Holidays & Travel

Days and knights to remember in the Mediterranean jewel of Malta - Travel

Now with direct flights from Belfast International Airport, Malta is the perfect sunshine getaway, packed with history and culture

Malta is set to host its first biennale between March and May 2024
Direct flights from Belfast International Airport to Malta are available with Ryanair

Nestled in the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta may be a tiny nation compared to its heavyweight neighbours in the tourism stakes, but this petite gem packs its fair share of punches when it comes to offering the ideal sunshine getaway.

Now travellers from the north can discover this treasure trove of stunning architecture, fascinating history and breathtaking natural beauty with ease, thanks to direct flights from Belfast International Airport.

Travelling with Ryanair, we jetted to Malta International Airport, a short drive from the island’s gorgeous yet tiny capital city Valletta, which juts out into the Med, surrounded by historic forts and the inviting three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua that lie a stone’s throw across the bay, all contained within the embrace of the spectacular Grand Harbour.

Our base in Malta was a short drive further north up the coast, on the outskirts of the bustling, vibrant resort of St Julian’s, where perched on a hill commanding a captivating view across St George’s Bay is the luxurious five-star Corinthia hotel.

The Corinthia Hotel at St George's Bay.
The Corinthia Hotel at St George's Bay

With balcony views framing the shimmering azure blue of the Mediterranean each morning, guests are well-set with inspiration to explore the island and all it has to offer and, if time and energy permits after a busy day of sightseeing, enjoy the buzzing nightlife of St Julian’s a short walk from the Corinthia’s front door.

We began our adventures with an early morning visit to Valletta, the picture-perfect fortified city built in the 1500s by the Knights of St John, whose influence is impossible to escape, no matter where you turn in Malta.

The narrow streets of Valletta lead to surprises at every corner.
The narrow streets of Valletta lead to surprises at every corner

Within the grid of charming, narrow streets that comprise this Unesco World Heritage site are wonders including St John’s Co-Cathedral, a marvel whose comparatively austere shell betrays a sumptuous Baroque interior, built by the ever-ubiquitous Knights as a riotous feast for the eyes and the soul.

The ceiling frescos of St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta.
The ceiling frescos of St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta

While perusing the co-cathedral’s many gilded altars and taking in the dizzying delights of the ceiling frescos by Mattia Preti, don’t neglect to view the two Carravagio paintings housed in a side-chapel, including the huge oil masterpiece, the Beheading of St John the Baptist.

For more history of the militant order of Catholic Knights who made Malta their home and defended the island from Ottoman attacks, a visit to the Grandmaster’s Palace is one for the itinerary.

The Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta.
The Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta

The palace has passed from one set of rulers to another in the centuries since its construction, beginning as the Knights’ Grandmaster’s residence, later becoming the HQ of the short-lived French occupation, before housing the British governor when Malta fell under imperial rule in 1800.

Since Maltese independence, the imposing building houses the President’s Office, but is also open for visitors to view its many attractions, including the spellbinding armoury, jam-packed with swords, crossbows, poleaxes and suits of armour that were used by the Knights to defend their adopted home.

A suit of armour within the armory of the Grandmaster's Palace.
A suit of armour on display in the Grandmaster's Palace

After a day soaking in 16th century history, the perfect place to dine with a dish of traditional Maltese rabbit and a cold locally brewed Cisk lager is at the nearby Caffe Cordina. It may date from a few centuries further on from the heyday of the Knights, but Valetta’s – and indeed one of Europe’s – oldest café, opened in 1837, still captivates the eyes and tastebuds of lovers of antiquity, with its classical elegance rivalling any grand Parisian coffee house.

A fascinating detour within the backstreets of Valetta is a visit to boutique artisan store Captain’s Cut, where former military man Keith Caruana is keeping alive the ancient craft of leatherworking.

