Valletta is the smallest capital city in the EU. No ifs, no buts, it just is. That means you can walk around the whole city in about an hour – at least in principle. The reality, of course, is very different – you’ll probably want to stop and look at the amazing architecture you’ll come across, and peek inside a church (or three). You could spend a whole day meandering aimlessly about Valletta, but if you’re a bit pushed for time, you can squeeze in a visit to one of Malta’s other gorgeous towns – namely, Mdina. Here’s how I saw both amazing places in one action-packed day.
The best way to get into Valletta, I’ve heard, is to take the ferry from Sliema and enjoy the view you’ll see on the ten minute journey. So that’s exactly what I did, paying 1.50 Euros for the privilege. I risked sunburn and sat on the top deck to get the best views of Malta’s capital, and wasn’t disappointed – Valletta looks like a densely populated Medieval island on the glittering blue sea. Malta’s religious legacy really stands out, too – the main focus points on Valletta’s skyline are the spires of St. Paul’s Pro Cathedral, and the iconic rotunda of Madonna tal-Karmnu.
After a short ascent from the ferry port up a rather steep hill, I was in the heart of Valletta. I headed straight for Madonna tal-Karmnu, because it’s the landmark I know best from postcards (and Eurovision).
You’ll never be lost in Valletta – just look for your nearest church.
Since Madonna tal-Karmnu was closed, I wandered about aimlessly for a little while. My Polish pals from the day before had recommended I just “get lost” in Valletta (presumably, they weren’t telling me to go away). However, this was proving harder than I thought, because the place is so damn small you’ll always find your way back – even if you don’t intend to.
That’s probably for the best, because I had to be in the Barrakka area for midday. Marcin and Patrycja had informed me that every day, when the clock strikes 12, there’s a cannon salute from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. On the other hand, a half-Maltese colleague had advised me to head to the lower Barrakka Gardens, to avoid the crowds. Put two and two together, and you’ve got a perfect plan.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens are jaw-droppingly lovely. At the gates, I was greeted by a friendly cat, who led me into an area lined with palm trees. A blue fountain gently spouted, and behind that, there was a replica of an ancient Greek temple. It was just like the Agora in Athens. It felt like home.
I reserved my spot for the midday gun show, and gazed out over the harbour. From the Lower Barrakka gardens, you can see the Three Cities – Birgu, Senglea and Copsicua. These are three colourful Medieval towns that face Valletta, and make for a fantastic alternative to an afternoon in Mdina, if you want to stay close to the city. And, as promised, there’s also a good view of the Upper Barrakka gardens, though it’s a little far away:
They’re just to the left of me. I felt very vain asking for this photo to be taken, but also, I now feel the need to document every occasion I bother to wear makeup.
At 12:00 on the dot, a loud boom ripped through the air, and smoke poured out of a cannon. I thought that was it, so I turned around and started walking away. A few seconds later, another ear-bursting boom sounded. The cannons not only fire blanks from the Barrakka gardens, but also from the Three Cities, and from the middle of the harbour too. At times, the noise was like being in a war zone. Of course, I was in no danger, but all I could think during that cannon salute was how utterly terrifying it must be to live with bombs going off so close to you. It reminded me that though Malta’s wartime days are over, there are lots of people in the world who don’t have the privilege of living in peace.
Another privilege I had was the ability to turn away from it all, and continue my day somewhere more serene. So, to the next stop; actually go inside a church, since there are almost 360 of them on Malta and Gozo. I was reluctant to pay 10 whole Euros to enter a house of worship, on principle, but fate looked kindly on me that day. Madonna tal-Karmnu was closed, so I headed for its neighbour, St. Paul’s Pro Cathedral. There was no entry fee, and no dress code to police the revealing nature of my outfit. It’s an Anglican church, run by Brit expats as far as I could tell, so I felt very at home. All in all, it was fairly laid-back and welcoming, and sort of gave me a newfound respect for the Church of England. Sort of.
The churches I visited in Poole, growing up, were not this fancy. I might have tried harder in Religious Studies if they were.
I trekked back up the hill in search of lunch. As any solo traveller knows, eating out by oneself can be an experience fraught with anxiety. But, the internet said that if you seek out places that have a ‘social’ atmosphere and communal dining table, you might meet some other people to enjoy your food with. While I didn’t go looking for it, such a restaurant found me. Over the brow of the hill, Pastaus Social appeared like the gates of heaven.
Fresh pasta, all washed down with a glass of Kinnie, the addictively bittersweet local beverage.
