While Malta’s shorelines are draped with stunning beaches and shear cliffs that attract hoards of sun worshipers and adventure seekers alike, there are also a number of fascinating cities that are well worth a visit.
We spent our mornings at the beach before it became too busy, then grabbed a bite to eat, cleaned up and headed out to one of the cities to explore in the afternoon and evening. Buses are a convenient way to move around the island, but taxis are also well priced if you want to save some time (and enjoy some air conditioning). This was a great approach, but note that many stores are closed in the main afternoon.
Top on my list was the fabled “Silent City” of Mdina, so named in part because few cars are allowed inside -and seemingly every resident has signed some sort of silence contract, because it is dead. quiet. Most tourists find their way in via horse and buggy, so one of the most common noises is that of horses clip-clopping along the cobbles.
Entering from the main city gate, we commenced a general wander through the narrow streets, with no particular direction in mind. If the alleyway was cute and small, we went down it. It was exactly what I imagine Aaladin felt like walking through Agraba (pleeeaase get this reference!).
With sun-bleached sand stone walls offset by brightly colored shutters and doors, each building was completely photo-worthy and adorable.
We found ourselves to the “far side” of the city in very little time, as it turned out that Mdina is as small as it is charming. We walked around all there was to walk, paused at the city walls to take in the sweeping views, ate some fabulous gelato, and eventually found a court yard to enjoy Maltese wine as we waited for the sun to drop.
We were encouraged to visit Mdina to watch the sunset, so we had made a dinner reservation for after the sunset and chose to watch the sun go down on our own. As it turns out, the restaurant would have been the best place in the city to watch the sinking sun, as there are few points where you can look over the imposing city walls.
We found a spot outside the city to sit and enjoy the views, as the sky turned from brilliant blue to orange and finally deep purple. We took a stroll around the walls to watch the cities below this elevated town sparkle into life; needless to say, it was stunning.
We were even treated to more fireworks- as had been the theme for this festival filled weekend -and the grand finale was another full, red moon rising up out of the ocean.
And as if Mdina hadn’t been charming enough in the day, it stole my heart by night. The silent streets were dimly and warmly lit with lanterns peeking out behind flowering vines.
Finally, our dinner reservation came- and we were starving! (That earlier gelato didn’t last too long). We had a patio table reservation at the highly recommended Sharma, which offers three menus from three separate kitchens: Indian, Arabic and Maltese. The patio has live music under the stars to accompany the amazing smells wafting up from the kitchen. Starting with an amazing, creamy garlic dip was a great decision, and it only got better from there! Everything looked so amazing that it was hard to pick, but in the spirit of the city, I went for an Arabian dish. I had my eye on the baklava, but by the time the final course came around, I was too full to even try!
Needless to say, Sharma is a must visit in Mdina, Malta- and certainly try to get a table on the terrace!
All in all, I would say that an afternoon is plenty of time to explore the ancient city of Mdina, Malta at a very slow pace. Perhaps go one morning to catch the shops while they are open and then return in the evening with a table reservation at Sharma during sunset!
If Mdina was Malta’s silent city, Valletta is her funky sister. Malta’s capitol and largest city, Valletta sits in one of Malta’s naturally protected harbors- surrounded by forbidding fortress walls. (See my previous post for more on this island’s long history)
These walls are truly incredible- just the sheer scale is enough to impress, but after understanding the violent history of this coveted island, it is amazing that anything is still standing. There are some stretches of the wall that have small parks on top! Furthermore, you can even see some remaining WWII-era anti-aircraft structures mounted on top of the original walls, as well.
Again, we chose to visit Valletta for a late lunch and an afternoon of wandering. Arriving by ferry from Sliema, we climbed up into the city and found our way to the main city gate, designed by renown (and one of my favorite) architect Renzo Piano.
Piano created this entry gate and plaza seamlessly to be a modern adaptation of the immense scale of the old wall structures. You truly feel like an ant when standing in this space- and that you are entering into the gates of a great empire.
Please note the Jimmy climbing the stairs, for scale.
Right off of the wall-or rather on it- we bumped into a restaurant and watering hole that had ben recommended to us by the hotel, Rampila. Entering a non-descript building from the opposite side of the wall, you climb through a small cavern-like restaurant that opens into a patio in the walls.
Shaded by olive trees and umbrellas, this patio offers a great platform to watch all of the over-heated tourists process across the entry bridge to and from the city- all while sipping your crisp Maltese wine, of course.
Oh and maybe splitting an order of mussels and lobster ravioli.
We could have lingered in this place all day- and might have, if we hadn’t a whole city yet to explore!
So, let the wandering commence!
There is absolutely no shortage of incredible sights on the streets of Valletta: the old woman leaning from her window to enjoy a smoke as her laundry airs; the crumbling old buildings on every corner; the multi-colored bay windows!
I can offer no sound direction for you to wander. Valletta is a completely manageable size on foot in a few short hours, so take your time in exploring the side streets and stopping in shops and cafes for refreshers- this is the slow Maltese way!
One street that came highly recommended by our local skipper on the first night is Strait Street. You will inevitably find yourself here, but try to make it back there in the evening, after 7pm at least.
This narrow stretch is the former Red Light District of Malta, and you cannot help but wonder what it looked like then!
These days, it is the sure place to find a tasty refreshment to enjoy at one of the tables in the sidewalk. There are also a number of wine bars and excellent restaurants. In fact, we ended up back here at dinner time to enjoy what was one of our best meals of our whole trip!
There are a number of stunning churches to visit in this beautiful city, including the Carmelite Church, whose dome stands so prominently over the city. The original dome was destroyed when a bomb fell straight into the church in a WWII air raid, and has since been reconstructed. It is interesting because it is actually an oblong dome, which seems to be a rare find. The acoustics of the building are incredible, as we had the opportunity to witness while we were there. If you have the opportunity to hear a concert, do go.
Oh yes, that incredible meal I mentioned? I will have to close with that!
We walked-sweaty and rumpled from a day in the city- into the rather posh Palazzo Preca hoping they had space, and managed to grab the last available table by the door. Throughout the night, we watched other walk ins get turned away, and felt rather smug and satisfied with ourselves!
Despite the very elegant atmosphere (and being seated directly by the door) we were given excellent service the entire night. On top of that- everything was exceptional. Another mozzarella di buffola salad for me, and more fresh calamari for jimmy, followed by warm plates of fresh, incredible pasta.
I am salivating now, just thinking back on it. Pasta for dinner tonight, perhaps?
Jimmy reported his frutti di mare pasta to be fresh and flavorful- and then I didn’t hear much from him until it was devoured. Which was just as well, because I was just as distracted by my creamy truffle pasta with prime rib.
Once again, we were far too full for dessert, so we commenced out stroll back to the ferry docks, where we enjoyed (more) fireworks as we awaited a ferry to Sliema.
Fat and happy is always a great way to end a day of touring!