What’s Not To Love About Malta?
A Mediterranean island with temples that pre-date the Egyptian pyramids… walled cities with towers, palaces, churches, and citadellas that stand testament to the Knights of St. John and their grandmasters… a stunning coastline with rugged sandstone cliffs, caves, blue lagoons, and the occasional gold- or red-sand beach… not to mention an English-speaking population…
For more than a decade, Malta—officially, the Republic of Malta that comprises the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino—was on my hit list. The night before my husband and I were to take our four children on a six-day trip to the country, I listened to a podcast from an Irish radio station on Malta as a vacation destination. One of the things the guy said still sticks with me: You can cycle around the full island of Gozo in an hour or two. Had he completely missed the hills? Did his bicycle have a turbo-powered engine?
For some reason the tourist industry seems to paint Malta as an idyllic, overlooked Mediterranean paradise. Really, there’s not much I didn’t love about Malta. But it did hold a lot of surprises—things that may not have stuck out so much had I been prepared for them. So, before we delve into Malta’s highlights, here’s my list of “Malta truths.” (Note: I use Malta to refer to the country as a whole… and “the island of Malta” when I refer to that part specifically.)
- It’s densely populated: The population of the country is 445,000 spread over its three islands (though only a handful of people live on Comino). On the island of Malta there is little in the way of a “sleepy island village” to be found. The towns are busy thoroughfares that are well serviced—all with banks, car dealerships, boutiques, and fast-food outlets. Gozo is said to be more like what Malta would have been 30 years ago. And if I were to keep a second home in this part of the Mediterranean, I’d be looking to Gozo. Again, it has a number of busy towns (and, to my horror, a McDonald’s), but it’s much easier to go off the grid here.
- The roads are more reminiscent of Eastern Europe: On the island of Malta, roads around Valletta and the airport, as well as those connecting the main towns, are pretty good. Veer off these major routes, though, and things are less comfortable. In many parts, the surface is pocked with patched-up potholes and in dire need of repaving. As we negotiated one road in Gozo, I remarked that I’d seen better dirt tracks in Central America. Overall, I would class the roads as Eastern European. I imagine they will, in time, develop, particularly with EU funding (Malta joined the EU in 2004). For now, don’t judge the timing of a journey by looking at a map—you never know the condition of the roads you may encounter. And don’t put all your faith in SatNav (even with the most up-to-date maps) to get you where you want to go. A four-by-four should make the journey more comfortable.
- What’s with all the cars: In 2014, an average of 28 cars were registered in Malta every day, with 596 passenger cars for every 1,000 people. Whatever that means for traffic volume, the challenge for the visitor is to find parking—particularly in smaller towns where designated car parks are lacking. However, when you do find parking, it’s free or low priced. In Mdina—the original capital until the Knights of Malta relocated to Valletta—we parked just outside the old city walls free. In the center of Valletta, we paid just 3 euros for a full day. I also found drivers to be more patient and courteous than in other parts of Europe.
- Under reconstruction: The good news is that Valletta will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018. The bad news for visitors right now is that almost every palace and church—and some sections of the city walls—are undergoing some level of restoration (you may have to work some of your photo shoots around scaffolding). This is, of course, a temporary flaw and good in the long run. On Gozo we found major works going on at the citadella in Victoria, too. It seems that EU funds are gradually coming through… and are evidently being poured into historic buildings rather than roads (not necessarily a bad thing).
- The beaches: To sell Malta as a summer beach destination would be doing it and potential visitors a disservice. Yes, it has beautiful beaches—but they are small, as well as few and far between. And, come high summer, the crowds make them unbearable. May and September are the best times to plan some beach time here when you’ve less competition for sand—and have a chance of parking nearby. The beaches in the north are by far the cleanest, sandiest, and best. Down south, you find good diving sites but less in the way of sand. The one touted sandy beach at Pretty Bay is right beside the free port (container ships block the horizon), and the water is cloudy.
- Lack of green: This is maybe a little nit-picky since I come from Ireland—but I struggled with the obvious lack of vegetation. Everywhere, the landscape is dry with a severe lack of trees. As you drive the main road from Malta’s international airport, for example, you can clearly see the walled city of Mdina in the distance. It looks lovely by night. But, by day, I longed for some trees to shield it and keep some element of surprise. Alas, there is no sense of mystery here. Everything is open and on show.
Now that I’ve exposed the pitfalls, here are some of the big-picture pluses why Malta is worth spending time in.
- It’s the Mediterranean: You’re just 50 miles south of Italy. The sea is visible from almost everywhere—turquoise blue and shimmering. The food is some of the best the Med has to offer.
- Three thousand sunshine hours per year: It’s one of the sunniest spots in Europe… a great place to enjoy a long summer.
- It’s (proper) English-speaking: Not only do the locals speak English (you will hear them speak Maltese to each other but business is often carried on in English), but signs everywhere are in English. (The Brits ruled for over 150 years up until 1964.) Traveling anywhere around the islands, we never had one experience where we couldn’t easily communicate. One less thing to worry about when you’re on new soil.
- Cost of living is lower than much of Europe: Despite the fact that most goods must be imported to Malta, we found costs even in tourist areas to be well below other European cities. You can get a cappuccino for 1.50 euros… a glass of Chardonnay for 2.95 euros… and our family of six enjoyed dinner out for an average of 55 euros. In fact, we spent less than half our budget for this family break.
- Not overly touristy: Despite its prime position and its increasing efforts to put itself out there, Malta is still not a major tourist destination. Even in the capital on a Friday afternoon in May, we felt safe walking with four kids. At the Azure Window on Gozo—a geological wonder that instantly became our favorite attraction—there were a handful of other visitors strolling around the salt flats.
- Clean and well serviced: The towns are clean, and Valletta is immaculate. Bins are everywhere (on one small beach, I counted a line of six rubbish bins only meters apart from each other). We found a strong presence of public toilets—all of which were clean.
- Easy to connect: Overall, Malta is open for business and in the modern world. The Airbnb villa where we stayed had free Wi-Fi that was just as fast as home. There are also some free Wi-Fi spots along the east coast, and most bars and restaurants have free Wi-Fi for guests.
If you’re only in Malta for a short visit, I’d recommend a long weekend in Valletta, followed by a few days on Gozo. More to come soon on both those destinations…
Editor’s Note: Valletta, Malta, made runner-up in our 2016 Annual Retirement Index. By far our most comprehensive study to date, this just-released, 211-page report identifies and scores the 20 best places on earth to think about living or retiring overseas. Discover the world’s best havens, ranked and rated like never before, here.