25/04/2024

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One Week in Malta – Why Malta is Worth a Visit

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One Week in Malta – Why Malta is Worth a Visit

Malta

When a conference I was scheduled to attend was cancelled I suddenly found myself with an extra week of vacation. I wanted to visit a country in Europe that I had never visited with nice weather to visit in November and with interesting history. Malta was the country I chose. While November would usually be the rainy season, the weather was shirtsleeve weather for my fall visit and Malta has some amazing and interesting history. Here is what you can see in only one week.

 

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Valletta

Pre-Planning

There were a few things that I wanted to do in Valetta that needed advanced planning. If you want to visit the Hypogeum UNESCO site which is a paleolithic underground necropolis then you should get tickets weeks or even months in advance. I had also booked a tour of the Valetta Underground (sponsored by the tourism board) for early in my trip. I like to have some sort of walking tour or food tour early on because a guide is going to help me understand a place better and doing it early with help me adjust my plans if need be.

I planned to spend 5 nights on the Island of Malta near Valetta, one on Gozo and two more on Malta again near Valetta. If you visit when the weather is warmer and you are looking for more time at the beach you might vary that mix to include more time on Gozo or in the north of Malta which has better beaches. You might also want to include a cruise to the island of Camino which I skipped.

Sliema

Sunday

My goals for the first full day of my trip were to walk off the jet lag, take a harbor cruise around Valetta, and pick up a 7-day bus pass.

Coast in Sliema

I walked from St Julian’s to Sliema along the coast enjoying the scenery of the rugged coast of Malta. Malta feels like the entire island was carved from a single rock. While there are beaches in some spots, mostly in the north, much of the shoreline is rocky. There were several spots where people were sunbathing on the rocks, enjoying the one sandy beach (in front of the Malta Marriott), bathing in pools cut into the rocks, or scuba diving.

Valletta

Valetta is a medieval walled town with impressive fortifications. It is difficult to appreciate the city without seeing it from the water and as such a “2 harbor” cruise is nearly mandatory in my opinion. The boats for the cruise leave from the waterfront in Sliema. The cost of the cruise is around 20 euros and the cruise takes about 1.5 hours. You will explore the harbor between Sliema and Valetta as well as the Grand Harbor between Valetta and the “3 Cities”.

A lot of things are closed on a Sunday afternoon so my (Monday) guide Isabel said that Sunday was the perfect day for a harbor cruise.

Sliema Cruise

After you get off the harbor cruise there are several lunch spots on the Sliema waterfront. Grab some lunch and then take the ferry to Valetta. The ferry is only 1.5 euro. You can pay a bit more if you want a shuttle bus to take you up the hill from the ferry port in Valetta into the old town. Now is a good time to explore the alleys and squares of Valetta.

Two well-known scenic spots are the Upper and Lower Barrakka which are gardens with a view of the Grand Harbor. The canon is still fired daily from the Upper Barrakka as it was in the days of sail so that captains could adjust the time on their shipboard clocks which were essential for navigation.

Just outside the main gate of Valetta is the main bus station. If you will be getting around by bus, exit the city through the main gate and pick up your bus pass here.

While November is supposed to be the rainy season, it was shirt sleeves, shorts, and sunglasses weather during my trip.

Monday

ready for the Valletta Underground

Valetta Underground

I suggest that either Sunday or Monday is a good day for a guided tour. I met my guide and a taxi driver at the hotel at 9 am and we drove to the main gate of Valletta for a tour of the Valetta Underground.

The Knights of St John ruled Malta for almost 300 years and they built the city of Valetta in 1530 with its imposing walls after surviving the Great Siege by the Ottoman Turks. In the Great Siege, the knights and local inhabitants survived a siege of 100 days by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent. Underneath the city, they had carved a network of tunnels and cisterns.

Read more about the extensive history of Malta in the article Malta Landmarks and the History Behind Them.

