Malta: The Ultimate 5-Day Itinerary
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
If you follow me on Instagram, you'll know by now how much Malta absolutely blew me away. This dinky archipelago packs everything you could ever want from a destination into just 122 square miles: quirky cities; fascinating history and culture; relaxing beaches; myriad coves, cliffs and caves waiting to be explored; toasty weather; tasty food - and if all that's not enough to pique your interest, I don't know what is! Whether you're already planning a Maltese getaway or you're just thinking about it, following my Ultimate 5-Day Itinerary will help prepare you for the perfect trip. Here's how to experience the very best this delightful country has to offer, from someone who has been there and loved it...
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Where is Malta?
The Maltese islands (Gozo, Comino and - quelle surprise - Malta!) are located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, betwixt the coasts of Southern Sicily and Northern Africa. Malta is the smallest country in the European Union and the tenth smallest nation in the world.
How do I get there?
The most efficient way of reaching Malta is by plane. The international airport, Luqa, is on the main island with numerous airlines operating regular flights from most other European countries and beyond. There is also a ferry service connecting Malta with Italy from the port of Salerno, but this only runs once a week and takes around 26 hours!
Pictured: the characterful façade of a house overlooking the harbour; Marsaxlokk.
What language is spoken in Malta?
There are two - Maltese and English. The Maltese language, or Malti, is derived from a combination of Arabic, Italian and English influences, rendering it entirely unique. But English is also broadly spoken; given the colonisation of Malta and the fact that it was part of the British Empire for over 150 years.
Us Brits have visibly left our grubby little legacy all over Malta - from the unexpected red telephone boxes that crop up now and then, to retail chains like M&S sitting alongside cocktail bars and coffee shops on the high street!
What currency is used?
The Euro / € is the official currency of Malta.
How's the climate?
Typical of the South European region, with up to 12 hours of sunshine per day during the summer months and the remainder of the year still feeling comparatively mild by UK standards. Which aren't high, I'll admit; but you catch my drift... It can however get a tad windy from time to time - so hold onto your hats in the autumn and winter!
What about the food?
Maltese cuisine is the very definition of 'melting pot'; an eclectic mix of flavours and ingredients combining aromas of Africa with Italian carbs and native specialities showcasing fresh seafood, hearty stews, unctuous cheeses and flaky pastries. The Maltese really know how to treat their veg too; slathered in olive oil, sea salt and garlic! Whilst you're there, definitely sample some pastizzi (the aforementioned pastries filled with either mushy peas or ricotta) and make sure you wash down your dinner with a Cisk lager or glass of local red.
Pictured: a bottle of cold Cisk Lemon, enjoyed in a bar opposite the St. John's Co-Cathedral; Valletta.
How can I get around?
If you are a fairly confident driver (or you're travelling with one), I would absolutely recommend hiring a car. The main island is so small that you can easily drive from one end to the other in just under an hour. On Gozo, you can cross the island by car in less than 30 minutes. Driving is on the left and most roads in the metropolitan areas make for a comfortable journey. In the more remote parts, especially rural Gozo, there are some quite steep and uneven routes so do - as always - drive safely. Make sure you travel with an up-to-date map and, preferably, a reliable navigator!
If driving isn't viable for you, the Maltese bus system is a great and cost-effective alternative serving many of the country's places of interest. If you wish to hop across to Gozo from Malta, there are frequent ferries departing from Cirkewwa every day taking both cars and foot-passengers. The crossing takes about 25 minutes and is accompanied by some very pretty scenery. You can catch boats to the baby of Malta's family, Comino, from Malta and Gozo too.
Where should I stay?
The beauty of Malta being such a compact country is that you can stay practically anywhere on the islands and still have an ideal base for exploring further afield. Many travellers stay close to the coast around Malta's turquoise bays - St. Julian's, St. Paul's and Golden Bay to name just a few - but town and city hubs such as Valletta, Mdina, Sliema and Gozo's capital Victoria are equally sought-after.
