One of the first things that visitors to Malta notice is the fleet of cheerful yellow buses that cover the whole island, especially the very distinctive older ones. Thanks to these buses and the relatively small size of the island, getting around by public transport is simple and cheap.
The buses are mainly old British ones which have been given the distinctive yellow livery and given a new lease of life in their twilight years. Many of them don’t have a side door, passengers simply climb up the steps and into the bus to pay the driver or present their travel passes. Although the buses are a conventional single decker size, there isn’t a lot of headroom inside and when the buses are busy you’ll see people standing in the aisle, slightly stooped. Need to stop the bus? Just pull the cord that is hung along the length of the ceiling. These buses remind me of my childhood!
The buses are actually owned by their drivers and many of them have been customised inside; religious devotion is a common theme with pictures of the Virgin and Child surrounded by colourful fairy lights. Chrome additions are another popular way of customizing them.
As some routes are better than others a fair system operates which allocated routes to drivers on the day and buses operate on a one day on, one day off basis. On the off day buses can be repaired (they often need to be) or can be booked for private use.
The older buses don’t have the destination displayed, just the number so you do need to check the timetables posted at bus stops or pick up a leaflet which lists all routes along with the time of the first and last services and frequency of each buses on each route. Unfortunately lots of tourists don’t note down the bus numbers and hail any bus that comes meaning that your bus might stop regularly without picking up passengers.
One thing that surprised me was that while the older buses are gradually being replaced, the older style still serves the route to the airport which is not that practical when passengers have luggage. As there is no dedicated luggage space you need to take up a whole seat with your bags, or else sit with them on your knees as we did (fortunately our bags were quite small).
We took the bus from Sliema to Mdina/Rabat one Sunday morning; although Mdina is south of Sliema, the bus goes north first and picks up at the cluster of resorts just up the coast from Sliema and then turns back to Mdina. Don’t worry, you’re on the right route – it makes sense to run fewer services.
We were surprised to learn that buses ran a frequent and comprehensive service on Sundays as well as the other days of the week. Malta seems such a religious country that we had been concerned that there might not be many bus services on Sundays outside of the peak holiday season (we visited in February). There are also night buses which link the cluster of coastal resorts on the east coast so that holiday makers can enjoy the nightlife in other resorts.
As well as the buses there is a water taxi between Sliema waterfront and Valletta which runs every thirty minutes (more or less) until mid evening. Although there are buses between Sliema and Valletta, the water taxi takes just a few minutes, reducing the journey time.
To get to Gozo you can take a frequent yellow bus to the harbour in the north of the island and from there take a ferry; the ferry journey takes approximately twenty minutes and costs around 6 Euro return. Once on Gozo there are fewer buses but still enough to get around the main settlements.
Malta’s buses are cheap – you can go from one end of the island to the other for less than 2 Euro per person. We paid 16 Euro for a transfer from the airport to Sliema when we arrived in Malta; when we left, we paid €0.90 each for the ferry to Valletta and then € 1.32 each on the bus to the airport – a total of €4.44, making a considerable saving. It is also possible to buy day and week tickets and these can be bought directly from the bus driver.
If you've enjoyed the buses in Malta, and let's face it the cheerful colour should make anyone smile, you can buy all kind of souvenirs from piggy banks to fridge magnets that show a little yellow bus.