For a few chunks of rock in the southern Mediterranean, Malta is a hugely versatile destination. Like its unique language, the country is an intriguing blend of Italian, Arabic and British influences, a legacy of centuries of invasion and assimilation.
As its capital, Valletta, gears up for a stint as European City of Culture in 2018, Andy Turner gives a rundown on how to get the most out of a visit, from Baroque palaces to beautiful beaches.
Recent years have seen large areas of Valletta shrouded in scaffolding as its ancient palazzos are converted into swanky boutique hotels, partly in anticipation of the European City of Culture juggernaut hitting town in 2018.
One of the best is the Luciano Al Porto, with red-shuttered rooms leading off an elegant spiral staircase, and fine views over the Grand Harbour to go with your breakfast.
For a spot more luxury with Far Eastern touches try the Locanda La Gelsomina across the water in Vittoriosa. Here you can practice your warrior pose on the rooftop terrace of a 400-year-old palace.
Given Malta’s main island is is a fun-sized 27km by 14km, hiring a car gives you access to pretty much everywhere. While you will need to get to grips with local driving etiquette (take no prisoners and don’t bother indicating), barrelling along a coast road, preferably in a convertible, is hard to beat.
The Maltese-only road signs can prove confusing, so invest in a GPS. A circuit from Valletta, north to St Paul’s Bay (San Pawl il-Baħar), via the beach of Għajn Tuffieha and the Blue Grotto, another pretty coastal spot on the west coast, makes for a fun day out.
Just resist the temptation to take a “short cut” inland where you may end up on a rutted track following a horse and cart.
Malta gets ferociously hot in high summer when everyone and their zija (auntie) heads to the nearest beach. The picture-postcard option is The Blue Lagoon, a shimmering expanse of turquoise water surrounding tiny Comino islet, between Malta and Gozo.
It’s well worth the day trip despite the inevitable crowds (arrive early if you want enough space to lay a beach towel).
“Paradise Bay” (yes, Malta knows how to market itself), a jet-ski ride south, lives up to its name with a pretty crescent of white sand accessed down a cliffside path.
If you really want somewhere off the beaten track try St Peter’s Pool in the far southeast. A stunning natural swimming pool, you’ll find locals (and adventurous dogs) diving from the limestone cliffs to cool off (bring everything you need as there are no facilities down here).
Valletta, Malta’s capital, seems built for aimless wandering. Its grid of sun-dappled Baroque streets is punctuated by vintage shop signs, red British-era pillar boxes and ornate timber balconies.
Inside the gloriously over-the-top St John’s Co-Cathedral (“co” as it shares duties with another cathedral in Mdina), you’ll find two masterpieces by Caravaggio, completed while a guest of the Knights of St John in 1607 (that the painter was a wanted murderer at the time appears to have been a detail the knights were happy to overlook).
A block away, gleaming suits of armour stand guard along the marble corridors of the Grand Master’s Palace, worthy of a visit if only for its stunning tapestries depicting the exotic wildlife of the New World. A musket shot from here, Malta leaps into the twenty first century with its bold new parliament building by Renzo Piano.
Ask a local to name a Maltese meal and they’ll probably dutifully mention rabbit stew, the de facto national dish. A dental workout at the best of times, try it slow cooked in a ragu sauce (Gululu in St Julian’s serve it up with spaghetti).
Next in the Maltese culinary trinity is pastizzi, the island’s answer to the Cornish pasty, just smaller and filled with cheese and mushy peas. Pick one up at the Crystal Palace hole-in-the-wall bar in Rabat (nothing to do with the London football team).
Last but not least, ftira is a flatbread “pizza” featuring potatoes and anchovies; you’ll find it sold at most bakeries and it makes for a perfect beach snack.
For most visitors seafood is really where it’s at, though, and the island’s finest can be found in the pretty fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced “mar-shash-lock”). Here the day’s catch is unloaded almost directly to your plate.
After a sundowner drink on a rooftop restaurant (try De Mondion if you're feeling flush), a moonlit amble around Mdina is one of the most atmospheric experiences on the island.
The lamplit streets of Malta’s oldest town radiate medieval intrigue. You half expect a knight on horseback to clip clop past (fittingly Mdina doubled for King’s Landing in the early series of Game of Thrones).
Back in the capital, Gugar, is a great spot to settle down with Cisk (Malta’s national beer) surrounded by shelves of books and an alternative crowd. For something stronger, join Valletta’s bohemian types at Café Society, where you’ll find well-mixed cocktails in a cool, cave-like bar.
Between June and September you'll find Catholic fiestas crackling into life across the island, with even the smallest village competing to put on the best firework display or the most colourful street procession.
More recently, Malta has become a venue for high-wattage music festivals, including Annie Mac's acclaimed Lost and Found in spring and June's Isle of Malta MTV. This year sees Groovefest's blend of Ibiza house arrive at the island’s Café del Mar in late April – don’t forget your glow sticks.
Andy Turner flew with Air Malta who operate direct flights from seven UK airports. Check out visitmalta.com for more on Valletta 2018. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.