Five days in Malta – wonderful, but not as effortlessly so as Lanzarote.
From Paris we headed off in search of the stuff dreams are made of on the little island* south of Siciliy. We explored our new neighborhood (Birgu) the first day, and then headed to the Playmobil Fun Park on the southeast end of the island (with a quick side trip to some nearby ruins) for our first full day of exploration. Over the next four days we managed most of the things on our combined wishlists: Popeye Village, Malta National Aquarium, Duck Village (and the amazing little nearly-abandoned island on which it exists – more on that later!), capital city Valletta, so-called silent city Mdina, neighboring Rabat (including catacombs!), and finally the Malta Falconry Center.
General thoughts on the experience
We’re not resort people, we** instead like to rent a house and explore. Malta has plenty of both options, though. We booked a house in Birgu, one of the oldest cities on the island, and it did not disappoint (except in regards to transportation).
Even that wasn’t terrible (especially after I realized that Maltese buses almost all have free wifi!), but if we’d picked a similarly historic lodging in nearby Valletta it would have been much easier to get around the island. Nearly all of the buses start or end in Valletta, and basing ourselves there would have eliminated the 30+ minute bus to/from Birgu every day, in addition to the actual 30 (or 50+) minute bus to our various destinations. I think we would have explored more had we been based nearer the bus-hub.
Regardless, it was a great trip and we all really liked Malta – with a few minor complaints*** 🙂
Sometimes called Vittoriosa, Birgu is one of the “three cities” across the harbor from the current capital, Valletta. With activity dating back to the Phoenicians, the city was fortified in the 1500s and was even briefly the capital of Malta.
The rich and extensive history is evident everywhere, from ancient Roman remnants to the wide, staired roadways (perfect for horses!). I preferred Birgu to most of the more famous medieval cities we visited – it felt more authentic, historical, and certainly less aware of its tourism potential.
We set up camp in the middle of the town at ‘D-House‘ – a beautiful property owned by the same folks who run the ‘D-Centre‘ cafe (awesome coffee!). Great communication, great house, great experience. Aside from the aforementioned bus annoyances, the lodging + location was perfect.
Playmobil Fun Park (and Tal Bakkari Ruins)
Sure, it’s a capitalistic hell-hole, but it was actually quite lovely!
Playmobil Fun Park Malta has a vast indoor and an even vaster outdoor playspace for the kids. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the contained spaces that are virtually guaranteed to entertain all the children for hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours).
Westley made some new friends (one of whom is a new pen pal!) and all the kids had a blast. When they got hot, they went inside to play with the thousands of playmobil toys. When they got tired of the more sedentary entertainment, they ran outside again and explored the truly wonderful playground (yes, I’m jealous).
There is also cafe with decent food (and coffee!), and (of course) a Playmobil shop you have to pass through in order to enter or exit the park (yes, we bought Playmobils. We mailed them home and was pleasantly surprised at how much cheaper that process is in Malta than it is in France).
In addition to providing a safe and engaging space for the kids, Playmobil Fun Park gives children an open and safe environment to explore and the opportunity to play with countless other kids from all over the world. It always amazes and inspires me to see how easily kids engage with their peers, regardless of cultural, racial, ethnic, class, or language barriers. When left on their own without the hovering interference of parents, kids really seem to do much better than adults in most situations.
Originally I had planned on making them hike over to the Blue Grotto after the Playmobil playground (epic fail – it took way longer getting there, and they spent way longer playing there, than anticipated), but we did manage to see some nearby ruins before catching our bus back to Birgu (via Valletta).
The Tal-Baqqari ruins (an easy walk from Playmobil land) are small but neat, and both of the kids seemed interested (Oberon really likes rocks, so I guess it’s not that much of a surprise).
We timed our leaving pretty well and only had to wait about 10 minutes for a bus to take us on the long journey back to Birgu.
Nothing screams tourist trap like a cartoon-branded destination, actors dressed as beloved characters, and faded movie memorabilia. But we are tourists and sometimes getting trapped is fun (looking at you, Wall Drug!)
We opted to take a Maltese-equivalent of Uber this day. It would have been 2 hours on the bus (if they and I were functioning perfectly) or 40 minutes by car; the 27 euro was worth it. We got a sort of early start and enjoyed a stress-free ride to the gorgeous little cove.****
Popeye Village was actually great fun (aside from several of the other tourists), though I do wish they allowed more climbing on/through the buildings. It’s not cheap, but not exorbitant either, and we spent several hours wandering around enjoying complimentary popcorn and playing in an EMPTY playground — my favorite kind (I get to play, too!)
The entrance fee included several “freebies”, but I wouldn’t bother with the complimentary photo again. It’s nothing special and the wait time for both getting the picture taken and (especially!) getting the actual photo printed out was awful. The little 4×6 snapshot is definitely not worth it.
Also, if I had a do-over I wouldn’t tell the kids about the hour of indoor playground access at the nearby restaurant. As far as I’m concerned, those pits of hell are really good for only one thing: giving me a chance to relax away from the children. But this one requires the parents be in the confining space with them (and the billion other screaming monsters)*^. Add to this 60 minutes of pure agony a gigantic toddler meltdown when we left (which caused us to miss the only bus that hour), and I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using that ‘perk’ on any future visits.
Malta National Aquarium
A nice little aquarium and not too pricey – which is good because it only took us about 40 minutes to see everything. (I made Wes go back and read everything in one of the rooms just to feel like we spent enough time at this somewhat out of the way destination).
Though small, it was nice, had plenty of jellyfish, and everyone had fun (and Wes learned a lot!). There’s also a playground outside that the kids loved, though at that point I was pretty other-kid’d out.
