malta-by-bike

The ultimate guide to cycling around Malta

Malta is one of the lesser known countries in Europe. Of course, the rising popularity of cruises means that the country is seeing its tourism increase. But how many actually choose to visit?

The unfamiliar of Malta was actually one of the main reasons we chose to visit. Every year we organise surprise birthday trips for each other rather than give a physical gift. We are not very materialistic and what could be better than a weekend trip, right? Anyway, this meant that Frog had no idea where he was going until we got to the airport. He also had no clue of the adventure ahead…

Why did we choose to cycle around Malta?

The more we travel, the more we want to explore as much as possible. In previous trips we had rented cars to visit small countries like Denmark, but with Malta being so incredibly small, it just seemed ridiculous to do the same. This is where Freckles had the great idea *rolls eyes* of renting bikes and cycling around Malta.

A couple of months earlier, Frog has unknowingly undertaken a cycling test in Brittany where we biked from Saint-Malo to Mont Saint-Michel. Everything had gone great so going another level  up seemed feasible…or was it?

How difficult is it to cycle around Malta?

Cycling around Malta is possible for unexperienced cyclists like ourselves, but be prepared for a challenge. To put things into perspective, we are fairly active (think long walks, occasional swimming) but we don’t really watch what we eat and we like a beer or 3 (sometimes 5…) at the weekend.

Slow and steady was our motto, yet we still managed to visit all 3 islands in 5 days without being overly tired at the end of each day. In total we think we did between 150-200km.

Where can you rent bikes in Malta?

Freckles contacted 3 bike rental companies in Malta for a quote and Ecobikes came out on top as the cheapest. For 155 euros, we were able to rent 2 mountain bikes complete with delivery to the airport, helmets, pannier racks and elastic cables.

Bike rental companies in Malta:

Ecobikes Malta

Maltabookers

The Cyclist Malta

The pannier racks were an essential criteria because we were wild camping again. In the end, we successfully managed to attach 1 medium-sized bag each to our bikes filled with clothes and basic camping equipment.

Our experience of wild camping in Malta

In our previous posts on Iceland, you may have read that we are big wild camping fans. Although we are not against staying in hotels or on campsites, we just prefer the freedom and adventure of finding a wild camping spot.

In any case, staying on any official campsites in Malta was not really an option because there doesn’t seem to be many readily available (Let us know if you have stayed on any!). So  off we went with camping equipment in tow and no idea of what was to come.

Overall we can say that finding somewhere to camp in Malta is very difficult, but not impossible. The majority of land is very rocky, but there are spots where you can move big rocks and end up with a sandy-ish floor.

The Tour de Malta, Frog and Freckles style: Our itinerary

Day 1: South Malta

We walked out of Malta airport around 1pm to find that Marco from EcoBikes had tracked our flight online to delivery our bikes in perfect time. If that isn’t excellent customer service, I don’t know what is!

After spending 10 minutes or so attaching our bags, adjusting our seats and testing out the gears, it was time to hit the road. Having only just learnt that he was going to Malta that morning, Frog obviously had no idea where to go, but Freckles had heard a little about Marsaxlokk. The town was only about 7km away, so it also seemed like a good test ride.

Marsaxlokk to Bubagra

Marsaxlokk is a little old fishing village that is easily accessible by bus (as with most places in Malta). Although we arrived too late to see any sort of fishing activity, the local restaurants were still serving up the day’s catch. After a quick bite to eat and a wander around the harbour area we figured there was not much more going on, so we were back on the road to try and get as far as possible before sunset.

The coastal road took us via the industrial area of Malta and then into the hilly countryside, which ended up slowing us down (a lot!). A long climb later and plenty of messages wishing Frog a happy birthday, we arrived in Bubagra. The town is quite big so it seemed like a good idea to buy something for our dinner at this point. The lovely shopkeeper recommended some frozen Maltese sausages, which we bought with some fresh bread and tomatoes.

Blue Wall to Ghar Lapsi

The next part of the road would take us past Blue Wall and Blue Grotto, which are definitely worth looking at from the view point. We then stopped in Qrendi for a drink with the plan to camp near the beach for the night. What we didn’t realise is that there isn’t really a beach, and there were far too many people for us to be able to set our tent up.

It was back to the drawing board to find an alternative solution. Just 6 km away we saw that there was yet another bay with some potential. Although it wasn’t that far, we were so tired that it felt like the longest ride of our lives! A sharp turn left and about 1km downhill, we finally reached Ghar Lapsi where it looked like half of Malta’s population was having a barbecue.

