Gozo is a lesser-known destination in Malta and is the second largest island in the archipelago. With a population of just 37,000 or so people, yet covering an area of 67 km2 (26 square miles), Gozo is a much quieter place to be. In fact, many people refer to Gozo as “what Malta used to be like”, a rural area where time just seems to be passing slower than most places.
Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the Gozo ferry as it moves away is strangely comforting. As you board the vessel you feel like you’ve shed an enormous weight off your shoulders, leaving the stress of everyday behind you. Gozo is magical, and the magic starts with the crossing.
Gozo is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, one of 21 that make up the Maltese archipelago. Inhabited for thousands of years, it shows evidence of historic immigration and rule by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, French and British, among others. It’s known for its Neolithic Ġgantija Temple ruins, rural hiking paths, beaches and scuba-diving sites.
How to get to Gozo from Malta
There’s no direct road connection to Gozo, so you’ll need to catch the Gozo ferry (which transports both foot passengers as well as vehicles) to make the crossing. The ferry departs from Ċirkewwa (at the Northern most tip of main island Malta) at frequent intervals, with trips that continue even throughout the night.
Ċirkewwa is serviced by a number of bus routes and is easy to reach from major tourist hotspots like Sliema, St. Julian’s and Bugibba/Qawra/St. Paul’s Bay.
If you’re considering making Gozo your main holiday destination, there is a direct bus connection (route X1) that take you right up to Ċirkewwa from the airport. Right from outside the arrivals terminal you can find the bus terminus.
Route X1 usually departs every 45 minutes. There’s no night service though, so the earliest trip departs at around 5am, while the last bus leaves the terminal at 22:50h. Taking potential traffic into account, it’s not exactly a short trip. If you’re unlucky it could take up to 1.5h. The good news is the price: €2 per person for a single trip.
Alternatively, a taxi ride will set you back €30-35. Depending on the time of day it’s usually a 45 min trip.
The Gozo ferry crossing itself
Once on board the Gozo ferry, head up to the topmost deck to enjoy some exquisite views of the islands. Mid-way between Malta and Gozo, if you look toward your right, you will catch a glimpse of Comino – a tiny island with one of the most sought after swimming zones of the archipelago – the Blue Lagoon.
The tower on top of the cliff stands out, and if like me you’re a movie buff you’ll recognise it as the prison where the count of Montecristo was kept in the 2002 version of Alexandre Dumas novel.
Once you leave Comino behind, Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs loom into view, as the ferry heads for Mġarr Harbour. If you’re lucky enough, you might even spot dolphins following the trail left by the vessel.
The ferry docks and lowers the ramps to set the vehicles in its belly free. At the same time, foot passengers disembark via the recently built passenger terminal. Many Maltese will cross just to stop at one of the cosy restaurants in the harbour, while others continue their journey inland.
Quick Facts on Gozo
- 37,000 Inhabitants
- Small island covering just 67 km2 (26 square miles)
- Second largest of the three inhabited Maltese islands
- Known for a few popular sites like the Dwejra inland sea, the Citadel in Victoria (a small bastion city built atop one of the hills in Gozo with a rich historical background) and the Ġgantija Megalithic temples.
- A number of big budget film productions were shot in Malta and Gozo. In the first series of Game of Thrones, the Azure Window (natural rock formation which unfortunately collapsed recently) featured in the backdrop of some of the more memorable scenes.
- Said to have been the home of the mythological Calypso, the nymph from Homer’s Odyssey.
So why should you plan a visit to Malta’s sister island?
Although tiny, Gozo has a lot to offer to the visiting tourist:
- For starters, it is much quieter than Malta, less urbanised, and thus able to provide a more relaxing experience. If you’re visiting during the winter season, you’ll see a greener island than Malta. This is because Malta’s sister island is less industrialised, leaving the countryside intact.
- Another reason to pay a visit is the beaches and clear waters that offer swimmers and divers something to remember.
- If you’re not visiting in Summer and it’s too cold for a dip, the long walks in the countryside will be equally pleasing – Gozo has some incredible sights to offer.
