48 hours in ... Malta

Small, compact and perfectly formed, the island at the heart of the Mediterranean offers a mix of cultures to suite all tastes, finds Serena Mackesy

Why go now?

Malta boasts 6,500 years of culture crammed into a tiny space. Few countries afford the luxury of visiting a Neolithic temple, a Baroque cathedral and an ancient fort and still having time for a dip before cocktails. Malta is always cheap but with Sterling currently at roughly 0.63 Maltese Lira to the pound, it's currently a steal.

Beam down

Air Malta (0181-785 3177) flies from Heathrow at 10.45am and 7.20pm, and at 11.30am from Gatwick daily. At the moment, its best offer is pounds 209 (including taxes). British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Gatwick and also offers a return fare of pounds 209 (with taxes). The visit must include a Saturday night.

Get your bearings

The island is like a wedge of cheese, sloping steeply from south to north; sandy beaches (and tourist development) are confined to the north and west coasts, amazing views and archaeological wonders to the south and east. Malta is roughly 17 miles by eight. Gozo, a greener and dinkier island, lies off the north-west tip, with the tiny and inescapably dull Comino sandwiched between them. Valletta, the capital city built in the 1560s by the Knights of St John, sticks out between the two natural harbours, Marsamxett and Grand Harbour, on the north east. The ancient capital of Mdina is just off the centre, perched on a hill on the island's best vantage point.

Check in

Head for Valletta. Not only will Byron's "cursed streets of steps" blow you away but because all the ancient, brightly-coloured buses work circular routes beginning and ending just outside the city gates, public transport is easy. The British Hotel (267 St Ursula St, tel 224730) overlooks Grand Harbour, has en-suite bathrooms, and costs LM16 for B&B. The fairly basic Grand Harbour Hotel (47 Battery St, 246003), at LM17 for B&B, offers more fabulous views. Those in need of power showers should head for the Phoenicia, a fine colonial building in Floriana, only marginally spoiled by recent additions to the top floor. B&B here costs LM70 and upwards.

Take a hike

... round a Unesco World Heritage Site. Despite Italy and Germany's attempts to obliterate it during the Second World War, Valletta remains a city so stunning it would silence you were it not for the robustly comical details of the shop doorways. Start by buying a glass of unspeakable Maltese wine from the stall in the Upper Baracca Gardens, walk beneath the grand colonnade and be prepared to drop it. Grand Harbour spreads out below: a vast expanse filled with cruise liners and oil tankers, edged on the far side by the Arabic architecture of the Three Cities: Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua. A gigantic sea wall, part of the defences built by Grand Master de la Vallette and defended against the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565, frames the blue of the Mediterranean.

Jaw back in place, head down Merchants' Street and follow the signs to St Paul's Shipwreck Church, dedicated to the accidental arrival of the Apostle on the islands. In this Baroque marvel, you can see the wrist- bone of Paul himself, in a silver, arm-shaped reliquary complete with Papal seals. Continue down the steps, hang a left at the bottom and follow the bastions to Lower Baracca Gardens (offering more splendid views), the Malta Experience (a half-hour potted history with loud bangs) and the British War Memorial, which commemorates the defence of the island during the last war which won Malta a Victoria Cross.

Turn left again, and, four roads over, left on to Republic Street. This traverses Palace Square (which contains the Palace of the Grand Masters), Republic Square, a colonnaded area full of cafes. Further up, turn left again, and enter St John's Co-Cathedral. Count the death figures in the marble floor, the trompe l'oeil saints leaning from the ceiling and the bizarre mausoleum statuary. St John's also contains a Caravaggio Crucifixion, hanging from the wall like any old piece of cathedral art; the church's other Caravaggio has been in Italy for repair for some years.

Lunch on the run

If you like stodge, traditional food isn't half bad - timpana (macaroni cheese with tuna and pastry on top), pastizzi (cornish pasties filled with either ricotta or - get this - mushy peas), and hobs biz-zejt (a sandwich of tuna, tomato paste and scraps of olives, capers and butter beans). Try Cordina on Republic Square or Marquee on St John's Square for snacks at reasonable prices.

Take a ride

You can do most things by bus, but as car hire is dirt cheap - between LM7 and LM10 except at the airport - it hardly seems worth it. The Maltese drive on the left, when they're not avoiding holes in the road, and, though things can seem a bit erratic, you quickly realise that, at 15mph, you're unlikely to come to much harm.

Visit another country

Both Maltese and Gozitans regard themselves as separate nationalities. Gozo is a 15-minute ferry ride from the Cirkewwa (pronounced Chir-ke-wa), and truly feels like another place: no walls made of fridges, for a start. The island is seven miles by three, and houses a rich heritage. Ggantija (Ji-gan-tia), on the edge of Xaghra (Shara), is 4,500 years old and so huge that the walls contain slabs the size of your average bungalow. Rabat, the ancient citadel at Victoria - the capital - is a finely preserved Arab fort. The cathedral is sweet: they ran out of cash for a dome, so painted a trompe l'oeil one on the ceiling instead. It looks great from the door and terrible from all other angles.

Dining out

Christopher's, in the marina at Ta'Xbiex (Taj-beash), on Marsamxett Harbour, offers excellent formal meals for LM22 a head. Back in Valletta, Malata on Palace Square does brilliant spaghetti vongole. Oleander, on Church Square in Xaghra, has fantastic rabbit.

Sunday morning

Visit a sacred spot. Malta is home to the most impressive Neolithic temples: the earliest, Ggantija on Gozo, dates back to 4,500BC. The best bet for an afternoon's culture is Hagar Qim (pronounced Hajjar eem) and Mnajdra (pronounced im-nai-dra), just down the road from Zurrieq. These are magical places which make Stonehenge look positively paltry. From Hagar Qim, it's a 15-minute drive to Rabat and Mdina, or half-an-hour via the forest of Buskett and the Verdala palace, where the Maltese falcons were bred.

The icing on the cake

Circumnavigate a city in 15 minutes: Mdina, the ancient capital, is also known as the Silent City. When the Knights took over, the aristocracy retreated huffily behind the walls of this citadel, building palazzos and drawing up laws to stop foreigners living there. It is now a haven of quiet, its cathedral much cosier than St John's, its huge doors with equally huge knockers snoozing in dappled sunlight. Set off from the moated gate, keep right round the bastions and you'll be back where you started in 15 minutes.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker