The Maltese have seen half the world come and go on their little archipelago. From the Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks to the Sicilians, the famous Knights of St John, and the British, Malta has been a beguiling tourist destination for centuries, with many visitors choosing to settle here for good. For those that live here, there are a few things that set their experience apart, and make life on the archipelago that bit more special. From traditional Maltese food to historical and cultural sites, here’s how to experience the best of Malta, just like a local.
Many working Maltese skip a sit-down breakfast, preferring instead to have a sweet tea, coffee, or a pick-up-and-go pastizzi, which are available from almost every village shop on the island. Similar to a mini-Cornish pasty, often filled with peas, ricotta or spinach, the only item that proves as popular is gbejna – the cheese of Malta. Made of sheep’s milk and eaten fresh with few accompaniments (at most, some pepper, herbs or vinegar), it’s best followed up with some fresh seafood or one of Malta’s delicious desserts. Among the almond cakes, cannoli and honey rings, the best ones usually play on baklava, and are often served with ice-cream.
If you’re at a beach, a pool or in a shaded piazza, the chances are you’ll never be far from a ruggata tal Lewz. Often created to a grandmother’s recipe, the ingredients include water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and lemon, as well as almond and vanilla extracts. If you see a drink that looks a little like iced tea, you’re probably looking at a chilled glass of kinnie. Based on ingredients from an 18th century Maltese medicinal drink, its mix of anise, ginseng and other herbs can be drunk straight or as a mixer with alcohol. Neither compare, however, to the omnipresence of Cisk beer. Bottom-fermented and served at almost every bar on the island, it’s easily the most popular lager around.
It’s hard to set foot in Malta and not hear about the Knights of St John. The Order came to the island in 1530 and built the capital city, Valletta, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage city. Full of Baroque beauties and gorgeous gardens (like the Upper Barrakka), some of the greatest highlights on the island are its palaces, such as Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar and Palazzo Vilhena in Mdina. Elsewhere, some of the world’s finest mosaics can be found at the 1st century BC Domus Romana. Local history is part of everyday life here, and something that visitors should at least have some knowledge of if they want to strike up conversation with local residents.
There are over 350 churches on an island that covers 122 square miles, and each one hosts masses throughout the week. Most of them are evocative scenes of delicate sunlight, heavenly choirs and wafts of incense, but they hardly compare to the highlight of the year: the feast of the Shipwreck of St Paul. Celebrated on 10th February, each year it sees splendid processions, lots of merriment and parties throughout the streets of Malta.
One of the biggest celebrations in Malta is Victory Day on 8th September, which marks three important moments in Maltese history: The Virgin Mary’s birth; the end of the Great Siege of 1565; and the day the Italian navy surrendered to the British during WWII. The Victory Day regatta taking place in the Grand Harbour is a must-see for visitors around this time. Alarme, a re-enactment of Malta’s rebellion against Napoleon in 1800, is well attended by both visitors and locals on the third Sunday of most months, and Notte Bianca is an important festival for locals. Usually falling in October, the festival includes musicians, dancers, food stalls, street performances and all-night-open museums.
Malta enjoys very mild winters, with rock-bottom temperatures usually falling around 13 degrees Celsius. Summers are very sunny, with 12 hours sunshine on average, as are spring and autumn, unless the Scirocco wind hits the island. These balmy temperatures mean that many locals spend much of their free time out on the water, whether that means swimming in the sea, sailing around the islands, or enjoying high-octane water sports. Chartering a local yacht is the ideal way to experience this element of local life; combining peaceful beaches, scattered off-islands and fantastic historical sites, the island is dubbed an “open-air museum” for good reason. Visit St Paul’s Island, St Julian’s Harbour, or the fishing harbour of Marsaxlokk, located on the south of the island. Nearby Gozo is gorgeous, too, as is the Blue Lagoon, which has some of the best swimming spots for miles around. Should you wish to explore any of these places for yourself, chartered yachts can be delivered to the jetty at Corinthia St George’s Bay.
The official languages of Malta are Maltese and English, so remember to never assume that the Maltese speak Italian. Unusual in many senses, Maltese is the only European language in the Afro-Asiatic family and is strongly influenced by Libyan and Tunisian Arabic. Its grammatical rules were passed down for centuries verbally, only being defined and written down in the second half of the 19th century. Try to learn a few words to throw around in the market, like “Kemm jiswa dan?” (“how much is this?”) and “Tghid mhux hekk”, (which roughly translates to “You’ve got to be kidding me!”).
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Are you an art lover or culture vulture holidaying in Malta? Well, you’ll be pleased to find that this Mediterranean island may be small, but it packs a punch when it comes to art and culture. Here are six recommended destinations to add to your itinerary to experience the best of Malta’s art scene.