Malta’s four cities

Malta is one of Europe’s smallest and most densely populated countries, with approximately 1,260 people every square kilometer. It is an island nation located east of Tunisia and south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Technically, Malta is part of Africa, with its islands being the tops of rocks that have peaked above the sea surface. The islands are formed mostly of limestone, which was/is harvested for building materials, giving the island a yellow-grey-cream look.

The view of Birgu from Valletta

Peter disagrees with me, but Malta resembled Amman, Jordan (below) because of its density, yellow-grey buildings, and hazy sky.

Valletta (pronounced vall-et-ah) and Sliema are the main cities. They are located across the bay from one another, with a ferry running between them. Valletta is the historic medieval center, and Sliema (along with neighboring St. Julian’s) are modern, hip cities.

The view of Sliema from Valletta

Most tourists stay in either Sliema or St. Julian’s because most restaurants/nightlife and resorts are located there. We chose to stay in Valletta because we were more interested in staying in a quiet hotel away from the nightlife.

We learned during our last trip to Istanbul that nightlife can be very loud and continue into the tiny hours and vowed never to stay in the middle of the nightlife area again.

Renting a car in Malta is an option, but I don’t think it’s realistic. No parking exists in the major cities (not at hotels, businesses, etc.). In medieval Valletta, most “roads” are pedestrian-only, and others are not necessarily wide enough for a car to fit.

This leaves three modes of transportation for getting around the island: Bus, taxi, and water ferry/taxi.

We took the bus most of the time, but it was painfully slow. In more remote locations like the Blue Grotto, buses only run once per hour, and it can take several hours to get to popular destinations like Malta’s sister island, Gozo, because of the number of stops on the route.

We relied on taxis to get us to and from the airport and to get us from the silent city of Mdina to the Blue Grotto because we did not have the patience to wait 45 minutes for the bus in the blistering sun only to sit on the bus for another hour to travel 6 mi / 10 km. The taxi for our journey from Mdina to the Blue Grotto was overpriced at 20€, but it saved us 1.5 hours.

We spent our first two days on the island exploring four cities: Valletta, Senglea, Birgu, and Cospicua. The latter three are known collectively as The Three Cities.

The Three Cities are located across the bay from Valletta (a different bay than the bay that separates Valletta and Sliema). The fastest way to cross the bay from Valletta to The Three Cities is by water taxi, which was cheap and fast. The slower option is to ride the ferry, which runs on schedule and is not much cheaper.

The view of Senglea from our Valletta-Three Cities water taxi.

Due to the 3 H’s – heat, humidity, and hills – we rented a GPS-guided golf cart from a company called The Rolling Geeks. The golf cart was equipped with a tablet that spoke to us as I drove along the mapped route.

Driving is on the left in Malta, so it only made sense that I drove the golf cart. I was a little nervous because I had not driven a vehicle on the left since August 2013, but it was like riding a bike.

The GPS brought us to all three cities and included brief stops along the way. It was very hot, and the owners gave us towels to put on the seat so we would not burn our skin.

As the driver, it was difficult for me to pay attention to anything other than GPS’s verbal directions and the traffic and pedestrians zipping around the roads.

Due to this, I learned nothing on tour, but driving around and seeing different areas was fun. Our longest stop was at a food/refreshment kiosk near the marina for refreshments, and a toilet break. Only after ordering refreshments did we find out there wasn’t a public toilet.

My favorite stop on tour was Gardjola Gardens in Senglea (public toilets here!). It is a tiny park perched on a cliff in the middle of a residential area. Everything in Malta is stone and rock, and there is very little greenery, so this little park was a nice oasis. The views of Valletta are nice too.

We drove around in our golf cart for about two hours before returning it to the shop and sitting down for a very long lunch. This is the thing about meals in Malta… they are extremely long. Maltese food is a mix of Greek, Turkish, Italian, and rustic dishes made with rabbit.

Dinner that night was charcuterie, accompanied by wine at The Little Red Door in Valletta. It did not disappoint. Service was lovely and the food and wine hit the spot.

To conclude our tour of four cities, we walked around the perimeter of Valletta one day as the ball of fire in the sky blazed down on us. It was so hot! We started at our hotel and walked to Upper Barrakka Gardens for views of The Three Cities. The stairs in Valletta reminded me of the stairs in Istanbul.

There was a wedding at Fort St. Angelo (look for the white umbrellas to the left of the mega yacht), and all I could think about was the heat and how hot the guests must have been.

From Upper Barrakka Gardens, we walked along Quarry Wharf to Lower Barrakka Gardens and climbed the stairs to the Siege Bell War Memorial.

From Lower Barrakka Gardens, we kept to the left, walked up Mediterranean Street to St. Elmo’s Place, and continued to follow the road along the north side of Valletta for views of Sliema.

The Valletta perimeter walk takes less than an hour but bring a lot of water and slather yourself in sunscreen before setting off on your journey.

Next: Gozo, Mdina, and the Blue Grotto.

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