EU hopping: Malta with a side of Paris & Brussels, please.

After being in Panama for a solid month to kick of 2024, Jon and I were longing for more adventure, culture, and… you guessed it, under water exploring.

We stumbled upon Malta as a diving haven, and with the ease of travel around Europe, the trip quickly took shape from there. 

Tack on a couple of lovelies we met on one of our favorite travels to date, and wala! Brussels, here we come.

Where did we kick off this latest adventure? The City of Love <3

Valletta!

How to get there.

International travel, you say? Javanti must be rocking their Chase Reserve Ultimate Rewards points. Heck yes! 

I played around with quite a few options & finally landed on flying direct from ORD to CDG (Paris’ Charles de Gaulle), and then direct back from Brussels to ORD. Truly priceless to have a direct flight home after a multi-country adventure. Another kind of paradise.

We had about 75k points after using em up for the last voyage, and paid $600 on top to send both of us back into the EU for another awesome trip. 

We then easily grabbed internal flights within Europe. We booked Paris to Malta and Malta to Brussels on Skyscanner. Both were with KM Malta Airlines, and ran $200/pp total. Again direct flights, and relatively short ones at 2 hours & change each. Easy peasy. 

Runabout tips

  • Multi-city flights searches are totally worth it! While R/T flights tend to be cost-friendliest, getting back home without a connection after a voyage abroad is clutch. Cannot beat that time and energy save, and you may get just as lucky on your search with respect to $$.
  • Trying to book on the Air Malta site directly was a struggle because the airline was apparently winding down to cede to KM Malta Air at that time. Perhaps booking flights on an airline that proclaimed it would not exist in the near future (that too, through a third-party) could lead to disaster but luckily worked out just fine for this duo. After the 3/30/24 “switch”, the tickets reflected KM, and we were all good.
  • Baggage? We travel light, and you never know whether a careful eye is on your bags.. or not. KM did get us on the flight to Brussels. Easy 40 euros to forcefully check our single suitcase. Yea, the one that perfectly fits in the overhead bin. Blasted. Thankfully, our lil travel partner was out of baggage claim in a jiffy, and we hardly lost time. Otherwise, we fared fine on basic economy. If you have more or heftier luggage, grab economy or economy plus to spare the hassle. 
  • We’ve said it before and will say it again. Friday night flights out of O’hare are the shizzzz. Even with a lovely 3 hours on the tarmac to kick off the adventure, we easily slept through the flight & shifted time zones to fully enjoy day + evening in Paris on arrival. Huzzah!
  • Getting 7 hours on the way back is ridic amazing. We left Brussels at 10am on Sunday & were back by 11:30am. On Sunday. Magic, people. Pure magic.

How to get around.

You know we love our car rentals abroad given that I have my very own Jeff Gordon chauffeur. That said, a lil reprieve is also nice. Esp when we want to hit the sauce. Together. So rare, we know.

Our short stint in Paris easily involved Bolts to & from CDG. We explored the city’s lovely sights on foot, and easily Bolted back to our lil love nest.

Grabbing a rental in Malta is very possible (for strong drivers that don’t mind a bit of insanity), but with the multiple islands to visit, a strong ferry system, and fair amount of car traffic, we opted not in favor of… you guessed it, Bolt! On our final day, we simply asked the awesome Bolt driver that showed up to scoop us if we could hang with him for the day. He was game, and 25 euros/hour later, we had the flexibility to hop around to those hidden gems I’m so fond of. 1000% worth it.

For Brussels, we easily determined a weekend of Belgian beer crawls & taking advantage of a flawless Metro system was in the stars. Mingmar confirmed this inclination, and off to see our friends we went! Truthfully, we ended up largely on foot in this super walkable city. And when we needed a bit of reprieve (or were late to meet our friends, let’s be real), Bolt to the rescue.

