Let’s Go Exploring! Malta: An Undiscovered Paradise?

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is a world-travelling early retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Why did we go to Malta? Well, ever since we got a visa to stay in Europe for a full year I’ve been obsessively trying to check off every country in the EU Schengen zone (as of the time of writing, we have just 5 countries left—Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg). Do I get an award for checking them off? Nope. Does that make me crazy? Probably.

Anyway, for most people, Instagram pictures of an azure paradise is why they go to Malta.

Pictures like this:

And this:

And this:

In fact, on Instagram the #malta has 5.4 million posts! With so many travellers and bloggers raving about underrated Malta, we quickly got the impression it was a traveller’s hidden paradise. We decided to go and find out for ourselves.

So did Malta meet our expectations?

Well, yes and no.

When it comes to swimming and good weather, Malta wins easily. Floating around in crystal clear water, basking in the sun while the rest of Europe is covered by snow—what more could you want?

Of all the places we swam in in Europe, Malta had the best water. Clear enough to see all the way to the bottom, impossibly blue, and perfectly calm.

In addition to this, Malta also had a mind-boggling number of things to do—from scuba diving, to historical sites, to gardens, to incredible hikes—the list goes on. That being said, the transportation to get to those places will make you feel like you’ve gone back to work and are commuting every day.

This was pretty surprising, considering how Malta is a country where you can drive from one end to the other in less than 3 hours. The fact that it takes such a long time to get around is pretty odd.

But as we soon found out, when it comes to Malta, there are quite a few misconceptions that we didn’t know about until we got there.

Misconception #1: Malta is one island

Actually, Malta is a country consisting of 3 islands—Malta, Comino, and Gozo.

Malta is the biggest one and the center of everything. It’s where you will learn Malta’s history, marvel at the architecture in Valletta, and have so much to do you will never ever get bored.

Comino, on the other hand, is just north of Malta and has only 1 hotel. No one lives on the island, and the only reason to visit is the Blue Lagoon—which I’ll talk about in detail later.

Then there’s Gozo (I remember it because it rhymes with Bozo). This is the “chillax” island for people to get away from the crowds and be with nature. There are a ton of beaches on Gozo and many fishing villages to discover.

When I realized that Malta is actually 3 islands, I discovered what a stupid idea it was to just stay in one city for 3 weeks. Luckily—or rather unluckily—we ran into issues with our Airbnb (which I’ll talk about in a bit) and ended up staying in 2 separate places on Malta—Valetta and Buggiba (pronounced “Boo-gee-ba”).

Misconception #2: It’s easy to get around

As the one of the smallest (both by population and land mass) countries in Europe, I figured getting around Malta would be easy peasy. Plus, it’s Europe so public transportation is generally convenient and efficient.

I was wrong. There are no subways or trains in Malta. You have to take the bus, which is fine, except Malta’s buses stop often and get traffic jammed all the time! And not only that, they only come every 30 minutes to an hour, which makes getting anywhere a pain in the ass. Ditto with the ferries. Luckily, you’ll only have to take the ferry to get to Gozo, but if you are staying in Valletta (the main city), you’d have to take a bus, wait 45 mins for a ferry, and then take another bus to get to Gozo’s centre. That’s a total travel time of 2 hours each way. I ended up falling asleep a lot on buses. No bueno.

Misconception #3: Malta is a cheap place to live

I’m not sure where this idea came from, but most travellers say “Malta’s not as cheap as I thought it would be.” Maybe expat magazines recommend it as an affordable place to retire so travellers just assume it’s cheap like Eastern Europe.

Absolutely not. Malta isn’t as expensive like Amsterdam or Paris, but it definitely isn’t cheap.

I would say the cost of living is comparable to Germany and in some cases more expensive than cities like Berlin, Aachen, or Hannover. Groceries were pricey (not surprising since it’s an island) and so was eating out. Bus tickets were cheap at €1.25 a ride if you buy 12 at a time, but it’s so excruciatingly slow and infrequent I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Misconception #4: Malta is a hidden gem

Ten years ago, Malta might have been undiscovered by travellers, but these days, with millions of Instagram pictures and travel bloggers raving about Malta, it now has 2.3 million visitors each year. Considering the population is only 400K, you can see why it feels touristy. English signs were plastered everywhere. You can easily see well-known franchises like Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, and McDonald’s all over the island.