Regardless of where you choose to settle, there are digs to suit everyone from budget backpackers to lovers of luxury, so shop around to find the right hotel, hostel, villa or apartment rental for you. I travelled with four friends on my first visit to Malta and we stayed in a farmhouse on Gozo. It was so lovely, with its own pool and countryside views stretching across to Victoria and Cittadella!
Pictured: the pool and terrace at our farmhouse in Xagħra; Gozo. Found on Airbnb.
Top tip: Although I'm kicking off this itinerary with 48 hours on Gozo, please feel free to mix and match the order of these days however you see fit. Depending on how you want to move around the islands, it might makes sense to cover Malta first - but that's entirely up to you!
DAY ONE: SALT & RUINS
After breakfast, begin your first day on Gozo at the Ġgantija Temple complex in the town of Xagħra. These megalithic ruins date back to around 3600 BC and have recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site status, given they are among some of the oldest free-standing monuments in the world - even older than the Pyramids of Giza! Local legend dictates that these stone temples were constructed by giants, hence their name, due to their sheer size and majesty. As well as being able to walk around the outdoor site at Ġgantija, there is a museum exhibiting various prehistoric artefacts and a gift shop to peruse (who doesn't love a gift shop!?) as you exit. Admission costs 8€ per adult and tickets can be purchased on arrival.
Please note that I am writing this having travelled to Malta in a time before coronavirus, so you may need to comply with additional safety and hygiene measures when going anywhere mentioned in this post. Wear a mask, sanitise your hands and maintain social-distancing. Thank you!
A visit to Ġgantija can also be easily tied in with a stop-off at the Ta' Kola Windmill, which is just down the road from the temples and another of Xagħra's historic spectacles. It'll be about lunchtime by the time you emerge, so head into the charming town centre for a bite to eat. I can highly recommend Oleander, an Italian restaurant in the main square cooking up delicious fresh pasta and other Italian-inspired dishes - all within photographing distance of the picturesque Xagħra Parish Church. The al-fresco tables provide excellent people-watching potential, too!
Gozo is world-renowned for its artisan sea-salt production, so your next port of call is the Xwejni Salt Pans in Żebbuġ where local salt-farmers have been harvesting it since the 1860s.
Seawater collects naturally in these honeycomb-like pools as the tide washes in and out, then it evaporates gradually to reveal strands upon strands of salt crystals. The smell is intoxicating, and on a sunny day you can see the salt clusters sparkle like stars as they catch the light. The salt is available to sample here at this cute little shop, with sacks for sale to take away with you.
Xwejni - and, now I come to think of it, Gozo on the whole - is just a gorgeous place to be; breathing in the pure sea air as the salt gathers like dust on your cheeks. A walk along this rugged stretch of coastline certainly clears out the cobwebs and will (hopefully) leave you feeling invigorated, ready for another day of exploring tomorrow!
Spend the rest of your day in Marsalforn, a nearby resort town with a beach and plenty of bars, boutiques and activities to keep you occupied until dinner calls. You'll be spoilt for choice with restaurants in this area - we really enjoyed our meal at Murella which you'll find down the far-right end of the promenade.
Additional ideas (otherwise entitled "things I wish I'd done that you definitely should!"):
Ramla Bay; home to Tal-Mixta Cave and sweeping terracotta shores. Tal-Mixta sits within a hill just outside the tiny village of Nadur and frames the dramatic landscape of Ramla beautifully. Just be sure to tread carefully on the steps leading to the cave as they can get slippery, and be wary of powerful winds. Take a stroll on the red-sand beach below before setting off for Xagħra which is only 15 minutes away by car.
Wied il-Għasri; a tranquil oasis less than 10-minutes' drive from the Salt Pans. This narrow gorge with teal waters is tucked between craggy cliffs and is supposedly an idyllic spot for swimming.
DAY TWO: SUN, SEA & THE CITADEL
If you're anything like me, you'll agree that the supermarkets and grocery stores we shop in on our holidays are far superior to the ones at home! So before you do anything else today, take this opportunity to stock up on supplies for breakfast banquets, packed lunches and afternoon snacks. Sounds like a strange thing to put on an itinerary, but you'll thank me for it later!
