BY MADDY THOM
For a European island escape on a backpacker’s budget, look no further than Malta. Situated in the Mediterranean Sea south of Italy, this small state is home to just under 400,000 residents living on three major islands. However, despite its small size—the main island is only 316 sq. kilometers—it packs a punch, featuring two official languages, a culture and culinary cuisine that draw influence from its unique past Arabic and European rulers, incredible beaches, and a vivacious and friendly youth population who are often found out at the island’s multitude of nightlife hotspots.
As the site where the Turkish fleet was moored during the Great Siege of 1565 and where Napoleon Bonaparte’s army landed in 1798, Marsaxlokk harbor has played an important role in the history of Malta. This tiny fishing village today, however, is known for its exceptional restaurants offering the best seafood dishes on the island. Walk along the promenade photographing the fishermen and the colorful luzzu (fishing boats) that dot the bay. Pay close attention to the Eyes of Osiris painted on the bow of the boats—according to Phoenician tradition these symbols protect the boats from danger and ward off evil spirits, and are repainted every spring by the fishermen.
For a traditional beach excursion, take a ferry to the Blue Lagoon on Comino Island. Known for its pure white sand and clear, bright cyan water, the Blue Lagoon stands out even flying into Malta from above and has gathered attention from filmmakers, being featured in Troy and The Count of Monte Cristo. As the island is home to less than ten permanent residents, however, restaurants are scarce. Though there are small food and ice cream carts near the lagoon, it’s a good idea to pack a picnic lunch: bring along a loaf of fresh Ħobż Malti, Malta’s famous sourdough bread, and a round of Ġbejna, a mild sheep’s cheese produced on Gozo. Then treat yourself to a Maltese-produced Cisk Lager after an afternoon of snorkeling in the crystalline waters. Ferries leave from the north side of Malta approximately every hour; round-trip fare is 10€.
During the summer months, Malta becomes a hot spot for wild parties, serving as the annual host for the Isle of MTV. Aside from this annual event, however, clubs and discotheques in general are modern, chic, and abundant, particularly along Sliema and St. Julian’s waterfront promenade and in Paceville where the nightlife is vibrant year-round. Events are stylish, and while at some bars and clubs you can get away with less fashionable attire research the venue ahead of time—often to run with the well-turned-out local party-goers, you’ll want to come dressed to impress. Insider Tip: Often held at The Lido or Ryan’s Pub, keep an ear out for Metro, Wild West Project and Great White Project events. Thrown by local production companies, these gigs attract all of the Maltese youth and provide an unbeatable opportunity to get a taste of the real party scene.
If you’re seeking a more mellow summer evening, Ta Fra Ben, a reggae bar in Qawra provides the perfect location. Though a bit further from the nightlife center, this bar is well worth the extra effort. It hosts regular live music and its outdoor covered patio area is the perfect place for socializing and having a few drinks while enjoying the sunset.
After a night out in Malta, mollify the pain of your hangover with the local delicacies known as pastizzi. A mouthful of Malta, these deep-fried, flaky, pastries can be found all over the island, but the best come from the hole-in-the-wall The Crystal Palace just outside of the old capital city of Mdina. Of the two types available, I give preference to the curried pea variety, though it’s not surprising that many are partial to the buttery ricotta-filled treats. Be sure to taste each variety fresh out of the oven with a Kinnie soda or cup of chai, and at only 0.25€ each, take some for the road as well.
For a look into Malta’s medieval history, continue through Mdina’s city walls. Located at the center of the island, Mdina is known as the “Silent City" and after just a few hours in the old capital, you’ll understand how it assumed its nickname. The town is still confined within its original walls, and the bare architecture, narrow alleys, and high structures contribute to the melancholic aura that the city effuses. Tucked into the city walls is Fontanella Tea Garden. Request a table on the upper terrace where you can sit and enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Though a full menu is available here, save your big meals for other eateries, as Fontanella is most famous for its homemade cakes. If you aren’t full of pastizzi, try a slice of one of their 20+ varities. Slices are only 2.50€ each and you get a generous serving—perfect for an afternoon snack.
The Boho Hostel in St. Julian’s provides spacious, inexpensive, and relaxed accommodation. Though it’s not a party hostel, it’s directed toward solo travelers and small groups to ensure a sense of friendship and community among guests. Lockers, Wi-Fi, and pick-ups from Balluta Bay are included, as is breakfast during off-season months.