Runabout tips

  • Download the rideshare app Bolt! It’s super prevalent in the EU, and very easy to use. That said, Uber has a large presence as well. Prices are comparable, depending on where you’re at. In Paris and Malta, we preferred Bolt, but in Brussels, tended to use whichever was nearest to scoop us up.
  • Download Whizascoot! The app will let you seamlessly scoop a scooter (read, moped) in Malta. Clutch for maneuvering the traffic that quickly builds on the main roads that you have to traverse to get from any point A to point B. Island life.
  • Download – there’s a theme here – Revolut. Should you run out of euros or prefer to stay cashless, this payment system is widely used in the EU. Our internet connection was not strong enough to download the app as we cruised around Malta sans wifi, so we’re interested to know whether the app flawlessly allows for cross-border/continent payments. Fill us in! My guess is this will be become an even more prevalent way to pay internationally over time.
  • On average, it ran us up to ~40 euros to get from the airport to our hotel in each city. Valletta (in Malta) was nearer. And closer to 20 euros.
  • In Malta, call Melli Vela for your personal, 24 hour taxi service (this is our Bolt driver’s company). +356 9987 8887. Tell him Chicagoans that visited in May sent you for special treatment. Enjoy the history of Malta from a native! His love of the island brightly shines through.
  • You very likely already know this tidbit, but Google Maps is your best friend. Sorry Jon. For getting around, you can easily explore how easy and quick public transport is for your desired destination, and then evaluate whether to walk or Uber/Bolt. 
  • We didn’t grab a single taxi cab until landing at ORD. Ride share is a super simple way to avoid getting swindled, if you’re at all concerned about that. For us, it’s simply easier to use apps that have our CCs linked, rather than carrying around a bunch of dollaz. 

Where to stay.

I found hotels insanely quickly for this trip. Much of the usual process (more on this below!), and each our destinations simply had a ton to offer. With more options come more competitive prices. No complaints here. 

Paris

We settled on Hotel Piaia, at $200 for our single night. We were headed out early the next AM, so I didn’t bother choosing a place with breakfast, our fave meal of the day. 

Why this spot? Reviews were great, location looked stellar, and it’s super cute without a giant price tag. The water, tea, and coffee of all varieties avail. to guests at all times was a nice touch for this thirsty duo. 

Customer service? Good, but English was lacking for key hotel staff, without any effort to even try and communicate with us. I’ve decided to add French to my list of languages to learn for this single reason, as Paris has not seemed to be an English friendly city. I don’t believe Parisians are unfriendly to Americans, but instead not keen on the English language in general and perhaps even more averse to American pronunciation that totally sends them for a loop. 

I had prob anticipated an off day for the Javanti gym rats and perhaps because of this, skipped ensuring our Paris hotel had a gym. Not to worry, friends. We did a day pass at Neoness [Google Maps] just steps away (I know, seriously?). Yep. At 10 euros/pp with a giant space and tons of machines and weights to boot, I was in heaven. For us, this was the perfect way to kick off our stint in the city of love, cheese, and wine. And that butter. Yep, getting ahead of ourselves and will curb that now.

Malta

Goodness, this place looked gorgeous online. The AX Palace Malta ran us $270/night, inclusive of both breakfast and one other meal – lunch or dinner – each day. Stellar price for a place we had heard is plenty pricey. 

Customer service? With a giant smile. The Maltese language is a mix of English, Arabic, and Italian. Yea, wowza. No language barriers here. Other than when we ran into the French… 

Gym, you ask? Gym, sauna, steam room, and a few pools. Get it! We fully took advantage of the amenities and recommend this place. 

Breakfast did the trick for AM work sessions, dinner at the standard restaurant had good variety, and we highly recommend doing an evening meal at Temptasion on the rooftop. Stunning view, insanely lovely wait staff, and the Asian fusion was bomb. The tequila shots weren’t too shabby, either. Heyy Priya! 

Brussels

Our final destination landed us at the Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie. Say that three times fast.

At approx. $300/night inclusive of a stellar breakfast spread each morning, the location, service, and gorgeous living space were spot on. 

Gym? Sauna? Both, and both perfect to ride out our last few days of the trip. 

Runabout tips

  • What is this usual hotel finding process I speak of?
    • Go to a map of the city or place you’re visiting.
    • Zoom in a lil to the various landmarks you may be into, and imp, the potential neighborhoods you can opt to stay in.
    • To figure out the above, cruise into a blog or two (for ex: search Google for “blog where to stay Brussels”). There, you’ll find awesome info. on what each neighborhood has to offer.
    • Choose a hood, go to Tripadvisor, and search! Use the filters to very easily narrow results.
    • For us, inputting “fitness center” as a filter when searching in Europe severely narrows options, in a good way. Add in the filter for minimum four or five customer reviews, tack on “breakfast included” as a filter if that’s imp to you, and if you’d like, input a max price point. Wala! You’ll likely end up with 2-3 strong options. 
    • *Note the cancellation policy. I go for cancellation without a penalty because we tend to fly with the wind. This can be $30-$40 pricier for the same booking. For us, 100% worth the peace of mind. 
    • Check out the reviews, be sure to check the map to confirm location, and if you’d like, go to the hotel website to confirm any questions you might have (parking, amenities, price on the direct site etc.). I tend to book the best price reflected of the many booking options on Tripadvisor, but I do check the hotel direct site first. 
    • I often also email the hotel directly, simply to get a dialog going but also to confirm the reso if booked through a third-party and occasionally, to ask for flexible cancellation (before booking, if not already an option). Works often.
    • Never hurts to check the distance from the airport to the spot you choose as a final check, to avoid any surprises there and perhaps (double, triple, quadruple) check the location. 