After your morning feed, take the scenic drive out to Dwejra Bay where the now-collapsed Azure Window once stood. The limestone arch known as the Azure Window was Gozo's most recognisable landmark up until 2017, when the weather-beaten structure fell into the sea during a storm after decades of steady erosion. A sad story, I'm sure you'll agree, but the loss of its iconic feature hasn't made Dwejra any less striking in appearance. I found it to be quite spectacular...
Gozo, according to myth, is believed to be the island on which Greek hero Odysseus was held captive by the nymph Calypso. The daughter of a titan, Calypso fell in love with Odysseus and kept him as her prisoner for seven years before he was able to escape. The magic and mystery shrouding the origins of Gozo never feels more palpable than when you're overlooking its stunning coastline. In the couple of hours I spent at Dwejra Bay, sitting by the sea in the Mediterranean sunshine, it was like living inside the pages of Homer's Odyssey.
Now that you're suitably salt-spangled and sun-kissed, it's time to explore the Gozitan capital. Bustling Victoria lies at the heart of Gozo, and boasts a slightly more dynamic rhythm than the rest of this otherwise entirely laidback island - but it will still feel positively serene compared to every other city you've visited!
With its labyrinthine streets, lively markets, shops filled with local produce, crafts and antiques, thriving café culture and a medieval fortress overseeing it all from above, Victoria pulses with energy and intrigue. Allow yourself at least a full afternoon here, with a good hour or two set aside for visiting Cittadella after lunch.
Cittadella's fortress has historically represented refuge for the people of Gozo, who for some years during the Middle Ages were ordered to spend their nights within the citadel's walls for their own protection. The island was frequently besieged, invaded and raided in its past, with the Saracens enslaving the majority of the population in 1551.
Following the liberation of the Gozitan citizens, they and their capital have prospered. Cittadella has evolved remarkably over the centuries and is now a major site of cultural significance on Gozo; comprising a cathedral, several ancient houses (a few of which are still inhabited today) and a number of museums specialising in all manner of niches - from Gozitan folklore and military heritage, to archaeology and nature.
I didn't experience an evening in Victoria, therefore on that basis I'm going to recommend that you do so you can tell me what it's like! There are a handful of entertainment venues scattered across the tiny city - including theatres, opera houses and music bars - if you fancy something other than a sunset stroll. You'll also find an array of ambient restaurants occupying Victoria's dreamy palazzos and vibey side streets alike.
Ta' Pinu Basilica; officially the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu, is a Roman Catholic church located on the outskirts of the rustic village of Għarb. It is an architectural wonder surrounded by lush countryside and sumptuous views. A visit here will fit in effortlessly between a morning at Dwejra and an afternoon in Victoria.
DAY THREE: MELLIEĦA TO MDINA
Lots to see today, folx! So pour yourself a big bowl of cornflakes, make a few sandwiches and then it's off you pop to the Mġarr ferry terminal for the crossing from Gozo to Malta.
The Gozo Channel ferries run roughly every 30 to 45 minutes, so I would say get to the port a good half an hour before you think you should in case space fills up and you have to wait a little for the next one. A one-way ticket costs 4.65€ (at the time of writing) for walk-on passengers and 15.70€ for a car and its driver.
Pictured: Gozo's northeast coast; as seen from the ferry to Malta.
On arrival into Malta, you'll want to set your course for the Mellieħa area of the island, specifically Popeye Village. Among the country's quirkier sights, it was first established has a film-set for the 1980 musical film production of (you guessed it!) 'Popeye'. It has since been transformed into a busy tourist attraction and amusement park, which is grand if you're into that kind of thing, but me and my pals found a way of experiencing its best side without having to pay a single cent...
As you approach the entrance to Popeye Village, you'll notice a gravelly path veering off to the left. Follow it and you'll find yourself walking a clifftop, with an all-encompassing view of the village far below nestled neatly into a bright-blue cove. If you keep walking, you'll eventually reach a slope which takes you down to the water's edge where you can dip a cheeky toe!
