36 Hours in Malta
Malta contains multitudes. Despite being the smallest member of the European Union, the Mediterranean archipelago below Sicily bears traces of numerous peoples and conquerors: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, French and, most notably, the European crusader knights known as the Order of Malta. Preachers (St.Paul), painters (Caravaggio) and politicians (Napoleon) have washed up on the rocky sun-roasted shores and left marks too. The Maltese language is close to Arabic (though English is the second official tongue). And residents drive on the left like the British, who governed the islands for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The cuisine is infused with Italian flavors and ingredients — to say nothing of rabbit, the national dish — while the architecture ranges from mysterious ancient temples to masterful Baroque-era cathedrals to new postmodern experiments. Rather than try to encapsulate Malta, it’s best to simply plunge in. The walled cities of Valletta and Mdina are your entry points.
1. A GRAND ENTRANCE, 5 P.M.
Valletta, Malta’s capital, is having a moment. Filled with palazzos and churches, the storybook city celebrates its 450th birthday this year and in 2018 will be a European Capital of Culture. Channeling its stony grandeur, the architect Renzo Piano designed two structures that form a dramatic introduction to Valletta. Inaugurated last year, his city gate is a vast, blocky, asymmetrical stone entryway that opens onto the adjacent new parliament. The monolithic jagged buildings are lifted off the ground by slender pillars and covered in textured panels like rippling waves. Circle the buildings and ascend the stone staircase alongside to appreciate their shifting forms. At the top is St. James Cavalier, a cultural center that hosts exhibitions and performances.
2. GREEN AND BLUE, 6 P.M.
Wasn’t that the castle in the films “Gladiator” and “Troy”? Such questions might spring to mind while absorbing the panoramic view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a pleasant green space of palms, plants and stone arches overlooking the main harbor. Across the way are centuries-old fortresses like Fort St. Angelo and Fort Ricasoli — used in many Hollywood productions — and the deep blue Mediterranean. A grappa (2.20 euros, or about $2.40) or limoncello (€2.20) at the outdoor cafe-bar is the perfect complement to the sunset.
3. SISTER PACT, 8 P.M.
A 16th-century palazzo with stone columns, gilded mirrors and chandeliers might sound like a recipe for pretentiousness. But Palazzo Preca, run by two Maltese sisters from a family of noted restaurateurs, defies expectations. The mood is easygoing, and the fenek moqli — in local parlance — is an inspiring concoction of plump rabbit nuggets rendered moist by a thick, elegant wine reduction, and velvety mashed potatoes. If the grilled rabbit liver appetizer feels like overkill, consider the seductive, spicy linguine Caruso, with diced squid, meaty shrimp, hot chiles and a zesty tomato sauce. The wine list is a Mediterranean tour, including Syrian, Israeli and Maltese bottles. Dinner for two, without drinks: about €70.
4. STRAIT AND NARROW, 10 P.M.
Not many people are walking straight on Strait Street as the wee hours approach, thanks to the cozy bars within and near the slim passage. A stony 400-year-old cavern hung with musical instruments, Trabuxu Wine Barserves numerous Maltese vintages — including a citrusy blend of sauvignon blanc and local Girgentina from La Torre (€3) — alongside a roster of international wines. Sultry and plush, Taproom is a chic new bar-restaurant with creations like the Tap Tini (€12), a dessertlike blend of gin, cream, simple syrup, coffee bitters and chocolate liqueur.
5. JOHN AND JEROME, 9:30 A.M.
A half-dressed man lies on the ground with blood dripping from his slit neck while a knife-wielding thug prepares the death blow. Brutally realistic, Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist” (1608) — the Italian master’s largest painting, and the only one he signed — and his nearby portrait of St. Jerome were painted during the artist’s stay in Malta in the early 1600s. They are the marquee attractions of the stunning St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a soaring barrel-vaulted space, built in the 1570s. The ceiling is painted with scenes from the life of St. John, as well as the goddess Minerva stomping upon invading Moors. Intricately inlaid flat tombstones panel the floor, radiant with images of angels, ships, skeletons and other symbols. Admission: €10.
6. SAINT STYLE, 11 A.M.
St. Paul, who was shipwrecked on Malta around A.D. 60 en route to Rome, is historically the patron saint of writers. In Valletta, he is also emerging as the patron saint of style — or at least his namesake street is. In addition to the Palazzo Prince d’Orange boutique hotel, St. Paul Street is home to new indie fashion boutiques like Kir Royal, a modern haberdashery selling dress shirts and jeans from the Italian label Kurosawa, along with shaving creams, tie clips and cuff links. For women, Mint Sparrow offers everything from shimmery backpacks for yoga mats to seahorse-shaped pendants.
