Grand Harbour Malta (Il-Port il-Kbir) is the single most important geographic feature of the country, and is the reason it has been a key Mediterranean crossroads for millennia. There are numerous excellent natural harbors in the country, including on both Gozo Island and on tiny Comino Island, even though the latter is only one square mile in area. But it is this largest harbor in Malta that has played a key role in Malta's and the world's history.
Grand Harbour history began as far back as the Phoenicians, who originated in the areas where Lebanon, Syria, and Israel exist today. The Phoenicians spread across the Mediterranean from about 1550 to 300 B.C. making port in Malta during that time. But is seems clear that ancient mariners made their way here long before that, as evidenced by the numerous megalithic temples found on the islands of Gozo and Malta. These mysterious temples were built between about 3000 and 2600 B.C. probably by mariners from nearby Sicily who undoubtedly sailed into Grand Harbour Malta on their voyages of exploration. In fact, two of the ancient temples, the Hal Salflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples, are located very close to the port.
It was the Knights of Malta who made Grand Harbour history during their 268 year reign that began in 1530. They are also known as the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of Rhodes. When were expelled from Jerusalem and then from Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent, the King of France granted them Malta as their residence. They transformed what they called at the time "merely a rock of soft sandstone" into a prosperous kingdom, and developed this main natural harbor in Malta into a major port for world commerce with formidable defenses and massive forts.
Grand Harbour Malta is on the southeast coast of the island, and actually consists of two twin harbors. The northern harbor is Marsamxett, forming the southern shore of the town of Sliema. The peninsula occupied by the city of Valletta separates Marsamxett from its sister harbor. The southern edge of Grand Harbour is occupied by the "Three Cities" of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Senglea. The Knights of Malta Grand Harbour history actually began in these three cities, which comprised their headquarters when they first arrived from Rhodes.
Six formidable citadels protect the harbor in Malta and they were all built by the Knights. These forts played a key role in the Great Siege of 1565, when the vastly outnumbered Knights repelled the forces of the Ottoman Empire from Turkey, changing the course of European history. After the siege, they moved their headquarters from Vittoriosa to Valletta and continued building scores of cathedrals, churches, palaces, and grand summer villas. This ensemble of beautiful buildings in Valletta led to it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As an Allied naval base during World War II, the cities were heavily bombed and repair on some buildings continues to this day.
Today, much of the commercial shipping traffic has shifted to the Freeport on the southern tip of the island near the town of Marsaxlokk, but large ships on Mediterranean cruises still come into Grand Harbour. One of the most popular things to do near Grand Harbour is to enjoy a relaxing sailing excursion around the shore, admiring the spectacular views of the domes and spires of the many beautiful medieval and baroque buildings. There are many traditional passenger cruises as well as brightly painted traditional fishing boats (called luzzus) that take passengers on scenic cruises. You can also take tours of the forts, and several of the palaces are now fascinating museums. A walk along the seafront will also reward you with scenic vistas as well as some excellent cafes and dining spots.