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Wild camping near ‘fallen rocks’

1 km back up the hill was out of the question, so pretending not to see the signs for ‘falling rocks’ we headed to find a camping spot. And it turns out that we were not the first to do so either! A ready-made fire pit complete with a grill was waiting for us and with a couple of beers we bought from a nearby restaurant, it was the perfect first night in Malta!

Day 2: West Malta

Ghar Lapsi to Is-Siġġiewi

Camping in hot countries has both advantages and disadvantages. The plus side is that you are always up early, otherwise you might cook to death in your tent. The disadvantage is that you wake up feeling sweaty and about as hot as a roast chicken. This problem was quickly resolved on day 2 with a swim in the bay at Ghar Lapsi!

It was only about 8am, but there were already a good 30 people swimming and making the most of the cooler temperatures in the morning. Cooling down in the water was more than a good idea before heading back up the treacherous hill towards Is-Siġġiewi for a spot of breakfast.

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Morning swim at Ghar Lapsi

Is-Siġġiewi to Mdina

The ride from Is-Siġġiewi to Mdina is really pleasant because it is quite flat and you can see your destination in the distance. What’s more, you can tell that the pain in your legs is going to be worth it because the town is beautiful even from afar!

Mdina is as the name suggests, a walled town as you might expect in North Africa. It is not very big, but that doesn’t stop bus loads of tourists from visiting. In fact, it is so busy that they don’t let cars or bikes inside the walls. We had a good explore to work up a bit of an appetite, had a light lunch followed by ice cream and bought Freckles a much-needed hat before heading back on the road. Little did we know that this said hat would be the cause of a disaster…

mdina-streets-malta

Walking around Mdina

Mdina to L-Imġarr

We headed north out of Mdina towards Our Lady of Itria Chapel with the aim of reaching L-Imġarr. This part of our journey was very slow for 2 reasons: firstly the really fun downhill rides were quickly followed by not-at-all-fun uphill climbs. Some were so steep that we had to push our bikes up under the hot 34° sun. The second reason is because Freckles’ infamous hat flew off her bike on one of the descents. Of course, human instinct meant that one hand went out to catch it, while the other pulled the front brake. Anyone who knows how to ride a bike, can only imagine how this ended.

Grazed hands, a bruised hip and a bloody knee later, we were back on the bikes for several kilometres of downhill road via some ancient roman baths. Going downhill we made up for lost time quite quickly and arrived in L-Imġarr much earlier than expected. Deciding to carry on, we changed our final destination to Il-Bajja-tal-Ghadira beach.

L-Imġarr to Il-Bajja-tal-Ghadira

The next section of the trip has stayed engraved in our minds for all the wrong reasons. If struggling with an aching body and a bruised ego wasn’t enough, the amount of hills to come were definitely going to get Freckles down.

Hill after hill with no shade, we continued upwards past the Popeye Village (which we probably should have detoured to in hindsight) and onto one of the biggest stretches of beach in Malta. We joined the Dawret-il-Mellieha road just after Ta’Pennellu, but we wouldn’t recommend anyone to do the same. This stretch of road down to the beach is basically a downhill dual carriageway and really unsafe for bikes!

Finally, we reached the beach just in time for beer o’clock and a swim in the sea. Our plan from here was to eat at a nearby restaurant, wait for the beach to calm down and set up our tent on the sand. Unfortunately the BBQs we had seen the night before seemed to be a bit of a Maltese summer tradition and people were staying out well after dark. Oh well we said, let’s just hide the tent in-between these sunbeds and get a good nights’ sleep…

Day 3: North Malta, Comino island and Gozo

Only in our dreams did we actually get a good nights’ sleep on the beach. Around 5am we started hearing strange noises outside the tent and after 20 minutes or so, we realised that people were setting up sunbeds around us!

A quick ‘hello’ to the boss didn’t go down very well and we quickly got the message to move elsewhere. We decided to pull the pegs out and just move the entire tent further down the beach to an area we knew was not privatised. Of course, our early rise was rewarded with a great sunrise!

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Sunrise at Il-Bajja-tal-Ghadira beach

Malta’s mainland to Comino island

After a quick breakfast of cheese and ham toasties – which seems to be customary in Malta – we headed up the hill to the ferry port. From all of the signs and adverts, we understood that a holiday in Malta would not be complete without a trip to Blue Lagoon on Comino island. From the ferry port, you can take the public shuttle, which is a bit cheaper than taking the private tours. We paid 10 euros each for a return ticket and left our bikes on the mainland next to the ticket office. We could have paid an extra 5 euros per bike, but we didn’t think they would be much use.

