Things to Do in Malta
Situated on an abandoned WW2 airfield, Ta’Quali occupies a series of seemingly ramshackle Nissan huts – plans to spruce up Ta’Quali rear their heads from time to time, but so far no funding has been raised for the redevelopment. Don’t be put off by their tattiness as they hide the best selection of authentic Maltese crafts found on the island.
This is the place to find delicate filigree silverware, handmade lace, hand-blown glass, leather, linen and cheery painted ceramics, all created by local artisans. Expect to pay a little more for your purchases, but be happy in the knowledge that you are buying a genuine piece of Maltese treasure. Even if you don’t buy, there’s the chance to watch skilled craftsmen at work in their stores.
Malta is famous for the lavish scale of its many scores of churches (there are 25 in Valletta alone) but Mosta’s Neo-classical parish church of St Mary stands out even among all this grandeur. Its eponymous, self-supporting dome measures 121 ft (37 m) in diameter and is 220 ft (67 m) high – bigger than St Paul’s in London – with every inch of the interior covered in gilt, frescoes and marble flooring. The church was designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé in the style of the Pantheon in Rome but built by solely by local parishioners and volunteers between 1833 and 1860.
The interior houses Malta’s biggest, most flamboyant organ, with 2,000 pipes, but the church is better known for a miraculous escape the congregation had in 1942 during WW2. On Sunday, April 9 the church was packed with 300 worshippers when three Luftwaffe bombs hit the dome. Two bounced off but one crashed through into the nave; amazingly it failed to explode, saving scores of lives.
San Anton Gardens are the most beautiful of the few public parks in Malta. They surround an ornate palazzo built by Grand Master of the Knights of St John, Antoine de Paule, as his summer residence in 1636 – it’s now the official residence of the Maltese President – and were bequeathed to the public in 1882.
A sweet-smelling citrus orchard lies at the heart of the walled gardens, a tranquil haven in the middle of busy Attard. They are landscaped in a formal Italianate fashion, dotted with elaborate follies, sculptures and fountains, dissected by shady paved walkways giving shelter from the mid-summer sun. Some of the trees here are more than 300 years old and the twisted trunks of ancient jacarandas, cypresses and Norfolk pines line the paths, palm trees soar upwards and flowerbeds blaze with color all year around.
Tarxien is the largest of the major overground megalithic temple sites open to visitors on Malta, which combined, form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just south of Valletta, the four interconnecting temples were built between 3,600 BC and 2,500 BC in honor of a mother-goddess of fertility. Today they are oxymoronically surrounded by modern housing but remain of importance thanks to their iconic spiral decorations and the central temple which comprises six apses.
The ancient temples are covered with carvings of domestic animals and evidence of animal sacrifice has been found here, including blades and bones. Some of the altars are still intact but many of the artifacts remaining such as the pottery bowls and urns are replica, as is the curious 'Fat Lady' statue, appearing to consist of a skirt and two dumpy legs. The originals are now ensconced in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta for preservation.
Malta’s oldest and least-known prehistoric site is close to Marsaxlokk on the south coast. Excavations at the massive limestone cave complex at Għar Dalam in the 20th century led to the discovery of fossils of long-extinct mammals and provide firm evidence of human occupation of the island 7,400 years ago in Neolithic times. Bones and fossils of animals extinct before the Ice Age, including giant mice, dwarf elephants and hippos, can be clearly seen in a layer of rock more than 500,000 years old. Above this bedrock is a layer of loose rock formed a mere 18,000 years ago, which contained remains of deer and other mammals, and this is topped by a rock strata evidencing fragments of human skeletons and shards of tools and pots. It is thought that the first human settlers on Malta came across a land bridge from mainland Europe and existed in these caves – in fact there were still people living here in 1911 when excavations started.
There’s a reason the waterfront of Valletta is one of Europe’s most-visited cruise ports, and travelers to this historic town on the northeast coast of Malta will immediately understand why. Ancient forts, breathtaking buildings, and winding streets dot the hillside of the city that’s served as a backdrop of movies like Troy and Gladiator. Approaching its shores is like approaching another world, where modern-day amenities seem to disappear and the influence of Greek, Roman and Arab culture can be seen at every turn.
Cruise ships dock in Pinto Warf, about a half mile from the main shopping district of Valletta. Visitors can explore the town on foot, in a carriage or by hiring a taxi. Buses can take travelers further into the island, while local ferries connect Malta to the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino.
