A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published September 5th 2013
Malta is more than you might imagine
Fun and Interesting Things to do in Malta
From 7000 years of history to holiday resorts, marvellous festivals to movie magic, Malta has something to offer everyone. We travelled here a few years ago on a two week holiday then returned the following year as cruise passengers on a port of call. And this year, my husband Colin and I are looking forward to a return visit to the friendly island of Malta.
Travel is always about your personal experiences and this is no exception, with great places to see and lovely island people to meet, we hope to continue our adventure. Look out for tales of the Kraken, pussycats, Calypso and cliff climbs as we explore the colourful coasts and culture of this little Mediterranean island.
With its impressive capital city Valletta and the Grand Harbour at its heart, the tiny island has only 400,000 inhabitants while the nightlife of the busy tourist resorts such as St. Julian's, Qwara and Bugibba attract many British visitors as this sunshine island is only three hours flying time from the U.K.
Malta Island Map
A Little Bit About Malta
Malta is part of a small archipelago of islands that includes Gozo, Comino and some really small uninhabited islands south of Italy, in the Mediterranean Sea. There are very few sandy beaches as the island itself is a rocky plateau of around 320km2, that's only about 17 miles across at its widest point and 8 miles the other way, so everywhere on the island is in easy reach of its capital city, Valletta and no direct journey is more than around 30 minutes drive.
Here's a few things you might enjoy on a visit to Malta.
Malta is quite rocky, so if you're looking for a place with sandy beaches then you'll find very few on Malta. There are, however, purpose built lidos and bathing platforms in several of the resorts so that a dip in the sea is still the order of the day.
We stayed in Sliema, which has beautiful views of Valletta from the promenade that runs the length of Sliema Creek (part of the Grand Harbour).
Take a walk along Sliema promenade and you'll find one or two bathing platforms with steps leading down from the street level to a lower level with sunbeds available for hire and ladders sporadically placed to allow swimmers to take a dip in the shallow water below. And sure enough we spotted some bathers at one of these points, some standing about waist deep in the clear water of the creek while others enjoyed a relaxing swim on a warm day.
Quite refreshing we thought, but not suitable for the less mobile like me, or for children and, although there was no jetty or boat moorings nearby, this is a busy waterway with a lot of traffic and a yachting marina further down the creek, If you do decide to take a dip, make sure it's a designated swimming area.
Sliema, however, has more than one bay and as you head to St. Anne's Square the road veers to the left and heads up a small incline which opens out to a large bay lined with hotels, bars and restaurants that look across the Mediterranean towards St. Julian's.
Accessed by steps from the main promenade was a natural lido on a rocky plateau about 500m long with natural pools filled by seawater inlets where children and people of all ages were enjoying getting their feet wet in the shallow water.
Don't get me wrong, there were some rocky parts to overcome on entry to some of the pools but, once over that hurdle, we found a sandy patch and joined the rest of the holidaymakers enjoying their 'day at the seaside'.
The best sandy beach on the island is said to be Mellieħa Bay, but there are plenty with panoramic views and rugged coastlines to explore if sun, sea and sand don't top your wish list. Do your homework, choose wisely and be prepared to travel if you want to find the beach that's right for you on Malta.
Like many Mediterranean destinations, the nightlife is often concentrated around one or two resorts while other areas are pretty low-key with evening activity being mainly in hotel lobbies or part of a broader restaurant/café culture and Malta is no exception.
This was certainly true of Sliema, where the locals mixed with tourists of all ages in al fresco bars and cafes with only a couple of bars attracting younger drinkers.
Paceville/St Julian's is the place to be if you're a party-goer on Malta. With a collection of bars pubs and nightclubs centred around this area as well as restaurants offering a variety cuisine choices to suit every palette. Hugo's Passion is the place to be seen.
The Events Calendar in Malta is littered with festivals and there are many still to come in 2013. If you're there at the end of September the Malta Airshow is a must for all aeroplane enthusiasts.
Malta particularly celebrates many Christian saints' days. We happened to be there during their celebrations of the Feast of St. Catherine (after whom the 'Catherine Wheel' is named) and attended a firework display to celebrate the occasion.
