What are the best things to do in Malta, especially when you’re on a mother daughter getaway? How do you tempt your college-age kid to share a travel adventure with you? Our Traveling Mom says the first step is to pick a cool destination. Something not too, too far out of either of your comfort zones. Safety is key. Read on to find out why Malta not only made the grade, but rated an A+.
I was craving some one-on-one time with my college-age daughter Sophia. They grow up so fast, don’t they? We had a family vacation planned for Germany, and it seemed the perfect chance to craft a post-trip adventure for just the two of us. Sophie and I bid “auf wiedersehen” to dad and bro and hopped on a plane (love those low-cost airlines). We arrived in Malta on a brilliantly sunny summer morning.
Where Is Malta?
Located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta is an archipelago consisting of five islands – only three of which are populated. The largest, also called Malta, Gozo, and petite Comino, which makes for an ideal day trip. Comino offers great hiking, snorkeling and going toes-up in its famed – but (unfortunately) often super crowded – Blue Lagoon. We divided our five-day stay between Malta and Gozo.
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Situated between Sicily— just a two-hour ferry ride away— (Day trip?) and the North African coast, Malta has a fascinating albeit turbulent history. It was embroiled in the power struggles between emerging Europe and the older African and Middle Eastern nations.
That meant hordes of invaders and occupiers. Napoleon swept through; there were decades of rule by the mystical Order of the Knights Hospitallers (Known also as the Knights of Malta). In 1813, it became a British Colony. The archipelago paid a pivotal role in World War II, and its people were cited for their bravery by the Allies. The ’70s brought independence; today, it is the smallest member of the European Union.
Malta’s Look, Feel, & Taste
Malta’s visitors are greeted by dramatic limestone cliffs, a craggy coastline and lost-in-time villages surrounded by startling clear cobalt blue water. These islands boast the Mediterranean’s best beaches. Their abundance of hidden coves appeal to anyone’s “inner child.” Visitors can enjoy water sports galore on the gorgeous waters. These beaches are a huge draw for tourists.
TIP: Malta’s capital Valletta was declared the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) for 2018. One more reason to go!
Malta is a delicious mélange of the cultures of its settlers (first arrivals came from Sicily) and its conquerors. People speak both Maltese (a softer Arabic-sounding dialect delivered with iconic Italian hand gestures) and English. Italian, North African, Arabic and British cultural influences are the most robust. We found the people to be warm and welcoming. A great local guide is a huge plus in learning about a destination; we had that in Nick Ripard.
With Nick’s guidance, we discovered the varied influences in the cuisine and what is Maltese. We loved the Ħobż tal-Malti crusty sourdough bread baked in wood ovens. Visiting at the height of tomato season, we got a tutorial on how to “do lunch” – Maltese-style alfresco. So, our first stop was at a little market to pick up olive oil, mint and bread. Then we chose some ruby-red tomatoes from a farm stand.
We mushed them into the bread, drizzled with oil, and sprinkled on a little mint. Then you just find a spot with a view (not hard!) and enjoy. Sophie and I agreed it was one of our favorite meals of the trip.
Malta’s National Dish
Interestingly, stewed rabbit fenek is the national dish, and pork is very popular. Of course, there is all that fresh-from-the-sea fish and local goat cheeses. Yum. Pastizzi (flaky pastry filled with ricotta or mushy peas) are ubiquitous and a beloved snack. We sampled it all.
A scattering of small vineyards produces some exciting wines. Since they don’t export them, this would be your opportunity to drink them in situ and collect a story to impress your oenologist friends.
Valletta’s waterfront offers a range of dining with views galore, and the retail scene deserves some attention. Shopping? Yes, we did.
Where to Stay in Malta
In selecting accommodations, you are, as the Brits would say, “spoilt for choice” – five star, internationally-branded hotels and resorts, boutique properties, budget hotels, hostels, apartments, and villas. The Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa hosted our trip.
Located inland, in an exclusive quarter (across from the President’s residence) it’s an excellent base for sightseeing, and lovely to come back to – calm and elegant. A complimentary shuttle takes guests to Valletta and other destinations which is a nice perk. The only drawback is it’s a ways (45 minutes or so) from the beaches.
