Baroque cathedrals, hilltop citadels and a unique cuisine make Malta one of the most glamorous islands in the Mediterranean, as Nick Redman discovers
1. St John’s Co-Cathedral
Make your first stop Valletta’s gargantuan St John’s Co-Cathedral, a Baroque triumph completed in 1577 for the Knights of the Order of St John (resident military noblemen committed to fending off the Ottoman Turks for the Catholic Church). Although it is austere outside, the interior is a work of art, resplendent with paintings and artefacts, which richly adorn its chapels. Among the highlights are the sumptuous marble floor, the nave of polychrome-marble tombstones depicting celebrated Knights of the Order, and a dazzling display of rich liturgical garments, while The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio holds onlookers spellbound. Entry Lm2.50 (£4); visit stjohnscocathedral.com.
2. National War Museum
For an insight into Malta’s remarkable effort in World War II, visit the capital’s National War Museum. It is set in premises on the ramparts of Fort St Elmo, which was pivotal in the long and gruelling conflict. Among the expected paraphernalia of gas masks, uniforms, regimental crests and Nazi relics are some show-stoppers: the Gloster Gladiator bi-plane “Faith”, one of three that defended the island; a jeep which transported President Roosevelt during a visit in 1943; and the George Cross medal for gallantry, presented to Malta in 1942. Entry Lm1, go to heritagemalta.org.
Grab a bus from outside Valletta’s City Gate to the Parish Church of Mosta (45 minutes, 11km). Despite its modest-sounding name, the church rises above the little town with a grand profile and is said to be the largest unsupported dome in Europe after the Vatican and Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. The design derives from Rome’s Pantheon, and was begun in 1833 to meet the needs of a swelling populace. From the laying of the first stone to the completion of the intricate carving on the inner dome took more than a century, and it is a sturdy survivor. In April 1942, an Axis bomb hit the dome during a crowded service – it smashed through, rolled a little and, possibly thanks to divine intervention, stopped dead in its tracks. Free entry, visit mosta.gov.mt.
Get back on a bus to proceed to the hilltop citadel of Mdina, which was given its name by the Saracens who arrived circa AD870 and built the first dense fortress walls. Mdina has all the ornate, honey-stoned appeal of a small Italian town and the St Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, while not as ornate or famous as St John’s Co-Cathedral, may be considered “second-in-command”. It is an essay in bells and belfries, fervently Baroque thanks to a rebuild around 1700, prompted by earthquake damage. Crane your neck inside and you’ll glimpse the painted vault and dome, the original door, Venetian lamps, a solid-silver tabernacle, and a French organ, which is three centuries old and still in use today.
5. Fontanella Tea Gardens
If you’re feeling hungry or fancy a little alcoholic refreshment at this point, make for Fontanella Tea Gardens on Bastion Street (tel +356 2145 4264). Take a parasol-shaded table up on the ramparts and view the patterns of towns and villages undulating to the hazy eastern coast. Idle over rosé, foamy café lattes and pastries stuffed with peas or ricotta. If you’re after more of a local atmosphere, visit the tiny Crystal Palace coffee shop just beyond the Roman Domus for real, just-like-Mamma-used-to-make Maltese pastizzi.
6. Xara Palace Hotel
While you’re in one of Malta’s finest towns, pay a visit to landmark boutique hotel the Xara Palace. Built into the city walls in the late 17th century as a nobles’ residence, it was remodelled as a hotel in 1949 and is an appealing combination of baronial and bucolic. Enjoy the view from the De Mondion rooftop restaurant (open Mon-Sat, 1930-2230) and try gourmet spins on local dishes, for example roasted rabbit loin on vanilla-flavoured risotto. Visit xarapalace.com.mt.