Next up, just a short drive away, is Golden Bay; home of the Għajn Tuffieħa which sports soft biscuit-coloured sand and is widely regarded as Malta's finest beach. Stay a while, eat those sandwiches you so lovingly made this morning, and treat yourself to an ice-cream afterwards.
Onwards now to Dingli Cliffs; Malta's highest point towering at over 250 metres above sea-level. You'll be met with awe-inducing panoramas and a seemingly infinite horizon, which I could have stared into forever. If you were to set out across the sea from here, you would land in either Tunisia or Libya. It's tantalising - knowing you're so close, yet so far from a different continent!
The area around Dingli is great for hiking and exploring on-foot, with a small village nearby and the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel facing out over the cliffs. The nearest town, Rabat, is your next destination and only 2 kilometres away.
Rabat translates as 'suburb' from Arabic and refers to the town being an outer district of the former Maltese capital, Mdina. It is most known for its Roman catacombs and for St. Paul's Grotto, both of which can be found underground beneath St. Paul's Church. History claims the grotto was used as a sacred space by the apostle St. Paul to begin his Christian mission in Malta, after he was shipwrecked here on his passage to Rome where he was set to be tried as a rebel.
The final stop of the day is the fortified city of Mdina, which is merely footsteps away from Rabat and one of my favourite places in Malta.
Often referred to as 'The Silent City' or 'The Noble City', Mdina perches on a prehistoric plateau in the middle of the island where it was once the seat of the country's power. Upon entering the city walls through the baroque Vilhena Gate, it's almost like you've travelled back in time; the medieval architecture, ornate palaces and religious buildings are so impeccably preserved and horse-drawn carriages clatter across the cobblestones.
After your jam-packed day of adventures, unwind with an aperitif before dinner. We chose to eat at the Grotto Tavern in Rabat - which I loved for its cave-like interior, chilled atmosphere and modern Mediterranean menu.
Pictured: a newly-married couple enjoy a walk together through the city streets; Mdina.
Blue Grotto; slightly south of Dingli Cliffs, the Blue Grotto is a large sea-cave and geological arch. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds (particularly if you're there over summer) and take a boat ride from Wied Iż-Żurrieq to see it this natural beauty in all its glory.
DAY FOUR: PORTS & PREHISTORY
So I'll start today with a disclaimer: I haven't actually visited the first place I'm going to suggest you go to... but it wasn't for the want of trying!
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is another of Malta's UNESCO spots; a huge underground network of crypts and chambers where excavations have uncovered remains dating back to 4000 BC. Tickets for the Hypogeum get booked up around 2 months in advance, so make sure you secure yours well ahead of time to avoid disappointment (I would know!). There are limitations on the amount of visitors per tour every day but if you do manage to get in, please let me know what you thought so that I can live vicariously!
After your morning in the Hypogeum, you'll undoubtedly want to get back out in the fresh air; so pop across to the traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk where you can mooch around the harbourside market, marvel at its technicolour quaintness, and find a suitable stop for lunch.
The rainbow-hued boats you'll see moored in Marsaxlokk's harbour, along with other Maltese ports, are known as luzzu. Many of them have pairs of eyes either carved or painted onto their bows; a superstition going back centuries which was meant to keep local fisherman safe at sea.
When you can tear yourself away from charismatic Marsaxlokk, venture out to The Three Cities for the rest of the day. Namely Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea (L'Isla) and Cospicua (Bormla), the Three Cities sit across the Grand Harbour from the current capital of Valletta - whose origins they considerably pre-date.
Settlements in these cities can be traced back to the 16th century, when the area provided a first home for many new citizens. It is rich with maritime history, thanks to the surrounding forts, but still fairly untouched by tourism. It's a pleasure to simply explore the neighbourhoods on-foot, getting lost down slender side streets and stumbling across hidden treasures.
I concentrated my time in Birgu when I visited, which is the largest and oldest of the Three Cities. There are museums, churches, palaces, harbours, bars, hotels and restaurants all in and around Birgu - so a plethora of options to help you enjoy an easy-going evening here.
St. Peter's Pool; located near Marsaxlokk, this naturally-occurring pool of sparklingly clear water is a haven for swimming, sunbathing and snorkelling.
