In our continuing 36 Hours in … series, we scoped out the culture, history, food and sites of the island nation of Malta.
We took a 10:20 a.m. Air Malta flight out of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and landed at Malta International Airport at 1 p.m. We purposely chose to come in November because of the low tourist season plus the moderate weather conditions. It was a pleasant 65 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny when we arrived, and the weather remained the same during our stay.
Malta is a big island comprised of small cities and villages, and we chose Valletta, the capital, as our base. Centrally located, Valletta was originally a fortified city, and in the 1600's the Knights Hospitaller constructed a series of limestone, Baroque-style buildings. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the crowning achievement of Valletta came in 2018, when it was named the European Capital of Culture.
Arriving at the city gate of Valletta, we were greeted by the striking Triton Fountain, with its green metal tritons holding it up. The contemporary redesign of the gates was done by architect Renzo Piano from 2011-2015, along with a new Parliament building, which has received much criticism and praise at the same time.
Since it was such a beautiful day, we ventured over to the Upper Barakka Gardens, a verdant, manicured park with fountains, flowers and stone benches to relax on. Walking further in the gardens, we fixated on the views of the Grand Harbour, dotted with yachts and sailboats.
Caffe Cordina, a café and restaurant dating back to 1875, was a terrific throwback to the grand European cafes with its arched, hand-painted ceilings, Venetian glass chandeliers and mosaic-tile floors. We enjoyed a Ftira Maltija, a Maltese warm sandwich stuffed with tuna, olives and sun-dried tomatoes and, with enough room for dessert, we indulged in Pudina, a bread pudding with dried fruit and walnuts.
Noted as one of the greatest examples of Baroque architecture in all of Europe, Saint John’s Co-Cathedral had a deceptively simple façade of limestone with two bell towers, but once inside, the typical ornate elements of Baroque architecture prevailed. The nine side chapels are as heavily embellished with gold paint, religious statues, marble floors and candle-lined altars as the main cathedral.
The cathedral has a collection of important artworks, including two major works by Caravaggio: The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome Writing, both from the late 1500's.
Most of Valletta is very hilly, so we climbed up and down the narrow side streets, exploring the charming, original storefronts with tailors, shoemakers, fish tackle sellers and hardware shops mixed with cool clothing, accessory and home design boutiques.
After our workout on the streets of Valletta we were more than ready to check in to our hotel. The Phoenicia Malta, the premiere five-star hotel in Valletta, is also a Leading Hotel of the World. We were warmly welcomed by Brice Kemper, the newly appointed general manager, who moved to Malta just three months ago after spending 20 years in the south of France in hotel management. He was kind enough to have his sales executive take us on a tour of the hotel.
Built in 1947 as a classic British-style hotel, The Phoenicia Malta underwent an extensive renovation in 2015, and it reopened in 2017. Today there are 136 rooms, and our room, tastefully decorated in navy blue and white, had an authentic Maltese tile floor, a queen-sized bed with white sheets and a small terrace with scenic views. The main-floor lobby is an enormous, white rotunda dotted with seating areas of club chairs, couches and loungers, where drinks, snacks and English high tea are served.
One of the major attractions of the hotel is the almost eight-acre garden extending the perimeter of the city. The lush grounds are not only for hotel guests to relax in; they are also used for functions such as weddings, receptions and parties. At the end of the gardens is an infinity pool overlooking the harbor.
For dinner that night, we forgot to make reservations, so when one of the best restaurants didn’t have a table, we asked for another recommendation. They suggested La Pira Maltese Kitchen, a small family-owned restaurant. The cozy, rustic restaurant only had eight tables on the first floor, but it also had an outdoor terrace and a second-floor dining room. Our starter was a homemade, grilled sausage served on top of a local, artisanal goat cheese with tomato chutney. Rabbit stew is a popular favorite in Malta, and La Pira’s version, steeped in red wine and aromatic herbs, was sublime.
We were up and out early the next day so we could fit in as many daytime sites as we could before the early sunset at 5 p.m.
Malta does not have a tram or subway system, so buses are the way to go. The main terminal is right across the street from the Phoenicia Hotel. We took a 35-minute bus ride to Marsaxlokk, a quaint fishing village. It was another glorious, sunny day and the small, wooden boats, painted in primary colors, floated on the bay while the boat owners toiled to fix and clean them. We ordered a plate of fried anchovies at a waterfront café while sipping on a glass of white Maltese wine.
With just a few more hours of daylight, we took off to Mdina, an ancient, walled city in northern Malta. Mdina traces its beginnings to over 4,000 years ago and is believed to be where the apostle St. Paul lived after he was shipwrecked. Once inside the walls we discovered long passageways leading to squares, churches, former noble palaces and museums. We toured Palazzo Falson, the medieval palace of a Maltese royal family, which became the home of Capt. Olof Frederick Gollcher in the 1900's, an heir to a Swedish merchant family. Gollcher was a collector of antique Maltese weapons, armor, furniture, Oriental rugs and silver, and he also maintained a library of 4,500 books, all on display.
On our last night, we checked in to Palazzo Jean Parisot, a discreet boutique hotel. Hardly recognizable from the outside with only a subtle sign with its initials on it, the hotel is like staying in a private home. When booking, the management sends digital codes for the front door and for your room. The spacious, almost mini-apartment had a fully equipped kitchen, a well-appointed living area with a couch and a club chair, and a queen-sized bed. Two frosted-glass doors with the hotel’s insignia opened to a spacious bathroom.
Since Malta was a British-occupied nation until 1964, many of the British systems and customs are still in place. Please note some of them below:
- Driving is on the right side of the road, so keep it in mind if you rent a car. Also, be careful to look the correct way when crossing the street.
- Tipping in restaurants is customarily 10 percent on top of your bill.
- Electricity runs on 240 voltage, so make sure to bring proper plugs and adapters.
- English is spoken on most of the island, along with Maltese.
244 Republic, Il-Belt Valletta VLT 1114
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta
La Pira Maltese Kitchen
34 Merchant Street Valletta, VLT 1171, Malta
Palazzo Jean Parisot
76 St Paul St, Valletta, Malta