- The island has a fair bit of history to tell, having played its part in many important historic events.
- Finally, make the crossing for some of the best food on the islands, especially traditional local cuisine.
Things to do and points of interest
All roads in Gozo lead to the Citadel in Rabat (also known as Victoria) – a beautiful fortified city that has witnessed many historic moments and stood the test of time in the most handsome way. It’ s impossible to determine when or who originally built this fortress, but research has proven that settlements have been present on the same hill since the Neolithic period.
Archaeologists are certain that the site was fortified during the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC. The Phoenicians and the Romans added their share of temples and buildings. The Aragonese period saw the Citadel take the shape we know today, with improvements carried out by the order of the Knights between 1599 and 1603 to withstand and provide shelter against Ottoman incursions.
For this reason, until 1637, the entire population of Gozo was required by law to spend the night within the Citadel for their own safety.
Round and About the Citadel
The view from the bastions is not simply breathtaking – it is incomparable to any other on the islands. Within its walls, the Citadel holds many precious gems, such as the little old graffiti ridden-prison where, in 1538, a young La Vallette was held for four months after attacking another man. There are also museums and old medieval houses open to the public, as well as a couple of exquisite restaurants specialising in traditional Gozitan cuisine.
Outside the Citadel, you’ll find the busiest city on the island – Rabat. Also known as Victoria, it is the capital city of Gozo and the only place on the tiny island where you can find a concentration of shops. Buying pastizzi and eating them in the plaza called ‘It-Tokk’ is a tradition many locals follow religiously. And you should try it too.
Churches and shrines
Gozo is not shy of its fervent Christian roots, with cathedrals, churches and chapels around every corner. Some of these Christian temples are fine examples of architecture, ranging from seventeenth-century baroque to twentieth-century neoclassical. Although all of them are beautiful in construction and in décor, three of these are surely worth mentioning (and visiting):
- The Cittadella Cathedral, designed by Lorenzo Gafà and built between 1697 and 1711 in baroque style.
- The onyx covered Żebbuġ church, dedicated to the Assumption. It is also the second oldest consecrated church in Gozo.
- The Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, close to Għarb is not only beautiful to behold but also worth viewing for its surroundings and for the treasure that lies within – a large room literally full of memoirs left there by those who received a miracle.
From Rabat, it is easy to reach all the other towns and small villages. Head West towards the setting sun to visit Għarb – the most western village on the archipelago. From this village, you can gain access to Dwejra and the location once known for the Azure Window – a natural rock formation which sadly collapsed into the sea in March 2017.
From the little natural harbour in Dwejra you can easily hire a boat trip on a little traditional Gozo boat called luzzu, to go out and explore the Gozitan coast from the water.
If you don’t fancy the water trip, you can walk around the area and visit the Dwejra Tower, one of a number of watchtowers built by the Knights around the coast of Malta and Gozo. From these towers, two sentinels kept watchful eyes on the horizon to alert the cities against Turkish invasions. The tower in Dwejra is particularly impressive because it has been impeccably restored in recent years.
(Image © Jonathan Cole)
Time travel in Gozo
Prehistoric Gozo has some interesting offerings to the curious traveller. The Gozo Museum of Archeology is a perfect place to start, since it offers a glimpse of all the important settlements that lived in Gozo from the early Neolithic up to the arrival of the Knights of St John. The museum itself resides within a beautiful 17th-century townhouse within the Citadel.
A visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Ġgantija temples is a must if you want to see how the anonymous Neolithic inhabitants of the islands planned and built shrines thousands of years before Stone Henge and the great pyramid of Giza were even conceived.
The Ġgantija temples recently gained a refurbished visitor center and it’s a great place to get a glimpse of the past with videos, information and guided tours around the small complex. On the same hill, the Xagħra Circle echoes the wonders of the Hypogeum in Ħal Salflieni, Malta. This was a burial site that dates back to 4,000 BC.