So don’t go to Malta expecting a hidden gem. Go there knowing you will be sharing it with thousands of other tourists. Don’t let that discourage you though. There are still many things on Malta that I loved:

Forts, forts and more forts

View from Fort Chambray in Gozo

If you like forts and the engineering that goes on behind them, this is the place for you. After visiting the Fortifications Interpretation Centre, we learned about how much engineering goes into building a fort to fend off foreign invaders. The museum had detailed drawings showing why certain shapes (like the star) were more effective than square or circular shapes. If you like nerding out over the engineering of forts go visit it.

Comino

A 15 minute boat ride from the ferry port in Malta takes you to the smallest island, Comino, which is known for one thing and one thing only—the Blue Lagoon.

As the name suggests, it’s the perfect spot for swimming. As a result, it’s pretty crowded during high season. To avoid the crowds, go super early in the morning or after 3 PM in the afternoon. Just know that if you go later, the last boat leaves around 5:15pm so you may not get as much time to swim.

The Blue Grotto

A cave in the side of the mountain that you can visit by boat, the Blue Grotto gives you breathtaking photos and has the most incredible water color, like the rest of Malta. Just make sure you get there before 3 PM during shoulder or low season as the boat tours were closed by the time we get there. If you take the bus from Valetta, make sure you budget enough time—it will take a while.

“Wied il-Ghasri” on Gozo island:

A hidden creek you can reach only by climbing down a steep set of stairs in the cliffside, this was the most secluded place for swimming. We took the bus to get here, but even after you get off at the bus stop, you’ll have to walk a good 20 minutes through a rural area until you find the cliff face to climb down the steps. The effort explains why you don’t have to share it with other tourists.

Afterwards, you can have a breathtaking view of the sea as you hike your way to the city of Marsalforn.

Valletta and Mdina

The two historical cities we visited on Malta are Valletta and Mdina. Mdina (known as the “Silent City”) was especially good for peace and quiet because cars are restricted so you can walk around and revel in the silence. It was so quiet when I heard someone say “Hey, aren’t you FIRECracker?” I thought my mind was making up noises. So yeah, apparently one of our readers was visiting Malta at the same time and happened to recognize us as we explored Mdina. I guess they were also attracted to the history and silence.

As much as I liked Mdina, of the two cities, I’d say Valetta is still my favourite. If you like cobbled sidewalks, century-old steps, and architecture, you’ll love Valetta. It’s like an open-air museum, with historical buildings set on a hill overlooking the sea.

photo credit: Jamie Hamilton @ Flickr

Affordable Healthcare

Wanderer had a bad rash that was getting worse and while we were in Malta we went to a walk-in government run clinic. We thought we’d have to make an appointment, but they let us see a doctor after waiting for only 20 minutes. The doctor asked some questions, took a look at Wanderer, gave him a prescription, and then we were done. When we tried to ask where we should go to pay, she just said “don’t worry about it”.

Then we went to a pharmacy and got the medication for the princely sum of…€2. The cost was so negligible we didn’t even bother filing it to our expat insurance.

Boy, outside the US healthcare is incredibly affordable. This was also the case in Thailand, Mexico, and Poland—all places that provided quality healthcare for a minuscule cost.

I can see why Malta is an attractive place for retirees. The weather, health care, and safety factor makes this place very livable–even if you have to share it with millions of tourists.

If you visit Malta, I highly recommend either you learn how to drive like the Brits (since Malta used to be a British colony, they drive on the left side of the road), or stay in a few different areas so you don’t end up spending most of your time on buses and ferries like we did.

If we were to do it again, we’d split our time between Valletta, Gozo, and Mellieha. Buggiba was way too touristy for us. The only thing it had going for it was its vicinity to Golden Bay and Għajn Tuffieħa Bay, which we took full advantage of for swimming. But there are quite a lot of places to swim all over the island, so you don’t need to worry.

