Sailing into Valletta, Malta, is akin to stepping into the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy; once you are in the protected harbor, it feels as though modern civilization has disappeared. Oh, you can see a car or two driving on the winding streets amid the limestone battlements, crenellated castles and hillside structures, but they seem terribly out of place and unexpected.
Never mind that Malta, which owns 7,000 years of intriguing history, is fully modernized and contemporary. What you see when entering Valletta Harbor are the formidable defensive stone battlements of forts pockmarked by war guarding the strategic waterway. Cream-colored buildings and ancient church steeples grow out of the twisting streets and hillsides. In the bay and channels, Malta's colorful luzzo boats, fishing craft resembling an elf's shoe, ply the waters in the wake of modern giant cruise ships and tankers.
Valletta was built by the Knights of St. John as a place to take care of wounded soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16th century. Its unique landscape and ancient buildings have appeared in films such as "Troy," "Gladiator," "Captain Phillips" and "World War Z." This tiny Mediterranean country is part of an archipelago of five islands, only three of which are inhabited. Cruise ships visit the island of Malta and the port of Valletta (designed by a colleague of Michelangelo).
Malta has been inhabited since 5000 B.C. and was colonized by the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C. Then, the islands went in turn to the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, who handed them over to the Knights of the Order of St. John in a "perpetual lease" in 1533; this lasted until Napoleon seized control in 1798. The Maltese did not like the French, however, and rebelled by seeking aid from Great Britain; Malta became a British protectorate in 1800 and a part of the British Empire in 1814. Later, it shook off the British, as well, and was granted independence in 1964. Since 1974, Malta is a republic under the British Commonwealth.
The influence of all of these cultures is evident in Malta, with the Roman period seemingly taking precedence.
The Valletta Waterfront pier area with its 19 historic 250-year-old warehouses makes this one of the nicest cruise ports in Europe. Filled with shops, restaurants and bars, the complex is also a destination for residents. On any given day, there might be a festival or musical performances like a jazz band conclave or classical recital. You can take your time reboarding while you relax at the Hard Rock Bar Malta, or pick up last-minute purchases at Mediterranean Ceramics, the Agenda Bookshop or a branch of Mdina Glass, one of Malta's top glass makers. There is an ATM in the center, as well.
The Great Siege of Malta and the Knights of St. John: Join this interactive experience for a historic tour of the history of Malta, the Knights of Malta and the Great Siege of Malta, which was considered one of the key events in Europe in the 16th century. At entry, you'll be handed a portable CD player; you can choose from 11 languages and take the tour at your own pace. During this audio-visual presentation, you will join a group of pilgrims in 12th-century Jaffa, travel to Jerusalem, get attacked by Bedouins, meet the Knights during the Crusades and travel with them to eventually end up in Malta. The tour costs about six euros, lasts about 45 minutes and is located on Republic Street in the middle of Valletta -- barely putting a dent in your shopping and walking time.
Upper Barrakka Gardens: Take time to explore the gardens located at the edge of the Valletta shopping and dining area. The bluff-side location offers an incredible vista over the harbor and across to the Three Cities on the other side. The gardens are peaceful and beautiful and offer shady respites from the Mediterranean summer heat. Plus, the garden area features free Wi-Fi. The lift to the harbor and the cruise ship dock is located there, too.
St. John's Co-Cathedral: The odd designation "co-cathedral" refers to a church that shares its Bishop's seat with another. In this case, the designation was not applicable until the early 1800s, when the Bishop of Malta, whose seat is actually at the cathedral in Mdina, was allowed to use St. John's as an alternative when visiting in Valletta. Located near the center of Valletta, the austere exterior of the building belies its lavish interior, one of the finest examples of Baroque design in the world. This was the church of the Knights; it houses exquisite artwork, including Caravaggio's masterpiece, "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist." Wheelchair access is available in most areas of the cathedral. (Open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturday; around six euros)
Palace of the Grand Masters: Get another overview of the storied Knights of Malta, an internationally known Catholic fraternity, by visiting this grand old palace in Valletta with artwork and "apartments" from the period of the Knights. Many displays depict the Great Siege, and a room is devoted to Gobelin tapestries. The basement floor houses the Armoury, one of the largest collections of ancient armor in the world, with more than 5,000 examples from the 16th century on. (Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday to Wednesday; 10 euros, includes visits to state apartments, armory and audio guide)
Republic Street: One of the main shopping streets in Valletta, it's fun to browse or just to sit and people-watch. Stop for a coffee, beer or a gelato in one of its leafy squares. Some of the cafes and stores offer free Wi-Fi.
Mdina: Ancient walled and moated Mdina, the "Silent City," is rich with history and architectural wonders. Take a bus out of Valletta to Mdina and its neighboring community of Rabat and wander through the medieval streets. It's a transforming experience because of its historical significance and because of the unique architecture and layout of the city. You can see the walls of the 10th-century "fortified belt" the Arabs constructed to isolate the city (at that time named Medina), and you can view the opulent homes and castles of the Maltese nobility who settled there during the time of the knights. You can also visit St. Paul's Cathedral, the Bishop's seat and center of religious life on Malta. It's a good idea to get a good guide book or tour guide or much of the historical significance and interest will be lost on first-time visitors. Cruise ships offer the tour as a shore excursion, but buses to Rabat and Mdina leave Valletta frequently, are reasonably priced and take about a half-hour to arrive.
Gozo: More placid and verdant than the island of Malta, Gozo is easily accessed by ferry, which takes approximately 30 minutes from Valletta Harbor. Check out the open-air flea marketat It-Tokk, the capital town of Victoria's main square. The Ggantija Temple, quite possibly the oldest manmade structure still standing in the world (built around 3600 B.C., more than a thousand years earlier than Stonehenge), is worth a visit.
