you stop here, make sure to come hungry.

Streets of Mdina Malta

We later learned that we should have come twice to Mdina – once during the day and once at night, when the city is lit only by the historic street lamps. This is when Mdina is truly silent, and painted in a soft golden tone from the street lights, which makes it feel even more like you’ve been transported back to medieval times.

Mdina Malta

Details

How to get to Mdina

You can easily get to Mdina by bus from Valetta (30 minutes) or Sliema (45 minutes). A day ticket is only €1.50 (compared to a single fare at €1.30)!

mdina plaza malta

Eat & Sleep

Stop at Fontanella’s for coffee and cake, or at Xpresso Bistro Café, which has equally fabulous views.

There is a number of restaurants inside the city walls.

The Xara Palace, a 5-star hotel inside a 17th century chateau, is the only hotel inside the city walls. There are a couple of hotels in Rabat, just outside the city walls.

Mdina Malta

What to see

St Paul’s cathedral has an interesting interior, with the floor covered in marble gravestones (similar to St John’s Co-cathedral in Valletta), and is definitely worth going inside!

The Cathedral Museum is home to a small art collection, including a woodcut print of Albrecht Dürer’s The Life of the Virgin.

St Paul’s Church and Grotto are located in Rabat, outside of the city walls (a 10 min walk)

The Roman Villa (Domus Romana) is a fine example of Roman architecture with typical Roman mosaic floors, and is also in Rabat.

Door knockers in Mdina Malta
mdina balcony malta
Lions in Mdina Malta
malta mdina palace
Statues in Mdina Malta

This post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experience and opinion.

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Introducing Malta: My First Impressions and Some Random Facts

Introducing Malta: My first impressions and some random facts

When I told friends of mine I’d be visiting Malta and got asked questions like ‘Malta? Is that a country?’ or ‘Where exactly is Malta?’ I realized how little-known this little island nation actually is. So I decided to share my first impressions, a few fun facts and random trivia about Malta with you before talking about my trip in more detail.

At first sight, Malta seems like a magical fairytale island: tiny villages dotted on hilltops across the countryside, little bays with water in such dark shades of blue that they are almost too perfect, and medieval towns so well preserved that it feels like you’re stepping back in time when you set foot in them.

gozo malta from the seaNowadays, there is another side to Malta too: stretches of the coast that have been built up with modern apartment complexes and hotels, even a party mile that could rival the notorious party towns along the Spanish coast, and industrial areas right next to quaint fishing villages.

st julians bay at nightWhat I loved about Malta was that it can be exactly what you want it to be. Looking for history and culture? You can use Valletta as your base and tour UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ancient temples and medieval forts. You want beaches and relaxation? Stay in Sliema or St Julian’s and enjoy the ocean, take a sailing trip to the Blue Grotto or the Blue Lagoon. You want culinary revelations and shopping? There are loads of great restaurants and shopping facilities to keep you busy for at least a week!

valletta churches malta
Valletta seen from the sea

The country is actually an archipelago, made up of Malta, the main island, and the two smaller islands of Gozo and Comino (plus a few smaller, uninhabited islands). In total, just under 400,000 people live in Malta – nearly 370,000 of those live on the main island, about 30,000 live on Gozo and just a handful live on Comino. This makes Malta one of the smallest countries in the world by population (#174).

marsaxlokk port
The tiny fishing village of Marsaxlokk

Malta is so small that you can walk the island in its entirety (27km long and 14.5km wide). Gozo is about half this size (14km long and 7km wide). It took us less than 40 minutes to cross the island from south to north by car, starting in Marsaxlokk in the south and finishing in Mellieha Bay in the north of the island. By area, Malta is the 207th smallest country in the world!

gozo bayThe archipelago is located in the heart of the Mediterranean, south of Italy, north of Libya and east of Tunisia.