Now, a word on AirBnb. Malta was the first time in the past 3 years, as we travelled all over the world, that we’ve had to switch AirBnbs.

The pictures of the apartment in Malta looked nice enough. It was clean, furnished, and even though the decor was a bit dated, the location was fantastic. We didn’t know it was a mess until we actually checked in. The host was a student who wanted to sublet his apartment while he went on vacation. He was nice enough, but as soon as we stepped into the room, it was obvious he’d never hosted an AirBnb before. There was a broken couch (which was never shown on the listing), the water pressure in the shower was too low, and half the elements on the stove didn’t work. Worst of all, the bedding smelled wet and mildewy.

I immediately contacted Airbnb, saying we couldn’t stay here, and they quickly helped us find an alternative, gave us a $50 credit, and refunded the full amount of the stay.

Once we moved to the new Airbnb, everything was fine. Which just goes to show, when you’re travelling it doesn’t mean your life is perfect and you never run into problems. The key is to be flexible, don’t stress out, and go with trusted companies like AirBnb who has fantastic customer service (click here to get $40 off your first booking).

Phew. That ended up being a much longer article than I was expecting. Okay, so how much did we spend in Malta?

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $41 USD $53 CAD Accommodations aren't insanely expensive if you don't stay in Valletta, but the public transportation system sucks so try to stay near the attractions even if it costs a bit more.
Food: $34 USD $44 CAD ($31 for eating out, $13 for groceries) Groceries weren't bad in Valletta since our Airbnb was within walking distance to a Lidl, but once we moved to Buggiba, groceries prices got worse because only small convenient stores were around. Strangely enough, I found seafood to be pricey despite the fact that we were surrounded by the sea. I ended up making more soups and salads in big batches, which ended up working out pretty well.
Transportation: $15 USD/day $19 CAD/day Getting to Malta via Ryanair cost us €50 each and buses were cheap at €1.25 a ride, but excruciatingly slow. The ferry is €4.85 and the boat to Camino €4.65. We took a cab one time when a bus failed to show up for €20.
Entertainment: $0.62 USD/day $0.81 CAD/day This is where Malta shines. You could spend a lot on tours, but with so much nature, you don't have to. We decided to hit up all the beaches and do a ton of hiking which ended up costing us nothing. The Fortifications Interpretation Centre was also completely free. The only money we spent on entertainment was €5 each for the church in Mdina.
Entertainment: $3 USD/day $4 CAD/day We spent $75 on various toiletries and medications which averaged out to be $4 a day.
Total: $93 USD/couple/day $121 CAD/couple/day Visiting Malta and living like a local still ended up costing us around the same as Berlin. You can definitely spend way more than this by buying more tours and eating out. We didn't think it was worth it, and we still managed to have a good time and eat well by cooking more and spending time with nature.

What do you think? Would you go to Malta?

***

In other news:

The FIRE is spreading to Australia! We’ve been interviewed for Women’s Health Magazine Australia. Full article republished on the editor’s site here:


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44 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Malta: An Undiscovered Paradise?”

  1. Oh goodness. The most amazing thing about that island is the pre-history. I can see how it is easy to miss, though. It can be a bit hidden, but the oldest manmade structures (temples) on earth are on those islands. I may have missed it, but I don’t think you got to any?

    1. Yeah, I heard about the pre-historic temples–didn’t end up going because we had so many other things to see (mainly related to swimming and hiking). We also just came from Greece, so we were a bit “ancient-templed-out” if you know what I mean 🙂 But yes, good suggestion, that’s also an awesome thing to do (there were so many things I couldn’t list them all).

  2. Been waiting for this post – glad you guys enjoyed it. Can definitely feel your pain regarding the buses!

    Good news is: You only have 3 EU countries left to visit (Norway and Liechtenstein aren’t members – though you can still tick Liech. off in 10 mins probably aha, so might as well…).

    Hope you guys are well!

    1. Ha ha, I guess I should’ve said “Schengen” countries instead of EU (since the 90 days restriction is on those countries). But it’s a moot point since it doesn’t really matter whether I check them off or not …I’m just crazy.

      Great to hear from you, Eduardo, and thanks for all the tips you gave us for Malta! Hope to see you at another Chautauqua reunion soon!

