While Central Europe and the Nordics cool under weighty winter clouds, two countries in the south are still basking in sunshine. Today, we’re sharing the top enchanted escapes in Malta and Italy’s outdoors.
Gozo Island, Malta
We started our exploration in the beautiful island nation of Malta, a true jewel of the Mediterranean. After hiring a car at the airport, we drove onto a ferry and made the five-kilometer trip from the mainland to Gozo, a sun-kissed island that literally translates to the word “joy.” With only an hour or so left of the day, we immediately raced to catch the sunset at the Tal Mixta cave, a place that has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, 3000 years BCE. Today, the Bronze Age cave dwellers have been replaced by furrier residents: a colony of very cute cats. We ended our first and wonderful day on Gozo with a tasting of local wines paired with several delicious and artful dishes.
Over the course of our trip, we explored what seemed like every nook and cranny of this marvelous island. We hiked from the harbor of Mgarr to the seaside village of Xlendi with a local legend, Stevie and his dog. As a sidebar, we’ve always loved hiking with a guide. Why? Because you get a wealth of information about the local flora and fauna and the history of the area that you would totally miss out on otherwise. And Stevie, legend that he is, did just this. We also plunged beneath the azure waters of the sea, scuba diving with the aim of seeing the gorgeous underwater limestone formations and sea life. The visibility was incredible and the views unforgettable. Malta is consistently rated among the best diving spots in the world, and it really delivered. The water was stunningly clear, and we felt the utter peace we always do when swimming fifteen meters below the surface. If you want to recreate our dive, we chose the Ras-II Hobz site.
If you’re anything like us, hiking and diving will really work up an appetite. One dish we really loved was a local specialty called “ftira,” which is a cousin to pizza and topped with potatoes and cheese—truly perfect for refilling the tanks! Our final outdoor experience in Gozowas a visit to the UNESCO-recognized it-Tempji tal-Ġgantija temple, a fascinating structure that has existed for longer than the Pyramids of Egypt. Legend says the temple was built by a giant (hence the word Ġgantija), perhaps because of its awe-inspiring scale—there are two colossal limestone temples that showcase the architectural skill of Malta’s early populations. We spent the afternoon on e-bikes riding through the inland sea, Dwejra.
After several wonderful days in Gozo, we returned to mainland Malta where we immediately set about seeing the capital, Valletta. This city goes back to the 1500s, and this long history is visible everywhere. We loved watching the cannons being fired as part of the Saluting Battery at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which happens every weekday and Saturdays at noon and 4pm. St. John Co-Cathedral is another structure we highly recommend. Europe is home to so many amazing churches, and this one is among the best.
Though we love urban life, we were soon drawn back to nature. One of the most extraordinary outdoor excursions in Malta is rock-climbing, and the Xaqqa Valley is the ideal place for this thrilling activity. If we’re honest, the cliffs were a little steep and we were somewhat nervous. But with safe equipment and good instructors, we scaled the face and were mightily rewarded: the views were spectacular.
On our final day in Malta, we chose what we think just might be the most magnificent experience on the islands: the caves. We began our day at the Ghar Dalam Cave and Museum and were astonished to see the skeleton of an elephant, which during its life, shrank to the size of a dog so that it could survive in the rugged conditions of a cave. From there, we moved on to Malta’s sea caves and blue grotto. As part of a tour, we visited many of them and loved every minute of it. These grottos are among the most dazzling marvels of nature on the planet: the water is blue and shimmering, the sunlight soft and bright, and the limestone coastline windswept and arid in a gorgeous way. A tip from us: consider visiting during mid-morning while the light is still shining into the cave. It makes all the difference! Also, if you get a little peckish, we loved pastizzi, a local pastry filled with spiced peas or ricotta.
One of our great passions is finding places that are off the beaten path. The small town of L’Aquila is the perfect example of this. Our visit, the first stop on a tour of Italy, was truly memorable. First off, we biked through Gran Sasso National Park, a pristine natural sanctuary and home to the Gran Sasso Mountain Range (which is perfect for skiing or snowboarding in winter!). A tip for you: rent e-bikes. We spent a marvelous few days zooming across the countryside, seeing little hamlets and admiring the forests around us. We also got together with a guide who showed us the Rocca Calascio Castle, a shooting spot for films like The American.
As nature lovers, we were thrilled to see the world’s largest man-made waterfall: the Cascata Delle Marmore. Built by the ancient Romans in the 3rd century BCE, it was once used to drain stagnant waters from the Velino River. Today, it’s awe-inspiring and truly unique, especially because it’s now used for hydroelectricity. Imagine that—Roman technology being adapted for use today!
Assisi might be the world’s perfect medieval town. Nestled in the hills of Umbria, it’s known for its captivating stone streets and panoramic views of the gorgeous countryside. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it exudes a palpable charm through its history, art, and culture. With every passing minute, we could imagine how idyllic life would be here. The rolling countryside beyond the town spoke to our love of nature. The Basilica of Saint Francis somehow brought history to life. Alas, a move to Assisi is not in the cards for us…for now! After a lovely time here, the highlight of which was an amazing wine tour, we got on the train toward Perugia, visited Lake Trasimeno, and watched the birds in the water at sunset.
- Eating a traditional pizza (ftira) in Gozo. Insider tip: go to Mekren Bakery for an authentic local experience!
- The scuba diving was great. There are amazing structures and crystal-clear water.
- Insider tip: renting a car really unlocks the islands, which are small and easy to see with a set of wheels. It’s the best way to see them in their entirety. Don’t forget that you can catch a ferry between Gozo and the mainland.
- Exploring the ancient city of Valletta and seeing the Saluting Battery.
- The Blue Grotto tour was stunning! Insider tip: bring cash (euros) to pay for the boat and go mid-morning for the best lighting.
- The Marmore Waterfall was incredible. The original Roman engineering and the scale of it is breathtaking. Insider tip: before going, check the website to see when the water is “open.” That way, you’ll be sure to witness the true power of this place.
- The e-mountain bike tour through Gran Sasso National Park was amazing. It’s the best way to see this mountainous region.
- The wine tour in Assisi was a real highlight. Sitting among the vineyards with a view of the city was truly memorable.
- General insider tip: catch the train! It’s such a nice way to get from town to town and see the countryside along the way.