Europe

The Historic Three Cities of Malta – Taking in the Little Things

The remarkable Maltese city of Senglea was our home for almost two weeks during a recent trip to the small European island nation of Malta.   Senglea is one of the Three Cities of Malta –  three historic neighborhoods, located directly across Malta’s spectacular Grand Harbour from Valletta, Malta’s small capital city.  Malta as we know it today was founded by a group of homeless Knights seeking a base in the 16th century.  The Three Cities of Malta – Senglea, Vittoriosa, and Cospicua – were the first settlements of these Knights of St John.   Today these fortified cities are quiet mostly-residential neighborhoods, steeped in lots of history, providing a perfect spot from which to explore the rest of Malta. 

Mrs. TT and I are now traveling a little slower.  My retirement allows us the time to explore each place at a more relaxed pace.  We no longer need to rush from site to site, trying not to miss anything, before we have to hurry back to our regular work lives.  And I really like it!  I’ve always preferred to bask in the little things about each place we visit anyway.  Sure major sites are great.  But so is the day-to-day living that some tourists don’t even notice.

In this post, let me show you some of the little things we loved about Malta while staying in Senglea and The Three Cities.

A view of the Three Cities from the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta Malta
A View across the Grand Harbour to The Three Cities of Malta from Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens – Senglea on the right, Vittoriosa on the left, and Cospicua further up the middle

Riding The Water Taxis

Valletta sits on a narrow peninsula across the  harbor from The Three Cities. While a large commercial ferry provides transportation across the harbor every 30 minutes, smaller water taxis called dghajsa provide a more intimate harbor transportation experience. 

The front of a dghajsa boat in the Three Cities Malta

Whenever we would travel over to Valletta – which was almost daily – we exclusively used the dghajsa for the 5-10 minute ride.  We would wait at the designated drop off/pick up area located in the middle of the Senglea waterfront. Here we would either wait for one to pull up, dropping off riders from the Valletta side.  Or, if it was a slower time of day, actually hold out our arm and hail one passing by. 

Dghaajsa boats line up to transport passengers from Valletta to The Three Cities in Malta
Dghajsa line up to transport us from the Valletta side over to Senglea (pictured)

The boats carry no more than 6 people.  And if there wasn’t any one else waiting for a ride, the driver would transport just the two of us. This happened about half the time – our own private boat ride across what is certainly one of the great harbors of Europe. And only 2 Euros per person!!  I’m honestly not sure why anyone would take the commercial ferry. 

Riding a Dghajsa water taxi from the Three Cities to Valletta Malta
While on our first Dghajsa ride to Valletta

The ride itself was beautiful, but another of the great pleasures that we found in riding these water taxis was talking with the drivers.  Most speak great English and are very friendly if engaged.  Every single one we talked to was either a second or third generation boatsman.  All had been driving for 20+ years, and had been reared in The Three Cities, learning the craft from their fathers starting in their childhoods. And every one we asked still loved his job.  

We learned that the boats themselves are passed down from father to son.  One driver expressed regret that his oldest son didn’t seem interested in carrying on the family tradition into a fourth generation, but was hopeful that his second son would. 

In fact that same driver, Giovanni, pulled up a picture on his phone, after telling us his boat was over 160 years old! He showed us a photo of a newspaper clipping from the early 1970s.  It was the very boat in which we were riding, driven by his grandfather, transporting a young Prince Charles. 

A 160 year old Dghajsa tied up at the Senglea waterfront in the Three Cities Malta
Giovanni’s 160 year old Dghajsa

Living With The Locals

I always prefer to stay in vacation rentals when possible, especially now that we are traveling slower. Vacation rentals such as Airbnb are much less expensive than hotel rooms, and always offer significantly more space.  But equally important for me, is that these rentals are usually located off the typical tourist path.  This gives us the chance to better experience the local culture in each place we visit.

So, as with most of my travels, just simply observing and participating in local Maltese life was one of the highlights of our stay in The Three Cities of Malta.   Here are some examples:

Kenneth – The Corner Grocer

There isn’t a supermarket in Senglea.  Just a small grocery shop every few blocks or so, and a couple bakeries, and a few butchers.  We were lucky enough to have a corner grocery directly across the street from us called Ray’s Store.  And Ray’s Store was tended by a wonderful man named Kenneth who became our friend. 

