As I stroll through the historic streets of Valletta, the capital city of Malta, the smell of freshly baked bread drifts through the air and my tummy starts to rumble. I had an early start so I could photograph the sun rise over this beautiful city and I’m ready for breakfast. Malta’s food scene may not be as globally renowned as some of its neighbours, but it holds a distinct charm that resonates with those who appreciate authenticity, fresh seasonal ingredients, and a rich culinary history. Join me as I explore where and what to eat and drink in Malta.
Discover Maltese Cuisine
The gastronomy of this small island nation off the coast of Tunisia, just south of Sicily, has undoubtedly been influenced by many cultures. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves made their way into Maltese kitchens from North Africa while the Knights of St John brought the flavours of Andalusia and Provence. Sweet treats such as cannoli arrived via Sicily and, the British who colonised the island from 1814 to 1964, left their mark too.
Unsurprisingly fish and seafood dishes are popular, as is rabbit as well as beef, chicken, pork, lamb and game. And of course, seasonal, fresh, local vegetables.
Breakfast in Malta: Pastizzi at Crystal Palace, Rabat
I started my first day on the island early to catch the sunrise in Valletta. The views as the sun broke through the clouds were well worth the pre-dawn start. It was the perfect time to photograph the city and admire the architecture while hardly anyone else was around.
It was also a great way to work up an appetite and after an hour or so of wondering I was ready for a breakfast of coffee and pastizzi. These traditional flaky pastries are most commonly filled with either ricotta cheese, pastizzi tal-irkotta or mushy peas, pastizzi tal-pizelli. It’s easy to tell which is which as, the cheese ones are folded so the join is at the top, while those filled with mushy peas are folded on their sides.
You’ll find pastizzi in patisseries dotted across the island but the best known are from Is-Serkin – Crystal Palace Bar in Rabat. You’ll find it adjacent to the main car park near the bus stop. It’s a somewhat humbler establishment than the name implies but the delectable pastries it serves are well worthy of its namesake.
Another breakfast favourite is qaghaq tal-gungla, a sweet and spiced ring-shaped bread. For a heartier start to the day, however, bigilla is a typical breakfast dish. It’s a thick bean dip made from mashed broad beans, garlic, and parsley, served with Maltese bread or crackers. A traditional Maltese breakfast might also include a variety of fresh fruits, honey, and local cheeses.
Lunch in Malta: The fishing village of Marsaxlokk
Colourful little wooden boats, called luzzu, bob up and down by the quayside as I squeeze my way through the stalls and hoards of people who have flocked to visit Marsaxlokk Sunday Fish Market. The majority of Malta’s fish are caught in these waters including swordfish, tuna and ‘lampuki’. On weekdays the fish is taken to Valetta’s fish market but on Sunday the catch is sold right here.
If you aren’t familiar with lampuki, it’s found in the waters around Malta from mid-August to December as the tender young fish, having spawned in Cyprus, migrate west out into the Atlantic. It has many names depending on where you are in the world. You may know it as dorado, dolphin fish or the mahi-mahi. In Malta, it’s traditionally baked in a pie, Torta Tal-Lampuki, made with spinach, peas, chopped cauliflower, olives, tomatoes, a little lemon and herbs such as mint and marjoram.
We had a tip-off that Michelin-guide-featured, Tartarun, on the corner of Marsaxlokk Square opposite the quayside was THE place to dine in the village so we booked a table as soon as we arrived. We then had time to explore the market knowing we had a table secured. We were lucky to get one at all. On our return, we selected our fish which was simply grilled with local herbs and served with freshly cooked vegetables. The restaurant is unassuming to look at but the food and service are superb.
If you can’t get in, however, there are several other very good restaurants and wherever you eat, it’s worth checking how the fish was caught. Traditionally, the fish of Malta was caught by line or nets from luzzu, however, large-scale trawling and fish farming are now providing cheaper but unsustainable and environmentally damaging alternatives.
