Malta - Our Travel Diary
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Duration – 6 days (October 2019)
Day 1 – Arrival in the afternoon, check in to hotel and explore the local area on foot. We stayed in Sliema area which is just opposite to Valletta. At the southern tip of Sliema from Tigne Point beach area the view of sunset over Valletta is quite stunning. It is somehow not crowded and is a nice way to see the beautiful skyline with the old city of Valletta which slowly lights up against the background of the setting sun.
Sunset over Valletta from Tigne Point beach area
Day 2 – Full day in Valletta
St. John's Co-Cathedral:
Read the story of the knights of St. John here first to fully understand and appreciate the Co-cathedral. If you are wondering what a ‘co-cathedral’ is – it is a cathedral that is also a bishop’s seat along with another cathedral usually in another city. Wiki intel says that the Catholic church has 322 co-cathedrals mainly in Europe with 140 in Italy alone! St. John’s Co-cathedral shares the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta together with the older Cathedral of Saint Paul in Mdina.
St. John's Co-Cathedral
The cathedral is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, one of the two patron saints of the Order and was built between 1572 and 1577 by the Knights under the leadership of the then Grand Master Jean de la Cassière and Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who had also designed the Grandmaster’s Palace as well as the original Knights’ hospital, La Sacra Infermeria. It was modestly decorated and remained so for the first 100 years after which Grand Master Raphael Cotoner ordered the redecoration of the interior to match the Roman standards- where Baroque architecture was flourishing. Calabrian artist Mattia Preti therefore did a magnificent makeover with Baroque style art and the cathedral remains one of the most beautiful and impressive examples of Baroque architecture. Over the centuries gifts and inheritances left by the various Knights added to its stunning interiors, ornate marble floor, carved 3D statues and some great pieces of art most notably Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ (1608). The painting is not only the largest work of art by Caravaggio, but is also the only one to bear his signature! No wonder art enthusiasts line up to get a glimpse of this time and again which is housed in the Oratory along with his painting of St. Jerome writing.
Michelangelo's 'The Beheading of St John the Baptist’
The Cathedral has eight chapels allocated to the eight languages and nationalities that initially made up the order. The ninth is dedicated to their second patron saint, Our Lady of Philermos, It takes no less than 2 hours to go around the cathedral and the view from the gallery just puts into perspective the scale and magnanimity of this place. You definitely need to sit in one the benches and spend a few minutes looking up at the ceiling, down at the floor and everywhere around you. It just bursts with beauty but also some very interesting and sometime dark stories from the pages of history.
Useful information: There is entry tickets for adults, children under 12 go free, The Co Cathedral is open from 09:30 hrs to 16:30 hrs Monday to Friday, and from 09:30 to 12:30 on Saturdays, closed on Sundays and public holidays. Audio guides are available.
Upper Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery
Perched above the Grand Harbour, these gardens were created in the late 16th century as a place for the knights of the langue of Italy from the nearby Auberge d’Italie to exercise and relax. It is quite a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and the sun! The panoramic views of the Mediterranean, with the three cities; Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua is magnificent to see from the balcony. The terrace below is occupied by the Saluting Battery, where a cannon once fired salutes to the visiting naval vessels. It has been restored and a cannon is fired at 12noon and 4pm apparently but we missed this. You may also get some surprize entertainment – we had a band of students and the music and dance added some more magic to the day!
Saluting Battery at Upper Barrakka Gardens
Lower Barrakka Gardens and the Siege Bell Memorial
A 15-20 mins walk from the upper Barrakka Gardens brings you to another quiet and tranquil place – The Lower Barrakka Gardens. This relatively small harbour front park gives a different view of the Mediterranean Sea and the many cruise ships and vessels. The garden also contains a Doric temple (stone column temples originating from Greek architecture) commemorating British naval captain, Sir Alexander Ball who captured Malta from the French.
From the gardens you can also see the Siege Bell Memorial, which was built in 1992 in memory of the thousands of civilians and troops who lost their lives in the 3 years of siege (1940-1943) during World War II. The siege ended when operation Pedestal was launched by British to send supplies to Malta. Only 5 of the 14 ships managed to reach the Grand Harbour amidst the bombings. Malta had endured 154 days of continuous bombings that had brought the population to near starvation. In recognition of their resilience during the siege and the air attacks during all of the Mediterranean campaign, Malta was awarded the George Cross King George VI in the months immediately preceding this operation. This is also seen on the national flag of Malta. Almost 50 years later, George Cross Island Association commemorated that memorial in the form of an elliptical neo-classical temple, containing the largest bell in Malta which cast by the world’s largest bell-founders John Taylor & Co Founders of Loughborough, England. Standing on the furthermost point of Valletta within Grand Harbour on the now peaceful waters of the Mediterranean, the memorial is a reminder of Malta’s struggle and resilience.