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How far does your mula go?

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We felt prices were totally fair/reasonable throughout the trip, brought several hundred euros (from a prior trip), and had zero issues with currency.  

Plastic rules, just as in the US, and this is becoming largely true even for souvenirs at little stalls these days. 

Malta was not nearly as expensive as we had anticipated, and was an awesome surprise in many more ways.

In sum, always good to have cash on hand while traveling, stashing this safely. We’d recommend 200 or so euros, and US dollars to supplement.

What to do.

Paris!

 

Less than 24 hours in a city that boasts the things I hold dearest in life (cheese, wine, cheese, bread, cheese). Hiii Jon. Ay caramba!

Our afternoon & evening consisted of:

  • A stroll along the Seine, glimpse of the Notre Dame being rebuilt (getting close!), the Louvre, and the magnificent Eiffel Tower, all easily on foot.
  • We visited a cute Parisian Highline to kick off the afternoon that we hadn’t strolled through before, at the Petite Ceinture. Recommend for an easy start to the afternoon or evening. 
  • Time for libations! Finally. We started at one (technically, two I suppose) of my fave restaurants in the world: Le’Avant Comptoir de la Mer and Le’Avant Comptoir de la Terre (sea & land, respectively). No resos, small bites, super super cute, and that champagne. To die for. The bread and butter? A perfect compliment. I could go on and on but will stop to allow you to visit this amazing place. Cannot wait to return each time we visit this awesome city.
  • We simply bounced around bars, sipped vino, and somehow found our way to the tequila to round out the evening. Heyy Souid and Saifeddine! See you in Tunisia or Chi next. Recommend Mulberry Street for a friendly bar, where most seem to have Parisians & patrons keeping to themselves. It’s that English thing rearing its ugly head again, I suppose.

Paris is lovely. You knew this. I love that this is an easy hub for us to fly into for destination Europe. Or many other parts of the world for that matter. We’ll look forward to returning and discovering again and again. Esp with French under our belts. One day.

Next time, Bordeaux

Malta!

What to do!

  • Dive! We went with Malta Blue Diving based on solid reviews and the less than 5 minute walk from our hotel.
    • Pros: Friendly and knowledgable crew, price was reasonable at 290 euros all in for both of us for the day, inclusive of transport by jeep, ferry ride, and 2 dives, and it was awesome to visit Gozo & Camino as part of the day’s adventures. The Blue Hole is gorgeous, and the Inland Sea provided for solid rock formations (home of the famous collapsed Azure Window). 
    • Cons: Set up (& disassemble. come on people, we’re on vacation) your own equipment, long day for a 2-tank dive, and shore diving can carry with it long, heavy equipment treks for this small human. (princess here, I get it. And own it). 
    • All in all, I really enjoyed the currents and challenging, deep dives (weirdo). The scene was gorgeous, so much so that I didn’t seem to mind the very cold water temps. These dives were more about topography, underwater structures, tunnels, and swim throughs than creatures. So, looking forward to finding those lil buggers on our next dives!
  • Grab the ferry to the 3 Cities: Ohmygoodness, Valletta is an adorable land just a 5 min ferry ride from Sliema. Here, visit the Barakka Gardens, and be sure to catch a cannon firing at 12pm or 4pm daily. Awesome & worth every penny of the few euro charge to enter the upper gardens. Pop into the pizza place in our recs below after. Can’t miss.
  • Boat your lil heart out! If you’re not diving, we’d recommend renting a private boat, with a group if you’d like, to keep costs a bit down. The water is stunning, and this is the spot to island hop.
  • Spend an afternoon in the quaint Marsaxlokk fishing village. Perfect spot to get your Malta souvenirs, stroll along the water, and enjoy the day’s fresh catch with a cold brew or vino blanco. Yum. 
  • Visit St. Julian’s for dinner & a night out. Recs below!
  • A short trip to the Blue Grotto is worth the small detour when heading back to the airport, if not prior. Also a lovely spot to hop on a scooter to. Very much a tourist attraction, but Malta’s oh so blue waters never get old.
  • Speaking of tourist attractions, a visit to the hidden cave at Ghar ir-Rih is not one (despite that those are the first words you’ll see when clicking the link…). This hidden gem was the highlight of the trip for me. Absolute beauty, and we were the only people for miles. The q is: can you find it?! 

