Malta

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Introduction to Malta

Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso's Cave - Malta is positively mythic. The narrow cobblestone streets of its towns are crowded with Norman cathedrals and baroque palaces. The countryside is littered with the oldest known human structures in the world.

Malta is very good at selling its romantic past of Copper Age temple builders and crusading celibate knights, and it has used this image to crank up a formidable tourism industry. Not that the islands are overrun with highrise resorts - yet.

In the face of modernisation, the archipelago's staunchly Roman Catholic culture has helped the Maltese maintain a tight-knit community and keep a lid on runaway development.

The upshot of this is that travellers can enjoy a refreshing balance of convenience and unvarnished local charm, and can get comfort for considerably less than at many comparable Mediterranean destinations.

The religious festival season is six months long - ending just in time for the holidays. If you overdose on nougat and wine, you can slip off to the tiny neighbouring islands of Gozo or Comino for some serious peace and quiet.

Full country name: Republic of Malta

Area: 316 sq km

Population: 400,000

Capital City: Valletta

People: Maltese

Language: Malti, English, Italian

Religion: Roman Catholic (90%)

Government: Republic

Head of State: President Edward Fenech Adami

Head of Government: Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi

GDP: US$6.81 billion

GDP per capita: US$17,200

Annual Growth: 4%

Inflation: 2.4%

Major Industries: Tourism, electronics, ship repair, construction

Major Trading Partners: Italy, Germany, UK

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Visas are not required for holiday visits of up to three months by Americans, Australians, Britons, Canadians, Japanese, New Zealanders or nationals of most EU countries.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1

Dialling Code: 356

Electricity: 240V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Feast of St Paul's Shipwreck, on 10 February, commemorates the mishap that brought the apostle to Malta in 60 AD. During the third week of February, pretty floats and creepy masks mark Carnival, when dancing competitions and other festivities take place in the capital and Floriana. This predominantly Roman Catholic country gets into Holy Week in a big way. During the Good Friday pageant, Christ's passion and crucifixion are depicted by statues born aloft through the streets of Valletta and a dozen other towns. You can also see Last Supper Table Displays in the capital and in the outlying villages, including one in Zebbug made entirely of pasta.

The Feast of St Publius in Floriana kicks off the festa (feast) season on the first Sunday after Easter; over the next six months every village honours its patron saint. Satisfy your fried rabbit habit during L'Imnarja - the Feast of Sts Peter & Paul - held on 28 and 29 June. The festivities include traditional Maltese folk singing, horse racing and lots of crispy bunny. During the Christmas season, streets all over the islands are festooned with lights, statues of Baby Jesus look out from the windows of homes and shops, and bands march through Valletta every evening. On Christmas Eve (24 December), boys parade through towns and villages with statues of the infant Saviour, and a child tells the story of Christ's birth during Midnight Mass.

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Best time to Visit

The best time to visit Malta is the lull from February to June, between the rainy season (such as it is) and the hot Mediterranean summer. This is also when room rates drop by as much as 40% from their late June to August high. September and October are also good months to visit.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Maltese lira

Meals

Budget: £1-4

Mid-range: £4-5

High: £5-7

Deluxe: £7+

Lodging

Budget: £5-10

Mid-range: £11-20

High: £20-26

Deluxe: £26+

By European standards, Malta is very good value. You can travel in comfort and style for US$75-100 per day, though even US$30-35 a day will get you pleasant hostel accommodation, a simple restaurant meal, a decent street-side snack and enough cold drinks to keep you going.

Banks are the best place to change money; they almost always offer a significantly better rate than hotels or restaurants. Waiters and taxi drivers expect a 10% tip. All major credit cards are widely accepted. Bargaining for handicrafts at stalls or markets is essential, but most shops have fixed prices. There's a 15% value-added tax on all consumer items.

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Attractions

Valletta

While travelling through the Mediterranean, Sir Walter Scott described Valletta as 'the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen'. Today it's a beautifully preserved 16th-century walled city, small enough to cover in a few hours without sweating too much in the Mediterranean sun.

Valletta is a rough rectangle at the tip of a peninsula on Malta's northeast coast. From the City Gate at the southwest edge of Valletta, you can walk to the centre of town through a series of squares surrounded by palaces and cathedrals.

Gozo

Gozo has a distinct character all its own. The countryside is prettier than that of its larger neighbour, the pace is slower and there are far fewer tourists. The island has its share of medieval architecture and prehistoric temples, making it a great place to escape the tourism mill.

The commercial centre of the island, Victoria, has a sleepy 17th-century feel. Head to the top of the Citadel, or 'Gran Costello', for a view of the entire island. The Norman House, on the Citadel's grounds, houses an interesting folk museum.

You can retrace the footsteps of Ulysses at Calypso's Cave, in the cliffs overlooking Ramla Bay on the northeastern coast. Other spelunking opportunities include the underground Xerri's Grotto and Ninu's Cave in the tiny town of Xaghra, a couple of kilometres southwest of Ramla Bay. The Ggantija temple complex, also near Xaghra, is the most spectacular in Malta.

Mdina

This 3000-year-old city, once the political centre of Malta, is filled with Norman and baroque buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Perched on a rocky outcrop about 15km (9mi) west of Valletta, the so-called Citta Notabile (Noble City) has a commanding view of the island.

Its nickname derives from the many aristocratic Maltese families who still live in town. The best-preserved medieval building is the Norman-style Palazzo Falzon, built in 1495. Mdina has a beautiful main piazza, where you'll find the 11th-century Roman Catholic Sicula-Norman Cathedral, one of the few buildings to survive an earthquake in 1693. The cathedral museum houses a collection of Dürer woodcuts. The nearby suburb of Rabat (which translates roughly as 'suburb') has the interesting Museum of Roman Antiquities, which offers exhibits on the island's 1000 years under Roman rule.

Hagar Qim

Dating from as early as 3600 BC, Hagar Qim and the other Neolithic temples on Malta are the oldest known human structures in the world. This megalithic temple complex is adorned with carved animals and idols, sacrificial altars and oracular chambers, all executed with nothing more than flint and obsidian tools.

Giant limestone slabs form a series of ovals laid out in a pattern that some archaeologists have compared to Mother Goddess figurines found on the site. The view of the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Filfla is one of the best in Malta. Hagar Qim and its neighbour, the Mnajdra temple, are near the village of Qrendi, about 15km (9mi) southwest of Valletta.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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