Inside Caffe Cordina
Caffe Cordina is quite an establishment in its own right- evolving through 175 years from what started as a small shop selling Maltese sweet delicacies in Bormla to the substantial café that stands today in Valetta. We took a break and sat down outside to try the famous Maltese Pastizzi and some coffee. Both the inside and the outside are always teeming with people, both local and tourists. The service does take time but who complains when you are sitting under the Mediterranean sun in a city like Valetta.
Read more about our experience on Maltese food here.
Grandmaster’s Palace and armoury
Read the story of the knights of St. John here first to fully understand and appreciate the Grandmaster’s Palace. Built in the 16th century this building dominates the Palace square and was the residence of the grandmasters of the Knights of St. John. The palace also served as the Governor’s Palace under the British, then from the time of Maltese independence to 2015, it was the seat of the Maltese Parliament and now it hosts the President’s office as well as the House of Representatives. Therefore only around 5 rooms in the State Apartments are open to the public, which does come as a disappointment if your expectation was to see something more justified to the size of the place.
The Council Chamber showcases some stunning Gobelin tapestries depicting scenes from India, Caribbean, Brazil, Africa etc. that were gifted to the order. ‘Gobelin Manufacting’ is a historic tapestry factory in Paris France. Some of the tapestries are over 300 years old and you can only admire them in the dark as light speeds up their decay. It does take a bit of time for your eyes to get adjusted to the darkness of the room and see the details of the tapestries.
The other rooms and passages are splendidly furnished with artefacts and armour and you can see some paintings of the French Kings, Russian Empress Catherine the Great and several Grandmasters.
The Palace armoury is also located here and was worth the visit. When a Knight died the weapons and armoury became property of the order. The original collection was over 25,000 but only 5,000 remain now. It is alleged that during the French occupation of Malta, these were shipped to France as part an ‘organized robbery’ of art treasure and historic treasures carried out by Napoleon. The British also went on a renovation overdrive and added some Egyptian style column-like supports which were apparently removed and returned to England!
A typical Valletta street with Maltese balconies
Explore the streets and alleyways of Valletta
After visiting the Grandmaster’s Palace, we just walked around the streets of Valletta, exploring the little shops and the enjoying the vibe of the place.
Valentina's 'Judith and Holofernes' in National Museum of Fine Arts
National Museum of Fine Arts
For art lovers, this is a nice destination! The museum established in 1974 has an impressive collection of art from early Renaissance period to modern and contemporary pieces. Most notable are paintings by Caravaggists Mattias Stomer, Jean Valentin de Boulogne, Guido Reni Mattia Preti and many more. It also houses a collection of silverware, marble statues, and bronze and wood statues. The architecture is late baroque style. We were perhaps the only ones in the museum when we visited, though there was some sort of event going on.
Narrow alleyways of Mdina
Day 3 – Mdina, Rabat and north of the Island
The city of Mdina was founded by Phoenician settlers (originating from present day Lebanon) and fortified as early as the 8th century and was called Malet (place of shelter). Then the Romans came and called it Melita followed by the Arabs who called it Mdina in the 9th century. Medina in Arabic means ‘walled city’. The Arabs built a strong wall and dug a deep moat between Mdina and its surrounding suburbs (rabat in Arabic). The city remained the capital of Malta throughout the medieval times until the arrival of the Order of St. John who made the Grand Harbour and Valletta their centre of activity and Birgu became the administrative centre. Mdina slowly became just a holiday destination for the aristocrats. Mdina suffered severe damage during the 1693 Sicily earthquake, which also partially destroyed the St. Paul’s cathedral (which had to be rebuilt). Nowadays properties are handed down from generation to generation. Outside vehicles are not allowed and the quiet and peaceful settings have earned it the name of ‘The Silent City’.