Bubbly young staff sit you down on this huge table, which seats about 20 people. I was positioned close to a couple, but not so close that they’d feel uncomfortable. The staff explained the menu to me, and I selected one of their specials – a creamy mushroom pasta. Looking around the restaurant as I drank my Kinnie, I noticed that everybody else had come in pairs or groups – in fact, I was the only solo diner. So much for socialisation.
No matter. I had this delicious companion to keep me busy.
Pasta is a part of Malta’s Italian heritage, and my god, they do it well. Though my portion was massive, I just couldn’t get enough of its rich, pungent flavour. Sadly, there was no more room for dessert, so I departed from my leisurely lunch and continued my sightseeing.
The main attraction I’d wanted to see in Malta was the Grandmaster’s Palace, which was built by the Order of St. John in the 16th century for their slightly culty leader. It’s been used as an opulent residence and government chamber for centuries, and even today it houses the offices of the President of Malta, who uses the palace to conduct ambassadorial ceremonies.
The Grandmaster’s Palace faces onto St. George’s Square, Valletta’s main piazza.
Typically for me, the gorgeous internal courtyard was covered in scaffolding, so I couldn’t take any decent photos of it. However, that didn’t detract from the stunning palace interior, which is a work of art in itself. The palace’s tapestries, paintings and sculptures tell the story of Malta’s history, particularly the defeat of the Ottomans by its Crusader rulers in 1565. An audioguide will slowly take you round the main rooms, and explain the stories behind every little detail you’ll encounter.
The grand Throne Hall is the largest State Room. The artwork on its walls is a step-by-step replay of the 1565 Siege of Malta.
It didn’t take me very long to get round the Grandmaster’s Palace, because I skipped the armoury, and some of its rooms were closed for renovation. Now keen to head to Mdina, I cut my losses and meandered through the streets of Valletta, walking by the shops on Republic Street and past the huge Triton Fountain to the bus station by the city walls.
It takes about 45 minutes on the bus from Valletta to Mdina, using the 51, 52 or 53 bus to Rabat. I got to Mdina about 4pm, and soon discovered why it’s nicknamed the ‘Silent City’ – compared to Valletta, it was as quiet as a mouse. Barely any tourists were there, and the only thing breaking the silence was the church bells chiming from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Mdina and Rabat sound Arabic, because they are. Mdina comes from the word for ‘market’, while Rabat is derived from the word for ‘fort’. Mdina, historically, was both.
Mdina’s citadel features glorious golden architecture from the Baroque period, but the city is originally Medieval – as shown by the telltale shady passageways and miniature balconies you’ll see. Famously, Mdina was used as a Game of Thrones filming location, giving the fantasy show an unmistakable Middle Ages Med vibe.
Mdina is a world away from Venice, where narrow alleys like this are packed with people.
It won’t take long to explore Mdina – my Polish friends said it only took them 45 minutes, but I stopped to look at the hilltop panorama, to eat a gelato and to watch the church bells being rung, so I was there for about an hour. There are a few souvenir shops and fancy restaurants you could kill some time in, too. Mdina’s modern neighbour, Rabat, has a bit more – there are parks, and even the ruins of a Roman villa to explore.
With the sun slowly setting, I set off for Bugibba to meet Marcin and Patrycja for the last time. Bugibba is a modern tourist resort, so it’s not as beautiful as historic Mdina, but it has an appeal of its own. If you like luxury hotels, pulsating beach bars and plenty of kids’ activities, it’s the place for you. After a quick trip to the local supermarket, in which we were assisted by an expat Yorkshirewoman, my new friends and I ate a meal and toasted to the trip. We’ve said we will try to keep in contact. Plus, Bournemouth Airport offers direct flights to Krakow, so there’s a trip for another time.
On my last few hours in Malta, I opted to sit by the pool. It was Friday night, and here I was sat with some houmous and an olive bread roll, just as I do at work every day. I wish I’d had more time – some girls from the hostel invited me to go out dancing in Paceville with them, but I had to turn it down because my flight was at stupid o’clock the next morning. So, instead, I had a brief chat with a Maltese girl and observed a Santa Marija Bambina firework display from afar.
As the sky erupted in colour, I thought to myself “I hope to return to Malta”. I tucked into my shop-bought frolla (an almond pastry with pink icing), and pondered how I might come back, even after the Brexit hellscape ruins travel for British citizens. My hope is that Malta will continue to look kindly on Britain, but the truth is, nobody will. We have put ourselves firmly on the wrong side of history.
But, as a country once owned by Crusaders, Malta knows all about that. Until next time, you lovely little island.