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Malta - When and where to visit
Azure Window © Juliet Rix
Malta, unsurprisingly, has a Mediterranean-island climate, with hot dry summers and mild damp winters with occasional chilly winds. The temperature rarely rises above the mid-30s (°C) or falls below the high single figures. It hasn’t snowed here since 1962, and before that 1905, although there was a massive hailstorm in the unusually hard, wet winter of 2011/12. Even frost tends not to touch Malta. Rain is extremely rare in summer, reasonably frequent in winter. Spring is drier than autumn but can be made colder by wind.
Malta enjoys some 300 days of sunshine a year and doesn’t have a closed season (except in Comino) so you can visit at any time. The weather does, of course, vary through the year and can get wet and windy as well as quite chilly in winter. The best time to visit depends largely on what you want to do.
Summer (which in Malta runs to mid-September) is dry, hot and quite busy. July and August are driest, hottest and busiest. The summer – especially August – is also dramatically more expensive with accommodation prices often double the winter rates. On the other hand there is very rarely any rain from early July to mid-September and the average peak temperature during the day is 30°C. Temperatures can go higher, but on the coast there is usually a breeze to stop it becoming too oppressive.
Watersports – swimming, snorkelling, diving, windsurfing, etc – are most reliable in summer when the water is warm and more likely to be calm. Summer is also festa time when each parish has its colourful religious feast day. There are feasts almost every weekend in summer and many other events besides.
Winter is generally mild and can be warm and sunny. Even in winter there is an average of five hours sunshine a day. There are, however, significant patches of cold wind and rain. When it is very windy and the sea boils up (which can be great to watch), ferries may stop running, though rarely for more than a few hours. Even in January (the coldest month) average daylight temperatures are 9–14°C. Winter weather does vary: 2011/12 was unusually cold and wet, while in 2010/11 it was T-shirt weather at Christmas. Up until the time of writing 2012/13 too has been very dry and quite mild. The cooler months are generally OK for sightseeing, but not, of course, for swimming. Accommodation is much cheaper than in summer, except over Christmas and New Year, when – although Malta is not busy – prices rise dramatically.
Spring and autumn (April–June/late September–November) are ideal if you don’t like crowds but would like a bit of sun and are primarily interested in the sights and the countryside. Swimming can be very pleasant from May until the end of October (with the water warmer in the autumn) and on weekdays at least you are quite likely to have the beach to yourself.
What makes Malta different from other parts of southern Europe is its history – and its prehistory. Malta’s prehistoric temples, built 3600–2500BC, are unique. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world and nothing built this early comes close to their sophistication. If you would visit Stonehenge or Mycenae, then don’t miss the temples of Malta.
Malta’s other main claim to fame – and far better known – is the art, architecture and fortifications of the Knights of St John. A walk around Malta’s tiny capital, Valletta, is a must, and St John’s Co-Cathedral is the artistic and decorative highlight. The best way to see fortified Valletta as the Knights and their enemies saw it is from the water. This is also the most congenial way to get between Valletta and Sliema, and Valletta and the Three Cities.
In the island’s interior is the medieval walled town of Mdina. Take a walk around, by day if you plan to go into the museums, otherwise in the evening when the tour groups have gone. Rabat (around Mdina) is often ignored, but it is a pleasant place with some amazing late Roman catacombs, of which St Paul’s is the largest and most accessible.
The other period of European history that stands out in Malta is World War II, when ‘Fortress Malta’ played a significant (and locally devastating) role in the Allied victory. There are several underground shelters that can be visited, the Malta at War Museum being the most organised.
Beyond history, many people come to Malta, and especially to Gozo, for the diving, snorkelling and swimming. Malta could also attract substantial numbers of visitors for birdwatching during spring and autumn migration but as mentioned above, the birds are also popular with hunters. Walking is great, especially in spring, along the coasts of northeastern Malta and on Gozo.
If you are interested in churches, there are hundreds! The churches and villages come particularly alive during the festa season (mostly May to September but with a few outside these dates, when bunting and lights decorate the church and streets, and the whole parish, as well as outside visitors, gathers to make music, worship, parade, party, eat, drink and watch fireworks.
Finally, don’t miss Gozo. It is completely different from the main island, much greener and much more relaxed. The Citadel is well worth a visit, there is plenty else to see and the swimming is excellent. A day trip is better than nothing, but really this is a place to spend a few days.
