Christmas holiday in Malta
The Christmas holiday in Malta began with the discovery of a budget-friendly Ryanair flight ticket, priced at just one hundred euros. Upon sharing my travel plans, I encountered skepticism from others who questioned the appeal of spending a week in Malta, even referring to it as an obscure place. Nevertheless, I reasoned that with such an affordable plane ticket and a reasonably priced four-star hotel room at one hundred euros per night, including breakfast, it seemed like a great deal to me.
To those who inquired about my plans for a week-long stay in Malta, I asserted that even such a duration would hardly be sufficient to fully explore the wonders of this enchanting island. Historically, it was ruled by the Knights of St. John, hailing from Europe’s wealthiest families, during the 16th to 18th centuries. Everywhere you look, there are impressive citadels, palaces, fortresses, and churches, bearing witness to Malta’s rich and captivating history.
In contrast to other European cities that boast individual Old Town districts, the capital city of Malta, Valletta, stands out as an entire Old Town, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our journey commenced with a stay at the bustling WATERFRONT hotel, which was brimming with guests for good reason. I would highly recommend reserving a room in advance, ideally with a balcony that offers a scenic view of the sea. We specifically chose this hotel due to its indoor pool located on the tenth floor, anticipating that it would provide refuge on stormy days. However, to our delight, we only visited the pool area once, as our days in Malta were predominantly filled with sunshine and pleasant weather.
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Following that, we proceeded with our journey by taking a ferry to Valletta, which cost one euro and fifty cents per person for a short fifteen-minute voyage. It’s important to note that the ferry schedules differ depending on the day and the occurrence of holiday evenings.
Christmas Fair in Malta
At the entrance to the city, a festive FAIRYLAND fair was arranged to celebrate Christmas and New Year.
It featured various attractions such as a carousel, a Ferris wheel, and other amusement facilities. The square was adorned with dazzling statues, creating a captivating sight around the magnificent Triton fountain statue. This enchanting setup offered ample opportunities for three delighted young girls to take countless photos and revel in the joyful ambiance. Additionally, an impressive Jewish menorah, shining brightly, was positioned near the parliament building, alongside a glistening fir tree, adding to the overall sparkle and festive spirit of the scene.
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On the second day of our trip, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the hotel’s outdoor pool remains accessible and heated even in December. Even if you are not a guest at the hotel, you can still enjoy the pool by paying a fee as an external visitor, ranging between 10 to 15 euros per day. To locate the pool, simply search for “AQUALUNA” on Google Maps, and it will guide you to the correct destination.
Around midday, we utilized the ECAB taxi service to reach the Upper Baraka Gardens for a leisurely stroll. Similar to UBBER, the ECAB app is widely used locally and offers the convenience of booking vans capable of accommodating up to eight individuals. The fares for our various journeys typically ranged from 4 to 10 euros. To ensure a smooth experience, I recommend downloading the app on a phone that will be accessible throughout your trip, with a connected payment method. This approach can save considerable time and money compared to traditional taxi services.
Upper Baraka Gardens in Malta
The Upper Baraka Gardens are a delightful and shaded attraction, offering magnificent vistas of a vast harbor adorned with cruise ships, yachts, and traditional gondola boats. From this vantage point, you can also enjoy a panoramic view of the three cities of Birgo, La Isla, and Bormela.
To reach the gardens, a leisurely walk from the city gate through the grand staircase beside the modern parliament building will lead you there easily. Alternatively, we arranged an ECAB taxi to take us directly to The Barrakka Lift, a sizable elevator that provides seamless access to the beautiful gardens.
While the gardens may not boast an array of flowers, they make up for it with awe-inspiring scenery and a display of cannons that once defended Malta during times of war. For those interested in witnessing a cannon firing, this spectacle occurs daily at 12 noon and 4:00 p.m., excluding Sundays and holidays.
Tourist bus in Malta
On the third day, we opted to explore the southern route of the HOP ON HOP OFF tourist bus in Malta. This popular tourist bus service offers the flexibility to choose between the southern or northern routes.
If, like me, you visit during the warm winter months, it is crucial to keep an eye on the weather conditions and the operating status of the stops where you plan to disembark. It can be a bit challenging to determine which attractions are open or closed, as the Maltese people possess a relaxed Mediterranean British demeanor that may not readily provide detailed information or updates. However, their inviting nature encourages visitors to seek assistance if needed.
You have the option to purchase the bus ticket online or at various sales points located along the boardwalk and within the city. Additionally, it’s worth noting that children under 5 years old can enjoy the bus tour free of charge.
Knights of the Order of St. John in Malta
Our first stop was at The Knights Hospitallers, a wax museum that showcases the historical hospital for knights. We chose to visit this museum because we had heard about an augmented reality (AR) experience, although it turned out to be closed during our visit. Nonetheless, the wax museum itself, portraying the medical treatments of the knights, was open. However, it proved to be quite eerie, as the children later jokingly thanked us for the nightmares it caused.
