I was having a nightcap at the palmy, Art Deco Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta, Malta, when a former British naval officer struck up a chat, quickly confiding in me that he thought Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, was the handsomest man he’d ever seen. The prince and the future monarch spent the early years of their marriage in Malta, the former base of the British Mediterranean fleet, where Philip was posted to a ship.
Malta, the expat explained, had always been “very pleasant ” for gay men. “So many sailors and soldiers,” he said, sipping his drink. “This lovely little island is even better today, though, because now everything’s all out in the open and not only does no one bat an eyelash, it’s just not an issue here anymore.”
Perhaps this attitude explains why Valletta, the tiny capital of the smallest country in the European Union — five islands in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia, with a population of about 538,000 — will be hosting EuroPride this September. This annual L.G.B.T.Q. event, which began in 1992, is awarded to a different European city every year. Valletta, with only about 6,000 residents, will be the smallest host city to date.
“This celebration is an important opportunity for us to show off why Malta was rated No. 1 by the Rainbow Europe index,” said Toni Attard, the artistic director for Valletta’s EuroPride program. The index is a ranking by ILGA-Europe, a nonprofit organization that monitors the legal and social climate for L.G.B.T.Q. people in 27 E.U. countries.
A tradition of tolerance
I had come to Malta from my home in France for a long weekend to explore what exactly makes it so hospitable to visitors — gay and straight alike.
“Our identity is an amalgam,” Liam Gauci, the curator of the Malta Maritime Museum and one of the island’s most respected historians, told me. “We’re Roman Catholic, but the word for God in Maltese, a Semitic language, is Allah, a reflection of the two centuries the Arabs ruled Malta after invading in 870 A.D. These contradictions make us wryly tolerant of differences, including sexual ones,” he said.
“The church may have frowned on it, but homosexuality was common among ship crews,” Mr. Gauci added. “The Grand Court of Malta even ruled in favor of Rosa Mifsud, a transgender Maltese, who filed a petition in 1744 to be officially recognized as a male.”
When I arrived in Valletta, the apricot-colored sun was just about to sink into the Mediterranean. Inside the town’s stone ramparts, the steep streets were lined with handsome honey-colored stone houses whose balconies recalled the mashrabiya, or screened wooden porches, in the old quarters of Cairo and Tunis.
I stopped at the Casa Rocca Piccola B & B — in a Baroque 16th-century mansion that’s also open to visitors — just long enough to leave my bags. A dinner reservation awaited.
Just a few blocks away, at the Michelin-starred restaurant Noni, Ritienne Brincat, who manages the dining room for her brother, the chef Jonathan Brincat, showed me to a table in a vaulted stone cellar.
Knowing nothing about Maltese food, I assumed it would be a variation on the fare of nearby Sicily. Instead, such dishes as a ruddy fish bouillon seasoned with mandarin orange oil, risotto with local red prawns, and red porgy with stuffed zucchini flowers, sea urchin and a luscious fish-bone-and-citrus sauce revealed an intriguingly refined and umami-rich cuisine.
After dinner, Mr. Brincat offered a primer in Maltese gastronomy. “Our food is a reflection of all of the peoples who ruled us,” he said, explaining that Malta has one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cuisines. “We eat broad beans like the Egyptians and dolmas similar to what you find in Libya. We’ve been cooking with spices like nutmeg and cardamom for centuries, because we were a provisioning stop for ships transporting spices from India and further east to Northern Europe.”
British rule from 1814 to 1964 also left its mark, he said, recalling a favorite childhood dish: a variation of a Bolognese sauce with tomatoes and chopped corned beef, a staple of the British Navy.
Baroque masterworks and neon-lit nightlife
Malta is only 122 square miles, so 72 hours had seemed like an adequate amount of time to explore. But I quickly realized that I’d need at least a week if I wanted to take a ferry to experience the turquoise waters and grilled rock lobster of Gozo, the wild northernmost island of the archipelago. That would have to wait until the next trip.
I decided to check out the main island first, and then Valletta itself after that. The delightful Anna Grech Sant, a local guide, offered an abbreviated but fascinating lesson in Maltese history, richly seasoned with memorable trivia.
One tidbit: “Spiteri” was the name given to the illegitimate children of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem — more commonly known as the Knights of Malta — the Catholic military order that ruled Malta for centuries after the Holy Roman emperor Charles V granted them the island in 1530. “Spiteri is also a common surname on Malta today,” Ms. Grech Sant told me with a chuckle.
A 30-minute drive or bus ride from Valletta, Mdina, Malta’s old capital, was built by the Arabs on the site of a former Roman city. Behind its thick stone walls, it’s an elegant Baroque town best visited at night after the crowds of tourists have left.
After crossing a bridge over the bastion of the old fortress, now planted as gardens, we visited the cool, candle-wax-scented 17th-century Cathedral of St. Paul, then stopped in at the Palazzo Falson, a townhouse that’s one of the oldest buildings in Malta. The palazzo — formerly the home of a wealthy collector — displays an impressive array of paintings, furniture, silver, armor, jewelry and coins.
Back in Valletta, the capital since 1571, the nearly 450-year-old cathedral St. John’s “is worth a trip to Malta all on its own,” Ms. Grech Sant explained. From the polychrome marble tombs in the floor of the cathedral’s main apse to squirming gilded cherubim and vast paintings of handsome knights and muscular saints, St. John’s reveals the pulsing intersection between faith and sensuality that is the triumph of Baroque art.
After a visit to the National Museum of Archaeology, which is housed in a magnificent 16th-century former lodge of the Knights of Malta, I cooled off next to the fountain in the Upper Barakka Gardens, one of densely populated Valletta’s favorite green spaces, with sweeping views of the Grand Harbor.
After a packed day, I wanted to save enough energy to sample the nightlife, so I opted for an early dinner of squid ink lasagna with the soft, spicy Calabrian sausage ’nduja, and local rabbit cooked in mustard and tarragon at Grain Street, the casual and more affordable sibling of the Michelin-starred Under Grain.
The pumping nightlife district of Paceville (pronounced Pah-chuh-ville) is in St. Julian’s, a 15-minute ferry trip and a short cab ride away from Valletta. It could have been Hvar, Croatia, or Mykonos: Think crowded terraces with an international crowd of gay and straight revelers sipping giant cocktails with Day-Glo straws, and this summer’s earworm, Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam,” permeating the pavement. Paceville looked like it would be a lot of fun around 1 a.m., but it had already been a long day, and a serious cocktail seemed in order.
That was why I ended up at the Phoenicia Hotel’s Club Bar, where my new friend, the former British naval officer, and I leaned into our conversation, and our drinks. “The Maltese are a worldly and open-minded people,” he said, echoing my all-too-brief experience on the island. “This is why I think the EuroPride in September’s going to be just wonderful, for everyone.”