      1. Malta was a British colony from 1813 to 1964. 88% of Maltesee people also speak English. This is not necessarily a byproduct of tourism.

        1. Yeah, you’re right about that. The “touristy feeling” we got is probably more from the restaurant chains rather than the language.

  3. Ooh, Malta has been on my list for a while, so thanks for a measured and thoughtful article about your experience there. Good to know that Valletta, Gozo, and Mellieha are where it’s at.

    You also made me check into the EU list of countries – I’ve done 19 of the 28 (or 27, pending an imminent foolish departure of UK). Looks like I have some more work to do!

    Have a great time at the upcoming Chautauquas. I had a ball at an Ecuador edition in 2016. Lots of FI friendships and deep life discussions. Give JL a high five for me.

    1. “I’ve done 19 of the 28… Looks like I have some more work to do!”

      Oh no, I’m such a bad influence 😛 Super cool that you’ve visited so many though!

      I’m so happy to hear from a past Chautauquan! I will definitely let JLCollins know you said hi.

  4. “I immediately contacted Airbnb, saying we couldn’t stay here, and they quickly helped us find an alternative, gave us a $50 credit, and refunded the full amount of the stay.”

    Just curious, how did you contact Airbnb? By phone or something else?

    We had the same thing happen to us and had the complete opposite experience. So be aware that Airbnb’s customer service quality can be inconsistent.

    1. We used this link “https://www.airbnb.com/help/contact_us/message” and they responded to us within a few hours. They also called us to keep us in the loop as they worked on our ticket.

      I prefer to contact them using the message system because then you have a written record and pictures of everything (it really helps to photograph exactly what you see to prove why it doesn’t match the listing).

      Sorry to hear that you had a bad experience. I find that if you use the messaging system instead of the phone (since they tend to switch customer service personal), it’s easier. The next person can just read the thread instead of you having to explain everything again. It also helps if you are a frequent user of Airbnb with a lot of good ratings.

    1. Strangely I didn’t see a lot of fish in the Comino… I think we didn’t swim out far enough. The water was the perfect temperature for swimming.

  5. Guys, you need to spend more time editing the grammar and spelling errors in your posts. This article is full of them. Good info on Malta. We’ve been thinking about going.

    1. You’re right. Good catch, Scott. I read through it again and made some fixes. Please feel free to point out anything I missed.

    1. Holy crap, we found someone in Luxembourg. Hooray! We will definitely hit you up when we go there to check off the list (I know that makes me sound super crazy, but I can’t help it ;). See you in Luxembourg!

  6. Yep, FIRE is all the rage in Australia at the moment, although I’ve been reading your blog for years now. 12 months ago, your ‘never buy a house’ approach to FI would have gone down like a lead balloon in this property obsessed nation. But with house prices in Sydney and Melbourne crashing at the moment, there are more than a few people now saying that it was a bubble all along. Ya think? I’d love to see a reader case study from Australia too, with our hyper restrictive superannuation (RRSP /401K for our North American friends).

    I also love the way you guys are now diversifying, into non-fiction books, media and TV. Amazing what creatively fun ways you can make money when your not slaving away for the man.

    1. That’s the thing with housing. Things can turn on a dime and when it does, it lasts for a LONG time. Same thing is happening in Calgary. The stock market can go down too, but when it does you still get paid dividends/interest (unlike housing, which continues costing you money) and it recovers much faster than housing. Kudos for keeping a clear head and buying overpriced property like everyone else.

      Good suggestion about the reader case on superannuation. We’ve talked about this in the past, but only through comments with other Aussie readers. We’ll look into our reader case pile and see if we can find a good one. In the meantime, you can look at this article about locked-in pensions, since it’s similar to the age restriction on your superannuation:
      https://www.millennial-revolution.com/invest/pension/

      And yeah, making income in retirement from passion projects is not something we planned on but an awesome surprise. It wouldn’t have been enough to quit our jobs and live on but since we did it after FI, it’s bonus money.

  7. I clicked through your affiliate link for Airbnb and cracked up at your profile picture. Nice!

    I’ve had other friends mention that they have better luck with Airbnb if they stick with “superhosts”. Has that been your experience?