Adjacent to The Knights Hospitallers is the War Museum, which I recommend exploring separately, especially without children. History enthusiasts can easily spend several hours there, as the history of Malta during the Second World War is exceptionally captivating. Due to its strategic geographical location, Malta became a significant target for occupation. Those interested in the genre can also extend their visit to the underground tunnels where residents sought shelter during the bombardment. These underground tunnels are an intriguing part of Valletta’s history.
The Blue Cave in Malta
Our next destination was The Blue Grotto, an attraction comprised of six natural caves. The bus conveniently stops near a local kiosk at this location, making it a perfect spot to grab some chips. Interestingly, Malta is the only place where the tourist bus’s first stop is so commendable. Take my advice and make a quick stop there for chips, and feel free to come back to thank me in the comments.
A short walk downhill from the bus stop will lead you to fishing boats available for rent. These boats offer a delightful 20-minute journey into the caves. Here’s a tip: if you take the tourist bus in the morning, head straight to The Blue Grotto as your first stop. This way, you’ll have ample time to witness the stunning transformation of the water, turning blue and crystal clear when illuminated by sunlight at the perfect angle. After that, you can continue your journey to the other stops, as the bus operates in a circular route.
Ancient temples in Malta
Our third stop was at the HAGAR QIM temples, remarkable ancient structures situated on an expansive plain close to the beach. These temples are safeguarded by an awe-inspiring architectural dome. Dedicated to the worship of the goddess of fertility, they have garnered considerable attention, with extensive programs on the History Channel and Netflix exploring the intriguing question of whether they were created by extraterrestrial beings.
The bus also includes a stop at the Hypogeum, an ancient burial temple that dates back 6000 years. It is worth noting that only ten people are allowed entry per hour, so it is crucial to secure entrance tickets several months in advance if visiting this temple is a priority for you.
The entire journey is a splendid experience, but it is important to dress appropriately. Even when the sun is warm outside during the winter months, the second floor of the bus can be chilly.
Additionally, the bus makes a stop at the charming fishing village of Marsaxlokk. However, we decided to skip this particular stop, considering that our children would likely not allow us to enjoy a meal at a quality fishing restaurant anyway.
A trip to the island of Gozo with children
On the fourth day of our trip, we had planned to visit Gozo Island. To reach the island, there are two options: a 25-minute ferry ride from Ċirkewwa, which is the northernmost point in Malta, or a 45-minute fast ferry ride from Valletta. However, it is important to pay close attention to the ferry schedules, especially during the winter months when they have limited operating hours and early departures. Unfortunately, we missed the desired ferry schedule, so we decided to board the marine HOP ON HOP OFF boat to the delight of our children.
Once we arrived in Gozo, our initial plan was to use taxis to travel between different points on the island. However, the children once again expressed their preference for the tourist bus. Moreover, we discovered that the prices for both the tourist bus and taxis were quite similar, especially when traveling with a larger group of people.
Our first destination in Gozo was the cathedral located at the heart of Victoria, the capital city. Initially, we had planned to spend an hour there, but the citadel proved to be so vast and stunningly beautiful that our stop was extended. Within the citadel, there are four museums that are open to the public. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the labyrinthine streets of the citadel, which felt like an ancient city in its own right.
For our second stop, we visited the Ġgantija temples, which the girls amusingly described as having the same stone structures as the temples we had visited the previous day. These temples are renowned for their enormous stone dimensions, which led locals to believe they were the work of giants. I highly recommend stopping at least one temple in Malta as they are truly remarkable. However, from the perspective of the second temple, they may appear quite similar in appearance.
For our last stop, we visited Ramla Beach, a highly acclaimed beach destination praised across various online platforms, and I must say, the positive reviews are accurate, especially during the hot summer months when the restaurants are open. However, during our visit, the restaurants were closed, but we made the best of it by indulging in ice cream and beer from the ice cream bus while we patiently waited for the next tourist bus.
While many stops are listed on tourist buses, it’s essential to consider the practicality of the hourly bus schedule and the time spent on food stops. In reality, only 3-4 stops are sufficient for a relaxing day trip, especially when traveling with children.
Aquarium and antique car museum in Malta
On the fifth day of our trip, we decided to visit the aquarium, although we didn’t have high expectations as we had read online that it was small yet beautiful. To our surprise, we found that the local public transportation was incredibly convenient, costing only 2 euros per person, with a stop located just a ten-minute walk away from the aquarium.
The aquarium itself is housed inside a historic submarine, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. It is a relatively small aquarium, but it offers a unique and charming experience. As you enter, you’ll also find a spacious and impressive restaurant. Adjacent to the aquarium, there is an amusement park with a large marine-themed design that provides breathtaking views of the sea. In addition to the successful restaurant within the aquarium, there is a café located near the amusement park.
What made our visit even more memorable was the Christmas display on the second floor. It featured a beautifully decorated VR wooden cabin for the fish, a cabin for Santa Claus, and various holiday decorations. This delightful addition extended our stay and brought us extra joy.
