As I prepare to leave Malta after living here on and off for the better part of a year, I have much to reflect on from my time in this dusty archipelago anchored a couple of hundred kilometers off the coast of Sicily. It certainly stole a piece of my heart, and I’m certain if you visit you will fall in love with it as well. This tiny nation of just over 400,000 people is brimming with cultural history and character. It also has plenty of quirks and eccentricities.
Here are 10 things to expect when visiting Malta.
1. That’s not shouting, it’s just talking!
The first time I encountered a verbal exchange by some locals I honestly thought the participants were about to come to blows. I was watching a couple of old men conversing outside a coffee shop in Valetta. They were – it seemed to me at least – positively barking at each other.
One would suddenly leap up out of his chair, start gesticulating wildly, and then just as quickly plonk himself back down again as if nothing had happened. The other would attempt to enlist a nearby table of patrons to back his side of the argument, and they, in turn, seemed more than happy to be drawn into the feverous exchange. Then, just as quickly, the men burst out into fits of laughter and went on to no-doubt organize their children’s wedding or a weekend bar-b-que.
Maltese, a Latinised form of ancient Arabic, is a mish-mash of dialects infused with fragments of Spanish, Italian, French, and English. It is the main language of the Island and you will hear it spoken with great exuberance.
The Maltese are also lovers of a great debate. So much so that one friend described a work team-building function she was at where they were assigned the task of having a conversation where they didn’t begin a sentence by saying ‘no, but…’ Apparently, the group found it quite a struggle.
2. Malta is a former British colony (so yes most people speak English)
Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, but it still maintains strong cultural and economic ties with the Commonwealth.
English is the second official language of Malta. Surprisingly when the Maltese do switch to English they often seem comparatively soft-spoken with a distinctive accent that you are going to find completely infectious.
It’s no surprise then that visitors from the United Kingdom make up the largest share of people enjoying the country’s vibrant tourist industry, though you will also meet plenty of visitors from nearby Italy, with which the country also shares many cultural influences, as well as from many other parts of the European Union and beyond.
Malta became a member state of the EU in 2004, and European visitors can travel freely back and forth to Malta. Sadly, thanks to Brexit, us Brits can no longer say the same.
3. The are increadibly polite and friendly
I can’t think of a single time I had a really bad experience with a taxi driver, server in a restaurant, or shopkeeper during my time here. The Maltese are famously polite and warm people. I think living on such a tiny island where everyone knows everyone has got to be a contributing factor to that. Also, tourism is of course a huge part of the local economy.
But to really understand Malta’s relationship with foreigners however you need to first look at where it sits on the world map. Being an Island in the Mediterranean it has for centuries held a position of incredible strategic importance.
Empires in both the East and West have coveted the island as a stop-over point for reaching into potential areas of conquest, and through its history, Malta has been invaded and colonized by numerous foreign powers. It has been within the dominion of the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.
In 1530, The Knights Hospitaliers made Malta their home and remained there for nearly 250 years before Napoleon’s armies briefly occupied the Islands before the British took control in 1813.
It’s hardly a surprise then that the Maltese are proud and independent people. I’ve found them to be super welcoming, and always happy to cater to tourists – but they don’t generally pander to them. This is an island of people who live their lives on their own terms and can be famously resistant to change for the sake of change. So come to Malta with an open mind and get ready to slot into the Maltese way of life.
The good news is that if you enjoy spending the evenings going out for a great meal, listening to some live music, and sitting by the shoreline watching the sun go down over the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean. you will fit in just fine. Oh, yeah, speaking of that shoreline…
4. It’s less a beach, and more a rock.
If you are picturing a holiday languidly strolling across huge swathes of empty sandy beaches, you may be surprised to find yourself instead perched on a blanket atop a rocky embankment, walking along a stone-clad seawall, or stretching out on a huge slab of cement that once formed an artillery platform.
Malta is largely speaking, a big rock.
You can of course find sandy beaches, particularly in the north around Mellieha, but they can get extremely crowded and touristy.
Don’t worry though, that doesn’t mean there aren’t miles of absolutely beautiful coastline to explore, with numerous natural baths carved into the sandstone, usually with ladders from which you can lower yourself into the water, and cliff edges from which to cast yourself if you so dare (another favorite Maltese pastime).
There are also countless beautiful hidden caves and grottos in which to swim, snorkel, or scuba dive, particularly on the island of Gozo.
Well, it’s more of a fortress really…
I mentioned that Malta has seen its share of foreign invaders, and evidence of this is literally cut into the foundations of most of the urban areas, particularly around and Valetta and the Three Cities.
From the siege of Malta in 1565 when the Ottoman empire threw everything thing it had at the Island, to WWII when Axis forces dropped a historically unprecedented number of bombs on the island, Malta has withstood some serious assaults, and as such much of the country seems like one enormous fortification.