Our instinct was right and a bike on Comino island would have been useless, if not a nuisance. In fact, we were really unprepared for the sheer amount of people swimming and sunbathing there. It really is a tourist hot pot!

comino-island-malta-blue-lagoon

Swimming at Comino Island near Blue Lagoon

We generally don’t enjoy the whole tourist thing, so off we went walking in the opposite direction to see if we couldn’t find something a bit more secluded. After about a 15-minute walk, we came across a little cove with just 1 other person sunbathing nearby. So we made a bit of make-shift shade using a towel and went to enjoy the clear blue water!

Malta’s mainland to Gozo

Back on the mainland by about 4pm, we decided that it was still early enough to catch the bigger ferry to Gozo. At about 5.50 euros each return, it was a real bargain and it only took about 40 minutes.

Note: You pay for the Gozo ferry on the way back, not on the way!

We knew we were going to love Gozo as soon as we arrived. Although it is similar in terms of architecture and landscape to Malta’s mainland, it just felt different – almost more wild.

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Salt pans on Gozo

Frog suggested heading north towards an area with beaches on the map. So through the valleys we went with the occasional “f*** this hill” for good measure, arrived near Billingshurt Caven via Marsalforn and the salt pans. We ended up finding a perfect camping spot out of sight just after the salt pans and before Billingshurt Caven. It was also a bit early to set up yet, so we just had to go back to Qbajjar Bay for a well-deserved beer.

Day 4: Gozo island

Billingshurt Caven to Azure Window

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Wild camping on Gozo – Frog’s favourite spot!

We woke up on day 4 in what felt like a sauna, but that was just our tent. Our prefect spot from the evening before had turned into hell overnight. It turns out that a sheltered spot = a very hot spot. There is always time to make rooky mistakes!

After a few cliff dives into the sea, we were keen to head off and get something to eat and drink. Unfortunately we were not very successful in the first couple of villages we went to, but we did manage to see the impressive Gharb Church on the way. We had more success in Santu Pietru where there was a small supermarket and we were able to enjoy our jam-filled cakes on the main square.

azure-window-gozo

The Azure Window

Bellies full, we had a very flat ride with a final 1.5km downhill section to the Azure Window. If you decide to go to this most western part of Malta, be sure to bring some swimwear! It might be worth bringing a small towel even if you don’t fancy swimming because you do have to walk in shallow  (and slippery!) water to get to the cove.

After a bit of swimming, cliff diving and finding salt in-between the rocks, we shared a shower with a couple of wasps (thanks diving facilities!) and splurged on an ice cream before facing our ultimate demon…the 1.5km hill. But no sweat, after 4 days of cycling we made it all the way to the top with (almost) no effort! (Just kidding, it was hell like the rest of them.)

Azure Window to Mgarr via Ir-Rabat

Funnily enough that ice cream didn’t sustain us for very long, so along the 12km road back to the ferry we stopped at Gozo’s biggest town for a spot of lunch. Ir-Rabat is very busy compared to the rest of the island so it has plenty of choice if you’re looking for something to eat.

In some ways it is a bit like a mini Valletta (Malta’s capital). You can explore the cittadel, numerous churches or simply wander the streets and soak up the atmosphere. If you have chance to go to Gozo, we would recommend it without hesitation!

Note: There is also a public bus on Gozo that you can use to explore the island.

Mgarr to Bugibba

The ride back to the ferry at Mgarr was flat so even though we took our time, we were able to get back to mainland Malta quickly. Now we were back at the big beach we were rudely woken on the morning of day 3, but as you can imagine, we decided to give it a miss and avoid our mate ‘the sunbed boss’.

We powered on through to the East of Malta and a town called Bugibba. It turns out that a lot of tourists choose to stay on this part of the coast because it is much cheaper than the capital and it is more ideal for those that are looking for a beach holiday. Of course, this means that the towns are over crowded, but we somehow still managed to scout out a camping spot a bit further up the road.

Surely it had to be too good to be true? We had never found a spot so easily! Celebrations were in order so off we went to a bar overlooking the sea and a beautiful sunset. The restaurant we chose a bit later on was not as great…tourist quality to say the least.

