There is plenty of legislative evidence to back up Malta’s high ranking on the Rainbow Europe Map. Among other things, it has laws that allow same-sex marriage and adoption, and protect against hate speech and discrimination. In terms of healthcare, trans people can avail of free services, such as gender affirmation surgeries, and anyone can donate blood provided they have only had one partner in the previous four months.
The progressiveness of the country comes as somewhat of a surprise to many, as Malta is largely Catholic, with 88.5 percent of its roughly 516,000 populace identifying as Christian, according to the 2021 census. Furthermore, the Maltese islands are home to roughly 365 churches - a different one to worship in for every day of the year.
Taking these contradicting factors into account, I decided to go on an important investigation (holiday) to determine just how queer-friendly this little nation is.
My trip started as most do, with a direct (and delayed) flight out of Dublin Airport courtesy of Ryanair. When I touched down in Malta, the research began, and I made my way to the first stop of the day: the Charles and Ron Cafe in Naxxar.
For those who don’t know, Charles and Ron van Maarschalkerweerd Borg are a gay power couple, together for over 20 years. As well as having a romantic relationship, they are also business partners, being the founders and designers of Charles and Ron -Malta’s leading fashion house - creating both ready-to-wear and runway collections as seen on celebrities such as Ariana Grande, Kelly Rowland, Lauryn Hill and more.
I visited one of their two Maltese locations not only to peruse the fabulous clothing and accessories but also to dine with the designers at their highly-rated cafe. The menu is carefully curated, and after a lot of deliberation, I settled on a dumpling salad bowl which I devoured while listening to the pair tell their fascinating story.
After a taste of contemporary queer experiences in Malta, I wanted to discover more about the nation’s LGBTQ+ history. There was nowhere better to turn to than Q Travel Malta, which offers queer walking tours of the capital city, Valletta.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valletta is one of the most concentrated historic areas on earth. With buildings dating back to the 16th century, the limestone walls and pavements give the area a golden, honey-coloured hue, making strolling through the streets an incredibly picturesque experience.
Thanks to our fantastic tour guide, not only did we learn about the more commonly known history of the city, whether it be regarding the Great Siege in 1565 or Caravaggio’s artistic and troublesome contributions to the area, we also got to discover the lesser-known stories of queer times gone by.
We took in the Auberge de Castille, the starting place of Malta’s first Pride Parade, visited City Light Cinema, where we heard about the importance of the establishment to the local LGBTQ+ community, and strolled down (not so) Strait Street, where the previous red light district operated and British sailors were entertained by drag queens and sex workers alike. The tour was certainly a highlight of the trip.
To end a lovely evening, we headed to Cafe Society one of the queer venues. Although the interior is very small, fitted with one bar, stools and a disco ball, what makes the establishment special is the outdoor area. Located on a stepped street, music travels from the speakers, accompanied by the sound of laughter and fun-filled conversations, creating a wholesome atmosphere under the twinkling lights.
Another LGBTQ+ bar, Maori, is a small and very unique venue located on the coast. Boasting an extremely laidback vibe, the owner Simone is loved among customers, as are the resident dog and cats.
In truth, there is no shortage of options for those who like to kick back with a drink. As well as bars and clubs, Malta boasts several wineries, big and small, growing both international and indigenous grape varieties.
I personally am not a big wine drinker -I haven’t been able to bear the taste of it since I chugged a €4 bottle at an underage disco many moons ago. However, I put the ghosts of my past behind me in order to truly immerse myself in the local culture, and was pleasantly surprised!
We were fortunate enough to enjoy multiple different wine-tasting experiences, perhaps the best of which came alongside incredible food at Michelin-star restaurants.
On one of the nights, we enjoyed an eight-course menu at De Mondion, a discreet venue located on the rooftop terrace of a 17th-century baroque palazzo. I was so distracted by the fantastic food, booze and views, that I almost missed one of the biggest attractions of them all: Pedro Pascal and Paul Mescal sitting at the table behind us! The pair were there with the crew of Gladiator 2, as part of the movie was being filmed in Malta. Scenes from several blockbusters have actually been shot in the country, such as Troy, Captain Phillips and the original Gladiator, so it’s a great place to visit for the cinephiles among us.
Now, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t even realise a meal could be eight courses, so you can imagine my shock when the next night, there were 13! We hit up ION Harbour to enjoy award-winning cuisine on the rooftop of the luxury hotel, and it did not disappoint.
Another highlight was exploring the beautiful Maltese landscape by a number of somewhat untraditional means. A tuk tuk brought us through the Gozo and Comino islands, visiting the Xwenji Salt Pans, Citadel and several of the stunning churches. We explored the Dingli cliffs via Segway, witnessing panoramic coastal views, making pit stops at local stalls, availing of free samples of Maltese snacks and drinks. A boat tour brought us through Gozo channel, as we enjoyed music and beers on board before stopping for a swim in the crystal clear Blue Lagoon.
As I’m sure you can tell, the country has so much on offer, and there’s no time like the present to book your visit, as Valletta is hosting EuroPride 2023 from September 7-17. There’s a full programme of activities and parties to look forward to, no more so than the parade on Saturday, which is followed by a free concert headlined by Christina Aguilera.
Between celebrating Pride and exploring this fabulous country, I can’t think of a better way to round out summer.
Thank you to the Malta Tourism Authority for funding and organising this trip, and to all of the guides for their hospitality.