Both Fort St. Angelo and the smaller Fort St. Elmo are very interesting locations to check out if you are interested in learning more about that side of the country’s history. Bring your sunscreen however as during the summer there is little shade and it can they incredibly hot.
5. Jesus (and family) are everywhere.
No, really, Jesus – or Christo as he is known locally – is quite literally everywhere in Malta. You will find him or his mother, and another member of the extended family, and many of the other saints and apostles popping up in the remotest locations imaginable.
Shrines can be found carved into not just church walls, but also office building facades, hotel foyers, lobbies, shopfronts, and bay windows throughout every city and village on the island. You will often notice people’s private doorways have adorned with statues or in some cases full-blown altars.
The rural areas are no different, and you could easily find yourself hiking along a stretch of seemingly remote coastline only to be confronted by The Saviour peeking his head out from under a sandstone cliff face. There is even a large sculpture of Christ of the Sailors submerged 2km off the coast to watch over unfortunate shipwrecked souls.
Malta remains a deeply religious country with a Christian history stretching back to the crusades. A testament to their devotion is the fact the island boasts an impressive 359 churches – not bad for a country with a population of just over half a million.
It’s impossible to overstate the role religion plays in Maltese culture, even amongst the Maltese that are not especially religious. As one friend put it: ‘in Malta if something goes wrong its God’s fault and if something goes right it’s also God’s fault’.
6. Summer is a time for festivals.
Typically various different dioceses in Malta will all have their own patron saints and string of summer festas which include religious services combined with live music, feasting, and general festivities. Apparently, some of them have can get quite rambunctious later in the evening when the wine has been flowing and spirits are running high.
Sadly due to covid much of these have been shut down during my time here so I never got to witness in full swing crowds of revelers racing through the streets while holding aloft their respective statues in an attempt to prove who’s saint has the most mojo.
If the pandemic has put a damper on the festivals, it hasn’t slowed another favorite pastime of the Maltese which is…
7. They do love their fireworks.
So the Maltese love a good fireworks display. Any day of the week, any occasion – any excuse really to set off a volley of bangers into the nighttime sky. Well, I say nighttime – they also seem perfectly happy to set off pyrotechnics in the middle of a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Any time will do. In the scorching summer heat, I sometimes wonder how they don’t manage to inadvertently light half the country on fire.
Most of the light shows are linked to the aforementioned religious festivals, and many of the displays are actually hand-made by local communities throughout the year. There are also plenty of shows tied to general celebrations and holidays. If you look out for local events you can fairly easily find yourself a front-row seat to an evening light show.
The main event is the Malta International Fireworks Festival, originally set up to celebrate Malta’s inclusion in the European Union. They normally happen in late April, but as with everything these days, you will want to check things are still going ahead.
8. They also love their water polo.
Like everywhere in Europe, football of course is a hugely popular sport played and watched by many. I noticed plenty of interest in athletics, tennis, horseracing, and sport shooting and hunting… but the true national sporting obsession is water polo. It’s hardly a surprise for a country that seems to live in the water. You are going to find outdoor pools dotted along almost every main stretch of urban coastline.
9. They drive like lunatics (on the left of the road).
Aside from the occasional iconic British phone booth or bright red post box, one of the most obvious hangovers from Malta’s colonial past is the fact that unlike most of its European neighbors they drive on the left side of the road. So if you are coming from the mainland or from North America then do remember to look right when stepping off the curb.
In fact, remember to look in every direction when crossing the street because at any moment you run a serious risk of being run down by a boy racer doing twice the speed limit in a jacked-up Vauxhall Astra.
It is a well-known fact that the Maltese are great lovers of their automobiles, and at last count, there was nearly one car or every person on the island.
Should you find yourself behind the wheel in Malta remember the first rule of driving is to tear up along a pot-hole covered road, slam on the brakes just in time to stop within inches of a car that has paused for a pedestrian, and then honk and gesticulate for them to get a move on. The same rules apply at a red light.
A great alternative to driving is to hop onto one of the many mobility scooters you will find dotted around the coastal areas. They make a great way to get around and are a cheap, green alternative. They are also a lot of fun.
Just make sure you mind the cats.
10. Malta is a great place to be a street cat.
Cats pretty much have free reign over many parts of Malta, and you will see random catteries and feeding stations peppered around squares, parks, and seawalls. Some people do keep cats inside as pets, but just as often these feline children of the streets are communal palls to the local shopkeepers and residents who keep them well-fed and watered.
You can usually see the hiding from the heat under park benches or nudging up to you for a pat or some scraps of your sandwich.
The boardwalks around Sliema and St. Julian’s are particularly known for their cat colonies.
Any other fun facts about Malta?
I still feel like I’m just scraping to the surface of this crazy little island. Anything you think I’ve missed that makes it unique? Leave me a comment below!