St. Palu's Cathedral in Mdina
The main attractions to see in Mdina are:
St. Paul’s Cathedral
If you are not familiar with this biblical story- St. Paul had been arrested by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem and was being taken to Rome to be tried. However the ship carrying him and 274 others was caught in a violent storm and wrecked on the Maltese coast. All those aboard swam safely to land. As the fire was lit, St. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but nothing happened. The islanders took this as a divine sign. According to tradition, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul's Grotto in Rabat, Malta. He was also invited to the house of Publius, the Roman governor of Malta and cured Publius' father of a serious illness. Publius is then said to have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. The Cathedral of Mdina is believed to stand on the site of Publius' villa.
The site of the shipwreck is traditionally known as St. Paul's Island (also known as Selmunett, is a small island off Selmun near the north-east of the main island of Malta) and is marked by a statue commemorating the event.
The fire and serpent motifs on top of the twin bell towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral depicts the story of the shipwreck and his miraculous survival from the snake bite. The vaulted ceiling is painted with scenes from his life. The altar painting ‘The Conversion of St. Paul’ by Mattia Preti is quite a notable piece of work and thankfully survived the earthquake. Take a moment to also appreciate the beautifully carved doors.
The entrance to a typical home in Mdina
Palazzo Falson was the former home of Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher, the son of a prosperous shipping merchant of Swedish descent. Gollcher was an artist, scholar, philanthropist and an avid collector of art. He used his home as a kind of museum for his works of art and antiques. After his death in 1962, the property and the contents went to the Archaeological Foundation in his name. In 2001, the Maltese Heritage Foundation entered into an agreement with the Gollcher Foundation and restored the palazzo and all its contents realizing Gollcher’s lifelong desire to open this up to the public. This beautiful two-storey medieval palazzo now consists of a series of rooms wrapped around a courtyard.
There are lots of other beautiful places and picture perfect corners in Mdina. We reached Mdina very early in the morning and experienced the serenity of the place which has some old mysterious charm. But as the day progressed we were greeted with bone drenching rain!!! We settled for a few cups of coffee and then headed to this very cozy restaurant for a relaxed lunch.
Adjoining Mdina is Rabat which is a delightful and vibrant place in its own right. The typical Maltese balconies (galerijas) line the narrow streets. There is a wide selection of good restaurants to eat here and is fast becoming the new gourmet hotspot in Malta.
St. Pauls Curch at Rabat
You can visit the St. Paul’s Catacomb, called so due to its close proximity to St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Catacombs are ancient underground passages and rooms, especially under a city, where people used to be buried. I had to look up the meaning ☺ so adding here if you are also unfamiliar with the term) This dates back to the 3rd century and was even a place of worship in the medieval times.
You can also visit St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs which according to legends was the hiding place for St. Agatha when she fled Sicily. There is a nice little museum with fossils, coins etc.
Built on the Anchor bay, this is the actual film set of the 1980 musical 'Popeye' starring Robin Williams. The construction of the film set took a crew of 165 working over seven months to build the village. Logs, wooden planks and shingles were imported from the Netherlands, and Canada. The view is absolutely magical and if you go inside there are lots of activities for kids and adults. The tickets are pricey for a short visit (15-17 Euros per adult/child depending on the time of the year) so worth only if you plan to spend the full day here. There are animation shows, splash pools, boat rides and even the chance to make a movie.
We walked around and enjoyed some ice-cream at the restaurant instead before heading off to the next destination.
Mellieħa Bay is located in the North of the main island, on the outskirts of the village of Mellieħa. The warm shallow waters, white sand and gentle slope make it a good family destination as well as for water-skiing and windsurfing. No wonder that the area around the bay has some of the best hotels and therefore a prime destination for holiday.
Sunset from Dingli Cliff
This is the highest point on the Maltese islands with excellent views- over 220 m high cliffs overlooking the vast Mediterranean sea, and Filfla, the small uninhabited island just across. The name is thought to have originated from Maltese architect Tommaso Dingli famed for many of Malta’s churches or Sir Thomas Dingley, English prior of the Knights of St. John who lived nearby. There is a tiny 17th century chapel dedicated to St. Mary Madgalene perched on the edge, it is quite village otherwise. There are well marked walking trails, and a radar tower. It is a great place to walk and watch the sun go down. It was terribly windy and chilly when we went (October)
Day 4 – Island of Gozo
The island of Gozo is one-third the size of Malta and has just over 30,000 Gozitans. It is also called Gawdex (pronounced aow-desh) in Malti- the ‘x’ really threw us off at Malta in the beginning!