Marsaxlokk: Take a bus to the quaint village of Marsaxlokk for a peaceful walk around the harbor and a terrific photo op of the colorful Maltese luzzo boats, with their curved prows and single eye painted on to safely guide fishermen. This is Malta's main fishing harbor; early in the morning, the streets are filled with open-air fish markets to showcase (and sell) the day's catch. If you don't like crowds, it's best to avoid the Sunday market. The bus ride takes 30 minutes; plan on two hours in the village.
Blue Grotto: A series of caves cut into rocks in the cliffs of Malta's breathtaking southwest coast, the Blue Grotto is accessible only via the sea. Visitors board six- to nine-passenger wooden motor boats for a 25-minute ride in and around the caves. There is no set schedule; the boats leave when filled. The grotto offers magnificent color. (Shades of the sea include beautiful blues and greens, and don't miss the fluorescent hues of more shallow waters around cave openings.) And, when your captain eases the boat inside a cavern and cuts off the engine, there's an eerie silence. The tallest of the arches rises some 140 feet; others, you can almost touch with an extended arm as your boat maneuvers through them. Plan to go early, around 9 a.m., to beat the busloads of tourists. It's located in the village of Wied iz-Zurrieq, about a 25-minute taxi ride from the cruise port. (Public buses are also available.) Most cruise lines offer boat rides among the caves as a shore excursion option from Malta's Valletta.
By Taxi or Horse-Drawn Carriage: These two methods are expensive, considering the short distance: about 10 euros to go up the hill in a taxi and about 50 euros to go on a horse and carriage ride (35 euros if you haggle a bit).
On Foot: Walking into town is good recreation for reasonably fit travelers but can be very difficult for anyone who is even minimally mobility-impaired, as it is a steep climb, and summer temperatures can be steamy. Additionally, it's a quarter-mile trek just to the port exit gate, and there are no benches along the way for resting.
By Lift: Perhaps the best way to get to the old city is via the Upper Barrakka lift (elevator) linking the harbor with the Upper city center, and it's a bargain at one euro for a roundtrip. The two lifts each carry up to 21 passengers at a time, which means they get a little backed up when cruise ship passengers are first allowed down the gangway. It's open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and it's best if you have a one euro coin ready, although there frequently is someone standing by to make change.
By Bus or Ferry: There are reasonably priced public buses that can take you to various spots on the island, including the ancient walled city of Mdina. There are also ferries that can take you to Gozo and Comino. The bus terminal area is just outside the upper town. (Ask a local or someone at the tourist information center if you can't find it.) Pay careful attention to return timetables so you don't miss your ship's departure time.
At the Port of Valletta, a picturesque string of cafes line the dock at Valletta's Grand Harbor; these range from the Hard Rock Bar Malta (which serves sandwiches) to Chinese and Italian. Lunching in Valletta can be casual and charming by sitting alfresco at one of the many outdoor cafes, or casual and cheap by purchasing Maltese pastizzi (flaky pastries filled with meats and peas sold at little kiosks).
Malata: To hang with Valetta's elite, try Malata. This "haute cuisine" dining spot in Valletta is more expensive than most restaurants but from all reports, it's worth it. This is where members of Maltese Parliament lunch. French and Mediterranean specialties include pasta, seafood and steak. (Palace Square; +356 21 233967; open noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Caffe Cordina: Malta's oldest and most celebrated outdoor cafe, Caffe Cordina, is located on the ground floor of the old treasury building. Most people dine outside, but if you choose to do that, take a moment to look at the inside of the restaurant, with its ornate murals and ceiling frescoes. (244 Republic Street; +356 21 234385; open 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday)
Xara Palace Hotel: A trip to Mdina wouldn't be complete without lunching in the grand restaurant at the 17th-century palazzo, now the Xara Palace Hotel. You can choose from its fine-dining restaurant or its trattoria for a more relaxed (and less expensive) experience -- perfect for families. (Misrah Il-Kunsil; +356 2145 0560 ; open for lunch and dinner ).
Fontanella Tea Garden: This attractive food complex offers wonderful views from the wall of the city along with regional wines, cold beer and tasty soups, salads, pizzas and sandwiches. (1 Bastion Street; +356 21 454264; open 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday to Saturday)
Ix-Xlukkajr: This place serves up gloriously prepared, reasonably priced and fresh seafood. The restaurant overlooks the harbor and the colorful luzzo boats. (44 Xatt Is Sajfieda in Village Square; +356 21 652109; open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Cruise ships dock in Valletta, about a half-mile below the main shopping street of the city at the Pinto Wharf.
While crime rates are low, visitors should exercise caution in crowds, at beaches and at night. Also, if you are considering renting a car, keep in mind that the Maltese drive on the left-hand side of the road. In addition, if your ship docks in Malta on a Sunday, many stores, restaurants and attractions will be closed -- some all day and some until noon.
Currency is the euro. Visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for conversion rates. U.S. dollars are not accepted in many establishments, but major credit cards are good in most shops and restaurants. Most hotels and major stores will accept payment in dollars and pounds, although conversion charges may be applied.
Several banks in Malta are open Monday through Saturday, and you'll find several well-placed ATMs on the main shopping road and in the Valletta Waterfront complex at the cruise ship terminal.
Both Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta, and English is widely spoken. Maltese traces its roots to Lebanese and includes Arabic and European influences.
Gozo glass crafts are made on the island of Gozo but sold in shops throughout Malta, these silky, swirly and opaque glass creations use centuries of artistic skills passed from one artisan to another. You can purchase small items like perfume bottles or larger blown-glass sculptures.
Handcrafted jewelry made of fine silver filigree is a Maltese tradition that dates to the time of the Knights and has been passed down through generations of goldsmiths and jewelers.