Malta – very historic island in the sun
The small but very beautiful island of Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Tunisia and is a former UK naval outpost for most of the last century. This island has everything from beaches, culture, history, a lot of religious places and some fantastic natural sights. Malta is not just one island, there is also the island of St Paul’s, Comino and Gozo to the north and I had the chance to check them all out during a week’s stay here. With ample accommodation (as it is a very popular tourist resort with Dutch, French, German and British people and most of the resorts are to the north of the island), a lot of visitors on a budget usually stay near the capital of Valletta in a small area known as St Julian’s. Here is my guide on Malta and the places to hit up and which are a must on anyone’s visit to this small island. By the way for those who do not know the island, Malta uses the Euro currency and is part of the European Union. Malta does have its own language but Italian and English are commonly used throughout.
There are two ways of getting to Malta. One is the ferry which goes to Sicily in Italy and arrives in the capital and the other (which many visitors arrive) is the airport of Luqa, a few kilometers west of the capital and is used not only by national carriers by low cost airlines like Ryanair so flying to the airport can be done on the cheap. I had the pleasure of flying with Air Malta, the Maltese national carrier and absolutely love their customer service.
Getting around the island
The island is great for cycling but if you are not the health and fitness type, car hire can be done but it is a lot cheaper to go by the local bus routes and there are plenty of them. I was fortunate to ride on the old Maltese buses before they were phased out in 2011 which were originally used in the United Kingdom back in the 1950’s and 1960s. Also there are plenty of tour companies to take visitors around the islands and of course boat trips and ferries to the other islands which make up Malta.
The capital of Valletta
One of the smallest capital cities in the world, Valletta is a very charming place with quaint quiet streets and is not an easy place to get lost. I was amazed by its charm and beauty and every corner I turned, there was something new to see. Malta is a very catholic place like its neighbour, Italy and the cathedrals and churches are worth hitting up and checking out the beautiful interior.
The cathedral of St John’s may look like a dump from the outside but inside it was totally amazing. There is a splendid ray of colours, shapes, textures, monuments dotted about everywhere and marble ‘tombstone floor’ to check out. I am not a religious person but this cathedral just blew my mind, so amazing and beautiful. I don’t have many words which I could use to describe this place but totally awesome.
The number one item I must recommend is taking a tour of the Grand Harbour which are offered by several boat operators which depart from the quayside area of Sliema (this is on the seafront stretch of Sliema on the Marsamxett harbour, an area north of central Valletta, which is facing Manoel Island.
The Grand Harbour is the biggest and for me the most dramatic harbour in the Mediterranean I have come across. The tour took me around Marsamxett Harbour which I had great views of Carmelite Church. I came here in the summer months and the heat can get unbearable so I was so glad to be on a boat and feel the sea breeze in my face.
The boat tours took me (and the other passengers of course) around Fort Manoel (built in the 18th century as a garrison but became semi-derelict like its neighbour, Lazzaretto which was built as an isolation hospital for treating leprosy, plague and other crazy diseases. I have to admit all these old buildings we were passing just looked like out the buildings in Valletta which the same stone used and blended in. Even though I was interested, taking in the information etc I was just enjoying being out on the sea. There are thousands of boats here and as noted, Malta is known for its boating and hosting the former British navy and but the most importantly there is a huge dry dock some four storeys deep where some of the world’s largest ships come here for repairs. It is huge I tell ya!
Nearby there is a building at the very tip of the area known as Senglea, where I will say look out for the ‘Eye-and-Ear’ vedette (or basically known as the lookout tower) where there is a huge ear and eye carvings. These are the symbols of vigilance.
After the boat tour and walking round more streets, take a walk on the terraces above the Grand Harbour in Valletta and just check out those amazing views. Also from here horse and cart rides are offered with the locals running them giving great information on the history.
For eating out I would recommend taking a boat across the harbour from Valletta to Sliema and choose from one of the many restaurants along the seafront in this area or slightly further north to St Julians where the bars are. Away from the capital, Malta for me got more interesting and more stunning. Here are the top places to check out on the Maltese mainland.
I have to admit I was not sure why I was taken to these cliffs on the western side of the mainland as the view from the top is alright but just reminded me of other cliff’s anywhere else in the world. OK, I was high up and there was a nice offshore breeze to be had but I was told this is one of the most beautiful stretches of the coastline and is a beauty spot for locals to come.
In the centre of the island perched high up on a hill with breathtaking views of the rest of the Maltese mainland (yes, Malta is really that small!), Mdina for me is one of Europe’s finest medieval cities. The dynamic dome on the cathedral and ancient walls are the main feature here with so much history and calm, relaxing atmosphere, I would put Mdina high up the list on any visitors coming to the island. With the cathedral itself (known as St Paul’s), the baroque interior is one of the finest I have come across in Malta but the lantern dome has become one of Malta’s landmarks as it can be seen for miles around. The best thing I love about this city is that there is around 400 people living here now as others have moved on and Mdina has become the ‘Silent City’. During the day there are tourists wandering around but it’s still quiet to have the perfect urban stroll.
