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The Three Cities, Malta
Photograph: Visit Malta

Malta’s first biennale kicks off this week – here’s why you should visit for its art and culture

As Malta hosts its first-ever biennale this spring, the sunny archipelago hopes to attract more culture seekers

Liv Kelly
Written by
Liv Kelly

It’s only February, but when the clouds part we’re blessed with a taste of the warmth that scorches these islands in the summer months. Perched slap-bang in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta is around 90km from Sicily on one side and about 900km from Libya on the other. The average temperature during peak season here is around 32C, but that soared to almost 43C in July last year. Those guaranteed rays make the islands a magnet for summer vacations, with a record of just under 3 million tourists flocking here in 2023.

As we gently bob towards Malta on our return from Gozo (the middle-sized island of the Maltese archipelago), it seems the sandy-coloured buildings affixed to the hills are all perfectly uniform. It’s only when we’re driving through the streets of Saint Julian’s Bay (where we’re staying) that you can distinguish from the mish-mash what’s old and what’s new. 

Photograph: Visit Malta

That’s Malta in a nutshell. The island has withstood invasions and bombings over the millennia, but remnants of its history dating as far back as the Neolithic period still stand proud. This fascinating past makes Malta ideal for a cultural break, and many visit the island for its history. 

But much less attention is paid to Malta’s contemporary art and cultural offerings, despite a stacked arts and events calendar. Malta hosts one of Europe’s liveliest Carnivals in February, the Isle of MTV festival has been going since 2007 and attracts around 50,000 people every summer, and the BOV Joseph Calleja Foundation has been hosting fundraising concerts in Valletta since 2013. But according to Visit Malta, only 8 percent of inbound tourists come to Malta for its arts and culture. 

A huge new celebration might change that, though. is a brand-new arts festival which will turn cultural sites across the islands into stages from March 14 to May 31. It’s being organised by MUŻA National Museum of Art, and will feature a huge programme of 2,527 local and international artists. 

‘[The festival] will attract culture seekers. It will also help to attract off-peak tourism to our islands. Over the years, efforts have been directed to mitigate seasonality and intensify the share of off-peak travel to Malta,’ says Claire, a representative of Visit Malta. ‘Malta’s diverse tourism offer makes it an all-year-round destination. It’s one of the least seasonal holiday spots in the Mediterranean.’

Ahead of the biennale’s inauguration, we spent a few days taking in Malta’s arts and heritage hotspots, so many of which are politely tucked away. Our first stop was the historic Villa Frere estate, the former retirement home of British diplomat John Hookham Frere and his wife Lady Erroll. Declared a Grade I national monument in 2020, it’s a higgledy-piggledy, somewhat haphazard patch of land featuring Mediterranean-style gardens, a small collection of buildings and a tonne of lemon trees. 

Gardens of Villa Frere, Malta
Photograph: Liv Kelly for Time Out

Only open on the first Sunday of the month, any other entry needs to be requested and pre-arranged with the Friends of Villa Frere Facebook group. But taking the time to organise a visit in advance will be well worth it – the site is lovingly and steadily being cared for and restored by an ardent group of volunteers, and there are plans for its future. 

‘I came to Malta on a holiday in 1990 and just fell in love with it,’ says Frances, a British expat who’s volunteered at Villa Frere since she retired to Malta three years ago, ‘This place really has my heart. It amazes me that people come to Malta and ignore the cultural aspects.’

The Gardens of Villa Frere occasionally host what Frances describes as ‘civilised little events’, such as intimate poetry readings. ‘We shall certainly be making [the gardens] more open in the future, and even hope to provide accommodation eventually,’ says Frances, ‘but the events will never be somewhere people can just turn up.’

Showcasing the islands’ history and heritage while continuing conscious efforts to preserve it is a bit of a running theme throughout our exploration of Malta. Walking through the Gozo Citadel, a magnificent, mediaeval walled settlement which looms above the town of Victoria, it’s almost impossible to believe its age. The site has been on Unesco’s Tentative list since 1998, and thanks to support from the European Regional Development Fund, it looks almost brand new.

Gozo Citadel, Malta
Photograph: Liv Kelly for Time Out

‘Tourism is the main industry here,’ says Darrell, our Maltese tour guide, ‘But for that to be sustainable we have to diversify our tourism: it’s not feasible to rely on the sun. To welcome as many tourists as possible, we have to cater to all of them.’

You can’t talk about Maltese culture without mentioning its cuisine. The Girgenti Olive Grove, nestled not too far from the town of Siġġiewi, is where we’re introduced to ftira, Malta’s answer to pizza. Surrounded by rows of olive trees and under the shelter of a rustic open-air kitchen, Karl Mallia, a private chef and events organiser, dusts our table with flour, tops up our glasses of crisp local wine and shows us how to knead, pull, top and stretch our own ftiras, before we flip them into the oven ourselves. 

Homemade Ftira at Girgenti Olive Grove
Photograph: Liv Kelly for Time Out

They’re cooked on a much lower temperature than Neapolitan pizzas, and the crust dough is partly pulled over the toppings of sharp local sheep’s cheese, capers, olives and tomatoes, forming a much denser, heartier bite with a little bit of crunch. 

Karl left Malta to travel 20 years ago, but has returned to work on showcasing the nation’s unique food offering. ‘I was cooking at a corporate event and the menu was all Maltese, all local, all traditional, and after travelling I realised I’d forgotten Malta,’ he says. ‘Now, I see myself as an ambassador, and it’s important because I think we’re losing our cuisine, it gets left behind.’ 

On his website, Karl describes Malta as ‘the world’s best kept secret’. Just a handful of days spent exploring the archipelago proves him right, and not only when it comes to food. Kicking off this week, Malta’s first-ever biennale proves this little archipelago has a big standing on the cultural stage, and should swing the spotlight away from summer sun.

Liv Kelly visited Malta on a hosted press trip with Visit Malta. For information on our policies around editorial independence, reviews and recommendations, see our editorial guidelines.

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