Malta is one of the most popular European travel destinations in recent years. There are cheap flights from almost every European capital and more tourists keep coming to this beautiful Mediterranean island every year and throughout all seasons. We went there in January 2019 for seven days and had the most wonderful time. Our friends that live on the island helped us with the basics upon our arrival, so we had a smooth start. But Malta can be a bit confusing in terms of orientation, transport, distances, etc. In this article, we give you a list of tips and tricks that will ease your stay, especially if you travel with kids or plan a budget trip, or both, as we have.
We used public transport only. There are good connections to almost everywhere on the island, but without some preparations, you can easily get lost and spend hours of trying to get on the right track.
– Public transport is the cheapest way to get from one place to another. A two-hour bus ticket costs €1.5 and you can get it from the driver. There are different kinds of prepaid passes – we chose the weekly tourist cards which granted us unlimited travel for all bus lines and routes, not including the ferry to Gozo. They cost us €21 per person and we found them very useful, being able to change plans and destinations on the go.
– Make sure you wave to the driver when you see the bus coming because there is a big chance he won’t stop otherwise. Yes, it is most unusual, but we did miss several buses before learning this from the locals.
– Buses are often late. You should have this in mind at any time, but especially when you have a plane to catch. Another thing is that if the bus is full, you’ll have to wait for the next one and the lines to the airport aren’t very frequent (approximately one every hour.) We waited 45 minutes for the bus to the airport, but luckily we had enough time.
– Check which bus lines take you to your destination. Most of the cities are densely populated, with narrow streets, many of them contiguous to each other, so all of Malta look pretty much the same. We used Google Maps all the time. If you don’t have internet access when abroad, download an offline map of Malta. It was super-useful, especially in combination with Malta Public Transport’s official website at www.publictransport.com.mt . Good news is that all buses have free WiFi access.
– Rent-a-car prices are very low compared to other European countries. You can get a nice vehicle for less than €10 a day, but be careful – Malta is a left-driving country. If you’re from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or India that shouldn’t be a problem, but for us, it was relatively confusing, even as pedestrians. Also, the Maltese are terrible drivers, speeding even in the narrowest streets, with much less developed traffic culture than other EU nations. Beware of hot-headed and ignorant drivers when you cross the streets, especially in remote neighborhoods!
– Distances can fool you. Although Malta is very small, even for an island, the transport routes take a long time. For example, the distance from Il Gzira to the ferry station in Cirkewwa is only 24 km (15 mi) but the drive to there by bus takes somewhat less than an hour. That is because bus lines run through the dense urban areas and there seems to be a “regular” rush hour in Malta, especially during the summer.
– Although we didn’t use any taxi services, we’ve been told that they are relatively cheap. The Maltese prefer using mobile apps for getting a taxi, so it would be convenient to check upon arrival what is the cheapest or most trusted company by asking the locals. There is also a nice option to prepay your destination. We saw two boots where you can do that – one at the airport and one at the central bus station in Valletta, but probably there are spots all over the island for that purpose. If you have to catch a cab directly in the streets, be sure you agree on a fare before you enter the taxi.
There are numerous hotels, hostels, private homes, and resorts where you can stay while in Malta since tourism is one of the two main industry branches on the island (the other being the IT and gaming industry.) But the prices are not that cheap in comparison with the quality of the offer. Still, we managed to find an awesome place to stay for a relatively low cost via Booking.com, which we often use because it offers the best prices and has great customer protection. You can check Airbnb, but those hidden costs they have always get on my nerves. Our sincere recommendation (they don’t pay us for this) would be the ST Bluebay Apartments on the border of Il-Gzira and Sliema. We were there for seven nights and paid €400 for a two-bedroom, two bathroom modern apartment with a spectacular sea view. Cheaper options were a small hotel room in Il-Gzira with three beds and a tiny bathroom for €200 a week or some crappy private homes for around the same price as the flat we rented. Everything else was much higher priced, especially in Valletta. You can read our full review of Bluebay for a more detailed picture.
FRIENDLY TIP: Don’t rent a property in the capital of Valletta. They are very expensive and since all the buses start and stop at Valletta’s central station, you can’t miss the city even if you want to. Best options to rent low and stay in the center would be renting a flat or book a room in the following areas: Sliema, Il-Gzira, St. Julian’s or some of the smaller neighborhoods around Valletta. The prices are way cheaper and you’re only a few bus stops away from the nation’s capital.
Although Malta is one of the tiniest countries in the world, it has a lot to offer to tourists. Its rich and long history, unique architecture, and picturesque countryside are a magnet for travelers from around the globe, in all four seasons. Here are our recommendations, especially if you travel with children:
– Valletta is an obvious choice. It is the heart of Malta, rich with history and a blend of medieval and baroque architecture. The main street in the old town is always crowded, with lots of shops, restaurants, cafe bars, cathedrals, street musicians, and everything else you would find in any European capital. Also, the main political institutions, the government and the national assembly, are located in Valletta. As we mentioned earlier, almost all of the bus routes start and end in the city. We visited Valletta on three occasions during our stay, both at night and in daylight. It is a magnificent city, standing there for centuries as a living monument of many historical periods.
– The shores of Il-Gzira and Sliema are so peaceful and beautiful, that we spent a couple of hours by the sea, on Tigne Point Beach, enjoying the view of Valletta from the opposite side of the bay. The kids were running and jumping over the small ponds in the rocky terrain, while we enjoyed the view and the excellent opportunity for a January sunbath.
– The city of Mdina is also a must-see destination. Walking through the streets of the Silent City feels like a stroll through the ages. The fact that it is still a living city makes it even more mysterious. You can read some interesting facts about Mdina in an article we wrote on this topic.
