48 Hours In Malta

It's festival season in Malta. Cathy Packe brings you the highlights of this vibrant island in the Med


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

The summer season in Malta continues well into October, so it's a great place for a late holiday as the crowds begin to thin out. This Catholic country stages a series of festas (feasts) in late summer, based around the island's churches. They are always very colourful and culminate in elaborate firework displays. Tomorrow there will be one in Sliema, and on 29 August the focus will move to Vittoriosa; the tourist office in Valletta's Freedom Square (00 356 2123 7747; www.visitmalta.com) has a full list of festas - it is open 9am-5.30pm daily, 9am-12.30pm Sunday.

BEAM DOWN

Air Malta (0845 345 6045; www.airmalta.com) flies daily to Malta's airport, Luqa, from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester; fares start at £200. It also operates several times a week from Birmingham and Glasgow. In addition, the airline runs a low-cost service, Fare 4U, which flies three times a week from Stansted; return fares start at £99.60 and tickets are bookable via Air Malta. British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) operates a daily flight to Malta from Gatwick and fares start at around £150. The airport is three miles south of the capital, Valletta, and can be reached by bus number 8, which leaves the terminal every 20-30 minutes and goes to Valletta's bus terminal; fares cost 15 cents (10p), and the journey takes about 40 minutes.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean, some 60 miles from Sicily and 180 miles from the North African coast. Valletta, juts out into the Grand Harbour, on the north coast of the island. Most tourist resorts are to the north-west. There are many places of interest around the island, particularly in the south-east, while the northern end of the island has quiet sandy beaches.

CHECK IN

Most visitors to Malta choose to stay near the beach, particularly around Sliema and St Julian's. The Hotel Corinthia San Gorg (00 356 2137 4114; www.corinthiahotels.com) is one of a collection of upmarket resort hotels clustered around St George's Bay, a small beach that has recently been given a makeover with the addition of sand imported from Jordan. Rooms here start at 50 Maltese lira (LM) (£35), and breakfast is an extra LM7 (£5). The only hotel in the walled city of Mdina is the exquisite Xara Palace in St Paul's Square (00 356 2145 0560; www.xarapalace.com.mt), where rooms start at LM55 (£39). Breakfast is an extra LM8 (£6). Valletta is quiet at night, but the British Hotel at 267 St Ursola Street (00 356 2122 4730; www.britishhotel.com) is fairly lively. Its singles start at LM14 (£10) and doubles at LM20 (£14), including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

For a breathtaking view of Valletta and the Grand Harbour, go to the Safe Haven Gardens, across the water in Senglea, one of a trio of interconnecting conurbations known as the Three Cities - the others being Vittoriosa and Cospicua. The best view in the other direction is from Valletta's Upper Baracca Gardens.

TAKE A HIKE

Begin your exploration of the capital at the City Gate, rebuilt after the Second World War, when Valletta suffered extensive damage. The route follows Republic Street, but first take a detour to the right to look at the Auberge de Castile. One of a number of ornate buildings designed for the knights who once ruled the city, it is now occupied by the Justice Ministry. Also on Republic Street is the Co-Cathedral of St John, a stunning 16th-century church with magnificent carvings and art work, including Caravaggio's The Beheading of St John the Baptist. It opens Monday-Saturday 9.30am-12.30pm, and Monday-Friday 1.30-4.15pm; it is closed on Sunday except for Mass. Entrance costs LM1 (70p), and there is a strict dress code forbidding shorts, bare shoulders and high-heeled shoes, which could damage the exquisite, fragile marble floors. From here, turn into Merchants Street for the Grand Master's Palace, an impressive building covering an entire block. It now houses the parliament, but parts of the building are open to the public. The state rooms, once used by the Grand Master, the knights' elected leader, are open Friday-Wednesday 9.30am-4pm; the Armoury opens daily 9am-5pm. A combined ticket costs LM2 (£1.40). Turn back up to Republic Street and continue down, pausing occasionally to explore the alleys that branch off, until you reach Fort St Elmo. From here there is a good view of the bastions that were built to defend the city.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Return to Republic Square and have lunch at one of the many cafés in the area. Among the best is Café Cordina (00 356 2123 4385; www.caffecordina.com), one of the oldest coffee-shops in the city. An alternative, in adjoining Palace Square, is Malata (00 356 2123 3967), with its good selection of meat and fish dishes.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Malta has some of the most impressive prehistoric ruins in the world. The Tarxien Temples form the largest, and most architecturally advanced, temple complex on the island, and among the ruined stones it is still possible to see traces of animal carvings and graffiti depicting contemporary ships. Even more impressive is the Hypogeum, an underground burial place and temple dating from 3600BC. To protect what is left of the stones, only 70 people are allowed in each day. Booking is essential, either through a tour operator or hotel; or by e-mail ( joseph.h.farrugia@govt.mt) or fax (00 356 2180 5021). Entrance is LM3 (£2).

