The Best of Malta
Fifty miles south of the Sicilian coast, the under-the-radar island of Malta promises sun, sugar sand beaches, authentic seafood restaurants and spellbinding views to rival the coast of Italy. But it's also a history buff’s dream, having been ruled at various times by the British, French, Romans and Knight’s of St. John. On a recent trip to the Mediterranean isle, JS writer Siobhan Reid uncovered the best things to see and do, plus where to stay.
Diar il Bniet
A family-run farm in a small village in the north, Diar il Bniet is a café, restaurant and grocery set among gnarled olive trees and low-hanging carob branches. The interiors channel the rustic charm of the Arcadian setting, with cabinets overflowing with jars of preserved strawberries, peaches and prickly pear jam and wooden tables on which there are vases of freshly-picked flowers. Go for lunch and start with the farmhouse-style chicken stew pie, leaving enough room to indulge on the homegrown rabbit fried in oil, wine and garlic as your main. Don’t leave without picking up the family’s specialty olive oil, a nutty, buttery blend sure to please anyone back home.
This harborfront restaurant was designed by Malta’s architect-of-the-moment, Chris Briffa, and is located in Malta’s Capital City Valetta, walking distance from some of the city’s most popular attractions. It’s primarily known as a late-night hangout—its subterranean bar one of the hippest jazz clubs in the city—but its comfort-driven food and inventive cocktails are not to be overlooked. We dug into the citrus ravioli with sage, the 17-hour slow-cooked lamb shanks and the grilled asparagus topped with parmesan cream, washing it down with a just-sweet-enough negroni.
Fancy brunch in the courtyard of a 19th century palace? Make a beeline to Luna, the opulent eatery within the Palazzo Parisio, the former home of Malta’s aristocratic Parisio family. Sit inside, where you’ll be treated to resplendent frescoes, mirrored walls and rare oil paintings, or on the sunny courtyard, which overlooks a lush garden abloom with roses, lilies and hibiscuses. After tucking into the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and chives, take a tour around the palace, stopping to take photos inside the grand gilded ballroom. Then it’s time for finger sandwiches and scones topped with clotted cream in the tea room.
If you want to sample a signature Maltese dish like braised rabbit or suckling pig, you should do it here. The Gozitan eatery cooks tender cuts of meat in a traditional wood burning oven so that they come out crispy and caramelized every time. Other gastronomic highlights include the zucchini stuffed with minced beef and pork; the Jerusalem artichokes with parmigiano and cream; and a perfectly balanced caramel and fig ice cream for dessert.
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Upper Barrack Gardens
These colonnaded garden were built for recreational purposes by the Knights of St. John in the 17th century and have endured as a popular rest stop ever since. Stroll the site’s subtropical grounds, pausing to admire the Romanesque arches, balustrades and promenades that encircle the grounds, or grab a coffee from the garden café and take in the views of the Grand Harbour. You're within walking distance from Renzo Piano's just-completed City Gate and open-air opera house.
Built as a set for Robert Altman’s musical film adaption of the comic strip Popeye, this colorful waterfront village is one of the island’s most popular family attractions. The collection of wooden cartoon-like cottages functions as a year-round amusement park for the whole family, offering boat rides, open-air BBQs, water sports and cinema sessions.
Every Sunday, locals descend on the village of Marsaxlokk, Malta’s largest fishing port, to peruse the stalls of fish and catch up with friends at nearby cafes. On the docket: tuna, swordfish, sea bream, red mullet, prawns, and octopus and shrimp, but there’s also embroidered linens, artwork and baked goods if you can’t stand the overpowering smells. Go early in the morning to watch fisherman dock their luzzu’s (the traditional, brightly-colored fishing boats) and unload their wares onto land.
Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa
This grand dame sits opposite the President of Malta’s Palace in the aristocratic neighborhood of Attard. Surrounded by a shaded oasis of orange groves, fountains and cascading walls of bougainvillea, the retreat feels so regal you might just confuse it for the Presidential Palace itself. Head upstairs to your breezy guestroom, where you can sit on your spacious balcony and order a drink, but resist the urge to hole up for the rest of the day. There are decadent treatments to experience at the full-service spa and a gorgeous pool for catching some rays. Dinner is served at the Villa Corinthia, where the the colonnaded, marble interiors are matched by the delicious bites (think: slow-braised lamb shank with soft polenta and lime pesto) and made-to-order cocktails.
Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz
Time slows down at the Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, an expansive countryside retreat set amidst Gozo’s sun-kissed fields of cypress trees and olive groves. Here, the feel is rustic romance and you’re sure to be seduced by the hotel’s sweeping views and warm, hospitable service. Wake up to the sounds of birds outside your window, and after watching the sunrise, book an Ayurvedic treatment at the Kempinski Spa—one of the largest in the Mediterranean. The concierge is happy to help you book a private boat ride around the island, a horse-drawn carriage ride through the countryside, or a romantic dinner aboard a sailboat.
One thousand years older than the Pyramid of Giza, the twin temples of Ġgantija are among the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world. Animal sacrifices and liquid offerings are said to have been performed at the megalithic temples, which are remarkable for their mastery of construction (the walls weigh over 50 tons!), carved decorations and elaborate altar arrangements. JS tip: Google aerial images of the site before you visit, so that you can better understand the complex layout of the temples.
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral
Don’t let its austere exterior fool you—St. John’s Co-Cathedral is one of Malta’s most inwardly sumptuous churches, its gilded vaults, polychrome marble floors and general Baroque exuberance a sight to behold. Built between 1573 and 1578 by the architect Gerolamo Cassar, the Church houses two paints by Caravaggio (including the artist’s legendary work of John the Baptist), plus 17th century Flemish tapestries based on drawings by Rubens.
This medieval city is the oldest of the settlements on the shore of the Grand Harbour. It was here that the Knights of St John first settled upon their arrival, which explains why it’s home to some of the most architecturally significant structures in Malta. Clear the better part of an afternoon to explore the city’s labyrinth-like cobbled streets and honey-colored stone buildings, and if you’re interested in learning more about the area’s history, tour the Malta Maritime Museum, which houses warships dating back to the medieval ages, and the Fort St Angelo, a fortified building dating back to the 9th century.
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