Smack bang next to Mdina to the south is the small town of Rabat. I managed to visit St Paul’s Church with it’s grotto here. There is a little story I found out here. The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on the island (oh no!) but luckily he needed to come here as he wanted to get to Rabat. When he arrived he managed to cure the governor’s father of a fever, converted the governor to Christianity and he eventually became the island’s first bishop. Paul became a little bit of a hermit and lived in the cave (where he also preached) which is now known as the grotto. That’s his story but when I visited the grotto, there is a marble statue of St Paul inside. Hundreds of people come here for a pilgrimage to celebrate his achievements of being a hermit….sorry, curing people and converting them.
Very close nearby is the catacombs. Unlike the Romans who settled on the island, Jews and early Christians did not believe in burning bodies after people died and buried them instead. However due to the lack of soil on the island (it is a bit rocky out there), they built underground chambers. Beneath the main street there are two catacombs dating back to the 4th century and only a part of them are open to visitors. The locals admit they do not know how many catacombs there are on the island and are discovering many more as time goes on.
The beaches of the north and west coasts
If coming to Malta just for the beach (like most visitors like to do from northern Europe) then I would recommend the beaches of Mellieha Bay in the north of the mainland and my favourite which is more hidden away between two headlands is Golden Bay on the north-west coast. This popular bay is very sandy and with its shallow water is fantastic for families to let their children go wild in the sea.
The Resorts of Bugibba, Qawra & St Paul’s Bay
I stayed in Bugibba on my visit to Malta and think that is area is the least expensive place to stay. The small town on the north east coastline has plenty of accommodations for visitors to choose from as well as dining out options. Also plenty of boat tours to the other islands go from here and a walk along the coastline is a nice one. However don’t expect sandy beaches here, very rocky. Qawra (to the east of Bugibba) I found more up-market and quieter but only caters for package tourists. St Paul’s Bay (to the west of Bugibba) is older than the other two resorts and has plenty of local goods for sale in the shops.
The island of St Paul
A popular boat trip from St Paul’s Bay (and usually combined with a trip to nearby Comino) is to the island of St Paul. A very small island with a small hill in the middle of it, lies on top a statue of St Paul. This is to mark the spot where St Paul (along with St Luke who was with him) shipwrecked around AD60.
The island of Gozo
The second largest island in Malta, Gozo, is a nice island to check out and less touristy. The island’s main town of Victoria (also known as Rabat) in the centre of the island can be reached within a 10-15 minute drive of anywhere on the island. Victoria has plenty of character and has an impressive Citadel which offers fantastic views over the island.
Another dominating feature of the city is the St George’s Basilica and the Cathedral which overlooks St George’s Square. Inside the interior is just pure cold and very impressive to the eye, this is Victoria’s hidden gem. What I also love about this city is that there are so many alleyways to walk down, some hidden and is worth getting lost just for that magical experience.
To the east of Victoria is the Ggantija Prehistoric Temples which is the world’s oldest freestanding structure, dating back to 3,600 BC. Some of the structures are standing around six meters tall and don’t bother trying to pick some of the larger stones up, I was told some of them can weigh up to twenty tonnes. The good thing is about this site is that visitors can walk right into the temple’s but as I found out there is no description or interpretation so the temples actually meant very little to me. Still, a great place to walk around and great views over Victoria from here.
The most famous place on the island however has to Dwejra Point because of its famous natural structure, the Azure Window. This giant rock arch however fell into the sea a couple of years ago and is now long gone. I was very fortunate to see this while I had the chance on my visit to this beautiful island.
The island of Comino
Lots of visitors come here for day trips from Gozo and the mainland as there is not much to do here. Lots of boat excursions come here to bring visitors to the Blue Lagoon (no, not the one like in Iceland where nearby volcanoes heat up the water), where this amazing area of turquoise water between Comino and a very small islet known as Cominotto at the south west of the island.
In the summer months when I came here there is hardly any shade so make sure lots of lotion is applied and water to be drunk. The beach maybe small here but lots of people come here to swim and cool off.
On the northern side of the island is a quieter than the Blue Lagoon is the beach of Santa Marija Bay but still this can get busy at peak times.
On the boat trip back to the mainland look out for St Mary’s Tower which has stood here since the 18th century. Visitors can’t go inside but it’s a great view to have after a relaxing time at the Blue Lagoon.
In all I spent a week in Malta and I probably only covered 70% of the sights, places etc where a visitor should visit. A ten day visit would certainly be enough and the best thing is compared to other mediterranean islands and resorts, Malta is one of the cheapest. The locals are very friendly and there is no problem with languages here. Even in Valletta I seen schools teaching students from all over the world about several different languages here so I am sure sure the locals can speak more than four languages each. I had a great time here and hopefully be back one day and I hope you liked my recommendations when visiting these beautiful islands.