Duck Island was one of our top priorities. The little collection of houses started as a sanctuary for ducks amid the urban expansion of the island’s northern coast, and was so popular that geese, maltese chickens, guinea pigs, cats, and other animals soon found their way there, too. And surprisingly they don’t attack or try to eat each other! It’s small, but super cool and I strongly recommend it to anyone headed to Malta.
The nearby cafe was also surprisingly friendly/lovely/delicious. And, the best part, Duck Village is housed on Manoel Island – my absolute favorite place on all of Malta…
Manoel Island. Or, as I like to call it, the most perfect, beautiful, quiet, exciting, fun, glorious land in all of the archipelago!*^^
For a place I didn’t even know existed until looking up how to get to Duck Village, Manoel Island instantly became an all-time favorite Maltese destination. Located in between two pretty urban juts of land (Valletta and Sliema), Manoel Island is a deserted and natural wonderland, filled with magnificent ruins, beautiful fauna, and a rocky coastline sprinkled with tide pools.
And it was nearly empty of people – the perfect respite to an otherwise super-touristy agenda.
I could go on forever, but in summary we walked around the entire island, played on ruins and cove-front rocks, and relaxed in the sun.
Some of the buildings/areas explicitly stated “Do Not Enter”, but more often they expressed a much more legally ambiguous “Extreme Danger”. With the kids in tow I didn’t push the boundaries too much, but we still got to climb, crawl, and shimmy our way through some fences and ruins.
Valletta (and the Feast of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck)
We took the ferry over to Valletta to experience (from afar) some holiday fun. The Feast of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck is Malta’s largest holiday, and we happened to be there on 10 February to join the celebration in Valletta. (Crowds are rough with children so we mostly celebrated in a parallel-play kind of way — a block or two away from the mayhem).
It was really amazing to me how quiet and peaceful the streets of this medieval stronghold could be when one block over the biggest party of the year was raging on.
Valletta is a beautiful city and honestly it doesn’t feel overly ‘tourist’ – there are a lot of local-feeling shops and cafes, and many of the streets felt strictly residential. Near the bus hub edge of the city it is obviously busier, but one or two blocks into the peninsula and it is tranquil and filled with history.
Also, the post office is fantastic – much friendlier and more affordable than my regular 5th arr. post office in Paris 😉
Mdina & Rabat
Out of all the places we visited (on the whole trip, really, not just Malta), Mdina and Rabat were the most disappointing. Rabat was alright (though St. Paul’s Catacombs were a pretty big letdown), but Mdina was really nothing special — with the singular exception that it was the only place on the island where I could purchase a Maltese Falcon of my very own.*^^^
Known as the “silent city”, Mdina is a former capital of Malta. It is an old fortified inland city with a lot of cool detail and pretty nice views, but it was simultaneously not at all silent and incredibly stressful with a loud 3 year old. There were a lot of tourists (for the off-season), and a lot of pretty grumpy locals. And the famous Mdina cake shop, Fontanella, was incredibly overrated (nice views, mediocre cake). All in all, I much prefer Birgu (older, quieter, friendlier, and with just-as-good desserts!)
Nearby is Rabat – a little ‘city’ where cars are allowed and people seem generally happier.
We enjoyed this area a lot more, but it’s big claim to fame (aside from bordering Mdina) is its catacombs… the most famous of which was the second big letdown of the day.
Catacombs – Saint Paul’s and Saint Catald
Vast and impressive, to be sure, Saint Paul’s Catacombs are a set of ~25 catacombs sprawled throughout an acre or so of land. Most with separate entrances, some are more impressive than others – but none are what I was expecting when I hear the word “catacomb“. I think the individual entrances to each is what really spoiled the experience for me – archeologically I get it and respect the design! But from a visitor perspective everything was too cordoned off and the constant popping back up into fresh air really diminished the effect.
Luckily, though, St Catald’s church and small catacombs were around the corner. Free entrance, this was much more catacomb-y than St. Paul’s (still no bones), and the church was run by the nicest nun I’ve ever met. It’s a lovely little space with excellent little catacombs, and I personally would suggest skipping Paul’s and heading straight for St. Catald.
Malta Falconry Center
The Malta Falconry Center is one of the absolute coolest places we have ever been. A nonprofit started by a woman who just wanted to help bring some of the native birds back to Malta, the Falconry Center largely consists of a breeding program to carefully introduce wild falcons (and other birds) back into the ecosystem, but also has a large educational component and partners with schools and local organizations to make sure the next generation understands why their work is important. They even do actual falconry training!
The owner and her daughter were the only staff we saw while there, both exceptionally nice and helpful. However, they need some serious help with their design choices…
In addition to all of the big activities, we enjoyed our everyday life in Birgu.
- My super-picky-eater 9 year old decided that he wanted to try one of the Maltese staples: rabbit.
- While he was eating, we had another fantastic experience: the staff was super friendly and Obi kept the waiter busy while Wes chomped down on Thumper. — I feel like this was representative of our whole experience in Malta — people were generally gregarious and kind, and just existing in this supportive and friendly place encouraged Westley to try new things.
- Find the Door – we saw a few of these signs near our house early on. Challenge accepted! Turns out, that’s the name of a shop/collaborative artist community. It was really great! Lovely items (in both form and function) and great that the artists all take turns manning the store so you get to speak to one of the creators no matter when you go.
- Malta airport? Super easy and fast and I wish we’d gotten there 45 minutes before departure 😉 Of course, if we’d done that there would have been lines – but for real, we sat around for almost the entire two hours.
- Almost everyone speaks english, but they get a kick out of it when the kids say bonsoir, grazzi, and ciao.
- Excited to go back and explore more of the nooks and crannies of the island — and the other, smaller islands. I may need to get over my fear of left-hand-side driving to do that, though.