Film, food and festivals: experience these Maltese must-dos

From film set worthy sites to Instagrammable eats, enjoy an enriching trip around culture-packed Malta

Wednesday 11 October 2023 09:05 BST
<p>From thriving art and food scenes to fantastic festivals, Malta has something for everyone </p>

From thriving art and food scenes to fantastic festivals, Malta has something for everyone

Malta may be small in size – it covers just 122 square miles, with a population of just over half a million – but it packs a mighty punch when it comes to culture. Whether you’re a history buff, film geek, foodie or festival-lover, these islands have something for you.

The compact yet handsome capital, Valletta, is a great place to start; head for the imposing St John’s Co-Cathedral, an ornate, baroque cathedral built by the Order of St John, a Catholic medieval military organisation which used to rule Malta. The lavish gilt decoration showcases the wealth and power of the Knights of St John, who also constructed the nearby Grand Master’s Palace; it’s where the Maltese nation was officially established, and, during the period of British rule, was known as the Governor’s Palace.

St John’s Co-Cathedral is a must-see, from the baroque architecture to its incredible frescos

Many more fascinating museums are dotted over the archipelago; go back to late-Neolithic times at the megalithic Haġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples in Qrendi, on Malta’s southwestern coast. Among the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world, they feature well-preserved carvings, chambers and doorways. Learn more about the islands’ proud, sea-faring past at the Malta Maritime Museum in Birgu, with its collection of artefacts including Roman-era anchors, cannons, and traditional boats - from there you can head to The Inquisitors Palace, a fascinating historic house and museum where you can immerse yourself in the Holy Roman Inquisition that dominated Malta for over 200 years.

An art lover? Valletta is home to several impressive galleries, including MUŻA, formerly the National Museum of Fine Arts. Located within the sandstone Auberge d’Italie, you’ll find a range of works by Maltese and foreign artists including sculpture, ceramics and photography. For more contemporary works, Blitz is an artist-run space spread over four floors in an elegant townhouse in the city centre, and Spazju  Kreattiv, an organisation which hosts a programme of creative arts and cultural events around Malta and Gozo. Set in St James Cavalier, a 16th century fort, it runs everything from theatre performances to visual arts exhibitions, workshops, and film screenings at its arthouse cinema.

Film sets and festivals

The Feast of Our Lady of the Lily is celebrated in the town of Mqabba

As well as showing films, Malta has served as the location for several; from scenes in Ridley Scott’s forthcoming epic, Napoleon, to his Oscar-winning hit Gladiator, as well as Jurassic World Dominion, Captain Phillips and Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the island’s natural beauty and stunning architecture have had their own starring roles. And you can still visit the purpose-built set of 1980 Robin Williams smash, Popeye. Popeye Village, on Anchor Bay, a couple of miles from Mellieħa, stood in for the town of Sweethaven in the movie; here you can explore the wooden buildings and props left standing, as well as experience a range of shows and games, perfect for kids.

Kids will also love the colourful, vibrant festivals that Malta holds annually. The biggest is Malta Carnival, celebrated for over 600 years; it runs for five days, right before Lent, usually held in February or early March. Extravagantly-decorated floats parade down streets, children and adults don costumes and fancy dress for parties and masked balls, and while the main action takes place in Valletta, most towns and villages, including in Gozo, have their own version of festivities.

The festival of Imnarja, in June, is one of the oldest in Malta, taking its name - luminarja – from luminare, the Latin word for illuminate. In honour of saints Peter and Paul, people would light candles and bonfires; today you’ll find them playing folk music, dancing, and, of course, eating. In August, celebrate Santa Marija’s Feast, also known as the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. Every village and town in Malta and Gozo comes together to honour their patron saint, with marching bands parading through the streets with a statue of the Virgin Mary. There are also some spectacular fireworks displays – particularly in the picturesque village of Mqabba – which take place the night before the feast.

Food from haute to historical

Enjoy high end dining at Michelin starred restaurants in Malta

If all this talk of feasts is making you hungry, be ready to try the island’s amazing food. It’s full of excellent restaurants, such as the five-star, family-run Commandoin Mellieħa which serves modern Mediterranean cuisine, and Michelin-starred De Mondion in Mdina, where you’ll find the likes of caviar and suckling pig.

There are plenty of places for all budgets in the buzzy seaside towns of St Julian’s and Sliema; expect to eat al fresco, with sea views. Try the incredible rabbit spaghetti at Gululu, or seared tuna steaks at Surfside. If you want to dine out with a difference, experience dinner and a folklore show at Ta’Marija, where dancers in traditional costume tell the story of Malta’s history while you eat.

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