Need to know: Fish in Malta is commonly sold by the weight so it is worth checking the final price of your fish to help avoid any costly surprises.
After your fish lunch, if you aren’t quite full enough, there’s plenty of choice from the market stalls for snacks on the go, especially if you have a sweet tooth.
Below: Maltese Cannoli (Kannoli Tal-Irkotta)
Dinner in Malta: Steak at Madliena Lodge, Madliena
For an evening meal, my favourite location is the hill-top restaurant, Madliena Lodge. It’s renowned for its seasonally changing Mediterranean cuisine as well as its sea views. Housed in a historic stone building, Madliena is elegant yet unpretentious, the staff attentive without fussing and the food and wine first class.
One of the restaurant’s best-loved dishes is grilled bavette of Argentinian beef marinated in thyme and onion. It is superb and their fish, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options are reputedly equally as good.
Madliena Lodge is a popular location for celebrations, large and small, so booking in advance is essential.
Where and what to drink in Malta
Wine and Liqueurs at Marsovin Winery, Marsa
If wine tasting is on your Malta wish list, then a visit to Marsovin Winery, 4 miles southwest of Valletta is a must. Here indigenous grape varieties like Gellewza and Ghirghentina are transformed into exceptional wines. While there, don’t miss the opportunity to sample the Maltese liqueur Bajtra, made from prickly pears. It’s most often served straight over ice as a digestive or with a sparkling rose as a light and refreshing spritz.
Another excellent wine estate, Ta’Betta, is located in the north of the island near Mdina. Although not generally open to the public, it can be visited by special arrangement and I’d recommend connecting them to find out more.
Coffee at Café Cordina, Valletta
In the heart of Valletta, Café Cordina is in a beautiful historic building with a menu boasting Maltese coffee specialities. Sip on a għażel bil-lewż, a local almond coffee, while soaking in the architectural wonders surrounding the café.
Kinnie at Café Jubilee, Valletta and Victoria on Gozo
Café Jubilee opened in Victoria on the island of Gozo, Malta’s little sister. Inspired by the golden era of the 1920s and 30s. They have recreated a charming vintage bistro ambience that’s warm and inviting, both in their original café on Gozo and their second café in Valletta.
Either one is a beguiling spot for coffee or tea or something a little stronger. For a refreshing cold drink though try a Kinnie, Malta’s iconic bitter orange drink. It pairs beautifully with a slice of homemade almond cake.
Cisk Beer at Farsons Brewery, Birkirkara
Established in 1928, Farsons has been brewing in this elegant location, near Valletta, since 1950. Their Cisk lager is found all over Malta. An adult ticket for their brewery tour includes a free pint in the scenic rooftop tap room. However, I’d recommend a beer flight so you can try a variety of their offerings. While they are celebrated for their award-winning Cisk lager, they brew an impressive range of further lagers as well as ales and an excellent milk stout.
A Maltese Cooking Lesson
If you’d like to try your hand at cooking some traditional street food while in Malta, I suggest you visit Girgenti Olive Grove where I learnt to cook Ftira. This traditional Maltese sourdough bread is baked in a brick oven with various toppings to form a delicious snack or filling meal. It’s so good that it was deemed worthy of being added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2020. Popular toppings include tuna, potato, olives, Maltese sausage, herbs and cheese.
Our cooking lesson, booked via Karlito’s Way, was great fun, the result delicious and all in the lovely setting of an olive grove.
Malta’s culinary landscape, though often overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbours, offers a delightful tapestry of flavours deeply rooted in its diverse history. Whether savouring the catch of the day at the lively Marsaxlokk Sunday Fish Market or indulging in a steak with panoramic views at Madliena Lodge, Malta invites you on a gastronomic journey. For those seeking a hands-on experience, a cooking lesson at Girgenti Olive Grove, crafting the UNESCO-recognised Ftira, adds a personal touch to this culinary exploration. The island’s wine and beer should also not be overlooked. Malta invites travellers to savour the essence of its culture, one delicious bite (and sip) at a time.
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