Ray's Store in Senglea Malta
I didn’t think to take a picture of Ray’s Store until our last day in Senglea – a Sunday And it was closed. (Sometimes I forget I’m a travel blogger). You get the idea anyway…

The front part of the store was no more than 8×8 feet if that, lined with shelves.  This small store contained a vast selection of items crammed into its small space.  But there was only a few boxes or cans or bags of each item on display.   We quickly learned that the protocol for most desired items was to tell Kenneth which we wanted and then he would go get the item from the back.  Great use of small space

I love discovering local food favorites while traveling, and on this trip, it was easy.  Kenneth was our guide.  We simply asked him to guide us towards traditional snacks or breakfast items. Kenneth stood behind a refrigerated counter from which he selected local sheep’s cheese, and Malta’s favorite dip called Bigilla (made from broad beans).  He showed us which crackers and snacks and drinks were the most popular.  He pointed us towards his favorite local wine.

I often book a food tour when I travel so that I can learn these same things. And we did take a food tour in Valletta early during our stay.   But I learned just as much about the Maltese way of eating from Kenneth. 

We grew very accustomed to having essential groceries just a few steps from our apartment, and ended up stopping in every day for one thing or another.  I told Kenneth that it was going to be hard to go home and drive 10 minutes to the store.  He struggled to wrap his head around that sort of distance

The Fruit and Vegetable Truck

Kenneth didn’t sell fruit or vegetables at Ray’s Store.  Instead, these appeared on our second day in Malta… by truck.  

Every other day, a produce truck would drive along our street, parking every few blocks or so for about 10 minutes before moving on.  Once parked, the vendor would get out and yell his presence in Maltese, the sound of his voice echoing through the narrow streets.  In fact, we would hear him first from a street over.  

A fruit and vegetable truck and vendor in Senglea Malta

When he made his way over to our street, he would always park immediately below our rental.  Neighborhood residents would come out and buy their produce.  And we did too. 

Our Maltese Balcony

Once in Malta, you can’t help but notice the ubiquitous Maltese balcony.  These wood-enclosed balconies line the streets, stacked on top of each other along the side of each residential building. 

Traditional Maltese balconies in Senglea Malta
Maltese Balconies line one of Senglea’s main streets

I had seen several photographs of the famed balconies prior to arrival, and wondered – why an enclosed balcony?  I’m only accustomed to open balconies. And open balconies in Europe can especially be charming.  I figured that an enclosed balcony would be pointless.  Just a small room.  

But I was wrong.  Our great Senglea Airbnb named Dar Isla came with a traditional Maltese balcony.  And we spent lots of time sitting at the small table inside. 

Inside a traditional Maltese balcony

A great place for a plate of food.  A great place for a laptop computer.  Since it extends the apartment out in to the street and features a row of windows all the way around, it truly feels like you are sitting out in the street.  But protected from the elements.  If it’s a little cold in the morning, no problem.  If it’s raining, no problem.  

The balconies of Dar Isla vacation rental in Senglea Malta
Our Dar Isla Balcony – the white one in the center of the photo. We also did in fact, have a small open air balcony where we could step out and take in all the little things of the neighborhood.

I learned that Maltese balconies aren’t just photogenic.  They are also a great place to hang out. 

The Thorough Tripper enjoying a glass of Maltese wine inside a traditional Maltese Balcony in The Three Cities of Malta

The Dangling Basket

And from our Maltese balcony, we noticed a regular ritual taking place in the neighborhood.  

Across the street, an elderly woman would poke her head out of her window at least once a day and drop a basket from her own 3rd floor balcony with a rope.  She would let the basket dangle in mid air until someone walked underneath.  Then she would quickly drop it to ground level and ask for help.  

Neighbors would then take the money she’d left at the basket’s bottom and walk across to Ray’s Store, grabbing the two or three requested items for her.  Once the kindly neighbor loaded the items into the basket along with her change, she would haul up her catch.  

Hours On A Stunning Waterfront

The Three Cities of Malta surround an inlet of the Grand Harbour.  Vittoriosa and Senglea each sit on parallel penisulas, with Cospicua at the base of the inlet in between.  A marina has been created in this inlet. Both Vittoriosa and Senglea boast a picturesque waterfront on either side of this Grand Harbour Marina – each waterfront looking over to the opposite city.  And nearby Valletta completes the stunning views. 