Other sites worth a visit include:
- Borġ l-Imramma, in the middle of the Ta’ Ċenċ plateau where one can see remains of a temple
- Ras il-Wardija Nymphaeum – an artificial cave dating back to Phoenician times. It was probably a religious sanctuary.
Living the Gozitan way
Eco tours have gained popularity in recent years. These kinds of tours offer a more intimate experience to a visitor, since they introduce you to the everyday life of Gozitans. You enter their homes, and live a day like they do, doing chores, preparing food, eating traditional food and learning all you care to ask directly from these local experts.
6 “Off the beaten path” points of interest in Gozo
- Calypso’s cave, made famous in Homer’s The Odyssey, lies on the other side of Xagħra, overlooking the largest sandy beach of the island. According to Homer’s story, Ulysses was trapped here by the nymph Calypso for seven years before resuming his journey. Update: The actual cave is no longer to the public (probably because it’s become unsafe). The view is still great but a better alternative is Tal-Mixta Cave. It takes a little bit of navigating but the view and location are very much worth the effort!
- A walk along the Marsalforn promenade can take you up to Qbajjar and on into Xwejni, a remote part of the coast overlooking open sea where it is said that on a clear summer night one can even see the lights of cars off the coast in Sicily. What’s certain is that from here you can catch a glimpse of the milky way in all its glory – there are only a few places on the archipelago where you can do that since light pollution is a big problem. If you’re not stargazing, the walk is nice. You’ll also find some of the island’s salt pans that make for a pretty picture towards the end of the day
- Tal-Merżuq Hill, or as it is most popularly known nowadays – Tas-Salvatur – offers a breathtaking view of a great part of the island. It takes some hard work to get to the top, where you’ll meet the statue of the Risen Christ that gives the hill its modern name. This statue was placed here in the 1970s at an altitude of 320 feet.
- Wied l-Għasri is a secluded valley that winds down from Ta’ Dbieġi Hill through the village of Għasri and on to Żebbuġ. It finally meets the sea – popular with divers who like to explore the surrounding underwater caves. It is also a good place to swim or just for a quiet walk.
- The carnival in Gozo (celebrated in February) is an annual event that year after year attracts more and more audiences. In fact, it has become a much sought after event. Although the main activities take place in the main square of Rabat, many are those who flock to Nadur to celebrate a more spontaneous, informal carnival where everything goes and there are no rules.
- Near the villages of Għasri and Għarb you can find two lighthouses (il-Fanal Ta’ Ġurdan being the more popular one), each on a separate hill, both with stunning 360-degree views over the island. il-Fanal Ta’ Ġurdan, the more popular of the two is easily accessible through a side road right opposite Ta` Pinu church. The other is a little trickier to find but signs in Għasri will guide you to the steep road up the hill. Drive slowly – it’s a narrow road.
Planning to take a few tours or excursions to explore Malta and Gozo?
Map of Gozo
Does Gozo have sandy beaches?
The sea around the little island is as beautiful as it looks and although there aren’t a lot of sandy beaches in Gozo, there are a few beautiful ones around. Ramla l-Ħamra and San Blas Bay (on the Northern coastline) are perhaps the most accessible and the most popular among swimmers.
Marsalforn (North) also has a small sandy beach, although usually quite busy and probably not the prettiest of all. Ħondoq ir-Rummien (South East) is far more beautiful, but its sandy beach is pretty small and fills up easily.
Finally, Dahlet Qorrot Bay has a small sandy beach that is much more secluded and only really the locals know of. Highly recommended for an early morning swim. Peaceful, quiet, clean – a stunning little bay.
Other (not sandy) bays worth visiting
However, there are plenty of other places that although harder to access, provide a lasting impression on visitors. Imġarr ix-Xini, for example, is a secluded pebbled beach at the end of a long gorge and is a good spot for both swimming and diving. The movie By the Sea, starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt was partially filmed at Mġarr ix-Xini in 2014.
Ix-Xatt l-Aħmar is another undiscovered spot ideal for swimming and diving. Divers should take note – the crystal clear waters hide the wreck of an old ferryboat called ‘Ix-Xlendi’ which lies just beyond the bay.
