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MALTA TRAVEL - WHAT TO SEE AND DO

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Where is Malta? The Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) are located 58 miles (93 kilometers) south of Sicily and 143 miles (230 kilometers) north of North Africa.

Aerial view of Upper Barracca Gardens in Valletta
Aerial view of Upper Barracca Gardens in Valletta
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

If you check a Google map of Malta, you will see that it is a veritable stepping stone between Gibraltar and the Suez. Its position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean has enabled it to assimilate characteristics of the Mediterranean countries surrounding it.

Valletta

From the air, Valletta, the capital of Malta, resembles a fortified medieval city. A moat, larger than any you've seen in Europe, separates Valletta from the rest of the island. With its high walls and massive bastions, the UNESCO World Heritage City feels impenetrable.

Maltese flag flies above Knights of Malta crest and window of Auberge de Castille (Prime Minister's Office) in Valletta.
Maltese flag flies above Knights of Malta crest and window of Auberge de Castille (Prime Minister's Office) in Valletta.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Climbing to the Upper Barracca Gardens, you look out over the magnificent Grand Harbour, bordered by the Three Cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea (L-Isla) and Cospicua. Stretching like fingers into the water, each city is protected by stone bastions, which jut into a busy port with container ships, freighters and dry docks for shipbuilding.

What to see in Valletta

Within Valletta, there are marvelous palaces, such as the green-shuttered, cannon-guarded Auberge de Castille, now the Prime Minister's Office. The streets are steep, straight and narrow to catch breezes from the harbour.

One brings you to the Grand Master's Palace (address: Palace Square), which houses some priceless Gobelin tapestries. Its armor collection, dating back to 1530 and the Knights of Malta, rivals any in Europe.

Inside Caffe Cordina (address: 244 Republic Street, Valletta), there are beautiful ceiling paintings by Giuseppe Cali. Caffe Cordina's menu includes salads, sandwiches, Maltese dishes, specialty coffees and delicious cakes and pastries.

St. John's Co-Cathedral
St. John's Co-Cathedral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The National Museum of Fine Arts (address: bottom section of South Street, Valletta) houses more paintings and sculptures. Besides sculptures, St. John's Co-Cathedral has numerous paintings, including two by Caravaggio. Which ones? The Beheading of St. John and St. Jerome.

More than 370 inlaid marble tombstones cover the floor. The museum at St. John's Co-Cathedral displays a mind-boggling array of Flemish tapestries.

Malta tour

If you rent a car in Malta for a driving tour, you will learn that cars drive on the left, as in Britain, and frequently encounter "roundabouts" or turning circles. Roads are narrow, but well-maintained.

Malta road signs
Malta road signs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Road signs dispel any suggestions that Malta is British, however. While written in Roman script, the towns listed are Arabic-sounding tongue-twisters such as Ghazaq, Ta'Xbiex and Il-Hofra z-Zghira.

Maltese language

Listening to people talk adds to the confusion. Although English is widely spoken, so is the local language, Maltese, a Semitic language, which sounds like Arabic with a generous sprinkling of French, Italian and English.

Good morning is bongu (similar to the French bonjour) and thank you is grazzi (close to the Italian grazie).

Sliema

Most people on a Malta holiday head to hotels in Sliema, which has a three-kilometer-long seafront promenade, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs. Also drawing visitors is fashionable St. Julian's, with its discos, pizzerias, casino and Portomaso Marina for yachts.

Boats in bay surrounded by buildings in St. Julian's
Boats in bay surrounded by buildings in St. Julian's
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

While both resort towns offer a Riviera-like ambience, tourists are more integrated with local people in Sliema and St. Julian's, because the island is so small. How big is Malta? It is only 17 by nine miles (27 by 14 kilometers) in size.

Maltese people have a reputation for being both warm and friendly. Even the Acts of the Apostles records the hospitality shown to St. Paul in 60 AD when he was shipwrecked off the coast.

Malta holidays

The Maltese also have a great zest for life. You may see them sipping tea and coffee at outdoor cafés, playing bocci (a ball game similar to lawn bowling), listening to opera in Valletta's Manoel Theatre, one of the oldest and best-preserved theaters in Europe or celebrating the feast days of Malta's patron saints at festi or village festivals.

Grandmother and granddaughter
Grandmother and granddaughter
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Maltese food plays a major role during festi, as it does in everyday life. From fresh seafood to desserts such as imqaret (dates cooked with Anisette and orange rind, and then wrapped in pastry, sliced and fried), Malta's cuisine is delicious.

