Ferry Services and the Barrakka Lift
No visit to Malta is complete without a day trip to Gozo. Whether you are on an organised tour or travelling under your own steam, you will find yourself on the ferry from Cirkewwa in Malta to Mgarr in Gozo. On a much smaller scale there are two local ferry services in the Valletta area, one to Sliema and one to the Three Cities. As well as providing useful transport links, they afford some great views en route. The Three Cities ferry can usefully be reached by means of the recently rebuilt Barrakka lift, so I have included that here too. Finally I have included the international catamaran service from Valletta over to Sicily.
The Gozo Ferry
Whether you are on a scheduled bus or a coach tour, you will arrive at the recently rebuilt ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, in the extreme north-west of Malta. There is no ticket office here, as you buy your return ticket when you get to Gozo. Simply enter the terminal and walk onto the ship, or more likely you will have to queue inside the long corridors (where unfortunately you can't see anything) until the ferry is ready for boarding. The service runs every 45 minutes and the crossing takes about half an hour.
The operator of the service is called Gozo Channel and they have three ships named Ta' Pinu, Gaudos, and Malita, delivered in 2000, 2001 and 2002 respectively. The main departures used by tourists are the 0815, 0900, 0945, 1030 and 1115 sailings from Cirkewwa, and the 1500, 1545, 1630, 1715 and 1800 sailings from Mgarr Harbour. These times are the same all year but after 1800 they can vary by season so if you plan to come back late you should check the timetable on the Gozo Channel website or at the ferry terminal.
On board the vessel there are drinks and refreshments available, and you can either stay inside or there is plenty of space on the open decks to enjoy the view. En route don't forget to look out for the island of Comino (on the right going towards Gozo). Arriving at Mgarr Harbour on Gozo you will find another modern ferry terminal. The ticket office is to the left of the exit doors and it's a good idea to buy your return ticket on arrival to use when you come back (you can leave it until you come back, but there is more likely to be a queue). The return fare is €4.65 and is valid on any ferry sailing; children aged 3 to 12 pay €1.15. Fares for vehicles and for Gozo and Malta residents can be found on the Gozo Channel website.
Turn right out of the terminal at Mgarr and immediately there is the bus stop for Victoria. Beyond that are the tour coaches and open top buses. On the way back you insert your ticket into the turnstiles to enter the waiting area of the ferry terminal. The doors from the waiting area will open as soon as arriving passengers have disembarked.
You may also spot one of the ships at Sa Maison near Pieta not far from Valletta - it runs a freight service to Gozo most days but you have to ring up for the schedule.
Needless to say the ferries can get quite crowded at busy times. My personal favourite trip was on the 0645 sailing from Cirkewwa in very choppy weather, when I was the only one on deck, having to hold onto the front rail to avoid falling over. Not a tourist in sight!
Valletta to Sliema Ferry
This long established ferry service, sometimes known as the Marsamxetto Ferry, runs from the harbour front at Sliema (known as Sliema Ferries or Sliema Strand) to the Marsamxett terminal in Valletta. It is operated by Valletta Ferry Services, whose splendid official title is The Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd. Sadly the days of steam have long gone but it does offer an interesting alternative to the bus service.
Departures from Sliema in Summer (June 1st to September 30th) are every 30 minutes 0700 to 2000 then 2040, 2300, 2345, 0015. Departures from Valletta are every 30 minutes 0715 to 2015, then 2200, 2330, 0000, 0045. On Sundays and public holidays the service starts two hours later (0900 from Sliema, 0915 from Valletta). The crossing takes about 10 to 12 minutes.
Departures from Sliema in Winter (October 1st to May 31st) are every 30 minutes 0700 to 1900 (0900 to 1800 on Sundays and public holidays). Departures from Valletta are every 30 minutes 0715 to 1915 (0915 to 1815 on Sundays and public holidays).
The fare is €1.50 single or €2.80 return (children €0.50 or €0.90) and there are special fares for residents and frequent travellers. Pay at the little ticket kiosk, or if it's unmanned pay on board the boat.
The Sliema terminal is easy to find right next to the main bus stops (the stop named Ferries 3 is adjacent to it) and it's also where the various harbour cruises leave from. The Valletta terminal is located less conveniently near the water polo pitch, at the foot of the Salvatore Bastion. From the ferry it is a steep climb up steps or along the road into the city, so it's not recommended if you are infirm.
The photo shows the ferry arriving at Valletta with Manoel Island behind and Sliema in the distance on the right.
Valletta to Three Cities Ferry
For years there was no scheduled ferry service from Valletta to the Three Cities, although water taxis do ply the route. Since 2011 this has been put right with a half-hourly service operated by Valletta Ferry Services, who also run the Sliema - Valletta service described above.
