The quaint, quiet and delicious charm of Malta

Malta is like pastizzi, the country’s pastry of choice: steeped in tradition and cultural history, it boasts a unique flavor and texture created by layer upon layer of exterior with a delicious to-die-for core.

This tiny Mediterranean island gave us our first taste of the delicious pastizzi (take your pick: cheese- or pea-filled; we ate both, and in abundance)…and so much more.

The perfect breakfast: two pastizzi (one cheese, one pea), and a yummy cappuccino.

There’s history galore in the 122 square miles fought over throughout history by civilizations from the Ottomans to the Brits.

The scenery is stunning, with vistas that make a visitor stop and stare every 100 yards. Malta offers some of the clearest turquoise water we’ve seen, huge stone monuments that have stood for centuries, stunning public artwork and religious shrines on almost every corner, and people who smile from their hearts.

Malta has repeatedly been attacked and occupied, defended and conceded over the centuries. The country proudly wears its battle scars as evidence of its people’s rugged heritage, stubborn resilience and acknowledgment of the island’s vulnerability, value and strategic relevance. Once a natural stopping-off point for ancient seafarers and conquerors, Malta now hosts immense cruise ships that discharge their passengers to snap photos as they amble the cramped streets in search of Maltese cross trinkets, a bowl of rabbit stew, or a few pastizzi.

View of Valletta across Grand Harbor from Three Cities

Our 10-day visit to the birthplace of Gabi’s father was a stroll through history. We walked the entirety of Valletta – the country’s capital, ribboned with cobblestoned roads, caramel-colored stone buildings and ancient art – and visited the fishing port of Marsaxlokk, with its colorfully painted luzzu (fishing boats) bobbing in the cobalt-watered harbor ringed by quayside restaurants offering the day’s fresh catches.

A typical crowded street in central Valletta

We took a bus to the ferry to Gozo (at $1.50, a bus ticket to any destination in Malta is the best bargain on the island) to drink in the slower pace and less densely populated calm of the main island’s little sister. We strolled through ancient catacombs, built as burial grounds for Phoenicians, Pagans, Jews and Christians, and where the Maltese huddled in fear during WWII as German bombers pounded the island.

Malta’s deep Catholic roots are best appreciated in one of its churches and cathedrals (there are 47 in Valletta alone). These majestic structures dot what mountaintops adorn Malta and are always visible from a distance; constant reminders of faith, convenient landmarks and directional beacons for a population devout in its religious fervor.

Valletta’s city center is Europe’s smallest capital city, encompassing 6,100 square feet crammed with massive stone apartment buildings that house its 6,400 full-time residents. (The greater Valletta metropolitan area is home to 400,000 of Malta’s total population of 425,000, edging close to Grand Harbor and spilling into the neighborhoods that ring the city.)

Food and family are a close seconds to religion in importance to the Maltese, and in true Mediterranean cultural fashion a local will shove food or drink into your hand at first chance, grinning and inviting passersby to adopt the impressive girth many Maltese exhibit by partaking of the local delights to no end. Grilled fish, meats and sausages, pasta dishes adopted from nearby Sicily (a 90-minute ferry ride away), and Maltese staples of baked rice, dense breads and pastizzi are omnipresent. Food is reasonably priced (pastizzi costs 20-30 cents each) and delicious.

Marsaxlokk, with its harbor full of fishing boats and quaint, rustic charm

Getting around the island is easy. On our first day we took a horse-drawn carriage tour around Valletta to get oriented (30 Euros for an hour). After that we took public ferries (2.80 Euros, return) to go from Valletta to Sliema, the tiny fishing boats (two Euros each way) to reach the colorful residential Three Cities, the mostly efficient and inexpensive bus system, or our favorite mode of transportation: our feet. We walked for hours, both to drink in the flavor of architecture, history and smiling locals and also to offset the caloric intake from the delicious food.

Europeans – mainly British, Italians and eastern Europeans – routinely flock to Malta to relax, play, eat and invest and retire. Americans are less frequent visitors, perhaps owing to Malta’s tiny stature and European-centric marketing appeal.

We spent two days on Gozo, connecting by bus to Cirkewwa, and then a 30-minute ferry ride (a return ticket is $4.65 for the ferry, which runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year). You don’t need to book the ferry in advance, but it’s best to book accommodation ahead on the tiny island, particularly during summer months, when most of Malta flocks to Gozo to indulge in the slower, more casual lifestyle.

We stayed at a bnb in Xlendi Bay, falling asleep to the sounds of waves lapping the shores and waking early to trudge to the harbor’s edge, cup of coffee in hand and watch the sunrise paint the cliffs, stone buildings, and craggy ridges where local farmers cultivate fields of wheat, artichoke and vegetables.

Yours truly during a lengthy hike in Xlendi Bay overlooking the massive limestone cliffs and the cobalt waters of the Mediterranean

Vast rows of prickly pear cactus serve both as boundaries and windbreaks against the strong Mediterranean gusts that buffet the island. Ribbons of walking paths beckon a traveler to explore and approach the 500-foot limestone cliffs devoid of fences or warnings. One quickly builds a healthy respect for nature in these parts, and we kept a safe distance from the unstable cliff edges (even the famous Azure Window succumbed to the relentless pounding of the sea last month).

Looking from Gozo toward Malta, past the famous Blue Lagoon of Comino

One day, we rented a dune buggy ($90 for seven hours) to explore remote Gozo. It turned out to be the best decision of the visit, as we were able to bump along rocky goat paths and plummet down concrete roads more suitable for donkeys and 4x4s than passenger vehicles. A storm blew in minutes after we began our trip, and rain pounded our smiling faces as we quickly made our way back to our apartment to add a couple of warm layers and grab rain jackets. At one point we took refuge from the storm in an abandoned stone house, watching a shepherd huddle against the rain a few hundred yards away as his flock grazed on the hillside.

Rent a buggy. See parts of Gozo that will otherwise be inaccessible

Typical of Malta’s fast-changing weather, strong winds quickly blew the clouds away and the sun returned.

We shed some layers, donned our sunglasses and turned off the main road onto yet another unmarked passage. Something new, different, ancient and beautiful awaited, and we were eager to explore.

And like a delicious, warm pastizzi, we discovered another layer of incredible, ancient, and beautiful Malta.