More Things to Do in Malta
An interesting town to visit on Malta is known in Maltese as Birgu, and in Italian as Vittoriosa (“Victorious,” named as such after the Great Siege of Malta). Situated on the Grand Harbor, it has a lengthy maritime history and home to the popular Maritime Museum. But the Fort St. Angelo is the real draw here, an unrestored fortress that is largely credited with helping Malta beat back invaders. Other highlights include the Church Museum, which has a rag-tag collection of artifacts that gives visitors a sense of Birgu's past; the gorgeous St. Lawrence Church, a gorgeous structure with some astonishing art; and the main gate and walls of this previously fortified city. And Villetta is just across the harbor!
Originally designed in 1733 by António Manoel de Vilhena, a Portuguese Grand Master of the Knights of St John, this enchanting palazzo changed hands in the 19th century and was given a decorative facelift by its aristocratic new Maltese owners – who still live there today. Today the estate is open daily for tours of the lavish public rooms and the glorious formal walled gardens, landscaped in Italianate style with box hedges and fountains. In summer the Orangery is awash with the soft smell of citrus from the orange and lemons planted there.
The interior of the palazzo is amazingly ornate with gilded ceilings and walls covered in paintings, huge dripping chandeliers, marble, stucco work, and elegant period furniture; a tour includes the stately ballroom, the Scicluna family’s private chapel, bedrooms with four-poster beds, and the vast banqueting hall.
Marsamxett Harbour sits on the north-west side of Valletta and, along with a series of major creeks – Sliema, Msida and Lazzaretto – provides calm mooring for boats as it is protected by the plug of land at Dragutt Point and by rocky Manoel Island, now connected to the town of Gzira by bridge. Marsamxett is separated from the Grand Harbour by the Valletta peninsula but together the two inlets make up the biggest natural harbor in Europe.
The towns of Sliema, Gzira, Ta’xbiex and Msida sprawl into each other along the northern edge of the harbor, while the southern side is lined with the battlements of Valletta and Floriana. A vast, slowly decaying 18th-century fortress stands on Manoel Island as well as the ruins of an isolation hospital that was used in the 17th century to quarantine sailors suspected of having the plague. Marsamxett Harbour is also home to Malta’s biggest yachting marina, which stretches right up Msida Creek to Ta’xbiex.
Msida town was originally a little fishing village but now straggles into smart Ta’xbiex, the wealthy enclave that is home to the majority of Malta’s diplomats and embassies. Msida’s biggest claims to fame today are a prestigious university and the mammoth yacht marina stretching along the north side of Marsamxett Harbour right up Msida Creek. It is Malta’s biggest and most sheltered harbor and the place to head to see the sleek super-yachts of the super-wealthy Euro-glitterarti.
The marina has berths for 720 boats and can accommodate vessels up to 72 ft (22 m) in length along pontoon and breakwater moorings. A cluster of restaurants and stores have appeared around the marina, which following a period of updating is now open for business once more. A sprinkling of traditional fishing luzzus provide a splash of cheery color among the smooth lines of the contemporary sailing craft moored up in the marina.
Cospicua, known in Maltese as Bormla, is one of the beautiful villages that makes up the Three Cities (Cottonera). With Greek, Roman, and Turkish influences, it's a fascinating look at just how integrated Mediterranean history has made such a unique culture.
When seen from the sea, as Cospicua should be at least once, visitors are looking at a port that dates back to the Phoenician era – although it was not declared an actual city in the early 18th century, when the dockyards were built. These dockyards are still a vital part of commerce (and political squabbles) today. The original city gates and fortifications are perfect for a walking tour of Cospicua to further understand its history. And as it is the largest town of the Cottonera, visitors are often treated to many festivals and events throughout the year.
Overlooking Marsamxett harbor between Valletta and Sliema on the side of Msida Creek, well-to-do Ta’Xbiex is Malta’s diplomatic quarter. It’s chiefly notable for its number of embassies and high commissions, all housed in ocher-colored grand villas and palazzi along with an enclave of private mansions. Currently the UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Austria have their embassies here.
A seaside promenade runs from St Julian’s to Pieta, passing Ta’Xbiex marina, where sleek yachts bob in their berths. Along the walkway there are spectacular views over the harbor towards Valletta and the bastions of Floriana as well as a number of quality seafood restaurants. Standout among these is The Black Pearl, a wooden schooner dating from 1909 and now transformed into a fine-dining restaurant, which once had a starring role in the film Popeye along with Robin Williams.
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