48 Hours In: Malta

Spend a day in and around Valletta, the historic capital of this Mediterranean nation, then explore deeper into the Maltese islands, says Simon Calder

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Autumn is the ideal time to visit this small nation with a vast history. The summer heat has eased, but the sea remains warm. Every wave of civilisation has left its mark on the Maltese islands, creating a mosaic of cultures and colours. Malta, Gozo and Comino are wrapped in more than 100 miles of coastline, and decorated by dozens of towns and villages. Festivities are plentiful – such as next weekend, when the nation celebrates independence from Britain in 1964.

The Independent Travel Offers: Our favourite All-Inclusive Malta holiday

Touch down

Air Malta (0906 103 0012; airmalta.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) fly from a range of UK airports to Luqa airport (1), in the south-east of the island. The tourist office in Arrivals opens 10am-9pm daily.

Malta has an excellent bus network, though the former London "bendy-buses" are currently off the road. From the airport, bus X4, X5 or X7 will take you 7km north-east to the main bus station around the Triton Fountain close to the city gate (A) of the capital, Valletta. The one-way fare is €2.20, with an all-day pass available at €2.60. A taxi costs about €15.

Get your bearings

Malta is plumb in the middle of the Mediterranean, with Sicily 60 miles north and the North African coast 120 miles south, and Malta's main tourist office (B) is in Valletta at 229 Merchants Street (00 356 2291 5440; visitmalta.com; 9am-5.40pm daily, Sundays to 1pm). It occupies the Auberge d'Italie, former home of the Italian knights.

The former capital, Mdina (2), is on the south-west side of the island, slightly inland. The most touristy parts of Malta extend along the coast north-west from Valletta, through Sliema and St Julian's (3) to Bugibba and Mellieha.

Island-hopping, is easy. The inter-island ferry (gozochannel.com) shuttles between Cirkewwa (4) at the far the north-west of Malta and Mgarr (5) at the south-east tip of Gozo, every 45 minutes for most of the day; return foot-passenger fare €4.65. The 25-minute voyage gives views of the island of Comino, and connects with a bus to Gozo's elegant but sleepy capital, Victoria (6).

Check in

Malta's key celebrity hideaway is the Xara Palace (00 356 2145 0560; xarapalace.com.mt) in Mdina (2). A 17th-century mansion has been converted into a boutique hotel that entices royalty and celebrities. Double rooms from €200, without breakfast.

The Grand Hotel Excelsior (C), just outside Valletta's walls on Great Siege Road (00 356 2125 0520; excelsior.com.mt), offers the benefits of a five-star resort hotel as well as proximity to the capital. Doubles cost about €165, including breakfast.

Valletta has a growing number of city-centre boutique guest houses, such as Luciano (D) at 21 Merchants Street (00 356 7711 1110; lucianovalletta.com). A comfortable double room costs €80 with breakfast and access to a spectacular roof terrace.

Day One

Take a view

Valletta's Upper Barrakka Garden (E) fills a strategic corner of the city's fortifications – and yields tremendous views over the Grand Harbour as well as along the length of the capital. You can see how the honey-coloured walls of the Maltese capital embrace crusader history, palaces and elaborate churches.

Take a hike

Descend past the ruins of the Royal Opera House (F), now an open-air theatre, and the new parliament building. Turn right along Valletta's main thoroughfare, Republic Street, lined with mansions and notable monuments.

The most significant is St John's Co-cathedral (G) (9.30am-12.30pm on Saturdays, until 4.30pm Monday-Friday; €6) – Baroque at its most intense. The Oratory contains Caravaggio's The Beheading of St John – the largest painting produced by the artist.

Religious fervour fuses with military ambition at the Grand Master's Palace (H) – once the power base for the Mediterranean, now the office of Malta's president and venue for the Knights' Armoury (00 356 2124 9349; heritagemalta.org; 9am-5pm; €10).