We bought tickets along the Sliema promenade and went to a little village called Żurrieq, where a full on display was in progress. Earlier that day, local children wearing traditional costumes had taken part in a procession from the 15th century parish church, which is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria. There are lots of feasts going on throughout the summer so if you're going there on holiday the chances are you'll catch one.
The Maltese know how to throw a party when it comes to their National Day celebrations. We saw colourful boat races on the Grand Harbour while spectators lined the banks to cheer on the flamboyant regatta contestants. And talk about putting the flags out. The streets of Valletta were alive with colour while the whole island enjoyed a bank holiday on 8th September.
My hubby and I love boat trips and consistently, they have been the highlight of our holidays, so while on Malta we did a round the island cruise, with a stop at Comino's Blue Lagoon; a natural encirclement around a tiny sandy bay which is very pretty but not very accessible to the less mobile.
We checked out the ship as it was moored on Sliema harbour, it was a large 'ferry' type boat with flat gangways and looked fairly accessible so it gained some favour with us. We were told that the ship would moor near a jetty and from there it would be a short walk to the beach. This information is quite important as I'm visually impaired and find some situations difficult in terms of my mobility.
The sea journey was good and, with the benefit of on-board commentary, we were able to pick out various landmarks and get the most out of our cruise as we headed towards the Blue Lagoon, and what we hoped would be a nice sandy beach.
As it turned out, the boat moored somewhere near a rocky path, leaving the passengers to climb lots of uneven steps (without handrails) up a quite steep cliff face, then walk along the cliff top and down a slightly less intimidating slope to where a multitude of people crammed onto a scrap of land. Think 'penguin colony on an ice floe' and you're close to visualising the scene. Great if you're young and adventurous but I don't think I'll be doing that one again.
You can also do a Grand Harbour Cruise or take the ferry across to the other islands of Gozo and Comino. Gozo is said to be the mythical isle of Calypso, described in Homer's 'The Odyssey', where Odysseus stayed for 7 years under the trance of the nymph of the same name on his journey home from the Trojan Wars.
Malta's Movie Magic
The trip to the Blue Lagoon may not have turned out as expected but I was, however, very intrigued to see something I immediately recognised from a favourite 1980s film of mine, 'The Clash of the Titans', which starred Sir Laurence Olivier. The movie has been re-made now but this version of the story of Perseus and Andromeda from Greek mythology is still my favourite.
From our boat trip around the Blue Lagoon, you could see a rock formation identical to the one where the 'Kraken' emerges from the sea to claim his unwilling sacrifice, the Princess Andromeda, before Perseus turns it to stone with a glare from the severed head of Medusa.
Is this the Rock where Clash of the Titans was Filmed?
Indeed Malta has been used by many film makers over the years and has a reputation of being a mini-Hollywood when it comes to shooting your cinematographic epic. Perhaps it's the excellent light levels here, with over 300 days of sunshine per year it's a good place to ensure you'll get the shots you want and finish on schedule. Suffice it to say, the Maltese government are very keen to promote this and capital investment in film production and incentives to film makers is part of the island's economic strategy.
In recent years some of the biggest blockbusters have had scenes shot on location on Malta, including 'Troy' starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom; the Ridley Scott epic 'Gladiator',starring Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix and Robin Williams as 'Popeye', to name just a few.
The scenery for 'Popeye' village of 'Sweethaven' was built in Anchor Bay on the island and later became a theme park for all the family to enjoy while production area of Rinella lies close to two large seawater pools where the films 'Jaws' and 'Orca' were made and many tourists come along to see this stunning location.
Walks Around Malta
Being so small, Malta is ideal for walking tours of the d.i.y variety. You can easily spend a few days around Valletta but there are some very interesting places to visit further inland. It goes without saying that acquiring a map and a good pair of walking shoes is essential, and if your legs get tired, the local buses are very cheap and efficient to get you back to your starting point. Malta is awash with historical sites and churches and this time there we plan to visit the older cities of Vittoriosa and Sengalea and For St. Angelo.
There are also lots of small villages, rugged coastlines and places of natural beauty. The island is generally very safe to roam around at all time of the day.
Medina, formerly the island's capital, was built in the centre of the island to guard against pirates from Italy and North Africa, who had plagued the island for centuries, forcing the island's inhabitants into slavery.