7. SICILIAN STOPOVER, 1 P.M.
Sicily is less than 60 miles from Malta, and it feels even closer at Scoglitti, thanks to a partly Sicilian staff, ricotta-filled Sicilian desserts and an Italian-Maltese menu. Glassy and classy, the boathouse-chic waterside restaurant has transparent walls and shaded outdoor tables overlooking the adjacent bay. Check the ice table for various catches of the day — which recently included rockfish, red snapper and sea bass — or dive into other seafood-rich offerings. Spaghetti vongole is filled with tender clams and suffused with a buttery broth, and grouper finds many expressions, notably as a robust ravioli in creamy-crunchy-sweet sauce with pistachio nuts. Lunch for two, without wine, about €60.
8. RIDE THE TIDE, 2:30 P.M.
Next to the restaurant, take the 10-minute ferry ride (€1.50) to the Sliema waterfront. From there embark on the 90-minute scenic “Harbour Cruise” (2:45 p.m. departure) from Captain Morgan Cruises (€16). Chugging along Malta’s rocky coast, you’ll pass massive, centuries-old fortresses and ruins, grottoes and gardens, lighthouses and church towers, tiny fishing skiffs, enormous container ships and even “Black Pearl” — a three-masted schooner that once belonged to the actor Errol Flynn. (It’s now a restaurant.) An English-language commentary gives details and dates.
9. WHITE PALACE, 7 P.M.
Another night, another palace. With its white walls, white chairs and white tablecloths, the soaring palazzo-turned-restaurant known as Michael’s is a gallerylike environment for the culinary artistry of the father-son chef duoMichael and Daniel Cauchi. The menu features seafood — mussels in cream, grilled octopus — but the land-based bounty proves equally enticing. The crispy, fatty and moist pork belly appetizer delivers an Asian crunch from thin-sliced cabbage, and fruity notes from apple-beet jam. After, threelamb preparations mix crispy croquettes — filled with shredded meat —with discs of shoulder and a robust two-bone rack. Among desserts, the dark-chocolate brownie with white chocolate ice cream, crunchy cookie crumbs and forest fruits is outstanding. A three-course dinner for two, without drinks, runs €80 to €90.
10. STEP OUT, 9 P.M.
Small, stone-walled, windowless: Many Valletta bars feel like dungeons. Fortunately, two of the best offer easy breakouts by allowing drinkers to escape onto the majestic outdoor staircase-streets beyond their doors. Bridge Bar serves up Aperol spritzes (€5.50), bottles of prosecco (€20), free cushions and live jazz (mainly Fridays) to the convivial crowds who fill the steps outside its door. Around the corner, the newcomer Cafe Societyoffers twinkling harbor views and stuffed agricultural sacks for the throngs who lounge in front while quaffing local Maltese craft beers like hoppy-crisp Rust (€4).
11. STORYBOOK CITY, 10 A.M.
Ready for more time travel? Grab the number 51, 52, 53 or 54 bus (€1.50 to €2) outside Valletta’s gate, get off at Mdina and enter the walled city that was Malta’s capital for centuries before Valletta was built. Taking its name from the Arabic word for “city,” Mdina is a web of mysterious forking lanes lined by high walls, iron-barred windows and forbidding wooden doors. One leads to Palazzo Falson, a mansion built mainly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance that is now a museum of decorative arts. The elegant period rooms include a dining hall with Venetian glassware, a weapon-filled armory with inlaid pistols, a gallery of Oriental carpets, a soaring library with 4,500 historical volumes and a sitting room paneled with oil paintings. Admission €10.
12. PEWS AND VIEWS, NOON
Consecrated in 1703, St. Paul’s Cathedral is an ornately wrought homage its namesake. Especially notable are the Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti’s two paintings above and behind the altar, which depict Paul’s conversion en route to Damascus and his stormy shipwreck on Malta. Practically next door, Palazzo de Piro is a sumptuous Baroque mansion that serves as an annex of Mdina’s nearby Cathedral Museum (open Monday to Saturday). Its pleasant courtyard cafe-bar offers panoramic views from an upper terrace, making it a sublime spot to enjoy a cafe latte (€2.75) or local Cisk beer (€2.75) while taking a final glance at the distant city of Valletta and the Mediterranean beyond.
Palazzo Consiglia, 102 Saint Ursula Street, 356-2124-4222; palazzoconsiglia.com. This chic new townhouse boutique hotel has 13 rooms influenced by Baroque, Art Nouveau and Classical styles, replete with richly woven carpets, plank floors, wooden beams and vintage furniture. The hotel has a rooftop pool, and a spa is under construction. Double rooms from 179 euros.
Point de Vue, 2/7 Saqqajja Square, 356-2145-4117; pointdevue-mdina.com. Located in a 17th-century building just outside Mdina’s walls, this simple and friendly hotel has a restaurant-bar and 13 rooms that mix stone walls, rustic wooden furnishings and modern bathrooms. Doubles from 90 euros.