During WWII Malta was bombed for about 2000 hours of bombing by Italy and Germany over the course of 2 years. The locals expanded the underground tunnels in Valletta to build a claustrophobic underground city to house 30,000 people. The underground tour explores these tunnels with a guide. It has limited availability and you should not do this tour if you are not comfortable with dark, damp, small spaces.

The tour starts at one of the chapter houses of the Knights of St John, the Auberge d’Italy (the home for the knights from Italian-speaking areas) which is now run by the tourism office. You will be equipped with a hard hat, a hair net, and a headlamp. While the hard hat might not be as fetching as you would like, it saved my head from more than one scrape in the tunnels.

Valletta Underground

There is a video presentation at the end of the tour in one of the large underground reservoirs about the bombings. 30,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed including 2 of the 8 Auberges (chapter houses) built by the Knights of Malta for the 8 different nationalities of the knights. The co-cathedral was fortunately spared from destruction. The entire island of Malta was awarded the St George’s Cross for gallantry by the King of England (the ruling monarch of Malta at that time). The Maltese to this day display the Cross of St George proudly on their flag.

St John’s Co-cathedral

St John’s Co-cathedral

The co-cathedral of St John (the Baptist) is plain on the outside but over the top Rococo on the inside with chapels for the 8 different nationalities of the Knights of St John. The Cathedral is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist who was the patron saint of the Knights. The main cathedral of Malta is in Mdina, but this church was the church for the Knights who ruled the island and it is quite clear that this is where the money was.

I appreciated my guide Isabel teaching me about the history of Malta. I would have missed much of the significance of the different chapels in the co-cathedral without a guide. (If you want to contact my guide, you can reach her via the email [email protected], tell her Chris sent you).

We drove to Birgu for lunch on our tour at a lovely Italian restaurant with a view of the harbor, the yachts, and the super yachts there. Then we drove around the city a bit. I made plans to get back to the city with more time to explore.

Mdina

Mdina

We then drove to the old capital of Mdina which is called the “silent city” or the “city of the nobles”. This was the old capital before the age of the Knights going back to the time of the Carthaginians and Romans. It is a small walled town with mostly noble houses. Only 300 people live there now.

From Mdina, which is on a hill, you can see much of the island including St Paul’s rocks where St Paul was shipwrecked. You can read about that story in the bible in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The Roman governor whom Paul healed would have lived in what is now Mdina although then it was named Melia (honey). We are told the Roman governor converted to Christianity and became the first bishop of Malta.

The tour that I did was provided by the Tourism Board of Malta but this is a typical full-day tour on the island visiting both Valetta and Mdina.

Tuesday

My plan on Tuesday was built around the reservation I made a few weeks before my trip to visit the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. My tickets were for 1 pm.

Marsaxlokk

Marsaxlokk

One of the popular tourist spots on Malta is the harbor at Marsaxlokk which is known for its colorful fishing boats. There is a market in Marsaxlokk on Sunday. There were some boat tours you could take in Marsaxlokk but I only visited long enough to take some pictures of the harbor.

Għar Dalam Cave

Għar Dalam Cave

One harbor over from Marsaxlokk is the Għar Dalam Cave. I walked to the next harbor to get to the cave but would probably recommend calling an Uber to get there. The path sometimes left me on trails between the walls around small fields. Malta is a very rocky island, and if their number one crop was rocks, it would be a boom year.

The cave didn’t take long to tour and may not have been worth it if I hadn’t had the museum pass. This pass from Heritage Malta will get you into most of the historic sites on Malta. Skeletons from the last Ice Age were found in the cave including the skeletons of a pygmy elephant and a pygmy hippopotamus. At the Għar Dalam site are also the remains of an Iron Age settlement, a Roman Villa, a World War II pillbox, and a watchtower from the 1700s.