The Valletta terminal (known as the Lascaris ferry landing) is located adjacent to the Baroque Customs House, completed in 1775 and still apparently in use as a Customs House. More importantly, the ferry terminal is directly opposite the foot of the new (or reconstructed, if you like) Barrakka Lift, giving easy access from the city. See the next section for more about the lift.
Departures from Cospicua in Summer (June 1st to September 30th) are every 30 minutes 0700 to 1900 then 1945, 2035, 2120, 2300, 2330. Departures from Valletta are every 30 minutes 0715 to 1915, then 2000, 2050, 2200, 2315, 0000. On Sundays and public holidays the service starts two hours later (0900 from Cospicua, 0915 from Valletta). The crossing takes about 10 to 12 minutes and provides a short but very scenic journey.
Departures from Cospicua in Winter (October 1st to May 31st) are every 30 minutes 0700 to 1900 (0900 to 1800 on Sundays and public holidays). Departures from Valletta are every 30 minutes 0715 to 1915 (0915 to 1815 on Sundays and public holidays).
The fare is €1.50 single or €2.80 return (children €0.50 or €0.90) and there are special fares for residents and frequent travellers. Pay on board the boat.
In Bormla (also known as Cospicua, although that term can also refer to the whole Three Cities area) there is nothing to suggest a ferry terminal, other than a board placed each day alongside the berth, which is numbered 55. It is just beyond the marina, shortly before it narrows into the old Number One Dock, and roughly half-way between the bus stops named Bormla and Zejt. As well as being close to Bormla Square it's only a few minutes walk to Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa).
After leaving Bormla the ferry calls at Isla (also known as Senglea) on its way back to Valletta. Since I got off at Bormla I'm not able to exactly pinpoint the location of the Isla stop, but I think it's pretty much on the opposite side of the water from the Bormla stop, but a little further up towards the marina. The nearest bus stop is probably Bieb, the one outside the Isla city gates.
The Barrakka Lift - Gateway to the Three Cities Ferry
From 1905 until 1973 a lift took people from the Customs House and Marina up to the Upper Barrakka Gardens in the city of Valletta. It was dismantled in 1983. A brand new lift in the same spot opened in 2012, as shown in the centre of the photograph. The lift is 58 metres high and takes just 25 seconds. The photo also shows the Customs House (right) and the Upper Barrakka Gardens (top right), whilst the Lascaris ferry landing, served by the ferry over to the Three Cities (see above) is in the centre.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens are only a short walk from Valletta bus station, and practically adjacent to Kastilja (Castille), so the easiest way to reach the ferry is by way of the Gardens and the lift. It's free to go down the lift (at least it was when I visited), but to go up it costs €1, and tickets are available from machines. I think if you have come over on the ferry the lift is included in the fare.
The archway or tunnel leading from the bottom of the lift to the street comes out right opposite the ferry landing. In the tunnel look out for the old restored sign which says "Barrakka Lifts - the quickest way to the City", which survived the demolition of the original lift. You will sometimes see the alternative spelling Barracca, but I can't work out if one spelling is English and the other Maltese. Can anyone enlighten me?
The Upper Barrakka Gardens, by the way, are a delight in themselves, popular with tourists and locals alike, and with wonderful views of the Three Cities. They were built in 1661 as private gardens for the Italian Knights of the Order of St John and opened to the public in 1824. They are a must-see for any visitor to Valletta, even if you don't plan to use the lift. A long standing tradition is the firing of the Noon Day Gun, nowadays undertaken by members of the Malta Heritage Society.
Catamaran from Valletta to Sicily
If you have read the Excursions page of this website, you will know that I recently used the Virtu Ferries catamaran service as part of that company's tour to Mount Etna. Virtu Ferries is a Maltese company which has been operating the high-speed ferry service between Malta and Sicily since 1988. The ferry terminal is located in Marsa, close to the Hatab bus stop on local route 130.
The very impressive catamaran used on the route from Valletta to Pozzallo or Catania is called Jean de la Vallette, pictured here at Pozzallo. Built in 2010 and 107 metres long, it can carry 800 passengers and over 150 vehicles and is one of the largest catamarans in the world. Most sailings are to Pozzallo, in the very south of Sicily, with coach connections to Catania on selected sailings. In Summer there are direct sailings to Catania. Full details of the schedule and fares are on the Virtu Ferries website. The vessel travels at 39 knots and the scheduled time to Pozzallo is 90 minutes, or 3 hours to Catania.
The service does not operate daily, except in the height of the summer (July/August), but there are sailings generally on five days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays being the odd ones out), mostly with two return trips but sometimes only one. The morning sailing from Malta is normally at 0630, except on Saturdays when it leaves at 0500 (why so early?).
The most popular seats are inside by the windows, as you can imagine. There is a small outside deck, at the back, but ironically since it is frequented largely by smokers the air can be worse outside than in. Also, once underway, the view is largely obscured by the top of the stern doors, along with other equipment. It's not cold on the outside deck, though, due to warm air from the engine room being expelled through grills.