Malta for all: the LGBTQ+ guide to Europe’s most inclusive destination

Alim Kheraj

“I was going on holiday with a friend and we wanted to go somewhere that was LGBTQ+ friendly, but not just about partying,” says 32-year-old Akbar* from London. “[A country’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights] is really important to me; it’s the first thing that I Google.”

That final consideration led Akbar and his friends to Malta in the summer of 2019. Over the past decade, the country has become a world leader on LGBTQ+ rights, from same-sex marriage and equal adoption, to liberal gender recognition laws for trans people. In fact, Malta was the first European country to protect people from discrimination based on gender identity or expression, and allows those who identify as neither man nor woman to use an “x” marker on official documents.

The result? A place where LGBTQ+ people can live openly, and tourists can travel as their authentic selves. “I saw same-sex couples in straight bars feeling comfortable enough to kiss and honestly that always makes me happy,” Akbar recalls.

For Akbar, discovering an oasis of inclusivity just three hours away from home was a revelation. “Malta has an almost magical quality thanks to its weather, architecture and coastline. And, as someone who isn’t 100% ‘out’ at home, it was a great place to lose my inhibitions. Malta felt very friendly to ethnic minorities too, so I didn’t have to hide any part of who I am. That definitely added to how much fun and freedom I had there. We met some local LGBTQ+ people on a raucous night in a gay bar, who were all really lovely and friendly.”

One writer is working on a guided tour of Valletta that explores its LGBTQ+ history. Photograph: SPC#JAYJAY/Getty Images
Valetta city, Malta. Photograph: Krasnevsky/Alamy
  • The view across the Grand Harbour; Valletta; Chucky Bartolo

Raucousness is just one part of Malta’s multifaceted LGBTQ+ offering, however, and Akbar notes that it’s also an ideal destination for a chilled holiday. “I think Malta has its own vibe, and I’d recommend it to LGBTQ+ travellers for a laid-back but queer-friendly holiday that’s inclusive.”

The mix of vibrant nightlife and calm relaxation is something that 26-year-old drag performer and comedian Chucky Bartolo appreciates about Malta, too. Having been born and raised there, Bartolo recently moved to Glasgow, but returns to Malta to perform regularly. “There’s one party a month that I love called Lollipop,” which he says has grown into a huge bash over the years. “It’s thousands of people, every time.” And when LGBTQ+ travellers aren’t painting the town red, “people can lay around in Speedos, they can hold hands, kiss by the pool and no one cares. That’s great.”

Bartolo recommends LGBTQ+ travellers visit the (somewhat ironically named) Strait Street, a historically flamboyant locale in the capital city of Valletta that used to be popular with sailors when Malta was under British rule. “It’s a great place, there are really cute bars and if you’re a gay couple kissing in the street, no one is going to bat an eye.”

Malta’s queer nightlife doesn’t just provide a safe space for travellers and revellers, though. For Maxine Sophia Attard, a transgender performer who goes by the moniker MadameMaxxx, the queer scene also allows LGBTQ+ performers and artists to express themselves. Michelangelo, a club just outside of trendy Sliema, is one such venue; Attard says their promotion and embracing of diversity has been part of what she describes as a “big improvement” in terms of people’s attitudes to the trans community in Malta. If you head to Malta this June, you’ll catch Attard “performing as the main star” at MediteRainbow, a four-day party organised by Michelangelo.

While there are a number of LGBTQ+ specific venues to enjoy, Bartolo notes that “most LGBTQ+ people just go to regular clubs”, as, widely speaking, everyone has always been accommodating. “When I go out, I’ll just go out to a regular club with gay people and my female friends. Malta’s nightlife is amazing and crazy,” he says.

  • Lilla Salamon, author of the Gay Guide to Malta; Valletta waterfront; Pride week in Malta

Inclusivity isn’t something that just happens, as 31-year-old Lilla Salamon can tell you. She’s one of many straight allies who have supported the island’s LGBTQ+ community, and her Gay Guide to Malta provides “up-to-date information on what to expect in Malta during their stay”, she explains. “I had been working in marketing for 10 years, and after the Civil Union Act update in 2014 I noticed that businesses were trying to open their minds and doors to LGBTQ+ clients. They just had no idea how to do it, apart from sponsoring Pride week. With Gay Guide Malta I gave them a platform to talk to the LGBTQ+ community, both local and foreign, directly.”

Salamon has immersed herself in the island’s LGBTQ+ scene since moving there from Hungary six years ago, using her skills to lift up and celebrate queer voices, talent and business, as well as to deliver diversity training to hotels. “I think the NGOs, the government, the individuals in the community and myself, I hope, are doing the most to work together [to support LGBTQ+ inclusivity]. I think it’s going very well at the moment.” Salamon adds that local groups offer cultural programmes and meetups, and that she is actually working on a guided tour around Valletta that explores the city’s LGBTQ+ history.

It would be remiss to talk about LGBTQ+ travel without mentioning Malta Pride, which has grown exponentially in the past five years, becoming a “massive, international-style Pride”, according to Bartolo. For 10 hours, the city of Valletta is closed down as everyone comes out to celebrate. There’s also a diverse, week-long programme of talks and events, including LGBTQ+ inclusive football games.

Related: From Għanafest to Notte Bianca: your guide to Malta’s arts and culture festivals in 2020

For Pride week, Salamon says that through Gay Guide Malta she encourages all the hotels she works with on the island to offer packages catering to LGBTQ+ travellers looking for a fun time. She also helps people who are planning same-sex weddings in the country, too. With affordable flights, it’s easy to get family members over for trips. It’s something she says has “upped the game for Malta”. “We have wedding packages,” she adds. “I only work with the best of the best. There are a lot of wedding planners in Malta and there are many who are fantastic. They also have experience with the legal side, too.”

Malta is a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ travellers, but it’s also so much more. And that, Salamon believes, is ultimately what attracts people of all sexual and gender identities to the country. “Malta is a place with incredible heritage from a lot of different eras and cultures,” she explains. “And based on my experience, LGBTQ+ travellers are just looking for the same things as other travellers, only with the extra peace of mind that they won’t be treated differently.”

* Not his real name

With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Malta offers more to explore