Ħal Tarxien

Near Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is the first of the megalithic temples that I visited. Ħal Tarxien is an open error, megalithic temple site. The stones are smaller than Stonehenge, but Ħal Tarxien predates Stonehenge. You could see the remains of the stone roof that was used to cover the site. I thought some of the other temple sites I visited later in the week were better presented, but Ħal Tarxien is the easiest site to reach.

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Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a very different site. It is an underground three-story necropolis from the prehistoric period. No pictures, no cameras, and no cell phones are allowed. You will leave your camera and phone in a locker upstairs.

When Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered it was filled with bones that were brittle with age. Not much is known about the people who built it. There are some fascinating ochre swirling designs on some of the walls and ceilings. There were also some small and large statues of corpulent people found at the site. The site only allows something like 100 people a day to visit and all tours are guided. Rooms on 3 different levels were carved into the soft stone including some that mimicked the design of the megalithic temples like Ħal Tarxien.

Fort Saint Angelo

Fort Saint Angelo

While I was in this southeast corner of the Island I took a bus back to Birgu. I walked through the streets and then toured the fortress of Saint Angelo. Saint Angelo has great views of the harbor and some museum displays about the history of the fort which dates back to the earliest period of the Knights of St John.

Wednesday

Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra

Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra

My original plan was to rent a car to get to some of the sites in the western part of the island but I was intimidated by driving on the left-hand side by myself. Getting around by bus wasn’t that complicated. I took the bus to the megalithic Temple sites on the west coast of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, which date back to 3600-3200 BC.

These temples were my favorite of the megalithic sites. The two sites are located right near each other, one up the hill and one down the hill. they are very well presented with a free audio guide and a great museum that explains what we know of the temple builders. One question that people have had about these temples is how people who had only stone-age tools could carve and move such large stones. One exhibit in the museum shows how they have used canon ball-sized round rocks as ball bearings underneath the stones to make them easier to move.

Blue Grotto

Blue Grotto

Near the two temples is the tourist site known as the Blue Grotto. I took the bus down towards the Blue Grotto, but the water was choppy so I didn’t even see if they were running any tours on the day of my visit.

My original plan was to stop at the Dingley Cliffs but I merely watched them from the bus and continued to Mdina.

Mdina Cathedral

Mdina

I toured Mdina again including the cathedral this time.

Roman Villa

I also visited a museum dedicated to the Roman Villa that was discovered just outside the main gate of the city. Like with so many Roman sites, the intricate mosaic floors are one of the most interesting attributes of this archeological site. Again having the Heritage Malta pass made it easy to decide to take a few minutes to visit this site.

St Paul’s Catacombs

St Paul’s Catacombs

The city of Rabat is just outside the walled town of Mdina and one of its most notable sites is St Paul’s Catacombs. This area was a necropolis in the Carthaginian and Roman eras. There are a great many different catacombs that you can visit. You can load an audio guide on your smartphone where your narrator is a Roman girl who is buried in the area. The catacombs were more extensive than I had time or patience for. I certainly thought they were worth visiting, but even a history buff like me didn’t feel the need to see all of them.

The bus ride back to St Jillian’s was crowded, and slow as it was rush hour. Many friends recommended visiting Mdina in the evening and it might be a good idea to eat dinner here or in Rebat and wait to return to the Valetta area after rush hour.

Thursday

Thursday and Friday I planned to visit Gozo. There are several tours that you can take from the Valetta area that will take you to and from the Island of Gozo in a single day, but I wanted time to see both the city of Victoria and the megalithic site of Gigantia and could not find a tour that covered both well. I don’t regret my plan to spend a night on the island. I stayed in Victoria at the Duke Hotel and fell in love with watching the sunset from the Citadella fortress in Victoria and dining in the small main square in front of the main church.

I took the 222 bus from St Jillian’s north to the ferry to Gozo. The ferry is both cheap at < 5 euros round trip and short. I grabbed the bus immediately from the ferry terminal for the short ride into Victoria. I was able to check into the Duke Hotel get into my room and leave my stuff.

