Written by Juan Dingli
Heavily contrasting with the Silent City from the last edition of Island Explorer, Sliema is everything but silent. A seaside peninsula located on the left side of Valletta, separated only by the also spectacular Marsamxett Harbour, Sliema is a constantly evolving cosmopolitan city. Dynamic and alive, the city that rarely sleeps. Home to a whopping 17,000 inhabitants which are split between foreign expats and proud Maltese locals that are rooted and even proud of their Sliema upbringing. Tourists also become temporary residents of Sliema during the warmer days due to its central location and easily accessible amenities. It is very safe to say that Sliema hosts the highest number of tourists annually, closely matched by Bugibba.
Sliema can be divided into different zones, the most popular ones being; the Three Trees area, Balluta, Exiles, Ghar id-Dud (pronounced Are- id- dUd) or Chalet, Qui-Si-Sana, Tigne, Ferries and the Strand. The sea facing parts of Sliema are populated mainly by luxurious hotels, restaurants and deluxe, modern apartments and the occasional garden, whilst the inner core of Sliema consists of town houses and slowly disappearing gems of architecture from Malta’s past. Sliema wasn’t always like this though, the original concept of this 1.3km2 city was far from the hectic, fast paced reality that is today. Originally, this rocky outcrop only consisted of a couple of coastal towers built during the time of the Knights of St John. One important incident that happened at this time was during the Great Siege when the Ottoman general Dragut was based in the Sliema area whilst his army besieged the fort of St Elmo across the harbour. It was here in Sliema where Dragut met his fate by canon fire, though it is highly debated if it was actually friendly fire from the Turks themselves. After the Great Siege, specifically during the 18th Century, Fort Tigne was constructed at the far end of the peninsula to aid Fort St Elmo in protecting the entrance to the harbour. It is good to mention that Fort Tigne was also the last fort to be built by the order of St John. During the British rule of Malta many other forts and batteries where built running the whole length of the eastern side of the island.
The civilian side of Sliema was quieter than it is now. Having started out as a quaint fishing village, Sliema was sought after by the British in the 19th and 20th Century as a seaside retreat village. In fact, the word Sliema comes from the Maltese/Arabic word for peace. The quiet village only consisted of colonial style houses, all of the same level and various entertainment venues such as the now demolished Chalet restaurant and dance hall located in the Ghar id-Dud area. After the British left the island, Sliema started changing, with some batteries or forts being taken up as restaurants, others left to crumble till this day and others demolished. Houses started dropping like flies and flats sprung up from the ashes. Sliema started taking on a touristic persona which is still booming today. I have personally seen Sliema change a lot and it is still changing in front of our very eyes.
Sliema has a lot to offer if you like the fast paced feel of the town, even being a melting pot of different cultures, cuisines and people. Hundreds of people flock to the many shops and mega shopping malls scattered around Sliema on a daily basis. These retails outlets only sell clothes of the latest fashion and high end brands are sure to be found in the shopping malls. After any retail crawl, the various coffee shops and bars that dot the town are a welcome sight for any shopper. Restaurants are also aplenty, being packed from noon to evening by the hungry masses of shoppers, day trippers and tourists. If it’s a quick kebab or a local pastizz, Sliema has it all. It is recommended that one books a table beforehand if you expect to eat at one of the finer restaurants in the evening, especially in summer and during the weekends. Sliema also makes for a great romantic evening out. Eating at a posh restaurant with the view of Valletta followed by a pleasant stroll on the long stretch of promenade is always a magical experience. The nightlife Sliema has to offer is alluring, attracting anything from expats, foreigners, youth and even the middle aged locals. Many interesting bars and pubs line the entire promenade of Sliema, many competing for the best prices, music and service, ideal for a pub crawl.
Being part of the harbour area, hundreds of ships are moored around the coast of Sliema ranging from small fishing boats to yachts, ferries to Comino and Gozo, or even harbour cruises can be boarded from here. Be sure to show up early to ensure you manage to find a good seat and hopefully a good deal as well. Along the water’s edge, fishermen are a common sight in the evening. They can be seen casting their reels hoping for a good catch, onlookers sometimes form a small audience waiting to share the enthusiasm and the joy of a catch. A good pause from all the walking. As you can imagine, this locality also makes for an ideal swimming area with various swimming zones being denoted in the Chalet, Balluta and Exiles area. Swimming in Sliema is also favoured due to the town being quite central and the rocky beaches just across the road from the hotels. Small sandy beaches can also be found in Sliema close to Independence Garden if you prefer something less rocky.
An interesting annual event worth attending is the famed Sliema Arts Festival which takes place on three days during summer. This event sees the whole stretch of promenade from the Exiles area all the way to the Font Għadir (A- diyr) beach being transformed into a playground for artists, local music bands and various stalls selling homemade wares and organic food. Artists can also be seen painting live, be it oil paints on a small canvas or billboard size graffiti pieces. Art work on benches, telephone boxes and the pavement itself survives for months after the event finishes, only to be retouched during the same event the following year. Sadly, this event was cancelled this year due to some complaints from the residents. It is understandable that this event further aggravates the parking situation, noise levels and the general waste that is generated during these three days, despite the organizers’ best efforts to remedy all of this. Hopefully a compromise can be reached for next year’s event.
Sliema is alive and dynamic, with the constant sight of cranes bearing testament to this. The contrast of old and new is so striking, yet somehow it all blends perfectly. Do not be dissuaded by the fast paced motion of this city as there is much to do and good food to be enjoyed. Just remember to stop and observe once in a while, you might miss the vibe that makes Sliema such a seductive venture.