Malta Map EuropeMalta is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage listed sites – an impressive number for such a small country! Three sites are declared UNESCO World Heritage: the historic city of Valletta, the underground temple Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, and the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Six more sites are currently nominated to be World Heritage sites: Mdina, the Grand Harbor, the Victoria Lines and the Great Fault (a line of fortifications flanked by defensive towers), the Catacombs, the Northwestern Coastal Cliffs, and Dwejra (the Azure Window) as well as the Cittadella on Gozo.

gozo cittadellaValletta, the capital, is one of Malta’s UNESCO sites, thanks to its many historic churches, palaces, the unique wooden balconies (painted in bright colors), and the maze of narrow lanes.

malta valletta balconiesMalta is so close to Sicily (Italy) that you can see it on clear days, and you can even take catamaran day trips there – it is 90km (60miles) from Malta, and takes about two hours to get there.

There are no forests, lakes or rivers in Malta. Instead, the islands are made up of rolling hills and terraced fields.

gozo maltaThe Maltese cross was introduced to Malta by the Knights of St. John when they took possession of the islands in 1530, and is depicted on many items around the country including Maltese Euro coins (the Euro was introduced as the official currency here in 2008), and even door knobs!

Maltese Cross
The Maltese Cross – depicted on Euro coins, the interior of St John’s Co-cathedral and a door knocker

Ftira is the Maltese answer to pizza – a flat-bread with a hole in the middle, topped with Mediterranean vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant and olives (and sometimes anchovies).

maltese ftira
Ftira: Maltese flat bread

Malta, predominantly Roman Catholic, has over 360 churches! Considering the small size of the nation – Malta is just about twice as big as Washington D.C. – this is quite a large number.

Churches of MaltaThe Blue Lagoon off the coast of Comino is one of the most breathtaking bays in all of the Mediterranean.

gozo blue lagoon malta
The Blue Lagoon from the ferry

Maltese coffee culture is very similar to Italian coffee culture: there are lots of little coffee bars where people have a small cup of coffee right at the counter, usually espresso. Coffee prices are still very low in most places.

Malta Coffee CultureNot only the coffee culture, but also the architecture feels reminiscent of Italian towns:

Malta townsThe Rotunda Of Mosta is the fourth largest unsupported dome in the world and the third largest in Europe, with an internal diameter of 37.2 meters (122 ft). The church is also known for the ‘Miracle of Mosta’: In 1942, during an afternoon air-raid by the German Luftwaffe, a 200 kg bomb pierced the dome and landed in a congregation of 300 people who were waiting for mass. The bomb did NOT detonate – a miracle!

mosta cathedral
The Rotunda of Mosta: Place of the Mosta Bomb Miracle

Malta is a diver’s paradise and it is named as one of the best diving spots in the world on a regular basis. No wonder with clear water like this:

malta mediterraneanOne of the most famous diving spots is the Blue Hole near Gozo, right by the Azure Window, a spectacular limestone rock formation (and also a popular diving spot).

azure window gozo
The Azure Window, a 328feet / 100 meter high limestone rock formation in Gozo

The islands are a cat lover’s dream! There are plenty of cats everywhere, and all are well taken care of.

Cats of MaltaMalta produces wine and there are several vineyards on Gozo and Malta. The islands take pride in their local wines and having tried several local Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, I can confirm that Maltese wines are delicious.

maltese winesMalta has been used as a backdrop for quite a few Hollywood Blockbusters (without getting credit for it!), including Troy, Captain Phillips, and World War Z, and the popular TV series Game Of Thrones.

mdina stone lion kings landing
Mdina was used as King’s Landing in the first season of Game Of Thrones

Valletta is one of the smallest capitals in Europe, with a population of just over 6,000! It’s actually one of the smaller cities on the island.

valletta merchant street
Merchant Street, one of Valletta’s main shopping streets

tal-Fenek is the national Maltese dish: rabbit! Rabbit can be found in almost any dish: Pasta in rabbit sauce, rabbit pie, or rabbit meat stew.

gozo rabbit fernek
tal-Fernek: Rabbit, the Maltese national dish. Not suitable for vegetarians like me, but apparently it is very tasty.