Where to eat & drink: 

  • Georgia – You guessed it, yummy Georgian food (in St. Julian’s) that we cannot get enough of. Authentic by our tastes, down to the servers. We had a blast and left with happy tummies. Musts: khachapuri, khinkali, everything. Cha cha shots of course. 
  • San Paolo Naufrago in Valletta for delish Italian. One of the most lovely settings we’ve had. Ever. Super casual and oh so cute.
  • Try the best Dan Dan noodle soup you will possibly ever indulge in at Golden Wok. Just wow wow wow.
  • Pop into Maggie’s for a cute lunch, or wait until the sun goes down to enjoy the super cute front patio. Every detail is well thought out, service is uber friendly, and the food is outstanding. Do not skip dessert.
  • Along the water, Trattoria del Mare is a perfect intro to Malta. We enjoyed our first glass of bubbles and super fresh seafood to kick off a few lovely days of island fun. 
  • Try Temptasian on the AX Palace rooftop to spice things up in a bit, in an artistic, cozy yet fancy setting. Head up just in time to catch the tail end of a gorgeous golden hour.
  • Cute, borders the water, and food + service done right at Lou’s Bistro. Not a terrible setting for a cold bottle of vino blanco. 
  • Zest in St. Julian’s was beautifully decorated. Recommend a drink outside, but the cocktails and food were underwhelming. First time having rabbit skewers, a very common meat in Malta. 
  • Ultra fancy Azar provided a nice lil start to our dinner crawl. Tiny bit pretentious for my taste, but the food was super innovative and tequila a great mood setter. Isn’t it always. 
  • For a brew or 2 to finish out the evening with lovely UK folk, check out the Salisbury Arms pub. 
  • For a kitschy spot before leaving Valletta, pop into Tribe for a bright cocktail to match the decor. The food was unique, just not as good as everything else we had tried.
Next time! 
 
  • Mdina – Def on our list for next time. Said to be similar to Valletta in its old time feel, yet less commercial than Valletta has become. Sounds up our alley.
  • St. Pete’s Pool – Cliff diving, here we come! Yes Jon, both of us.
  • Dingli Cliffs – Sunset views from the highest point in Malta! We fully intended on driving a scooter over, but alas, the AX Palace’s gorgeous rooftop & generous pours kept us.
  • The Black Pearl – A drink on a ship? Why not?

Runabout tips

  • We really enjoyed staying in Sliema. There are a million options. Location is wildly imp in part given the traffic that you’ll face hopping from one place to another, and because there is a ton to do in Malta! Perfectly situated for the dive shop and short ferry hop from old timey Valletta, highly recommend. 
  • For more of a party scene, stay in St. Julian’s or Paceville. (Strongly? yes.) recommend opting to visit those spots for a night out instead tho.
  • If heading to Gozo, grab a scooter or Bolt (see how to get around above for tips on both) to the Cirkewwa Harbor, and take the ferry from there for a 20 minute or so ride. Strong tip to avoid traffic times (8am was one), as that’ll quickly add an extra 30 minutes or more to your ride to the harbor. You can bring cars and scooters on the ferry, woo! Otherwise, rent a 4-wheeler to cruise around Gozo. Ferry prices are super reasonable and depend upon who (& what) you’re transporting over to the island.

Brussels!

We had a fun weekend in Brussels to round out the trip. Complete with a warm welcome from our Georgian faves, Mingmar & Glenn, this city has a ton to offer.

We had no idea Dutch was so prevalent outside of the Netherlands + a few countries in South America. Indeed, Belgians speak Dutch and French, and these are the languages officially taught in school. 

Four thumbs up on our Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie, as we noted above. The location was perfect, and the cozy room provided the perfect place for a relaxing weekend to round out the trip. There are a multitude of options tho.

What to do!