DAY FIVE: DISCOVER VALLETTA
Valletta deserves a whole day all to itself, so that's exactly what we're going to do with our final 24 hours in Malta. Crowned the capital city and Maltese administrative centre in 1571, Valletta has since emerged as a cultural hotspot over the centuries and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage City for the last 30 years. Its petite size defines Valletta as the seventh-smallest capital in the world, but it is nevertheless densely packed with everything you'd expect of a much more sprawling metropolis - which makes it an absolute feast for the senses!
The fortress city of Valletta is encased in robust amber-toned bastions and buttresses, peppered with old cannons and look-out towers. The earliest incarnation of Valletta was hand-built in just 15 years by the Knights of St. John, and it has retained a timeless - albeit rustic - grace up to the present day.
Commence your tour of the capital at the Upper Barrakka Gardens; the perfect starting position for exploring the rest of Valletta and the best viewpoint for the Grand Harbour and Three Cities. The Upper Barrakka Gardens are accessible from sea-level by the Barrakka Lift, as well as via a set of well-trodden (and rather dizzying!) stone steps.
There are also the Lower Barrakka Gardens, which are a little further out. When I visited Malta for the second time on my honeymoon cruise, I caught a peak at them from the ship - but haven't yet seen them close-up. Don't they look lovely?
From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta is your oyster. Castillo Palace is just opposite across the square, with the baroque church of St. Catherine of Italy located around the corner. Countless other places of interest are within a mere few minutes from here; including the impressive Pjazza Teatru Rjal, which is transformed in the balmy evenings with open-air performances.
The city is essentially a thrilling and intricate maze, so my only advice to you is give into it - let your curiosity be your guide. To help send you on your way, here are a few more top picks for things to see and do in Valletta:
Strait Street; the most notorious stretta in Malta, known for its vibrant nightlife and festivals.
St. John's Co-Cathedral; commissioned by the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John and home to Caravaggio's 'The Beheading of St. John the Baptist'.
The Grandmaster's Palace; historical residence of the first governor of Malta, notable for its opulent architecture and for housing the offices of the current President.
Hastings Garden; another of Valletta's hanging gardens, this one is exquisitely poised for watching the sunset!
As for eating out in Valletta, there are options to appeal to every palette; from fast food to fine-dining. I can heartily recommend two divine restaurants in the city; the first being Ortygia, a Sicilian trattoria. The second is the modern Maltese brasserie, Taproom; a dining experience which I wrote about in an earlier blog post - "A Taste of Europe: 10 Favourite Foodie Finds".
Pictured: strozzapreti with tuna, mint, tomatoes, almonds and raisins from Ortygia; Valletta.
Sliema and St. Julian's Bay; a trendy coastal town just a short boat or bus trip from Valletta, Sliema has developed a name for itself as one of the more luxurious resorts in Malta. With swanky restaurants and boujie hotels, you'll feel like you're living the high-life!
SO WHAT DID I MISS?
A notable omission from this itinerary is a trip to Malta's smallest sister island, Comino, and the infamous Blue Lagoon. I left this out purely because I didn't go there personally, and honestly it's not somewhere I look back on desperately wishing I'd seen. I glimpsed the island from a distance, on the ferry from Gozo to Malta, and if I were to return to Malta now then I would certainly take a day trip there. It just wasn't a priority first-time round, and on my second visit to Malta I was only in Valletta for a day.
But if you do choose to visit Comino, remember the island is car-free and virtually unoccupied save one hotel. It's meant to be a paradise of unspoiled nature, particularly popular with keen walkers and watersports enthusiasts. So if that sounds like you - slot it into your trip!
Pictured: looking out over the water at Dwejra Bay; Gozo.
Malta is, without doubt or question, one of the most beguiling countries I've travelled to. Writing this has been enough to strike me down with such heart-aching wanderlust that I now can think of little else other than returning! I hope I've inspired you to add Malta to your bucket list (if it wasn't on there already) and if you're planning an adventure with the help of this itinerary, then that is music to my ears. I wish you the most magical travels; I can't wait to hear about them!