No trip to Malta is complete without lunch in a harborside restaurant in Marsaxlokk. You'll enjoy deep-fried calamari, fresh-grilled sea bream, octopus fried in garlic, giant prawns and steamed mussels in the coastal fishing village.

Strolling around the harbor, you'll see nets spread out to dry and colorful boats. On closer inspection, you will note that these luzzi (traditional fishing boats) have "eyes" painted on their high bows to watch out for danger ahead.

Grilled prawns and octopus fried in garlic
Grilled prawns and octopus fried in garlic
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Traditional boats or dghajjes, like the luzzi, are also based on ancient Phoenician boats. Boatmen pole dghajjes the same way gondoliers maneuver their vessels in Venice.

Things to see in Malta

Besides visiting Malta's resorts, many visitors travel to Malta to see the fortified hilltop city of Mdina, UNESCO temples and the ancient Hypogeum underground burial chambers.

In other parts of Malta, ruts carved into stone by primitive carts before the invention of the wheel are equally fascinating. Although they resemble the chariot ruts in Ephesus, Turkey, they are far more numerous.

Luzzu (traditional fishing boat) with painted eyes
Luzzu (traditional fishing boat) with painted eyes
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Reminders of both religion and war are everywhere. Statues of the Virgin Mary and saints nestle into roadside shrines and fill niches carved into buildings.

Although you don't see battlefields, you do see forts, watch towers and, in Valletta's National War Museum (address: Fort St. Elmo), the George Cross, awarded to the entire country in 1942 for its valor in withstanding a prolonged siege during World War II.

A multitude of domes and steeples pierce the skyline of Maltese cities. (There are 80 churches and 280 chapels in Malta.)

Mosta Dome, a parish church, has the third largest unsupported dome in the world (after St. Peter's in Rome, and St. Paul's in London). Even more surprising, is what's inside—a replica of a large bomb shell!

In 1942, the bomb fell through the dome while 300 people were attending a church service. It hit the altar and rolled down the aisle without exploding.

Malta scenery

Looking around this Mediterranean island, located between Europe and Africa, you see a green landscape that becomes rather arid in summer. Stone rubble walls separate small terraced fields and vineyards. A few fig and olive trees mingle with prickly pear cacti, carob trees, pines and sandarac gum trees.

Grass grows in ancient cart ruts in stone.
Grass grows in ancient cart ruts in stone.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In spring, the ground is carpeted with yellow daisies and red poppies. Treading through fields, you discover fennel, capers and fragrant wild thyme. You might see some farmers hoeing or harvesting crops.

The sea is the colour of aquamarines and sapphires. If you travel to the cliffs of Zurrieq, you can look down into the Blue Grotto, a large sea cavern with two suspended arches. Just down Malta's coast, dramatic red cliffs drop straight into the sea.

Malta weather

Summers are hot and dry. Winters are brief and mild with no snow, frost or biting winds. When it is hot, the majority of Malta's population of 370,000 flocks to beaches and the rocky coast.

Besides the English language, there are other vestiges of Britain in Malta, as well, including a national love of football (the British word for soccer), tea time, red telephone booths and signs for "petrol" (rather than gas). Queen Elizabeth II actually lived in Malta as a princess when her husband, Prince Philip, was assigned there as a naval officer.

The Blue Grotto
The Blue Grotto
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shopping in Malta

The influence of both North Africa and Europe can also be seen in handicrafts, including delicate jewelry made of silver filigree, hand-knit woolen sweaters and colorful glazed blown glass.

You can find crafts in souvenir shops, local markets and at Ta' Qali Craft Centre, where you will also see artisans at work. (Tip: Made-in-Malta handicrafts are certified with the Malta Crafts Council logo.)

Malta history

When you travel to Malta it is obvious why the Maltese Islands were irresistible to military powers. Valletta's Grand Harbour provided a sheltered port for naval fleets.

Artist makes silver filigree jewelry in Ta' Qali Craft Centre.
Artist makes silver filigree jewelry in Ta' Qali Craft Centre.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Each successive wave of colonizers, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Knights of St. John, French and British, left their mark in Malta's language, architecture, culture and kitchens.

The Knights of St. John, in particular, left the biggest imprint on Malta. Coming from eight countries and staying for 268 years, they constructed fortifications, hired European artists and brought in chefs to create food specialties from their respective countries.

When you travel to Malta, you'll observe that the island has successfully blended modern amenities with its multinational culinary and cultural legacy.

 


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Visit Malta: www.visitmalta.com

More things to see and do in Malta:

Film Locations for Movies and TV Shows in Malta