Fifteen years ago I wrote the book on Malta. My travel guide described a sunny nation returning early after a dinner of rabbit and chips. Boy that has changed. During a long weekend in Valletta I ticked off contemporary art, rooftop bars and a palace bookable on Airbnb. Welcome to Malta 2023.
The biggest change? The buses. In the 2000s they were British Leyland chuggers with the logos of a Devon coach company. Today, a fleet of 400 eco-buses connects all major attractions.
The best part? To combat Malta’s chronic traffic problem, since the end of 2022 Malta’s buses have become incredibly affordable.
All you need to do is register online before your arrival for a €15 Tallinja travel card (for 12 single journeys). Or buy a seven-day card on arrival for €21 and unlimited travel if you can’t afford it.
I get off the 201 bus at Ta’ Betta winery for a taste of things to come. Rows of young vines ripple through the Maltese countryside. The first blends of the vineyard were made in a rural hut flanked by ancient carob and olive trees.
“We called it Chateau Garage,” says Marie, Ta’ Betta’s French wine host.
The €70 Ta’ Betta Wine Experience includes three glasses of their latest vintages. The Jaean Parisot of the cellar is a white Chardonnay harvested in the heat of August. High sugars raise the ABV to 14%; it’s like drinking liquid honey.
Ta’ Betta wines ferment in egg-shaped concrete barrels, which look like futuristic amphorae designed by Philippe Starck. After two hours I stagger back satisfied to the bus stop. Great job, I don’t drive.
A much older attraction is 20 minutes up the coast by bus. The archaeological site of Hagar Qim predates the pyramids.
The ancients chose a fabulous location. Set against a winking Mediterranean and scented with wild fennel, these 20-ton blocks form the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world. It is the oldest building you will ever enter. During the 1949 restoration work, four obese figurines known as the “fat women” were unearthed. Each boasts a big butt and huge boobs. Imagine The island of love in 3500 BC
The coach home is equipped with comfortable seats and picture windows showcasing a timeless panorama of Malta. Out here the plots of land are so small they are farmed with hoes and rakes. I make a short stop in the silent city of Mdina. The timeless streets have such an abundance of palazzos that you can sleep (Palazzo Xara), eat pizza (Palazzo Costanzo), or admire the luxe furniture (Palazzo Falson) in a series of mega-mansions.
The next day I have another appointment with the aristocracy. In Valletta the Casa Rocca Piccola is a 16th century “living museum” owned and inhabited by the 9th Marquis de Piro. If you’re staying at the attached five-room B&B (book direct or on Airbnb) the Marquis himself can give you an emphatic tour of his family palazzo.
The 50 bling-tastic rooms feature Murano chandeliers and a gold palanquin to escort the aristos from port. Creaking bookshelves house biographies of Churchill and a copy of Burke’s Peerage from 1947. Always to hand if your ancestors were knights.
Then by chance I take a busman holiday around the Maltese capital. Bus 133 is a circular route that connects every neighborhood in Valletta, with views so good that I end up returning to my starting point. Visible from the bus are facades freshly painted in bright pastel colors creating a Technicolor Valletta. Raised gardens such as Barrakka (there’s a free lift for Tallinja travel card holders) offer postcard views.
My favorite attractions on the Valletta circular bus are gallery, or Maltese enclosed balconies. From inside, residents can voyeuristically watch the hustle and bustle of the street without being seen. Like a webcam from another time.
Today’s Valletta is a heady mix of old and new. St. John’s Co-Cathedral contains 17th-century masterpieces by Caravaggio.
Nearby the MUZA art museum displays a Turner watercolor of Malta’s Grand Harbor and serves a crackling risotto (€12) at lunch. Just outside is the 21st century. Street drinkers sit on stools scattered willy-nilly all the way to Valletta’s waterfront.
From here I take the ferry across Grand Harbor (free with my travel card) to the three walled suburbs of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. They look like a historic movie set with honey-colored houses and flaming bougainvillea.
The area is Malta as it was: cups of coffee for 1 euro in fishermen’s cafés and harbor tours for 8 euros on a gondola. I take a walk in Fort Ricasoli and come across several potential players. This year the fort will be used for shooting Gladiator 2the swords-and-sandals sequel to the original, starring Oliver Reed, who died while arm-wrestling an alcoholic Valletta midway through filming.
Vittoriosa housed the original eggplant, or residences, of the eight nationalities of the Knights of Malta. A plaque marks the elegant Auberge d’Angleterre. Unfortunately the English knights withdrew from this pact of European security during the reign of Henry VIII. Think of it as a medieval Brexit, overseen by an English leader who loved women, wine and feuding with the French. Sound familiar?
The next morning I follow the Maltese tradition of spending Sunday at the seaside. I’m not the only one. Bus 81 exits Valletta bus station and ends up in traffic. Malta has over 400,000 cars for a population of 500,000, sharing less than 2,000 miles of road. Hence the shock tactic of making all buses free. Some of my fellow travelers are trying out their bus network for the first time. Their favorite part? That they don’t have to look for a parking space upon arrival.
After the jam, we arrive in Marsaxlokk on the southern coast of Malta. This beautiful fishing village greets passengers with a scent of ozone and a clang of church bells. The Sunday market is in full swing kannoli pastries, unfiltered honey and giant fig rolls. Market seafood makes its way to the amphitheater of fish restaurants that surround the pretty harbour.
I’m tempted by a harbor tour in one of the colorful ones luzzu fishing boats, which are painted as a children’s nursery. Alas, I’ve seen that film: both the Ottomans and Napoleon anchored in Marsaxlokk Bay, then a cropper came. Instead I take a coastal walk to St Peter’s Pool, a perfect aquamarine pool. The scene is bucolic: birds singing, wildflowers and the endless ocean. (Swim south and it’s the next stop Libya).
My Last Morning features Malta’s newest attraction. The Farsons Brewery Visitor Experience (€15) opened in March 2023 in the art deco brewery that produced, until recently, Malta’s best beer. British-made copper tanks routinely produced 100,000 pints a day, which were served to British troops across the Mediterranean in a savvy circular economy.
I ask our guide, a former brewer, the name of their lager, Cisk. It’s so named because the banking family behind the brewery introduced checks to the country, which after a few bites became “Cisks.” Visitors can have a pint at the new Cisk Tap rooftop bar above the old factory. Oddly, across my table sit ten tough-as-nails men dressed entirely in black, who I’m told have just arrived on the fast ferry from Sicily to Valletta. I’m too nervous to ask if they took the 52 bus here.
My last bus (the 73) deposits me at the car rental depot at Valletta airport. Unlike driving, this big weekend was low cost and low stress. This bustling nation, about the same size as the Isle of Wight, is simply better by bus.
Tallinja travel cards can be purchased online and regular Explore travel cards at Valletta airport kiosks.
The five museum-like rooms of Casa Rocca Piccola cost from €160 pn (£140).