Although I was born and raised in the East of England, and with ancestral roots in both Scotland and Sicily, more often than not I feel the most connected to my Maltese heritage. So with holiday-booking season upon us, it feels like a good time to share with you my insider’s guide to the beautiful island of Malta.
With over 30 years of experience under my belt as a tourist and as a moonlighting local, here’s my whistle-stop tour of what makes this country so special including the inside scoop on food, culture, the best places to visit and above all more about this island’s beating heart, the people.
When to visit
Not only is the weather incredible for the majority of the year, it’s also an island brimming with history, kind-hearted folk, a wide-range of beaches, surprising countryside and the most delicious food.
December – March
Jacket weather. If you prefer cooler temperatures, these months are similar to spring and mid-autumn in England.
April – May and October – November
T-shirt weather (with a cardigan needed in the evening). If you like the British summers and want to avoid very hot temperatures these are the best times to go.
June – September
Bikini and Factor 30+ weather. If you like the warm weather then you wont be disappointed. August being the HOTTEST with temperatures often rising to 32-33°C.
The Maltese People
Below: 1981 vs 2016 – Same Maltese kitchen, different decade. The below now features the addition of a fourth generation, our daughter Evelyn who visited Malta for the first time last year
The Maltese people are unique. That much is true. Although on the outside they appear to have similar traits to neighbouring Italians and Greeks, they are in fact one of a kind. Of course I’m probably generalising here based on my own personal experience of visiting Malta. Here are some of the most common characteristics I think you’ll find in many Maltese people:
- They are extremely kind-hearted and often sympathetic listeners too. Although they love a good chin wag! I haven’t met many Maltese who don’t like to talk.
- Extremely generous with their time (cooking for you or looking after you!) but also generous with their money. They like to splash their cash on their loved ones, sacrificing things for others
- Possibly true of many Mediterranean ladies but Maltese women are excellent role models because they are resilient and are often very strong willed! (Watch out guys)
- Family orientated! Like the Italians, the house, home and family life is centred around the women who are very passionate about bringing the family together with food.
- Now this last one really does set the Maltese apart in my opinion, but they have an absurdly good sense of humour! It’s not the sarcastic or dry wit that you’d find in Britain but it’s jovial and often very comical – they enjoy being charming and witty in a very playful way! Be prepared to be teased.
Live like a local
Here are just a few insider tips on living like a local:
- Join the locals and attend catholic mass at 7am one morning. Soak up the grand architecture and observe this important daily ritual for locals (don’t forget to cover your shoulders and wear long trousers, no shorts). Then head to a local coffee shop for a Maltese sweet delicacy with a black coffee.
- Time your holiday with one of Malta’s many Feasts or Village Festas. The most popular time for these are during the summer months. Expect fireworks, good street food and lots of live music and brass bands! Many of the neighbouring village feasts compete with one another so it’s often a competition about who can put on the best show.
- For a quieter and slightly cooler holiday, visit in mid-September and early October. The sea will still be warm after four long months of hot weather yet the UK schools will be back and the beaches will be quieter
- Learn Maltese, a unique language of its own influenced by Italian, English, Arabic and even Spanish: Top 5 words to master include
- Good morning – Bongu (BON-ju)
- Yes – Iva (eve-a)
- Please – Jekk joghgbok (yek YOH-jbok)
- How are you? – Kif int? (kiyk int-EE)
- Thanks – grazzi (GRUTS-ee)
For some more useful insider tips check out Air Malta’s blog Live Like a Local in Malta.
Only in Malta
Things that only taste this good in this delicious corner of the world
- Buy fresh bread from one of the local bakeries, often found on the corner of every high street. The Maltese bread tastes similar to sourdough but is lighter in the middle. It’s some of the best-tasting bread in the world and it costs pennies!
- Find freshly baked (or take home frozen) pastitzzi from one of the street corner pastizzirias. Delicate filo style pastry filled with either fresh ricotta cheese or pureed pea filling with a hint of curry
- Capers! These are juicier and bigger than most caper berries in the Med and they grow in abundance in Malta. Buy home pickled or brined capers from shops or by the side of the road
- Ġbejniet. Often peppered, this goats’ cheese is delicious on Maltese crackers with a glass of Maltese wine, which is good and very cheap.
- Make it yourself or buy it from the shops in Malta, Bigilla is a broad bean dip with garlic, chilli and herbs, that makes a wonderful appetizer or snack with drinks al fresco
- Maltese tomatoes are in my opinion, the sweetest in the world. Make sure you buy a big bag from one of the many street stalls. Armed with these, some bread, olive oil, Ġbejniet and pastitzzi, you have yourself a fast Maltese lunchtime feast!
- I’ve saved the best till last. Kinnie! I have so many fond memories of supping this delicious fizzy soft drink on the beach. You can only buy this in Malta, so fill your boots. Made with orange and aromatic herbs, this is what Malta tastes of!
A Flavour of Malta: Top 5 Maltese recipes
My Maltese grandfather ran a patisserie business in Valetta in the 1960s and his daughter, my dear old Mum, has since dedicated her life to pleasing other people’s palates. Here’s a round-up of some of my favourite Maltese recipes that I’ve blogged about before, you’ll find the full recipe in each embedded link. These recipes have been passed down from my Great Grandmother Georgia (an absolute legend), to my Nana Lola, to my Mum and now to me, where I’ve given some of the dishes a bit of a modern twist!