Our room was spacious and comfortable, and we had a view of the neighborhood’s day-to-day bustle from our balcony. We enjoyed cooling off in the pool after sightseeing. What’s a mom-daughter vacation without a spa visit? We treated ourselves to massages followed by a proper soak in a hot tub. A poolside dinner, where we tucked into some delicious fresh fish cooked with a Mediterranean flare, was a perfect ending to our day.
Where to Eat at The Corinthian
The Corinthian has several restaurants. There’s fine dining at Villa Corinthia, the award-winning Rickshaw offers Far Eastern cuisine, and lighter fare is available at the Orange Grove Brasserie. Seasonally, The Summer Kitchen provides an additional venue. The hotels serve a bountiful breakfast buffet each morning.
Chef Stefan Hoan treated us to a poolside cooking lesson—fish stew, risotto, and calamari were all on the list—and to-die-for. And aren’t recipes one of the best souvenirs to bring home?
Things to do in Malta: Discovering the Archipelago
Nick drove us around the island while pointing out all the key sights and sites. As he drove, he shared history, context and a wealth of anecdotes which helped us connect the “then and now.” We toured the stunning capital of Valletta, Mdina, one of Europe’s best-preserved ancient walled cities and he took us to Marsaxlokk, a storybook fishing village. Marsaxlokk boasts Malta’s best flea market. Yes, flea markets are a thing in Malta.
Every day, you can find stalls heaped with colorful fresh produce and almost anything from car parts to vintage clothing. Sophie and I both secured some treasures. On Sundays, it expands and features local fishermen selling their catch. The markets are great for people watching too, as vendors, locals, and tourists happily mingle and barter.
Get your haggle on. Marsaxlokk’s other claim to fame is some of the island’s best seafood restaurants.
We took a 30-minute ferry ride to Malta’s little sister isle Gozo for a two-night stay. Gozo differs from Malta in that it’s less cosmopolitan with a laid-back beach resort vibe. People come here to hike, swim, sun, and snorkel. But temple-trekking beckons (The Ġgantija Temples in Xagħra are older than Egypt’s pyramids and Stonehenge.) and its capital Victoria with its medieval hilltop citadel is well-worth a visit. Our trip coincided with the feast of Santa Marija – Malta is very Catholic, and as it happens, horse racing is hugely popular. The day’s celebration included a horse race down the main street. Quite a sight!
We stayed in a modest family-owned hotel—Hotel San Andrea— in the coastal resort of Xlendi. Drenched in atmosphere, Xlendi is a colorful old-world fishing village. Situated just-so on the waterfront, there is excellent protected sea swimming and snorkelling.
Despite a few “AC issues”, we found our stay at the San Andrea to be delightful. The rooms are small and simple, but each has a balcony and there’s a roof-top terrace that looks out to the sea. The friendly staff is helpful with sightseeing arrangements. The delightful Giulia who ran the front desk recommended Darren (the owner’s son-in-law) as a guide. Good call.
Educated in Canada, Darren is well-traveled and shared that he would not want to raise his family anywhere but Gozo. He was happy to drive us around and tell us all about the island—including how safe it is for his kids and about the strong sense of community.
He pronounced the 350-year old salt pans a must-see. Stretching miles along the coast and into the sea, they are the lynchpin of the centuries-old Gozitan tradition of sea-salt production that has been passed down within families for generations. Fascinating. Foodies take note: the fish restaurants along the quaint promenade will have you swooning.
We booked a half-day boat trip around the island—with Xlendi Pleasure Cruises—an open-top boat that took us snorkelling, past the Azure Window and swimming in the Blue Lagoon. (Sadly, the Azure Window collapsed due to elements shortly after our visit.) The boat is not fancy, but it was affordable and took us to all the local hot spots including a stop in Comino for a swim.
Oh, that water and oh, the memories we’ve stored in our hearts, better even than Instagram for savoring in the years to come.
Marsovin Wines Festival – Party Like a Local
Partying like a local with the locals at the Marsovin Wine Festival was a highlight for me and my daughter. The location is Valetta, overlooking the Yacht Marina, with wine stations set up in Hasitngs Gardens. No need to speak Maltese, music is a universal language and everyone speaks English anyway (thanks to 400 years under British rule). There are several stages where local Maltese and Gozoan bands play a variety of music.
We toured the party with the vineyard owner, exchanging tokens for wine samples, eating pizza and learning about the wines throughout the night. Their signature wine, Primus, is our favorite. You should pick it up even if you don’t make it to their festival.