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Sunset at Bugibba

Of course, our camping spot success was too good to be true. When we headed back to pitch our tent later that night, a camper van had conveniently parked right next to it. But did we care? No, we just put the tent up anyway.

Day 5: East Malta

Bugibba to Valletta

Day 5 was the easiest day of cycling we had. The coast is flat and the fact that you pass from town to town makes time pass quickly. The main disadvantage is that you are on a busy road with a lot of busses.

At one point, Frog was determined to cycle along the coast so off we headed to find an appropriate path. As it turns out, there is a military training base just before St Julians and the soilders don’t take kindly to nosey cyclists trying to get through! Basically, don’t bother trying to do the same…

There are a few towns on the way to Valletta but Silema was our favourite for being quieter. It also has a swimming area with a huge section of shade – a real treat in Malta!

We agreed to meet Marco from Ecobikes just outside the room we rented in Valletta and as always, he arrived bang on time. Overall we were really pleased with the quality of the bikes and we wouldn’t hesitate in recommending his company to others.

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Streets of Valletta

Valletta – we made it!

A quick shower later and we were already strolling around Valletta with a big sense of accomplishment. Five days and we had made it all the way around Malta, Gozo and Comino on bikes!

As for they capital city, there are bustling streets, hundreds of churches and the city’s walls to explore. Food and drink is slightly more expensive than in the rest of Malta, but also better quality. We didn’t regret our choice to eat at Trabuxu Bistro and we recommend you do so too – it was AMAZING!

The next morning we got up at 6am to have a final wander around Valletta before taking the bus back to the airport for our 11am flight. The airport shuttle leaves from the bus station and it takes about 30 minutes to get to the departures terminal. It is a very cheap and easy option if you are looking for a cheaper option than a taxi.

6 things we wish we had known before going to Malta

1. You can’t drink the tap water in Malta. If we had know this beforehand, we wouldn’t have transported 2 water bottles for absolutely no reason. We kept testing our luck out in restaurants, but bottled water is often your only option. This went against our zero waste lifestyle, but we couldn’t exactly die of thirst now could we?

2. Buying local bottled water is much cheaper. When you order water in restaurants, make sure that you precise ‘local water’. Some places give you the expensive imported water by default.

3. It is deceivingly hilly. When we were landing in the plane, the island looked really flat because you can see all of it from the air…but how wrong we were. The hills are not necessarily steep, but they go on for E-V-E-R.

4. The swimming opportunities are endless. This was never a problem for us because we always had all of our stuff we us on our bikes. However, we would recommend you to carry a small rucksack with a towel and swimwear if you are going out for the day. A quick dip also helps to cool you down!

5. It really is that hot. (This one was kind of naive on Freckles’ part.) We went at the beginning of July and although it is the beginning of summer, Freckles just crossed her fingers and prayed that it wouldn’t be that hot yet. Please don’t be so stupid. It is hot and if we did the trip again we would probably go in Spring or Autumn.

6. All of the touristy stuff in basically around Valletta. In the end we are really pleased that we didn’t spend too much time along the east coast. Although some people really enjoy having everything on their doorstep and a busy atmosphere, we are more into nature and landscapes. If we went back to Malta, we would spend more time in the West and Gozo, maybe even leaving out the industrial South.

Is Malta expensive?

If you can get cheap flights, Malta can be a very affordable destination. We chose to go camping so this saved us a lot of money, however we also rented bikes so that increased our budget. Below are some examples of what things cost in Malta:

 

Cost in Euros
1 night’s accommodation in the centre of Valletta 35€
2 x bikes for 5 days 155€
1.5 litre bottle of water 0.90-1.50€
Meal in a restaurant: 2 main meals + 1 dessert + water + wine + coffee 40€
Ice cream 1.50 – 2€
1 pint of beer 3€
0.5L bottle of Coca Cola 1.50€
1 bus ticket 1.50€
Pack of 12 bus tickets 15€

 

Overall Malta is not only affordable, it also offers a completely different culture to anywhere else in Europe. While the amazing landscapes look like something out of North Africa, the cuisine is predominently Italian (with the odd rabbit stew!) and logistically everything reminds you of Britain (road signs, you drive on the left, the plug sockets etc.) Our advice? Get visiting this culture pot before too many people figure out what a gem Malta really is!

Quick facts

Where: Malta

When did we go?: July 2016

Currency: Euro

Language: Maltese, but English is very widely spoken by people of all ages

 

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