    1. Ha ha, that’s our super serious author photo for our children’s book 😛

      And yeah, although it’s not 100% guaranteed, finding superhosts definitely help.

  8. Wow, I really get the impression that you guys didn’t like Malta. I’ve never been there, but have always heard good things. Guess I fell for that sales pitch!

    It’s good to get some perspective, and I have no doubt that you’re absolutely right about the prices. Anytime you have an island swarming with tourists, the prices get expensive.

    Sounds like renting a car is the best option, but given the middling review you’ve given it, I’m not sure I really want to visit Malta.

    1. I wouldn’t say we didn’t like Malta–there’s a lot to like, but we were surprised by the bus system and how touristy it was. I would go back in a heartbeat just for the swimming—but probably learn how to drive like the Brits before going back.

  9. Wow, the pictures look beautiful. I’d love to visit someday. It’s too bad that Malta is overrun with tourists now. It’s tough to find hidden gems anymore. Seems like every nice place has been discovered.

    1. Yeah, I think that’s why we enjoyed Eastern Europe and Poland so much–they are still pretty underrated…crap I think I just said too much. Oops. Okay, everyone ignore what I just said 😛

  10. When we took our little van trip around Iceland, we noticed this same couple at most of the stops we took. Turns out this couple was from Malta and just happened to be using the same itinerary we were. We still keep in touch over Facebook and visiting Malta has been on our list for a while.

    I can see how getting around on the islands might be rough (somewhat like Hawaii) with out a car. And like any island, the costs are inflated just due to logistics.

    We’ll probably still visit at some point — appreciate the tips so we’re better prepared!

    1. Hope you get to visit! As long as you figure out the transportation, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy Madrid.

    2. Hope you get to visit! As long as you figure out the transportation, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy Malta.

  11. 10 years, you say? Turns out that I was in Malta in November 2010. One particularly amusing English sign:

    https://gallery.patricklam.ca/picture.php?/4194/category/968

    I guess that was before Instagram, and in November. I got to a bunch of places that weren’t super full of tourists, but that may also be in part where I choose to go.

    One of the things that you can do in Malta is deep water solo climbing. The problem with climbing rocks is that you might fall off them sometimes, and then you hit the ground. If you hit the water, well, that’s not quite as serious a problem. You would think. I’d always imagined deep water soloing over some tranquil lagoon or something. Malta was not like that at all! There were these super scary waves which might throw you into a rock, and then it also wasn’t clear whether you could actually climb back onto the land or whether you’d just drown because you can’t get out of the water. Way scarier than I expected.

    I spent a day in Lichtenstein and it exceeded expectations. It’s tiny but you can walk in the mountains, etc, which are quite accessible. Have you been to the other micro-states? I’ve kind of wanted to collect that set, particularly Andorra. I’ve collected 3/6 of that set and also about half of the countries in Europe in general.

    1. “deep water solo climbing”–the sounds amazing but also terrifying. I’m not a great swimmer or climber, so I would probably drown. But I can see how it was be the perfect activity for adventurers.

      Nice work on visiting so many European countries! Haven’t been to the micro-states, but we probably will once we finish visiting all the Schengen zone countries.

      1. Just have to keep the climbing moderate enough. But yes, it was actually terrifying. Not at all what I imagined.

        It’s funny. When I was in Switzerland for a year I thought I’d get out of Switzerland more, but rarely did. Still, I would like to go to all the European countries, and especially the microstates.

  12. The Blue Grotto was where the Count of Monte Cristo found his treasure, at least in the 2002 movie starring Jesus.

  13. I’m Irish living in Malta, buses are decent if you plan in advance and prices are low for residences.

    Issue’s are overcrowding in summer and construction is messy. The country is developing fast. Foreigners find it hard to handle the free market it is with little rules.

    Similar to many cities, people are upset with gambling companies and rising rents, all in all Malta’s pretty good for what Europe has to offer.

    Everywhere in the Eu is expensive, bar areas of eastern Europe and south of Spain and Portugal.

    Hit me up if your back!
    Stephen

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