Malta is the largest of the 3 archipelago Maltese islands in the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast. Malta has a rich history that dates back over 6000 years. There are two main languages spoken. English and Maltese. Mostly everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to get around. The main cities are quite small to normal standards which include Valletta, Sliema and Mellieha. There are numerous small towns and villages, which is where I would focus the exploration of this beautiful island.
The best way to get around is by bus. There are two types of bus lines, go for the more local bus line, it goes to more places. You can get a pass for a day, several days, etc. It’s quite inexpensive and completely worth the convenience. We literally took the bus everywhere, but be warned, the buses tend to be early on occasion, so be prepared to get to the bus stop early or be prepared to wait a while because you probably just missed it. The bus schedule is a suggestion because if the bus is busy, then it will make more stops. If the bus is empty, it will arrive at each stop faster, and if there is no one waiting at the stop the driver will keep going. If you need to be anywhere at a specific time plan early enough ahead. Every once in a while, we hailed a taxi; it was pricey, but sometimes you don’t feel like waiting for the bus. We also did our share of walking around the island. It is quite safe there, so we ventured out on roads we probably wouldn’t take in the US or elsewhere. As always, be mindful of your surroundings and don’t ACT like a tourist, you’ll probably already look like one.
Most of the tourists come from Ireland and the UK. It makes sense since Malta was once under British rule, hence the main language being English and the driving situation (drive on right side of car, on left side of road). Mostly every sign you see will be in Maltese AND English. It is difficult to pronounce anything in Maltese unless you’re a linguist because nothing sounds the way it is spelled. The language is a mixture of European languages and Arabic.
We stayed in Sliema, though our hotel had a lovely view of the harbor, and of the ancient city of Valletta, it was more commercial and not very scenic. Again, we didn’t know the area and took a chance. We would probably stay elsewhere on our next trip there. The best part of our location was the bus stop directly across the street from our hotel. The bus routes are quite easy to follow.
On our first day we took the bus from Sliema to Valletta to change buses to get to the western coast. We had to change buses again when we stopped in Hal Kirkop. The bus was going to take about 45 minutes to arrive at the stop. We didn’t feel like waiting for the bus, so being adventurous, we had a map and decided to walk to the coast, it was about 2 miles. We walked through a few small towns then wound up on a dirt road (yes, a dirt road). I think we missed a turn on the main road and wound up here. We knew we were in the right direction because we saw cliffs and the sea up ahead. There were homes far off the road here and there with stone walls that housed small dwellings and farm animals. I think 1 car passed us the entire time we were walking. It was so peaceful and wonderful. The dirt road finally led to the main road with a sign pointing to the Blue Grotto.
That was our first destination, so off we walked down the sloping road to the sea’s edge. We decided to take a boat tour out to the Blue Grotto. All I can say is, WOW! For about €6 each we rode in small gondola like boats out to the grotto and caves. You pass by the massive cliffs and go through cave-like structures under the cliffs and see the amazing green/blue sea water of the grotto. It’s the only way to see the Blue Grotto properly. There are a few restaurants and cafes in the vicinity to relax and take in the sea views by land.
As we were walking up the hill to catch the bus to our next destination, we saw a taxi near one of the restaurants and decided to give ourselves a break. Our next stop was to the Hagar Qim Temple.
This prehistoric temple dates back to around 3200 BC, the ruins are well preserved and there’s a wonderful visitor center to get the tour started. There is another temple, Mnajdra, a short walk away, that dates back to about the same as Hagar Qim. Be sure to see both temples. For €1 each we rode a golf cart from Hagar Qim to Mnajdra, about a 2-minute ride.
We did not take a guided tour, but the security guards/guides there were very happy to explain the history and point out specific features of the temples. We enjoyed interacting with the guides in this location because they have a wealth of information you may not receive in a general tour.
After this visit we took the bus to the Dingli Cliffs up the coast. We got off at the bus stop basically in the middle of nowhere. We found a path along the cliffs and walked until we saw civilization.
There were many caverns and caves along the gravel path of the cliffs that many people have explored before us. We happened upon a small chapel called the Magdalene Chapel. The chapel overlooked the cliffs and the sea.
There were a few food and fruit stands near a bus stop. We probably should’ve gotten off at this bus stop instead, but we explored more than anyone else did. We stopped at a fruit stand and the vendor thought we were French, when we mentioned we were Americans, he got very excited and wanted us to taste everything he had to sell on his truck. We tried local apricots (best I ever had) and most importantly, some local liqueurs. We bought some apricots and hazelnut liqueur and sat on the side of the chapel eating and drinking as we looked out onto the sea. This couldn’t have been a more perfect moment.
We took the bus to Rabat to explore St. Paul’s catacombs. This is an ancient Roman underground complex of twists and turns. It’s also a fantastic way to beat the heat! We took another bus to Mdina, which was silly because it was literally steps away. Next time we’ll walk. Mdina is a fortified city which was the island’s capital up until medieval times.
The city is very walkable, with winding stone streets. You can seriously get lost in there. We stopped here for a late lunch and much needed local wine and libations.
I think that was enough for one day. The next day we took a bus to the northern part of the island to Mellieha. We toured around the beach area then on to the Popeye Village. So, remember the movie Popeye from the early 1980’s that starred Robin Williams?
It was filmed in Mellieha and the film set is still there. It has been made into a theme park in a way, but you can actually see and walk through all those old shanty houses built for the movie.
To tour some more of the Eastern coast, we took the bus from Mellieha down to Sliema and took the ferry from Sliema across the harbor to Valletta. Valletta is currently the capital of Malta and was established in the 1500’s by the Knights of St. John.
We walked around the city and had a leisurely lunch down a quiet street. We visited the Triton Fountain then to the St. James Counterguard, built in 1640’s as a part of Malta’s fortifications.
For more adventure, we walked down to the waterfront where we took a gondola from Valletta to the Three Cities (Sanglea, Birgu and Kalkara). There’s a ferry, but the gondola through the harbor is such a better experience. The gondola dropped us off in Birgu, we only toured around in this area.
We walked past St. Lawrence’s Church, down some winding alleyways until we reached Fort St. Angelo.
The fort was originally built as a castle in medieval times and rebuilt by the Order of St. John in the 1500’s.
It was getting late, so we took the bus back to Sliema. We walked on the waterfront to a beautiful little restaurant by the Hotel Fortina called The Terrace Restaurant. Great service and their seafood pot is superb.
We look forward to going back to Malta and spend more time to see all the sights we didn’t have a chance to on this trip. Hopefully you can see more than we did, not bad for a few day adventure!