The Three Cities of Malta from Fort St Angelo
A view of The Three Cities of Malta surrounding the marina from Fort St Angelo (at the tip of Vittoriosa)
Boats lined up in the Grand Harbour Marina as seen from the Three Cities of Malta
From Senglea – Valletta is at the top left and Vittoriosa is at the top middle & right

Since our rental was in Senglea, the Senglea waterfront was our usual choice.  And we loved just hanging out there, basking in the waterfront atmosphere.

And spending hours here is easy to do. This is where almost all restaurants in Senglea are located  – each with multiple tables set up right on the water. A plate of seafood pasta, a glass of wine, boats coming and going, centuries-old buildings in every direction. Does it get any better?

A beautiful woman looks out across the Grand Harbour marina from the Senglea waterfront in Malta
The Beautiful Mrs. TT on the Senglea Waterfront
Seafood Pasta from Tal Barklor in Senglea Malta
Spaghetti with Mixed Seafood from one of our favorite Senglea Waterfront restaurants – Tal Barklor

Just Wandering the Streets 

I love to wander the local streets when I travel.  I think of it as urban hiking.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite parts of traveling.  It’s while wandering the back alleys and side streets that you’ll sometimes see magical snippets of real life. And always some great photo opportunities too.  

While wandering the Three Cities of Malta, I found an eclectic mix of 13th century Norman homes, 16th century forts and palaces, buildings rebuilt after extensive WW2 bombing, crumbling forgotten buildings, and buildings beautifully restored in recent years. 

I also found lots of colorful Maltese porches, lots of narrow streets, and lots of stairs (both Vittoriosa and Senglea are built on hilly land). All three cities are surrounded by 16th century fortified walls and each features large entry gates. 

And all of this is set along the beautiful surrounding Grand Harbour.

So easy to wander here…..

The Walled Entrance to Senglea Malta
The Walled Entrance to Senglea
A street in Senglea Malta with traditional Maltese porches
A Street in Senglea – it’s common to find statue of saints on the street corners throughout Malta
A staircase through the streets of Senglea
We climbed lots of stairs everyday in Senglea, up and down from the waterfront.
The entry gates for Vittoriosa. The Basilica in Senglea is seen in the distance
Vittoriosa Entry Gates (Senglea’s Basilica is seen on a hill in the distance across the marina)
Narrow streets and colorful Maltese balconies in Vittoriosa Malta
A Street in Vittoriosa
The narrow streets of Vittoriosa
More from Vittoriosa
Sunset over Malta's Grand Harbour from Senglea
Sunset over Valletta and the Grand Harbour from the edge of Senglea

Final Thoughts

Like all Mediterranean islands, Malta is steeped in history. Many different cultures have left their mark on Malta over the millennia. Consequently there is much to see. From 5000 year old Megalithic Temples, to Roman ruins, to beautiful Baroque cathedrals, to historic waterside forts, to walled Medieval cities.

And you can read more details about Traveling in Malta by clicking here.

But for me, it’s the little things about each place – like these experiences in The Three Cities of Malta – that always excite me the very most about travel.

I can’t wait to hang out and observe and wander at our next destination.

And if you would would like to read about another time that I discovered the beauty in the little things, then check out my blog post on Searching for the Best Alhambra Viewpoints in Granada Spain

Or my post about our week exploring our other Malta base – a former fishing village along the island’s southeast coast called Marsaskala

10 Comments

  • Peggy Zipperer

    Absolutely beautiful, Steven! You and Mrs. TT are really having the best time! The street shots of Vittoriosa are perfection. Can’t wait to continue following along on your travels.

  • Carolin

    The lady with her hanging basket was a cute story. I like the trust she’s having in her community and the support. Shows how important living in a city is without the anonymity aspect. Looking forward to reading your Granada post next !

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

  • Stefan

    Those dghajsa are the perfect means of transport. Shame Ellie & I missed out on those when we visited. It’s very cool how those trades and boats are handed down from generation to generation.

    How lucky you found Kenneth. A life without supermarkets sounds right up my alley. We did try sheep’s cheese but missed out on Bigilla. That dangling basked system is ingenious.

    Looking forward to your other posts about Malta.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Yes, a shame that you didn’t get a chance to ride on those. There is so much to see in Malta though so I guess it really all just depends on how much time you have to get it all in.

    • thethoroughtripper

      What was also cool about the hanging basket is that it never took long for someone to stop and help 🙂

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