After visiting the aquarium, we took a leisurely ten-minute walk to reach the antique car museum. This remarkable museum was founded by a dedicated car enthusiast, Sr. Carol Galea, who has curated an impressive collection spanning two floors. The museum showcases a wide array of antique cars, ranging from iconic models like the Jaguar E Type to a charming 1972 Fiat 500F. Each car has been meticulously restored and preserved by Sr. Carol Galea himself.
Interestingly, it was Yael Herzog, my travel companion and fellow adventurer, who discovered this hidden gem. Yael stumbled upon the museum through car collector groups on Facebook, and we both agreed that it was a must-visit attraction.
On the sixth day of our trip, we ventured to the enchanting village of Popeye. This village, which originated as a film set back in 1980, has now transformed into a popular tourist attraction. In the summer months, the beach area is bustling with inflatable structures, as depicted in the photos we had seen. However, during our visit in Christmas time, the village was adorned with festive decorations, including workers dressed as cheerful elves.
We were treated to various entertainment offerings, such as a captivating puppet show and a lively dance performance featuring beloved characters like Popeye, Olive, and the mischievous Brutus. Additionally, there were opportunities to take photographs with Santa Claus and his sleigh. One unique feature of the village was a mini-golf course that was situated within the setting of the village cemetery. This inclusion was inspired by the old movies, where a cemetery was also constructed within the village.
The village boasted numerous booths filled with historical artifacts, pictures, and comics related to Popeye. However, what truly stood out was the picturesque beauty of the village itself, complemented by the breathtaking view of the cliff on which it was perched.
We reached the village using an ECAB taxi, as the cost of the van trip made it more convenient than traveling by local buses. From the village, we decided to continue our journey towards Madina, also known as Mdina, by taking a local bus.
A tour of the old city of Medina
The ancient walled city of Mdina is a treasure trove of medieval and baroque architecture. While exploring this enchanting city, we had the opportunity to dine at the bustling TRATTORIA 1530 restaurant, situated within the city walls. Our dining experience there was pleasant, and the restaurant exuded a lively atmosphere.
To further immerse ourselves in the charm of Mdina and its neighboring town Rabat, we decided to take a memorable horse carriage ride. This delightful journey allowed us to meander through the streets, taking in the rich history and captivating sights. Our carriage driver also shared interesting tidbits, including the revelation that the first casino built by the British for gambling was located in the area.
St. John’s Cathedral and the firing cannons
On our seventh day, as it marked the final day of our trip, we decided to take it easy and savor the moments. We leisurely made our way to St. John’s Cathedral, situated in the vibrant center of Volta. This remarkable cathedral, constructed in 1577, caught our attention due to its historical significance.
Upon entering the cathedral, I was particularly intrigued as my travel partner, the talented artist, and illustrator Yael Herzog, possessed a profound knowledge of Caravaggio’s works. She eagerly guided me to the two rooms adorned with Caravaggio’s paintings, making this visit to St. John’s Cathedral a truly memorable experience. The artistic masterpieces added a touch of magnificence and beauty to an already remarkable church. I highly recommend visiting this exceptional place, as it is truly a sight to behold.
For lunch, we opted for a tourist restaurant located on the bustling main street. In contrast to my experiences in other parts of the world, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of restaurants and cafes situated near the tourist attractions. This was particularly advantageous, especially when traveling with children, as it alleviated the need for gourmet dining options.
What made these establishments even more appealing was the availability of children’s menus, offering simple yet satisfying options such as pasta, pizza, or schnitzels, typically priced at 6 euros. This convenience proved to be a great relief for our wallets, considering the fact that we often ordered more sophisticated dishes for our little ones, only to have them go to waste as they did not meet the discerning tastes of the average Israeli child.
We then proceeded to the MALTA 4D experience, a captivating ten-minute video presentation equipped with moving chairs, air currents, and 3D glasses. What made it even more exciting was the fact that they provided headphones with Hebrew language options, which left the children thoroughly satisfied.
After the movie, I decided to check Google Maps to locate the cannons. It turns out that for a small fee, you can witness the firing of the cannons up close. Alternatively, you can enjoy the spectacle for free from the balconies of the upper Baraka gardens, where we received detailed instructions from a Maltese officer on loading the cannons and handling gunpowder. We were treated to a close-up demonstration of the cannon fire, an undeniably impressive experience.
To conclude the evening, we decided to go ice skating before my return flight, utilizing the few hours we had left. It was truly delightful to glide on the ice around a beautifully lit fir tree. However, we found the number of people entering the skating rink to be quite large, and there were many locals who struggled to balance themselves while attempting to take selfies and skate. Nevertheless, we managed to strike a V pose for the picture and overall enjoyed the experience.
I had initially hoped for an extravagant dinner as a grand finale to a successful week. However, due to different plans and the presence of separate children, things didn’t work out as planned. Fortunately, I discovered a wonderful street food stall right beneath my hotel. As I sat on my balcony, I could see the lights of the boats glistening and shimmering on the water’s surface. At that moment, I realized that this simple pleasure brought me all the happiness in the world.
This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)