How is it that a country rooted in traditional Catholic values has become the world’s most LGBTQ-friendly holiday destination?
Malta has topped the Europe Rainbow Index for the last five years in a row – a list compiled by ILGA-Europe which works towards equality and human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Europe and Central Asia.
The 49 European countries on the index are ranked on how their laws and policies impact on the lives of LGBTQ people and Malta is streaking ahead with a score that’s a whopping 15% higher than Belgium, which lies in second place.
This sun-scorched archipelago, made up of the three islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, is quintessentially Mediterranean but at the same time curiously British and with a cuisine which straddles Sicilian and Arabic. No wonder the islands have such a welcome and accepting culture!
Same-sex relations were legalised in Malta in 1973, six years after the same law passed in England and Wales, but in more recent years increasingly progressive and inclusive laws have helped push Malta up the Rainbow Index, way past the UK.
In 2014 Malta became the first European state to enable people to change their gender identity by completing an affidavit with a notary. In 2015 it became the first country in the world to outlaw sterilisation and invasive surgery on intersex people. Malta was also the first European country to ban gay conversion therapy, in 2016, stating that anyone who tries to cure, change, repress or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation will be fined or jailed. And in 2017 Malta introduced the neutral ‘X’ gender marker for official documents. Passports were issued with them the next year – something ruled unlawful by the UK Court of Appeal last year.
But if you walk the streets of Malta’s honey-hued capital Valletta, you’d never guess it was particularly progressive or that a vibrant gay party scene pulses just up the coast in St. Julian’s. You might notice the bright red British phone boxes that dot the streets – Malta only gained independence from the UK in 1964 – but you’ll certainly not miss the many churches.
Although the influence of the church has lessened in Malta, the golden skyline is still dotted with the soaring spires and domes of 25 churches, which helped the capital gain UNESCO World Heritage status.
The pinnacle of the vista is the beautiful dome of Catholic church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, but the most famous is St John’s Co-Cathedral. This gilded baroque treasure trove was built in 1577 by the Order of the Knights of St John – a Catholic Military Order established in by the Vatican to care for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Priceless works of art adorn the interior of this gold and marble church, include Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist.
You can’t help but wonder what these celibate and deeply religious knights would think about their island today. Malta has become something of a party destination, where revellers worship upon the alter of the DJ. Even in Valletta there is the somewhat ironically named Strait Street, which has long been a hotbed of hedonism thanks to the sailors who once frequented its bawdy bars and boarding houses in the 1960s.
Party central in Malta is Paceville – located in St. Julians – where the club and bar scene ranges from multi-level disco Michelangelo Club Lounge to Klozet Club’s flamboyant drag shows. There are lots of other great gay night spots across the islands though – Rubies Bar in San Gwann is known for its karaoke and gay-friendly Birdcage Lounge hosts a cabaret show in Rabat.
Malta also hosts numerous festivals and events, including its famous Malta Pride Week, sadly cancelled this summer due to Covid-19.
The first Malta Pride was in 2004 and drew a small group of around 100 people, including activists, the then Education Minister Louis Galea and two other MPs, who walked under a rainbow of balloons through Republic Street in Valletta.
The event now welcomes thousands of marchers from all around the world with its eye-catching floats and street performers, rainbow flags and balloons, all greeted with waves from passers by and local shop owners. It’s now followed by a Pride Concert and numerous after-parties scattered across the island.
Malta isn’t all about the party scene though. It’s packed full of beautiful beaches for relaxing as well as pretty towns and historic sites to explore – including the Ġgantija temples, the oldest freestanding buildings in the world – and lots of activities to keep sporty types entertained.
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Malta is consistently voted the top scuba diving destination in Europe and that’s because it offers something for beginners all the way up to advanced and technical divers – with accessible reefs as well as exciting caves and shipwrecks. The Blue Hole is most famous dive site. You must clamber over the rocks to enter this sheltered pool, cut off from the open sea. It’s a limestone sinkhole with walls covered in colourful coral tubeworms, sponges and other small marine life. Divers usually sink to nine metres before passing through an underwater window into the deep blue open sea.
From Valletta, take a brightly painted Dgħajsa boat across the Grand Harbour to the three cities of Vittoriosa (or Birgu), Senglea and Cospicua. Made famous by many Hollywood blockbusters, this vast waterway has been a hub of maritime activity for more than 2,000 years and it bobs with vast cruise ships as well as tiny fishing boats. Once on the other side you can appreciate the alternative view of Valletta as well as the historic streets and waterside restaurants of these adjacent fortified cites, which were the original home of the Knights of St. John.
Mdina is a 4,000 year-old walled city which was once the capital of Malta. Sitting in the middle of the island, it offers spectacular views of rural Malta and beyond to the sea. It’s still home to Malta’s noble families, some descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who made Mdina their home from the 12th century onwards. Once you enter the gate you can wander the narrow, shady streets, stopping to admire its baroque palaces and ancient churches. Finish at the Fontanella Tearooms for drinkable views and delicious cake.
Between Malta and Gozo, Comino has no roads or cars and is virtually uninhabited – save for one hotel. Stark and barren, this old pirate’s haunt’s rocky shores slope into spectacularly clear water. A favourite with day-trippers is the Blue Lagoon, a sheltered inlet of shimmering azure water over white sand. Other beaches include Santa Marija Bay and San Niklaw Bay.