TAKE A RIDE

The boat trip between Valletta and Sliema is short but sweet. Ferries depart every half-hour, and the crossing between Manderaggio in Valletta to the Strand in Sliema takes five minutes and costs 35 cents (25p).

WINDOW SHOPPING

There are plenty of shops along Valletta's Republic Street, as well as a daily clothes market on Merchant Street. There is also a covered market selling food, but the more residential town of Sliema offers greater choice. The main shops are on the Strand, and continue up Tower Road, where the Plaza Centre (00 356 2134 3832; www.plaza-shopping.com) can be found.

AN APERITIF

Try a glass of Hopleaf, the refreshing local beer, or some Maltese red or white wine. The best area for bar-hopping is Paceville; try Rolling Stone or BJs on Ball Street, or Footloose right in the town centre.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Malta has a distinctive local cuisine influenced by the availability of a huge range of fresh fish and the island's close links with Italy. The national dish is rabbit, served in a sauce with garlic, onions and herbs. For fresh fish in scenic surroundings, book a table at Barracuda at 194/5 Main Street, St Julian's (00 356 2133 1817; www.wgc-group.com), open every evening from 7-11pm; or La Dolce Vita on St George's Road, St Julian's (00 356 2133 7806), which opens daily from 6-11pm.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The church of Santa Marija in Mosta, known locally as the Mosta Dome, is impressive. It has the third largest dome in Europe and is visible from miles away. During the Second World War, a German bomb fell through its roof while 300 people were about to celebrate Mass, but it failed to explode and the faithful were saved. Open 9-11.45am and 3-5pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Go to Dingli cliffs on the south-west coast and order a hearty breakfast at Bobbyland (00 356 2145 2895). Alternatively, in the pretty village of Marsaxlokk, visit the Sunday-morning fish market on the quayside, then pick a table with a view at Carrubia, at 37 Xatt Is-Sajjieda (00 356 2165 0174), and spend LM1.35 (£1) on a full English breakfast.

A WALK IN THE PARK

A favourite Sunday outing is a picnic under the orange trees at Buskett Gardens, a lovely wooded area to the south-east of the island.

WRITE A POSTCARD

...from Gozo, a smaller, quieter island 25 minutes by boat to the north-west of Malta. Visit the walled citadel in Victoria, the main town, or the neolithic temple at Ggantija, or enjoy the beaches at Marsalforn, Xlendi or Ramla Bay. Boats depart at least every 45 minutes from Cirkewwa, which can be reached from Valletta on bus 45, and from Sliema on bus 645. Return boat tickets cost LM2 (£3), but are only sold on Gozo. Buses and taxis meet every arriving boat.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The tiny walled city of Mdina, once the island's capital, is a fascinating place to explore, with its historic buildings and winding streets. Locals will direct you to Fontanella at 1 Bastion Street, a popular café above the ramparts, and a great place to eat chocolate cake while admiring the view.

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