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Don’t Sleep on Malta, the Mediterranean’s Tiny Treasure

GQ logo GQ 10/15/2018 Natalie B. Compton
a flock of birds sitting on top of a sandy beach © Dani Lovi/Getty Images

On a map, Malta looks like just a peek of land below Sicily; you’d miss it if you weren’t squinting with the intention to find it. But this Mediterranean nation is a unique gift that keeps on giving for travelers who like food, wine, beaches, and history. Two majorly important Caravaggio paintings are here under one roof, in one of the most jaw-droppingly gilded cathedrals you’ll ever see. The island is home to the oldest free-standing structures on the planet (yes, older than the pyramids). They make a very tiny quantity of very good wine, and more than enough cheese to eat along with it. Most recently, its claim to fame has been Hollywood’s use of the timeless landscape for filming (i.e. Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Assassin's Creed, Murder on the Orient Express). With tourism numbers growing wildly every year, it’s time to visit Malta.

How to Get There

If you’re coming from the U.S., you’ll have to transfer to Malta from another European hub like Amsterdam or Paris. For those flying with Air Malta, beware of egregious fees for checking luggage at the airport by doing it online ahead of time (if the website works for you, that is).

Once you’re in Malta, you can either plan on getting around by public transportation or by rental car. Beware that people drive on the left side of the road here; it’ll get easier to navigate the longer you weave through Malta’s picturesque towns and cactus-lined rural roads. Uber isn’t a thing here, so you’ll have to call a traditional cab or download the Maltese app eCabs if you’d like a ride. The country is Europe’s most densely populated. Its infrastructure isn’t designed for everyone to have cars, which means you’re going to get stuck in traffic sometimes, but it’s not horrible.

Malta is made up of three islands. The largest is Malta, the medium one is Gozo, and Comino is a tiny spot you’ll only visit on a day trip. All can be accessed by affordable ferries, like the Gozo Channel line and Comino Ferry Co-Op. Because Malta was once a British colony (it regained its independence in 1964), it has two official languages, English and Maltese, making conversing with local pretty seamless wherever you go. The country’s now a part of the E.U., so dust off your Euros from that last trip to Paris.

a person swimming in the water: Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa © Couresy of Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa

Where to Stay (And Eat)

Visiting Malta isn’t a “post up at a beach resort” kind of vacation. You’re going to want to explore the country and its many facets; choose hotels strategically. A good Malta hub is the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, an unfussy upscale option near the President's residential palace. The location puts you a short drive from many of your points of interest. Plus the hotel offers convenient, free shuttles to Valletta that run later into the night. There’s a big outdoor pool (in addition to a big indoor pool) for your plunging needs to cool off after a day in the Mediterranean sun.

Then there’s The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux in the “Silent City” of Mdina, the fortified medieval town where no cars allowed except for those of Mdina’s few residents. That means that most of the time, the traffic noises you’ll hear outside of your window at Xara (Mdina’s only hotel) are the clomping of horse feet pulling bell-adorned carriages through the alleyways. Guests of the 5-star hotel have included Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who no doubt also enjoyed the elegant property for its subtle luxury. A major selling point for staying here is to be able to walk a few feet from your room to de Mondion, one of Malta’s best restaurants that’s located at the hotel. Eat here even if you do not stay here, as the restaurant offers a 180-degree view of the countryside stretching to the sea, along with a menu of fine dining takes on beloved traditional Maltese dishes like roasted local rabbit loin.

a large stone building with a purple flower: The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux © Courtesy of The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux a plate of food: de Mondion © Courtesy of The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux de Mondion

Before and after dinner, walk around the former capital city to marvel at its mix of Baroque, medieval, and Norman architecture. Game of Thrones fans may recognize scenes from season one, as Mdina was filmed as King’s Landing. Just beyond Mdina’s walls is the town of Rabat, mandatory for someone looking to try the best pastizzi in Malta. Pastizzi is a savory puff pastry traditionally stuffed with ricotta or peas, although today its innards are more varied depending on where you go. In Rabat, go to Crystal Palace for a hot, fresh pastizzi that will flake all over you and you will not care. It’s a snack that can be eaten around the clock, particularly if you’re at Crystal Palace, which is open 24/7.

The Maltese move for a weekend getaway is to rent a farmhouse on the quieter island of Gozo. Book well in advance, for they’re popular with locals looking to escape the hustle of Malta year round. Gozo offers opportunities for hiking, beaching, and sightseeing, and eating. Stop by Il-Kartell overlooking the Marsalforn Bay for a meal. Maltese cuisine shines here, like the traditional local cooked in white wine with garlic, capers, olives, peas, local herbs, and marinara sauce. You’ve probably never thought twice about a caper before, but you will on Malta because here they’re fat and juicy and delicious.

a pizza sitting on top of a wooden table topped with plates of food: Meridiana Wine Estate © Courtesy of Meridiana Wine Estate Meridiana Wine Estate a close up of a barrel © Courtesy of Meridiana Wine Estate

What to Drink

Meridiana Wine Estate is a Maltese wine that’ll be recommended to you over and over again. Certainly worth ordering at restaurants, it’s also worth visiting the winery to see the production in person. Established in 1987, the 47-acre estate took over an old World War II airfield near the ancient walled city of Mdina. Meridiana produces DOK Malta wines, meaning they use grapes grown only on Malta. The tour includes a look at the winemaking process plus a tasting complete with a giant Maltese Platter, Malta’s answer to a charcuterie board that includes the likes of Maltese pork sausage, ġbejna (goat cheese) coated with black pepper, bigilla (a garlicky mashed bean dip), olives, sun-dried tomatoes, Maltese bread slices rubbed with tomato paste, and water crackers. If you’re lucky, in addition to the highly-regarded Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, you’ll get to try the Vermentino, although there’s a good chance it’ll be sold out.

a dining room table: Il-Kartell © Courtesy of Il-Kartell Il-Kartell

On the cocktail front, baroque capital Valletta is full of bars tucked away in its maze of side streets. To pick a gin from a selection of about a million, flip through a tome of a menu at Yard 32, a gin and tapas bar. Get an outdoor table at Charles Grech, a cafe that first debuted as a tobacconist’s shop in 1881, to watch the evening unfold on Republic Street over a drink.

© Merrily Anne/Getty Images

What to See and Where to Swim

St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a mandatory visit for tourists traveling to Malta. The baroque cathedral is a jaw-dropping display dripping in gold. It’s a product of the Knights of Malta’s reign over the country that also holds those two Caravaggio paintings. The other culturally-significant sites of Malta are plentiful, including catacombs, more fortified cities, more cathedral, armories, Calypso’s Cave allegedly mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey. The Megalithic Temples of Malta are UNESCO-certified wonders that go back to 3600 BC and 700 BC.

But you’re on an island in the Mediterranean, so you should probably go swimming in the crystal blue waters surrounding Malta while you’re in town. There are beaches all over all of the islands. Pick where you go for the day after consulting this Jelly Map that’ll let you know where the jelly fish are hiding. If they’re haunting one side of the island, you’re usually safe to go to another.

a person sitting on a bench in front of a store © Courtesy of Yard 32

You must absolutely visit Camino’s famed Blue Lagoon, one of those Instagram-magnet destinations you have to see to believe. The water is really as bright and clear as it looks online. While you’ll never have the place to yourself, it’s a special spot to lounge and swim. It’s also an excellent people watching destination. As you recline in a striped beach chair overlooking the crazy-blue water, you’ll be entertained by the frolicking, tiny swimsuited Europeans from all over the continent. Don’t want to deal with said Europeans? Rent a boat and explore the swimming spots of Malta on your own.

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