It is pretty little island packed with history, food and activities that a day trip is really worth it! It is a 30 minutes ferry ride from Malta.
Read more about ferry timing and other useful information about Malta here.
Citadella at Victoria
Situated approx. 6km from the ferry terminal of Mgarr, Victoria sits in the centre of the island. It was originally called Rabat before being renamed in 1897 for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The 15th century Citadel II Castel which perches on a hilltop seems to magically unfold as you navigate your way through the busy roads. We did circle around to find the place and then to understand where the parking is!
It is interesting to note that the Gozitans stayed overnight at the Citadella until the 17th century – a practice that started after raids by the Turks on the island.
Entry includes the four museums – Archaeology Museum, the Old Prison, Gozo Nature Museum and Gran Castello Historic House. You need to pay separately for entry into the Cathedral. The most memorable anecdote here was from the Old Prison which apparently housed the Grandmaster Jean Parisote de la Valette for beating someone up- and was also handed 2 years of service in Tripoli- this was before he became the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John.
The Basilica of Ta' Pinu
The Basilica of Ta' Pinu
One of the most famous churches on Gozo is The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. It stands tall with height of 61m in the open countryside on the outskirts of Gharb. This neo-Romanesque church is a special pilgrimage site as well. Tradition has it that in 1883, a local woman called Karmini Grima was walking past the church, and she heard the voice of the Virgin Mary calling her to enter. Once inside the voice from the painting of the Blessed Mary on the alter asked her to recite three Hail Marys in honour of the three days that Virgin Mary rested in the tomb before her assumption into heaven. She kept this a secret for a while but then found that a friend, had also experienced a call from the Blessed Virgin in the same place. Various miracles were reported over the years involving people recovering from terminal illness, including the mother of Grima’s friend, after prayers had been made to the Madonna Ta’ Pinu. The first pilgrims started coming in around 1919 and then the present basilica was constructed incorporating the original chapel.
The mosaics are a recent addition in 2017 created by the internationally renowned artist Fr. Marco Rupnik, whose mosaic art can be seen in the Vatican, at Lourdes, and many other famous religious sites around the world.
In front of the broken Azure Window
Dwerja Bay, Azure Window
The Dwejra Bay on the west coast is spectacular with rugged white limestone structures against the backdrop of the blue Mediterranean sea. It is also the place where the Azure window also known as the Tieqa tad-Dwejra once stood and was an extremely popular destination in Gozo,
The Azure Window also featured on the first episode of the Game of Thrones and in several films. In March 2017, this spectacular rock arch collapsed into the sea after heavy storms much to the dismay of Malta and nature lovers across the world. The Telegraph featured images taken by some of the first divers to explore the area where the limestone formation once stood show massive chunks of rock, cracked, sharp-edged and strewn across the floor of the Mediterranean, with marine life already beginning to take over. Huge underwater sections can be seen on a 15-minute boat ride leaving from the Inland sea.
Dwejra is also home of the Fungus Rock or Il-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral’ or General’s Rock. Apparently named after an Italian General who centuries ago fell and died while supervising quarrying in the area. It is also known that the Knights of the St. John used to guard and protect these plants (parasitic plants in reality and not fungus) for their medicinal properties. Punishment for stealing was death or lifetime of rowing for the Knights.
The Dwerja Bay is a place still visited by travellers- even with the Arch gone and a firm reminder that nature is still in charge!
Wied il-Ghasri, is an amazing narrow bay or inlet with pebbled lining and wedged between the high cliffs of the Ghasri valley. It is spectacular and almost feels like a well-kept secret. It begins at Ta Dbiegi Hill and winds down through the village of l-Ghasri and meets the sea between between iz-Zebbug and Ta Gurdan Hill. It is approx. 300m long. It can be accessed via a 5km hike west along the coast from Marsalforn. There is a staircase – approx. 100 steps, cut into the rocks that lead down to the tiny pebble beach. You can also drive or walk from the village of Ghasri.
Very popular among divers, it is nice place for a quick swim to explore the surrounding underwater caves – especially the famous Cathedral Cave, located between Reqqa Point and Forna point. Though it was very calm when we were there, the narrowness would mean that it wouldn’t be the best places to swim when the sea is rough.
Salt pans of Xwejni
Xwejni Salt Pans
The north coast of Gozo is particularly suited to salt production as the area contains flat limestone that can be cut by hand to create shallow basins into which sea water comes in. The sun and the wind then work its magic and salt is left behind.