The area of Dwejra is known for its small bay (“Inland sea”) surrounded by tall cliffs (a nice spot for swimming and snorkelling in a unique location) and was the site where the Azure Window (a naturally formed arch on the rocky coastline) once stood.
Accommodation in Gozo
As far as accommodation is concerned, there are quite a few options to choose from. In terms of variety, Gozo offers a number of accommodation types that can make it hard to decide which is best:
- You can find luxury five-star hotels like the Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort & Spa or Ta’ Ċenċ Hotel & Spa as well as comfortable four and three-star hotels. All offer a relaxed environment.
- Many Maltese like to stay in farmhouses or houses of character when paying a visit to Gozo, like Gozo Farmhouse Rentals. This type of accommodation is ideal for families or large groups, especially because many of these residences have their own swimming pool, BBQ area and private gardens.
- A novelty concept is the Boutique accommodation. These are houses that offer intimate and unique settings furnished in style, normally located in the heart of towns or villages.
- Small, family-run guest houses offer a warm, friendly and highly personal welcome.
- A delightful variety of self-catering apart hotels offer budget accommodation.
- Apartments rented directly from their owners are also a popular choice. Scattered throughout every town and village, these fully furnished apartments offer you independence on a budget.
Car rentals / Public transport
One cannot simply walk into Gozo – although the island is relatively small, it still would take you days to discover its hidden beauties on foot.
If you have hired a car in Malta, you can cross over to Gozo with it using the ferry at an additional fee. Compared to Malta, driving in Gozo is easier and much more relaxed. There’s hardly any traffic, except perhaps in and around Rabat at times.
If you crossed without a car, then you have some options as well:
- The bus system on the island is known to be rather inefficient and many would suggest hiring a car. There are 10 bus routes in Gozo with buses running every hour in each direction. The 301 between Victoria (Rabat) and the ferry terminal operates every 30 minutes. These times are the same every day of the week, throughout winter and summer.
- Taxis are an option, but much more expensive than driving yourself around. You can easily grab a taxi or hire a car at the ferry terminal on arrival.
- Another alternative, especially if you are only spending a day on the island, are jeep tours. These can be booked from Mġarr harbour as soon as you set foot off the ferry. The drivers will surely take you to places that are not usually found on the tourist maps.
- Hop on hop off buses are also very convenient if travelling to Gozo without a car and if you want to see the main attractions in a short time. The buses stop at all the major attractions. Headphones are provided to listen to descriptions of the sights in 8 different languages. You’ll find the tour bus waiting when you get off the ferry. Just hop on the bus and purchase your ticket in the bus itself. A day ticket for adults costs €15 and children pay €9.
- If you’re in decent shape (or looking to get into shape), you could also rent a mountain bike and try one of my Gozo mountain biking routes to get a brilliant tour of parts of the island, while getting a good workout too! Their site doesn’t look like much, but these guys are known to be reliable for mountain bike rentals.
Food and restaurants
- Tmun is an excellent choice for fine dining (specialising in some of the freshest fish available in Gozo). Located at the harbour in Mġarr, this family-run restaurant is a firm favourite on my list.
- Patrick’s Lounge in Victoria serves great steak and gourmet food if you’re looking for something a little fancier.
- If you love seafood, you definitely must pay a visit to Xlendi Bay. Here you’ll find an assortment of restaurants (personal favourite: The Boathouse) overlooking the bay, all serving exquisite food in a fantastic setting. On hot summer evenings, it’s great to eat outside and then just go for a quiet after dinner stroll along the promenade.
- Maxokk bakery in Nadur is another must-go-to place. Here you’ll taste a unique kind of pizza made with the same dough used to make Maltese bread. Toppings are quite unusual too. The bakery does not have tables and chairs – you just take your pizza and go eat it in a quiet place.
- La Stanza in Rabat is a well-known restaurant situated within a building that dates back to the 17th century. The roof terrace offers lovely views that complement the delicious food.