Ggantija TemplesGgantija Temples

Ggantija Temples

I grabbed the 307 bus to the nearby town of Xagħra and the Gigantia Temple. The temple complex was interesting. I thought the temples on Malta were more architecturally interesting but I loved the artifacts from the temple builders in the small museum at the site. There were small carvings of corpulent figures common from this period and other small human figures.

Windmill on Gozo

I toured the old windmill which is nearby. I chose to walk the 45 minutes back to Victoria rather than wait for the bus.

Citadella

Citadella

I got to the citadel in Victoria at 4 pm, which was an hour before it closed. I toured the citadel, took a peak into the cathedral, and watched the video presentation about the history of the fortress including sad tells of most of the inhabitants of the island being carried off into slavery by the Ottoman Turks in 1551.

Victoria

I had dinner at one of the restaurants in the plaza in front of the basilica. I watched a bit of the evening mass at the Basilica. You can’t really appreciate the architecture of churches from this ear until you hear them filled with music.

Friday

San Blas Tower

San Blas Tower

I took a bus to the northeast corner of the island and hiked out to San Blas Tower which is one of the watchtowers built by the Knights of St John.

Ramala Beach

Ramla Beach

I then grabbed an Uber to visit Ramla Beach beach before returning to the hotel, checking out, and returning to Malta

Saturday

For the last two nights, I stayed in a hotel in the city of Fortellessa. When the city of Valetta outgrew its medieval walls, its fortifications were expanded to include Fortellessa. It is a great place to stay for visiting Valetta. It is easier to access than hotels in Valetta and less expensive. I stayed in the Tritoni Valletta Boutique Hotel.
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Fort St Elmo

Valetta – Fort St Elmo

On Saturday I returned to Valletta to see the last few sites that I had missed. I toured the Upper Barrakka then took the Elevator down to the harbor and walked to the Lower Barrakka and then on to Fort St Elmo. If you are a history buff, then Fort St Elmo has a military museum with a wonderful display of the English period as well as the Great Siege of Malta and the WWII Siege of Malta.

This is a day for seeing what you missed before, but also just for sitting down in a plaza and watching the city go by. Valetta is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with its walls, its colorful balconies, its amazing co-cathedral, and its charming plazas. It is the perfect spot to wrap up a wonderful one-week trip to Malta.

 

Getting to Malta

Getting to Malta

From the west coast of the U.S., there were no direct flights to Malta. I flew through Heathrow in London but there were several other airports where I could have connected with Malta Air or another regional carrier. I will have to say that I was glad that Air Malta did not have any flights from the U.S. as the seat pitch (distance from your seat to the seat in front of you) was particularly small and did not accommodate my 6’ 3” frame with any degree of comfort.

The ATM did not want to give me cash at the airport so I called an Uber. I missed it when it drove by because it was branded with Bolt. The driver took Uber, Bolt, and GoTaxi and said they were all basically the same in Malta.

Hotel Duke on Gozo

Hotel Duke on Gozo

Where to Stay

I had intended to stay at the Londoner Hotel in Sliema which is a short ferry ride from the walled capital city of Valetta. There was some confusion because Londoner had opened a new hotel in St. Julian’s, which is a bit further away, and the hotel booking site had the wrong city in its information. Both Londoner Hotels were nice. The Londoner Hotel St. Julian’s literally opened the first day I stayed there. St. Jillians is the party town. If that’s the scene you are looking for then it would be the right place to stay.

The Londoner Sliema would have worked better for me as I was planning on getting around Malta by bus (See Getting Around in Malta: A Guide to Transportation Options) and the main spot for bus connections is the bus station in Valetta so the closer you can stay to Valetta the easier it will be to travel by public transportation.

Valletta

Conclusion

Malta is worth a visit. It is easy to get around since English is one of the official languages. It is small so you can see a lot of the country in a short time. It has amazing history, beautiful waters, and… at least in the off-season… is very affordable

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