From Michelin-starred dining to far-reaching history of Maltese knights, this island nation calls out to the curious (and chic).
Just off the southwestern tip of Sicily, a trio of rocky isles rises out of the warm blue Mediterranean waters. Long a lure for sailors and crusaders – from the Phoenicians and Romans to Napoleon and the British Empire – Malta has 7,000 years of history on display in formidable fortifications, astonishing architecture, and some of the oldest free-standing temples in the world. It also has five Michelin-starred restaurants, swish seaside resorts, and a legendary port that’s now welcoming a more posh type of sailor: luxury cruisers.
This small archipelago includes the eponymous island, Gozo, and Comino. On Gozo, the UNESCO-recognized Ggantija Temples date back to 3,600 bc and are so massive that locals believed giants built them. “Gozo is a must because of its small, rural atmosphere,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Debbie Binetter. “It has hiking, scuba diving, and bird-watching, but one of the most interesting things to see is the salt harvesting.” She recommends touring Gozo via a private tuk-tuk.
Comino is tiny and mostly uninhabited except for day-trippers looking to swim in the famous Blue Lagoon, said to be the clearest of the country’s turquoise waters. Then there’s the lively Maltese capital, Valletta, where narrow streets wind past historical landmarks, baroque buildings, and charming cafés and bistros. Named the European Capital of Culture in 2018, the city is infused with old-world atmosphere. With roughly 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, most of Malta seems aglow. Here’s how to make the most of it.
The Med’s Hottest New Port
Crescent-shaped Grand Harbour, the biggest and most dramatic natural harbor in the Mediterranean, was the base for the Knights of Saint John for almost three centuries. Valletta grew around the ancient port, and the British maintained it for another 170 years (Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh lived here before her ascension to the throne). Its medieval fortifications seem to rise right out of the sea, making it a spectacular port of call or for embarkation.
Viking cruise line began offering three new itineraries sailing out of Valletta this summer, including an 11-day round-trip voyage from the capital that hit Kotor in Montenegro, Split in Croatia, and quiet Mgarr on Malta’s Gozo island. While in port, there’s also a much shorter sailing to take from Valletta to the old fortified city of Birgu. Aboard a dghajsa, a traditional Maltese water taxi from the seventeenth century, it’s a scenic boat ride that passes by the marina (look for super yachts) and medieval Fort Saint Angelo.
Get Your History Fix
The Maltese islands have been described as an open-air museum of the Mediterranean, with prehistoric ruins older than Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids. Malta’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites include the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5,000-year-old labyrinthine network of underground chambers that’s part burial site, part temple; seven megalithic temples; and Valletta itself, known as the Fortress City.
In the capital, you can tour Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Malta’s most-visited architectural masterpiece, with after-hours access to a private viewing of the baroque architecture and famous painting by Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. (Binetter recommends browsing the cathedral’s collection of gold, silver, tapestries, and ancient books.)
Across the harbor from Valletta in Birgu, meet Malta’s last bona fide knight, a man named Fra Critien who welcomes special guests to his residence in the fort that overlooks Grand Harbour, long the stronghold of the Order of Saint John. Or, to get a feel for Maltese nobility, visit a private palazzo for a glass of prosecco and traditional high tea, a holdover from the lavish lifestyle during the early twentieth century.
A 15-minute drive north up the coast from the glitter of Grand Harbour, the more intimate Saint George’s Bay harbors Saint Julian, a fishing village turned tony resort destination. Amid gracious palaces and lively bars and restaurants, the InterContinental Malta holds court. “The Intercontinental Malta has some of the most gorgeous and luxurious suites on the island,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Luisa Sullivan. The hotel’s 481 guest rooms include suites with terraces and private loungers from which to gaze at the gleaming sea and cityscape – with easy access to the rooftop infinity pool and a private beach. (For the best views, ask your Virtuoso advisor reserve a top-floor suite.) On the water’s edge, Paranga’s views of the sea match its inspired menu of Sicilian flavors. Dishes such as Mediterranean fish broth with fresh clams, mussels, prawns, squid, and whitefish, or mussels in pale ale with grilled bread, highlight local ingredients with modern takes on traditional fare. Finish with a late-harvest wine from Camilleri Wines, a local producer.
Speaking of Local Food …
Traditional Maltese food consists of such classics as lampuki (fish pie), kapunata (similar to ratatouille), bigilla (a paté of broad beans with garlic), and pastizzi (a flaky pastry filled with ricotta or curried peas). (The InterContinental’s head concierge, James Gauci Borda, recommends starting the day with a neighborhood stroll to try savory pastizzi with coffee.) Along with a rich wine-making heritage, a recent fine-dining boom has grabbed the attention of the culinary world.
Today, Malta’s culinary landscape culminates in five Michelin-starred restaurants (two of which joined the roster this year). Within the medieval walls of the Silent City of Mdina, De Mondian’s menu includes local fare, from red prawns to Gozitan octopus. Bahia, one of the newest restaurants to earn a Michelin star (its tasting menu includes a vegan option), is located in a 200-year-old restored townhouse on a narrow street in Lija. Back in the bustle of Valletta, Ion offers a patio with unparalleled views of Grand Harbour and two different tasting menus, Noni sits in a historic building that was once a jazz bar and has a centuries-old oven, and Under Grain on Merchants Street pays homage to the region’s tradition of artisan tailors, seen in the decor and the menu design. Citing Malta’s close distance to Italy – just a 40-minute boat ride away – Binetter says, “All these restaurants play with Mediterranean specialties: olive oils, honeys, and lots of citrus flavors.” We’ll take another serving, please.
*Images courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority unless otherwise noted.
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