Keith Caruana, the proprietor of Captain's Cut in Valletta

Now creating bespoke bags, belts and other lavish creations for a clientele including A-list celebrities, Keith also offers visitors the chance to get a feel for the art themselves, with workshops in which he guides guests in the creation of their own wallets, tobacco pouches or belts, supervising the cutting and hand-stitching process and providing a detailed background of all things leather-related. And yes, that includes the more ‘specialist’ items you’re thinking of.

Finish your day back in the bustle of St Julian’s waterfront, dining at OKA’s at the Villa, a food-lover’s dream within a 19th century pallazo overlooking Balluta Bay and offering a modern menu renowned as one of the very best on the island. Perfect to watch the sunset with a cocktail or three...

No visit to Malta is complete, literally, without a detour to the second largest of the islands that make up the nation, and Gozo has a charm and identity all of its own.

A short ferry ride from the tip of Malta itself, Gozo is where many Maltese mainlanders spend their weekends, indulging in the slower pace of life that the achingly beautiful backdrop encourages.

We clambered on-board tuk-tuks provided by the Yippee tour service for a day of sampling Gozo’s must-see sights, including the island’s main town, Victoria.

The town is dominated by the Citadella, a behemoth of a fortress originally dating back to the medieval period, but rebuilt by the Knights to protect the island’s residents, and now a tourist magnet providing jaw-dropping views across all of Gozo and beyond from its ramparts.

Within the stone walls of the Citadella is Ta’ Rikardu, a delightful rustic restaurant, which served us platters of super-fresh sheep’s cheese made that morning, surrounded by Mediterranean staples including olives, capers and, of course, tomatoes dried in the golden rays of the Gozo sun.

The Cathedral of the Assumption within the Cittadella in Victoria, Gozo.
The Cathedral of the Assumption within the Cittadella in Victoria, Gozo

Outside the Citadella, the narrow, winding quiet streets of Victoria seem like a movie set, beauty at every turn, with seemingly every single doorway adorned with charming religious iconography, including carvings and statues of the island’s patron, Saint George.

Another major tourist draw in Gozo is Dwejra Bay, once home to the famous rock arch known as the Azure window. Sadly, the arch collapsed into the sea during a storm in 2017, but the area remains a popular draw, not least as it was a backdrop for the very first episode of Game of Thrones.

Northern Ireland shares with Malta and Gozo a tourist trail linked to the popular HBO fantasy TV series, with many scenes shot across both islands.

Gozo is also home to the Ġgantija temple complex, believed to be among the oldest man-made structures on the planet, dating back to around 3000 BC. A walk through the complex allows visitors to step foot inside temples older than the Egyptian pyramids.

Within Gozo's prehistoric Ġgantija temple complex.
Gozo's prehistoric Ġgantija temple complex

For our final full day, we were back in Malta for a tour of the neighbouring three cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, with the fantastic Rolling Geeks company, which provide GPS-led electric vehicles complete with a voice-over to provide details of each attraction as you pass by.

The compact cities are each tiny compared to the already small capital across the bay, but are a mesmerising maze to get lost in for an afternoon, as your Rolling Geek fills you in on what you’re seeing.

A watchtower overlooking the bay in Senglea.
A watchtower overlooking the bay in Senglea

For one of our final meals in Malta we dined at the exquisite Francesco Mazzei restaurant at the Villa Corinthia in the town of Attard.

The last word in luxury, this opulent building was the very first Corinthia hotel to open its doors back in 1962, inspiring the company to bring the brand of Corinthia hospitality to cities including London, Lisbon and St Petersburg.

Finally, don’t depart from Malta without taking in the medieval walled town of M’dina.

The main gate into Malta's walled city of M'dina.
The main gate into Malta's walled city of M'dina (Visit Malta)

Known as the Silent City, and still home to some 250 or so lucky residents, strolling through its narrow streets lined with sandstone dwellings is truly like stepping back in time.

M’dina looks like a town created in the mind of a fantasy author, with its sandstone buildings, and warren of quiet, narrow streets taking you to the ramparts where, like with the Citadella on neighbouring Gozo, you can look out across the entire island, taking in sights that will stay with you long after you return home.