1) The Best Maltese Snack: Hobz biz-zeit
Hobz biz-zeit (pronounced hobz-bi-zate) translates literally as bread with oil. It’s a staple lunch in Malta – probably the country’s number one snack – and is served as a closed sandwich on every beach or snack bar in the country (see the section in this post “24 Hours in Malta” for a picture of the delicious version you’ll find on beaches up and down the country). It’s sometimes better known as being served as an open sandwich, especially for those making it at home, and it sometimes looks a bit like a big Italian bruschetta. The secret is simple. Good quality bread, olive oil and the sweetest red tomatoes you can find. Here’s my modern twist using fresh tuna steak, sourdough bread, fresh tomatoes, slices of yolky hardboiled egg and um – don’t hate me Malta – mayonnaise and gherkins (I was pregnant when I developed this twist, can you tell?).
If you’re being purest about it, keep things traditionally by simply taking some good quality tomato paste (add a pinch of sugar) and with good quality olive oil smear this on some crusty bread. Add, black pepper, tinned tuna, capers if desired, some fresh tomatoes and an extra drizzle of olive oil.
2) The Best Maltese Soup: Kusksu
Kusksu, a recipe from my roots, is a soup my Mum would make for us at lunchtime on a Saturday, served with goats’ cheese, black pepper and some olive oil, a big vat of this would sit on the side and we’d just help ourselves when we fancied it.
Maltese cuisine has strong Sicilian and English influences as well as influences of Spanish, North African and Provençal cuisines. And this Maltese Soup – Kusksu – is a very traditional dish soup made from broad beans and giant cous cous. It’s usually served with a dollop of Ġbejniet, a peppered Maltese goats’ cheese and sometimes a poached egg.
3) The Best Maltese Starter: Stuffed Maltese Artichokes (Qaqocc Mimli)
One of my favourite Maltese recipes, something my Mum started to make for us more when we were a bit older. Maltese stuffed globe artichokes make the perfect starter to pasta or risotto. It’s also a really romantic thing to share as a light supper with a glass of wine.
4) The Best Maltese Weekday Supper: Ross II-Forn
This recipe is usually very similar throughout Malta and the variants are usually the type of cheese used, quantity of eggs (the more you use, the denser it will be) and whether smoked pancetta / bacon is included in the ragu. II-forn means in the oven and ross means rice, hence the simple translation – Maltese baked rice. Serve with a green salad and a glass of red wine.
5) The Best Maltese Sweet: Kannoli
Kannoli (or cannoli) is a Maltese Sicilian dessert my Mum has been making for us since we were very small, usually just once a year around mid-spring and on birthdays. The pastry shell, which looks similar to a brandy snap, is a lovely soft yet slightly crispy texture, made with a splash of red wine. The pastry is fried and then once cooled you fill each with a light sweet vanilla ricotta with chopped hazelnuts, cherries and chocolate. Or add with whatever takes your fancy – almonds, a splash of amaretto, white chocolate, you could even try dried fruits.
It’s important to fill them at the last minute so they don’t go too soft and collapse! They’re generally only available in the spring, the cooler months in Malta and Sicily, as they don’t tend to survive the summer climate.
24 Hours in Malta
If I could magic myself to Malta for 24 hours, this is what I would do:
9am: Melleha Bay
The early bird catches the worm. Especially on this beautiful golden sand beach, arguably Malta’s finest, at the north of the island. It’s well-worth hiring your own sun lounger and a parasol for a full day on this beautiful beach, leaving you time to sup Kinnie and have a snack from nearby café bar Munchies! Try the deep fried calamari and Hobz biz-zeit (see below) – they also go an excellent range of gelato (pictured above) to take back to your lounger!
2pm: A stroll in Mdina
Not too far from Melleha Bay is atmospheric Mdina. Once you’ve slept off lunch, head to this sleepy town for a short stroll around the silent city and if you haven’t had enough to eat, you’ll find lots of options for a late lunch with a glass of wine. You’ll find the best views of the island in this picturesque and historic town, where most vehicles are banned and lazy meandering is encouraged.
4pm: Door-spotting and dinner in Valletta
This might sound a bit random, but one of my favourite things to do in Malta is to spend the afternoon wandering the shabby-chic streets of Valletta door spotting. The buildings, stunning doorways and cobbled streets will keep you absorbed. It’s a wonderful backdrop for arty photographs that will make your Instagram followers very envious!
Whenever we visit we always order far too many so that we have some to take home with us in one of Caffe Cordina’s cardboard patisserie boxes. My favourite place to eat these are on the cobbled streets of Valletta at the aforementioned al fresco cafe.
End your day by dinning at one of Valletta’s traditional or contemporary eateries. And if you have some energy left, seek out Maltese folk music and allow acoustic guitar sounds to serenade you around the cobbled streets.
There are several ways you can fly to Malta but in my experience the best way is via the national carrier, Air Malta. The Maltese cabin crew are always so warm and friendly, it never fails to get a trip off to a good start. The seats are always super-comfortable and I can’t remember any delays from past experience. (Plus they stock Kinnie and Maltese beer, Cisk!)
Air Malta fights go from Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester and they’re often reasonably priced too.
Where to stay
I would personally opt for an AirBnB in a local village, a stay in the capital or a retreat to the North of the Island where the beaches are sublime but if you’d like to seriously put your feet up and kick-back, Malta has a wide plethora of wonderful hotels to suit all budgets and tastes. If you like the idea of a slice of local life, check out my blog about our stay last summer: Live like a local in Malta.