Malta in a day
Most one-day visitors are cruise passengers, who arrive at the Grand Harbour’s new purpose-built waterfront (http://www.vallettawaterfront.com) in Floriana, just outside the walls of Valletta. If you organise it in advance, you could step straight off your huge modern ship onto a tiny traditional one, a dgħajsa, for a 30-minute tour of the Grand Harbour, or board the sea plane for a half-hour airborne tour of the Maltese islands.
If you want to see the historic sights and do not want to do so in a large unwieldy group, then book a guide for the day and ask him/her to arrange a car (or minibus) and driver for the afternoon. Grab a sandwich, so you don’t have to stop for lunch, and request something like the following whistlestop tour (obviously adapted to your interests and time available):
• Walk around Valletta (1 hour)
• Highlights of the National Archaeological Museum (30 minutes)
• St John’s Co-Cathedral (30 minutes)
• If you have time (for instance, if you are unable to book a slot at the Hypogeum – below) then take a walk around Birgu (1 hour)
Pick up car and driver and head to:
• Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim temples (1 hour 30 minutes including travelling time) – if you don’t have time for this then replace it with the less attractive but still very interesting Tarxien Temples which are close to the Hypogeum.
• Mdina and Rabat – including St Paul’s Grotto or Catacombs (1 hour 30 minutes including driving time)
• The Hypogeum (1 hour) – you will not need a guide for this but do need to book well in advance. If few slots are available, you may have to adapt the day’s programme to fit in with the slot you are allotted.
• Back to Valletta (20 minutes’ drive)
Malta in five days
Wander around Valletta’s narrow streets and seafront fortifications, taking in whatever grabs your interest (1–2 hours). Visit the National Archaeological Museum (30 minutes) and arrive at the Upper Barracca Gardens at 11.45 for the firing of the noonday gun. Bring pastizzi with you or some other quick lunch. Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral (with the audio guide, 1–1½ hours) then take a (pre-booked) traditional dgħajsa water taxi around the Grand Harbour (30 minutes) ending up on Vittoriosa waterfront (Birgu). Visit the Malta at War Museum then wander around Birgu and the Knights’ area, the Collachio. Either eat supper early in Birgu or take the water taxi (or bus or car) back to Valletta and its many good restaurants. (This could be done in more depth and in a more relaxed way over two days.)
Start at Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim temples and their surroundings (1½ hours, though it can be done in less), then perhaps a swim and lunch at nearby Għar Lapsi. Head inland to Rabat to see St Paul’s catacombs and grotto and take a stroll around Mdina, perhaps taking in a museum or the cathedral. Hop on bus 81 (if you’re not driving) to Dingli Cliffs to explore ‘Clapham Junction’ with its mysterious ancient cart ruts and troglodyte caves. Maybe have a walk and watch the sunset.
If you have a car, you could reverse the order of the last two visits and follow an evening walk at Dingli Cliffs with an atmospheric supper in a historic building along one of Mdina’s medieval alleyways.
At 09.00 (before the tour groups arrive) head to the Tarxien temples, then walk to the not-to-be-missed underground tomb complex, the Hypogeum (book well ahead). In the afternoon take the ferry to Gozo and settle into accommodation before going to Ramla Bay for a swim in good weather, and visiting Calypso’s Cave.
If you’re visiting in summer then make your way to Mġarr ix-Xini on Gozo’s south coast to snorkel/swim and visit the tower (check opening times) and for lunch at the diminutive outdoor restaurant. In winter, explore the salt pans and walk along the north coast towards Żebbuġ. Spend the afternoon exploring the Gozo Citadel and Victoria.
Visit Ġgantija Temples and then relax – sunbathing and swimming or walking (depending on the season).
If you have longer than five days, all the better. Take your time and spread the sights out so that you can do them more thoroughly and in a more relaxed way. And go to some of the more minor ones too. Leave yourself time to sit over your lunch as the Maltese do and, if it’s summer, take a break on the beach or by the swimming pool. When you have had your fill of the main island, head to Gozo. Leave yourself as much time here as you can. Gozo is not a place to be rushed; it is somewhere to really let your hair down and relax. Walk the remarkable coastal landscape, climb the flat-topped hills and laze by the crystal-clear water. You can cram the highlights into a few days but if you really want to chill out and enjoy the country, the longer the better.