In Malta, the boats have eyes. Even though the islands are just as developed as any other European country, the traditional and adorable fishing boats named luzzu can still be found in many of the coastal villages and are still used for fishing on a daily basis. They are painted in flashy colors like yellow, red or blue and all have eyes which are supposed to keep bad luck and the evil of the sea away.

Malta luzzus
Luzzu: Traditional Maltese fishing boats

One of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, the Beheading of St John, can be seen in St John’s Cathedral in Valletta. The church itself is famous for its striking inside and is well worth a visit.

st johns cocathedral valletta inside
St John’s Co-cathedral with frescos by Mattia Preti – it took him years to paint them!

Kannoli (pastries stuffed with sweet ricotta), known as a popular South Italian dessert, are a typical afternoon snack in Malta, too.

malta kannoliAnother local specialty are pastizzi, flaky dough pasties filled with ricotta cheese or peas (similar to a British pie). They are a popular breakfast dish and in addition to bakeries, there are pastizzerias, which focus on these delicious little pasties.

pastizzi maltaMalta is home to an entirely intact medieval walled city: Mdina. The historic capital of the country is on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.

mdina wallsThe Maltese love ornate iron door knockers (and so do I!):

Maltese door knockers
Maltese door knockers

English and Maltese are both official languages in Malta. I was surprised that many people aren’t fluent in English, despite it being the official language.

The impressive harbor of Valletta is one of the most significant natural deep-sea harbors in the world.

valletta harbor view

Check out my other posts on medieval Mdina, beautiful Valletta, a road trip across Malta and where to eat in Malta and Gozo!

malta valletta buildingThis post was brought to you as a result of the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta. I maintain full editorial control of the content published on Globetrottergirls.com and it is my policy to provide an honest, objective review, reflecting my own experiences and opinion.

 

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Polaroid of the week: Medieval Mdina, Malta

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polaroid of the week malta mdinaBefore I returned to Germany from Malta, I hired a car to see more of the tiny state. My friend Umei and I set off to explore the fishing villages, little bays and historic towns on the little island – and this turned out to be my favorite day in Malta!

One of the most memorable stop on our road trip was Mdina, a medieval hilltop town that still feels like the 15th century. It is believed that the city was first settled in 700BC by the Phoenicians – nearly 3,000 years ago! The walled city is the former capital of Malta and was suggested as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998  (it is still to be decided if Mdina is declared UNESCO World Heritage).

Walking around the narrow streets of the town, passing medieval churches, the palace and the well-preserved, for Malta typical limestone buildings felt like a trip back in time. Situated on a hilltop in the center of the island, you can see the entire island from the fortified city walls, and defenders of Mdina could see potential enemies arrive by boat long before their arrival.

Today, there are still only a limited number of delivery vehicles allowed within the city walls, and the lack of cars and mopeds, plus all the horse carriages that carry tourists through the town add to the ancient feel of the city. Mdina’s gates and bridges over the moat surrounding the walls are among the most beautiful city entrances to the still intact walled cities around Europe. Game Of Thrones fans might remember the city as King’s Landing in Season One.

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Polaroid of the week: Spring break in Malta

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polaroid of the week valletta maltaAfter a little hiatus, we’re back with our Polaroid Of The Week series, in which we usually share where we have been in the past seven days and what we have been up to. If you’re following us on Facebook, you might have already seen our update about some big changes that are happening in our lives at the moment, and that we will talk about them in detail here soon, but for now I just wanted to share with you where I have spent the past few days.

The last few weeks have been challenging to say the least, and when the opportunity arose to spend a week in sunny Malta, I jumped on the chance to get away from it all, soak up some sun and spend some time by the ocean. The sea has always had a tranquil effect on me, and it hasn’t been different here in Malta. This trip has turned out to be exactly the kind of spring break that I needed, with many hours spent wandering and getting lost in the hilly streets of Valletta, the capital, and getting to know the natural beauty of this scenic little Mediterranean island and its even tinier neighbor Gozo.

I can’t wait to share more about Malta with you – look out for more photos and stories from this small but remarkable Mediterranean archipelago shortly! For a sneak peek, follow me on Instagram where I post Malta pictures daily.

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