  • Visit the MIM, if nothing else to catch a spectacular view of the Parc de Bruxelles at the top of the hill, outside of the museum. If the museum is open, pop into the cafe on the top floor for even better, more exclusive views with a beverage in hand.
  • You’ll of course traipse through the Grand Place (the city’s bustling town square) and its vibrant adjacent streets. We happened to catch Jazz Fest while in town, which created an awesome vibe.
  • The Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert provides a super unique space, with a market feel but adorned with glass ceilings and upscale goods for sale. Including plenty of Belgian chocolate, yum. 
  • You can easily cruise the streets of Bruxelles and find statues, museums, and the famous Manneken Pis. It was fun to hear the lil guy’s history from a local. Go on a treasure hunt to find his likeness & female counterpart!
  • We opted to be a bit deliberate in searching for parks and loooved the Bois de la Cambre. We strolled around but this would be an awesome, sprawling setting for a run. What a (giant) gem in the middle of a metropolitan city!
  • The Universitè Libre de Bruxelles very nearby the park was a nice contrast and reflected the incredible international nature of Brussels in all of its glory. Another awesome stroll, especially so because we happened to stumble upon this pretty campus. 
  • You could hop on the ferris wheel in the city’s center to catch a higher glimpse of where you will be roaming. 
  • We enjoyed popping into a few stores in the high-end streets of Saint-Gilles
  • The key? For us anyway: stroll around without much pressure to hit particular sights, and you’ll stumble across plenty of awesome stuff in this very walkable city. 

Where to eat & drink: 

The options are a bit overwhelming and honestly, Google Maps didn’t seem as handy in this capital. The places we enjoyed the most didn’t pop up doing our classic search (“restaurants” in the current location, filter “top rated”, sort by distance). 

Explore and pop into whatever place looks interesting! The people watching everywhere is phenom. 

  • Our faves!
    • La Pharmacie Anglaise. This pharmacy-turned-cocktail bar is super cute. The bartenders are passionate in their craft and aim to please. Lovely, cozy ambiance.
    • Neutnigenough boasted the best meal of our trip (thank you, Glenn!), as evidenced by the near-constant line this tiny place has going. Worth it, and simply go at off hours to keep the wait minimal. Interestingly, that seemed to be around 6:45pm, which some would call prime time in the US. Of course, with a sunset near 10pm, the timing in Brussels in not on par! 
    • Fin de Siécle screamed delish eats, friendly service, and fun patrons. Recommended by a bartender we befriended, this is now a top rec from us as well. Love how that works.
    • Au Bassin– Fun bartenders & vibe, with a giant space to boot. Photo booth, what! Yep, Javanti got all up in there. We only did drinks here to grab a cuter ambiance for bites.
    • La Note was the perfect place to grab a beverage and people watch smack in the middle of the action. Our table could not have been more perfectly perched. Snacks were yummy too. 
    • Made in Catherine was a cute lil spot near Place Sainte-Catherine. Perfect for a drink to kick off the evening, then stroll over to your next spot. 
    • Chez Jacques – Quaint and very French. The bites & champagne were delish. Service was a bit hectic, but we appreciated the hustle, and this was true of many places at the busy 10pm dinner hour. Yea, you heard that right. Yowza.
    • La Panzerottata – As its name suggests, panzerrotis are on the menu! These deep fried calzones were my absolute fave in Italy years back. Happy to indulge again, mmm. Good for a quick pop-in snack. 
    • Olive had great reviews and served up Palestinian food with love. Family owned, new to Brussels, and tasty.
    • We had read that Dansaert is the area to frequent for dinner & drinks. Say less. Date night! Au Bassin and several others above are in this hood.
Next time! 
 
  • We’ll explore outside of the city and spend QT with M & G!
  • If we happen to time it right, would love to visit the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken.
  • Le Roy d’Pagne is said to be a great place to grab a drink with a solid view off the Grand Place. 
  • The Pl. du Jue de Balle is a famous flea market that’s said to be poppin on Saturdays. Have at it!

Runabout tips

  • Mind your belongings. While this is a general rule of thumb, our friends (that live just outside of Brussels) had a very unfortunate incident our first night in. What a bummer, truly, esp in a small, seemingly friendly and welcoming bar setting.
  • The locals tell us that Leonidas is best for purchasing Belgian chocolate. There are tons of options.
  • People here really do love their (Belgian!) fries. These come with…  so many main dishes (+ mussels of course!), so you might skip the “must do” heap of fries sold at tons of spots. Get into those condiments tho!
  • Man oh man, the weather dictates the mood of the city. And changes oh so frequently. An obligatory umbrella accompanies every local, seemingly every day. We got super lucky our last day, and that truly turned around the visit for us. We understand that its been nonstop rain for these guys since Nov. 2023. Yikes. Locals totally make the most of the dry moments, and it’s hard not to join in the vibrancy of the city when everyone is enjoying the great outdoors. 

Awesome, awesome trip to fave & new destinations. 

We’re ready to dive again (in luxury)… now, and seem to be striking a strong work/explore/eat/drink/relax balance that we are very grateful for.

Next up? Figuring that out as we speak…

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