Malta is not a difficult place to stay and to see: almost everyone speaks English - and not just a few words - health and hygeine are good, as is the transport system, and the people are friendly and helpful. A few insider tips are handy anywhere, however, and I hope the following will help you make the most of your stay:
Eating and drinking
- In Malta, on almost any budget, it is possible to eat very well or very badly for the same price - so it is well worth taking notice of recommendations. See Malta Cafés and Restaurants for my personal top picks.
- A great way to save money is to have a picnic lunch (then eat out in the evening). Fresh Maltese bread with local cheese and fresh tomato or fruit juice makes a cheap simple (and portable) meal. Local cheese comes as gnejna (pronounced jinayna) – often confusingly translated as cheeselets – small round cheeses that may be fresh and wet (like ricotta), dry (often peppered and sometimes quite vinegary) or semi-dry (usually not peppered).
- The Maltese love their food and portions are usually huge. You may find you do not need three courses (or maybe even two).
- The cheapest - and most authentic - Maltese savoury snack is the pastizzi - usually about 20 cents - a mini pasty filled with either cheese or peas. Many Maltese can’t get through the day without one (or three). You can find them in most cafes as well as little kiosk pastizzerias.
- For a cheap and traditional sweet snack, head to the Date Kiosk in the City Gate bus station (Valletta) for imqaret (pronounced im-art) a deep fried snack of date in pastry with fennel seeds - best freshly cooked. I find them irresistible, but its probably good not to have too many!
- Quite a few restaurants (though by no means all) are closed on Mondays.
- The buses on the main island are very good and very cheap and go almost everywhere. Particularly if you are staying in or around Valletta or Sliema/Saint Julian’s/Paceville, you should find that unless you are in a hurry or going right off the beaten track you should rarely need to take a car or taxi.
- The main bus station at City Gate on the edge of Valletta can seem confusing but there is a little stone kiosk where transport staff will tell you which bus to take and if they aren’t there the drivers are generally very helpful.
- When getting between Valletta and Sliema or the Three Cities, water transport is faster than land and - in good weather at least - more fun too. See How to get around Malta for more information.
Things to do
- If you are on a budget - or don’t like being herded – think twice about going on a group tour. Malta is an easy place to see for yourself and you may find it is not only a lot cheaper but actually more fun to go to sights alone and take your time.
- If you can, spend a few days in Gozo. The one day tours from the main island rather miss the point. They dash around spending little time in each place and always in a crowd. The great charm of Gozo is the slow pace and rural nature of things. Get a guide book and do it solo and I believe the rewards will be greater. If you really have only one day, weigh up the cost of a tour against taking the bus and ferry alone then booking a car and English-speaking driver on Gozo to take you around for a few hours. If there are several of you, it may even work out cheaper.
- Book the Hypogeum well in advance for the cheapest rates and best choice of times - and indeed to ensure you get a ticket at all.
- Many sights in Malta have good information or audio guides in English but a few have little or nothing. These include most of the prehistoric temples (except Mnajdra and Hagar Qim which has a new visitors’ centre) and the Grand Master’s Palace state rooms. For these, you’ll need a good guide book.
- For visiting churches you will need to dress respectfully ie knees and shoulders covered.
- Although you may well see it, it is worth being aware that topless (let alone nude) bathing and sunbathing are illegal in Malta.
- When snorkelling or diving it is very important to put a coloured buoy on the surface of the water especially if you are in a busy boating area. And when swimming, stay within the marked swimming areas where relevant or be vigilant. Someone gets killed or seriously injured by a motor boat most years.
- 50,000 people a year come to Malta for the diving. If you plan to be one of them, make sure your dive centre is licensed by visiting www.visitmalta.com/diving-malta. Any company not listed is illegal. Many of the top dive centres are also listed with international bodies PADI (www.padi.com) and the British Sub Aqua Club (www.bsac.com).
Other useful tips
- Accommodation prices in Malta vary hugely with season and with occupancy. It is always worth checking out several accommodation options including higher starred places which sometimes come down in price below lower starred establishments. For more on this see My Hotels Advice.
- Tap water in Malta is theoretically drinkable but it is better to drink bottled water. This can be very expensive in hotels (and in the summer heat you need a lot of it!) so buy a few bottles from the local shop and store them in your hotel room.
- If you are driving yourself in Malta, be aware that whilst the Maltese are not inattentive drivers they make up the rules as they go along and don’t like slowing down (even at roundabouts!). Officially they drive on the left, but don’t be fooled. Expect the unexpected.
- If you are unlucky enough to be in Malta during heavy rain, don’t try to get into Valletta by road at rush hour - it will take hours.
- Bird hunting is still a popular pastime amongst a minority of Maltese men. This means that in autumn in rural or clifftop areas in the early morning and late afternoon you are likely to find men popping guns. You may occasionally come across them in spring too. Be aware and don’t confront them (however much you may disapprove) - there is considerable ill-feeling between the hunters and environmentalists/birdwatchers.