What's so grand about Malta's Grand Harbour? You'll be surprised just how many treasures lie within one of the Mediterranean's most impressive natural harbours.
The Grand Harbour of Malta
Known as Il-Port il-Kbir in Maltese, the Grand Harbour of Malta is one of the largest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. It is separated from another natural harbour, Marsamxett, by the Sceberras Peninsula on which the capital city of Valletta was built. The port has been used extensively throughout history and thus contains several forts, wharves and docks, giving it a unique character and beauty, and making it one of Malta's most interesting sights to visit.
The layout and water depth of the Grand Harbour have made it a perfect sheltered port for ships of all sizes. What was previously the Malta Dockyard offering shipbuilding services today offers oil rig services. Enormous cruise liners can often be seen entering and leaving the harbour, as well as several pleasure boats that are berthed at the Grand Harbour Marina in Birgu.
The Three Cities: Birgu, Bormla & Isla
The Three Cities are Birgu (Vittoriosa), Bormla (Cospicua) and Isla (Senglea). The oldest of the Three Cities is Birgu, which has its beginnings as a settlement from the Middle Ages. When the Order of the Knights of St John arrived in Malta, the seafarers found Mdina unsuitable as their capital and headquarters, and went on to occupy Birgu (il-borgo - the city outside the castle), fortifying the castle and founding Senglea and Cospicua in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Forts around the Grand Harbour
The Knights of the Order of St John and the British built several forts and batteries around the Grand Harbour. In Kalkara, Fort Rinella (1886) contains one of two surviving Armstrong 100-ton guns; Fort Ricasoli (1698) is the largest bastioned fort in Malta; and Fort Saint Rocco is a polygonal battery-cum-fort from the late 1800s. In Birgu, Fort Saint Angelo (1560) is a bastioned fort that served as the Order's headquarters and is best known for its pivotal role during the Great Siege of 1565. Also of great importance during that time was Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, a star-fort commanding the entrance to both harbours. Fort Saint Michael previously stood by Isla, but only part of its base still remains. Some of these forts are open to the public.
The Valletta Waterfront
The Valletta Waterfront is what happened when Pinto Wharf was given a new life as a series of attractive bars and restaurants overlooking the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. It is an impressive first landing for tourists aboard cruise liners, and a popular upmarket hangout for locals.
Take a picture
The best place to gain an extensive view of the Grand Harbour and all its details is the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Perched on Valletta's own fortifications, the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer fantastic photo opportunities, both of the spectacular view and of the pretty garden itself, created by the British.
The saluting battery
Get to the Upper Barrakka Gardens at noon to experience the massive bang of cannon shots reminiscent of bygone times. The saluting battery is a daily reenactment that honours this most important location in the history of the Maltese Islands.
Cross the water
Following a bird's eye view from the Upper Barrakka, get up close and personal. Take the glass lift down to the jetty and catch a ferry across to Birgu or one of the leisurely boat rides on offer. Alternatively, take a two-harbour cruise from the Sliema jetty in Marsamxett Harbour, on the opposite side of the Valletta Peninsula, to see both harbours on a single boat trip.
Furthermore, keep your eyes open for special events happening in the Grand Harbour, such as the National Regatta, the International Fireworks Festival or the Jazz Festival to experience history, tradition and the contemporary all at once. If you're not around for any of these events, worry not, as the Grand Harbour itself is no less impressive, and will amaze you no matter what.