– A trip to Malta would not be complete without a visit to the Island of Gozo. It is much smaller than the island of Malta but less urbanized and very picturesque with its many green hills. The ferry will take you to the port of Mgarr, which is a beautiful little town from where you can catch a bus to Victoria (Rabat), the capital of Gozo. Visit the Citadel, it may just be the most beautiful sight in whole Malta. We also visited Ġgantija, a megalithic temple complex from the Neolithic which some say that is older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. The only thing we regret is that we didn’t book a room to sleep on the island and spend another whole day there.
– Popeye Village is a real treat for children but also for adults, especially those who grew up with the spinach-eating hero. The tickets cost us €40 (€11 for adults and €9 for kids.) – not very cheap but worth every penny. You can check our video blog from the site and see how it looks inside. Be sure you book at least half of the day to get there and enjoy Popeye Village.
– If you want to make your kids happy, take them to Playmobile funpark on the south of Malta island. It’s a combination of an indoor and outdoor play area. Inside, kids play with Lego-style toys and the outdoor offers a relatively small playground with interesting wooden buildings, ships, and other objects and toys. As fun as it was for the children, it was a hell of boredom for me and my wife but family trips are a matter of compromises, so we survived the sitting-and-starring-at-the-phone day, all for the benefit of our kids.
– Go and see the royal San Anton Gardens which are part of the San Anton Palace, located in the town of Attard in central Malta. They are spectacular! The gardens are known for the large variety of trees and flowers from around the world, as well as for the graceful walkways, sculptures, a real maze for kids, ornamental ponds with ducks and swans, and a small aviary. There is no entrance fee.
These places are the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to do and see in Malta but this list is a pretty good start for first-timers.
Malta is one of the safest countries in the world. The street crime is practically non-existent, aside from the occasional pickpocketing in crowded places. Being a traditional Catholic nation, the Maltese show great respect and care for women and children. Our kids enjoyed the freedom of running around in the streets, whether it was in Valletta, Sliema, Victoria or Mdina. As I mentioned before, the only safety issue is the traffic, so once again – open your eyes when you cross a street.
Food and drinks
As much as I would like to tell you about Malta’s best restaurants and snack bars, the truth is that we cooked ourselves most of the time. There were two reasons for that: first, we planned (and executed) our stay in Malta as a budget trip, and second, we wanted to include some healthy nutrition, like fresh salads, soups, and stews for breakfast and dinner. During the day, we were out all the time (thank God for the sunny weather!) and ate sandwiches with cheddar cheese and arugula for lunch the entire seven days. Of course, the kids got their McDonald’s treat-of-the-week, as well as some nice noodles from a fast food bar called Noodle Box.
If you’re into meat and cheese, there is a great choice of products in the supermarkets. It’s the same with seafood and fish. What you won’t find in Malta are good quality fresh fruits and vegetables. We did try some excellent melon, pineapple, and pears in Corinthia Palace Hotel (we stayed there for one night after our flight back was canceled) but that is not what you can buy on the market.
Water is something you should carry with you all the time. The prices for a bottle of water vary greatly and you can find yourself spending a lot of money to satisfy your thirst. Some of the locals drink tap water but even if you’re not afraid it tastes a bit strange because it is desalinated sea water. There are bottle filling stations on several spots where you can choose sparkling or regular water at lower prices than in the supermarkets. We had one close to our apartment (at the entrance to Manoel Island) which we used every morning to refill our daily reserves.
We also tried the traditional pastizzi, the most common breakfast for the Maltese and the number one reason for them being second on the list of most obese European nations (Turkey being on the top.) We also tried some nice cinnamon cookies at a place called Cinnabon. Oh, I almost forgot – we had a wonderful afternoon at the Fra Guiseppe wine bar in Balzan. It is located in a small 18th-century tower next to St George’s Parish Church. The atmosphere is very much authentic, reminiscent of another era. They have a huge choice of wines and we got a really good charcuterie board that went so well with a bottle of Laurenti, a premium red wine from Camilleri Wines. If you find yourself near Balzan (it’s very close to San Anton Gardens) be sure to check Fra Guiseppe and taste a bit of history along with the wine.
Currency and language
Official currency in Malta is the Euro. Make sure you carry cash with you, because some smaller services don’t operate with cards. Also, carny bills that are smaller than €100 – payment with higher value bills is not very common and might appear suspicious.
Tipping at restaurants is expected with 10% being somewhat off a standard.
English is widely spoken… let’s just say that everybody speaks the language. With so many foreign workers, immigration, and the fact that Malta is part of the Commonwealth, it’s safe to say that English is a native tongue on the island alongside Maltese. If you plan to live there or stay longer, it would be smart to learn Maltese, especially if you want to upgrade your career prospects. It is an interesting language which sounded to me like a mix of Arabic and Italian. For starters – “Grazzi” is “Thank You” and “Bongu” means “Hello.”
The weather in Malta is generally sunny and dry but it can rain heavily, especially between September and January. When that happens, the streets are flooded severely. We literary witnessed a river flowing below our balcony one of the evenings. If you visit Malta in the rainy season don’t forget to take your umbrella. A second pair of shoes may also be of use if you find yourself on the streets when it pours.
If you go in summer take a sun lotion or similar protection. Malta is in the center of the Mediterranean, very close to Tunisia, and it gets pretty hot, especially in July and August. These are also the months when humidity is extremely high.
These are the things I consider essential for a well-prepared trip to Malta. We did surf the net before arrival but we learned many of the tricks when we got on the island. We were lucky that our friends gave us a quick tips & tricks course upon arrival, so it was a smooth ride for us, right from the beginning. If you don’t have that “luxury” I’m sure you have found this article helpful and inspiring. If you live in Malta or already have been there and you know the place, please leave a comment below about our list of need-to-know tips and feel free to add anything else you think is essential but we missed to mention it.