Where to Visit
Often dismissed as little more than a package tourism bolthole in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta is a place of surprising diversity and no little history.
Precise knowledge of this island nation's past, in the UK at least, is usually limited to the fact that it was once part of the British Empire (from 1814 to 1964, trivia fans) and played a key strategic role in World War Two - but Malta's story can be traced way back into the fourth century BC.
The temple of Hagar Qim may have been built as early as 3600BC, making it one of the oldest man-made structures on the planet - proof indeed that this island has more to offer than kiss-me-quick hats and half-melted ice cream.
Of course, referring to Malta as an 'island nation' is also something of an oversight. Technically, it's an archipelago of rocky outcrops, only three of which - the main island (Malta), Gozo and Comino - are inhabited.
Together they make up a mere 122 square miles of land, but there's much to enjoy nonetheless - the delightful walled capital city of Valletta, a collection of lovely beaches, fabulous sea views and waters perfect for scuba diving, to name a small selection. True, some areas are rowdier than others, but with a spot of pre-planning Malta can be every bit as rewarding a Mediterranean holiday destination as some of the more celebrated Greek islands.
As the capital, Valletta is the key city of Malta. It's a delightful spot, standing proud on a short peninsula on the main island's north-east coast, and blessed with a visible history that saw it granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980. Much of this is surely down to its picturesque harbour and preserved walls. A walk around the latter, especially where they run along the waterfront, gives a clear picture of how sturdy a stronghold the city must have been when it was founded in the mid-16th century.
Fairly compact, it's an easy city to explore on foot. Indeed, the 16th century layout and narrow, steep streets, make walking the best option. St John's Co-Cathedral, built by the Knights Hospitaller (as was much of the city) in the 1570s, is the main religious showpiece. An imposing structure, it looks like a fortress from the outside, but reveals a grandiose, art-laden interior. Elsewhere, the National Museum Of Archaeology pays tribute to the island's ancient past, while the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the city's highest point, offer sublime views of the harbour.
The quality of food on offer varies greatly according to which part of Malta you are standing in. Sliema and St Julian's specialise in the sort of cheap-and-easy pub grub found in seafront tourist areas Europe over, although there are some good exceptions to the burger-and-chips-with-a-side-order-of-bacon-and-eggs rule. St Julian's Bay, for example, has some excellent eateries overlooking the water, not least Barracuda (194-195 Main Street) - a celebrity magnet (Brad Pitt reputedly ate here during the filming of Troy) housed in an 18th century harbour building, and server of top-notch seafood.
Unsurprisingly, Malta does seafood rather well, although to increase your chances of dining well it's often wise to flee the tourist areas and investigate the narrow streets of Valletta. Genuine Maltese cuisine is frustratingly hard to find, although look out for Soppa ta' L-Armla (Widow's Soup), a thick, filling sort of vegetable broth.
You won't struggle to find after-dark merriment in Sliema and St Julian's, where the pubs are open loud and late in summer. If you want to drink in a bar where the local population is represented, the Paceville area, near St Julian's, is popular with young Maltese. If you want a more sedate night, Valletta has several quiet watering holes.
If you're intent on buying a fluorescent pink lilo and an 'I Love Malta' T-shirt, you can't go far wrong in Sliema. If you want to splash the cash on something more substantial, you're best to visit Valletta. Republic Street is the main shopping stretch (clothes shops and the like), while the nearby Merchant's Street has a daily market.
It's hard to fault Malta as a family destination. It's a short flight from the UK (three hours), its beaches, warm waters, history, scenery and nightlife offer something for all, and its familiar cuisine should keep even the most faddy teen happy. Bon voyage.