From the battlements of the fortified city of Medina, a medieval stronghold, you can see all over the island and Maltese people would take refuge there when under threat. The grand entrance to the fortified city leaves the visitor in no doubt as to the importance of this medieval city.
We walked along the medieval alleyways soaking up the atmosphere of a bygone era. Little cafés and gift shops were sprinkled around the still intact city while exotic plants produced explosions of colour from a multitude of cracks and crevices or dangled from balconies in cascades of crimson while everyday life seemed to slow down.
Small museums and churches were dotted around and you had a sense that life has hardly changed for centuries.
As we ambled back towards the exit, a large tomcat appeared and boldly approached us, as it came to investigate why we were on its territory. It strutted towards us and glared for a while, there was no doubting who was 'top cat' around here; but being used to cats we just spoke to it and said hello and it turned out to be quite friendly, even though its appearance was scary. Then we noticed its ear was half bitten off and it had a few battle scars. Quite the opposite of being a scaredy cat – NOTHING frightened this feline.
Medina is about a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta, but be aware that buses seem to stop around 5.30pm then start up again late at night to accommodate the party animals among us.
Just across the road from the entrance to the fortified city of Medina, is the remains of a Roman Villa aptly names the 'Dormus Romana'. It's now a museum, with many of the treasures found on the adjoining archaeological site housed there. There are broad viewing platforms overlooking the the site and the museum itself is very accessible with lifts to different floors and ramps strategically placed. There were also accessible toilets.
A fascinating visit with good facilities, I was impressed.
On the way back we spotted another place worth seeing. Malta suffered relentless bombing raids during WW2 and this time we intend to visit Mosta, where the domed church of St. Mary suffered a direct hit from an enemy bomb during a service with a full congregation.
The bomb failed to detonate and there were no casualties. Two further bombs hit the exterior of the church and bounced into the crowded marketplace. They too failed to detonate. The whole incident was seen as a miracle and the now defused bomb is on display in a glass cabinet within the church.
Two fantastic gardens in Valletta must be mentioned. They are the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, which can be accessed from the city centre by either an uphill or downhill walk, depending on which one you are visiting. A beautiful view over the Grand Harbour and the surrounding historic cities of Vittoriosa and Senglea with their myriad of ornate churches and the harbour's cruise terminal can be seen from the terraces of the Upper Barakka Gardens while their twinned lower garden overlooks the 'Victory Bell' and the mouth of the harbour.
The stunning architectural arches of the upper gardens are a real feature. As you wander around the garden they are pleasing to the eye and look amazing in perspective.
The ground is flat and level and there are many benches where you can sit and enjoy the view. Exotic plants and statues adorn the gardens and create talking points as you amble around. Usefully, there are also public toilets, including accessible ones, on both levels.
The, now public, gardens were originally a gift from an eighteenth century Italian Knight of St John, intended for the recreation of knights from the Italian 'langue', an essential part of Malta's rich history.
To make life a little easier, a new elevator from the harbour and cruise terminal has recently been constructed to connect them to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, saving cruise passengers from the uphill climb. It's set to open in 2013.
Looking Down at Cruiseship Alongside in Valletta's Grand Harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Outside the upper gardens you can choose the more relaxed activity of a horse-drawn carriage ride for a tour of the capital. Make sure you agree a price before you start.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens is always worth the uphill climb and you can even arrange your wedding there.
Although Malta is an independent republic, as part of the Commonwealth Malta is very British in many ways. It has a statue of Queen Victoria on the Valletta's main street and the shopping arcade is like a Victorian emporium, while many British high street stores have branches there and in Sliema.
For a 21st Century shopping expierence, however, head to 'The Point', a purpose built shopping mall extending over several floors at Tigne Point in Sliema.
Tigne Point is geographically at the mouth of Sliema Creek on the Grand Harbour, from which the shopping centre takes its name. It is the largest shopping mall on the island and is packed with well know stores from the U.K., Italy and more as well as 10,000 free parking places. It looks across the Creek towards Valletta and there are stunning views of the capital city from the outside terraces of 'The Point' as it reaches out to Fort St. Elmo on the opposite side of the Creek.
Maltese is, of course, the main language on the island of Malta. A rich blend of local, Italian and North African words, it reflects its geographical position in the world, but its long history with Britain means that English is widely spoken as it is taught in Maltese schools and is an official language of the island.