At the end of Republic Street, bear left at Fort St Elmo and along the French Bastion. Then take Old Bakery Street for a cross-section through fading grandeur. Continue up the steps to Hastings Gardens (J), for a view across Marsamxett Harbour.

Lunch on the run

Caffe Cordina (K) at 244 Republic Street (00 356 2123 4385; www.caffecordina.com; 8.30am-7pm) has been satisfying islanders' appetites for decades. There are tables outside, but the café's elegant interior is an attraction in its own right. Order pastizzi – pasties filled with cheese or peas.

Cultural afternoon

The National Museum of Archaeology (L) in the Auberge de Provence (00 356 2122 1623; heritagemalta.org; €5), holds some of the world's oldest sculptures. Exhibits include the mysterious Sleeping Lady and the Venus of Malta (a tiny figurine of the fertility goddess) .

Down the hill, the Casa Rocca Piccola (M) at number 74 (00 356 2122 1499; casa roccapiccola.com) is a 16th-century palazzo occupied by the aristocratic de Piro family, plus their antiques and curios. Tours – sometimes led by the Marquis or Marquesa – are hourly 10am-4pm daily except Sunday, €9.

An aperitif

The Pub (N) at 136 Archbishop Street (00 356 7980 7042; closed Sundays) was the location for Oliver Reed's last stand. He walked in one day in 1999, while filming Gladiator, but was carried out after a heart attack. His seat in the corner has become a shrine to the hell-raising actor.

Dining with the locals

The bay at St Julian's (3) is the location for the island's most popular restaurants. Peppino's (00 356 2137 3200; peppinosmalta.com) is where Madonna, Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig come for fresh seafood.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim (7), share a dramatic site on the south-west shore of the island (00 356 214 231; heritagemalta.org; 9am-5pm; €9). They are covered with canvas, but remain intensely atmospheric gateways to the past.

Walk in the park

Malta is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe, yet on the southern shore there are vast open spaces – with the cliffs at Dingli (8) offering some of the finest coastal scenery in the Mediterranean.

Should you prefer a walk in a theme park, try another Hollywood connection just west of the busy town of Mellieha. In 1980 the director Robert Altman was looking for a location in which to film Popeye, starring Robin Williams. He chose Anchor Bay (9). They built the set, made the movie and left the set in place – now Popeye Village (00 356 2152 4782; popeyemalta.com; from 9.30am year-round, closing at 5.30pm in September and October, 4.30pm in winter).

Window shopping

Malta is an open-air society, and its liveliest outdoor market is Marsaxlokk (10), a pretty fishing port in the south-east of the island. On six days a week, the stalls strung out along the harbourside are mostly aimed at tourists, but on Sunday mornings it is devoted to fresh fish, fruit and vegetables.

Out to brunch

AD1530, the year the Knights of St John arrived on the island of Malta, is celebrated in the name of the informal trattoria in Mdina (2) adjoining the Xara Palace Hotel. Try a feast on a plate: the Maltese platter, with goat's cheese, Maltese sausage, broad-bean paste and artichokes; under €10, including a cappuccino. Open at 10.30am daily.

Take a ride

Close to the ferry port of Mgarr (5) on Gozo, visit a hilltop location that was once the most sophisticated place in the Mediterranean: Ggantija (11), a Unesco World Heritage Site (9am-5pm, €5) on the Xara plateau. The name derives from the later belief that only giants could have created the structure. Dating from 3600BC, it is the oldest free-standing monumental building in Europe.

Icing on the cake

Back in Valletta, take in the late-afternoon view from the Upper Barrakka Garden (E), then ride the glass-sided lift down to the waterfront. Hop aboard a water taxi (€1.50 per person) across the Grand Harbour to Vittoriosa. To work up a thirst for one of the shoreline bars, wander through the backstreets and explore the original homes of the Knights.

To view Simon Calder's latest film, '48 Hours in Malta', go to independent.co.uk/VisitMalta

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