As you approach Valletta, the capital of Malta, and enter into the protected harbor, it feels as though modern civilization has disappeared. You’ll see its golden cityscape appear on the horizon, crowned by the imposing dome of Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, along with limestone battlements, crenellated castles and hillside structures.
Malta is the largest in a group of seven islands that occupy a strategic position between Europe and Africa. The island’s history is long and turbulent. Everyone from the Normans to the Nazis have vied for control of this small, honey-colored rock. 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. Founded in 1566, Valletta’s bustling streets are lined with superb Baroque buildings and churches.
Malta was ruled by 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. Malta became a British protectorate in 1800 and a part of the British Empire in 1814. The influence of all of these cultures is evident in Malta, with the Roman period seemingly taking precedence.
When entering Valletta Harbor, you will see 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. Explore St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a lavishly adorned Baroque sanctuary that reflects the former wealth of the Knights of Malta. Walk through the Grand Master’s Palace, where you can see weapons and armor from the age of chivalry at the Palace Armory. 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. Take in ocean views from the Grand Harbor, a seaside fortress dating back to 1530.
The disabled cruiser visiting Valletta, Malta on the whole will find Malta is quite well geared up for disabled tourism. The pavement, however, is still a huge difficulty. They are not easy to negotiate in a wheelchair because they undulate, are uneven, narrow and often obstructed. There are few dropped pavements and sometimes, there’s only a ridge of concrete against the curb to form a crude ramp.
Malta is hilly in some places especially Valletta, but if you enter through main gates its down-hill, to come back up walk around the water front to the Barrakka lift and ride it back up. Shops in Malta were sometimes inaccessible due to steps; even if there is a ramp, you have to ask the shopkeeper to get the ramp out; which you cannot do if you are alone in a wheelchair; and also the ramps can be very steep.
The main tourist attractions are usually good for wheelchair access with special entrances and exits, ramps and toilets for the disabled. The Maltese people are friendly and eager to help the disabled cruiser.
Where You’re Docked
The cruise port is located within the Grand Harbour, which is a natural deep-water harbor waterway. Cruise ships dock in Valletta, about a half-mile below the main shopping street of the city at the Pinto Wharf, which is a 15-min walk from city center.
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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
On Foot: Walking/rolling 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 is 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. Pay careful attention to return timetables so you don’t miss your ship’s departure time.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the euro. 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.
If you’re looking for postcards, keychains and other trinkets, check out the gift shop of the Malta Experience. For a more eclectic shopping experience, take a stroll down the city’s Republic Street, where vendors sell artisanal Maltese items like blown glass, filigree jewelry and pottery. 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.
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).
Malta’s culinary heritage is as eclectic as the rest of its history, with a mix of North African and European influences. Head to Valletta’s port area to dine at one of the many seafood-focused restaurants for dishes like pixxispad, swordfrish fried in olive oil with lemon. Or seek out heartier fare like stuffat tal-fenek, a rabbit stew, or bragioli — thin slices of beef stuffed with bacon, egg and breadcrumbs and slowly cooked in red wine sauce.
Points of Interest
- Valletta – Malta’s capital and a World Heritage site is an eclectic blend of Baroque architecture, the majestic St. John’s Co-Cathedral, quaint cafes and wine bars.
- The Great Siege of Malta and the Knights of St. John – An interactive experience 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 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 lasts about 45 minutes and is located on Republic Street in the middle of Valletta.
- 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. The lift to the harbor and the cruise ship dock is located there, too.
- St. John’s Cathedral – 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.
- Palace of the Grand Masters – The former residence of the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John is today home to the Parliament of Malta. 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.
- 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, 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. 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. Rabat is a village just outside Mdina. It is home to the famous Catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha.
- 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. The bus ride takes 30 minutes; plan on two hours in the village.
Valletta Accessible Excursions
Valletta is the picturesque capital of the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Valletta is an excellent place to stop during your accessible European cruise. Accessible Valletta cruise excursions are available with wheelchair accessible transportation. The surrounding villages of Mdina, Marsaxlokk, and Tarxien can also be visited by accessible van from Valletta. Valletta accessible guided tours with proven, step-free routes and officially certified, English speaking guides who are familiar with the needs of disabled travelers.