This is something truly amazing to see and experience as the history dates back to over 1,200 years, when the Phoenicians (originating from present day Lebanon) created these salt-pans, which were carried on by the Romans and the Knights guarded these heavily and stealing was punishable. It was almost used as a currency thousands of years back and used to pay soldiers. Salt was also synonymous with friendship and spilling it was considered back luck
These pans are used to this day to produce salt for gourmet restaurants and general public use by the Gozitans. Salt is harvested between May and September now. Salt in little bags are sold here and is a nice souvenir to bring back home as well.
Ramla Bay or Ramla l-Hamra means “red beach” in Malti and is one of the prettiest bay with red-gold sand. We unfortunately were caught in heavy rain and the roads were way too narrow and steep, so we had to abandon the idea of visiting it.
Sunset over Baroque Church of Nadur
Sunset over Baroque Church of Nadur
Nadur lies on the easternmost hill of Gozo and can be reached either from ir-Rabat or directly from Mġarr Harbour. The baroque Parish Church dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul situated here is one of Gozo’s best pieces of baroque architecture. Considering the magnanimity of the church, and the topography of In-Nadur, seeing the church with the sunset in the background is spectacular.
Day 5 – South of Malta Island
Blue Grotto is a complex of seven caves found along the southern coast of the island, right across from the little islet of Filfla, and less than a kilometre west of Wied iz-Zurrieq. At the entrance of the cave complex is a massive arch. The best way to see it is from a viewing platform which is 2-3 km away from the Blue Grotto boat ride ticket office (beside the main road east of the turn off to Wied-iz-Zurrieq.
There are daily regular boat trips to explore Blue Grotto which are run by local fisherman and the boat trip typically last for 20-30 min. The boat trips are completely based on weather condition, the day we visited blue grotto the weather was rough and stormy and as the sea was choppy all boat tours were cancelled.
Otherwise 30 minute boat trips also take in 7 caves including the Honeymoon cave, Reflection Cave and Cat’s Cave
Fishermen Village of Marsaxlokk
Pronounced marsa-shlock, this ancient fishing village is also the largest fishing village in Malta. Marsaxlokk Bay is a natural harbour and has some great history associated with it. The Turks moored their fleet here during the Great Siege of 1565, Napoleon’s army landed here in 1798, it was also used for fleets in WWII and also Michael Gorbachev and George Bush Senior had their summit here on-board a warship anchored to the bay!
Today it is a nice reflection of the Maltese life, with cheerful luzzu (fishing boats) anchored and old houses lining the waterfront. With the abundance of fish this is a good place for sea food lovers and a lot of tourists come to visit this place and especially Sunday fish market which starts very early. There are also daily markets which sell everything from pastries to tablecloths. Parking is not readily available and more so on Sundays.
St Peter's Pool
St Peter’s Pool
Located between Marsaxlokk fishing village and Delimara Point St Peter’s Pool is natural peaceful inlet pool ideal for swimming and diving and with large areas of flat slabs, resting and sunbathing is also easy. The waters are amazingly clear and blue and with the golden limestones, present a picture perfect shot. The limestone rocks are all sculpted into amazing shapes by years of erosion by the sea winds.
To reach there, you need to follow the narrow road towards Delimara Lighthouse and just past the power station chimney a signpost can be seen, a rough narrow track leads to a small parking area which seems a bit weird and the day we went it was closed so we had to park outside on a clearing instead. Also note that the track is just enough for one vehicle so be prepared to reverse… from the car park there is a steep track leading down to the bay. At the end there is a flight of stairs (no handrail). Make sure you have some comfortable shoes on!
Sunset over Senglea from Birgu
Sunset over 3 cities
This was the last evening in Malta and we just wanted to soak in the atmosphere before we headed home We therefore drove to the Fort St. Angelo area in Birgu and walked all the way up to the fort.
There are numerous yachts anchored on the still waters. There were some very posh ones and it was just nice to sit and see the activities unfold, people either tending to their yachts or big groups arriving in top of the range cars for a trip. The street is lined with various restaurants and the music fills the air. With the cool Mediterranean breeze and the beautiful atmosphere it was the perfect way to end our stay in Malta seeing the sun disappear in the horizon.
Day 6 – We caught the early morning flight back home. With memories and some goodies to eat and drink, Malta was a nice experience though soaked with some unwanted showers every now and then, but then that’s what travel is all about!