Today, the prolific, picturesque and touristic-oriented town of Sliema is mostly well-known as a social hub where people can meet to enjoy the various coastal restaurants, malls, shops, coffee shops, not to mention find likely swimming spots or bask in the rampant nightlife. Sliema however, is not just a place of entertainment, as it offers a multitude of hidden historical and architectural gems, not to mention a rich cultural heritage.
Occupying a central stretch of coast, Sliema’s shores are varied, stretching from a strand along Marsamxett Harbour down to rugged Fort Għadira on the open sea, while also offering views of the sturdy Valletta bastions across to the glossy Mediterranean Sea.
Sliema’s origins are rather humble. The name ‘Sliema’ in the Maltese language means ‘peace’, ‘comfort’ or ‘in good health’ and is a typical Maltese greeting or augur. After the Great Siege of 1565, Grand Master De Redin built Torre di San Giuliano, which is called Sliema Tower today, as part of the coastal network. In 1792, Grand Master De Rohan Polduc built star-shaped Fort Tigné, and in the 19th century the British furnished the barracks of this fort, building two batteries, Cambridge and Sliema Point. Until the middle of the 19th century, there was no native Sliema population to speak of. Rich residents of Valletta built summer houses at this location and later decided to stay there. There were around 1,600 permanent residents in 1871, 6,300 in 1891, and 19,000 in 1931.
One of the legacies of the British presence in Sliema is an Anglican church built in 1866, the Holy Trinity. The oldest surviving church in Sliema however, is dedicated to tal-Grazzja, that is, Our Lady of the Graces. This was built in 1802 and lies across the street from Stella Maris, the first Parish Church. This was built in 1854-55, and enlarged in 1876, two years before parish status was conferred. By this time, Sliema had already established itself as a town of high social standing. In 1886, the first musical band and social club, respectively I Cavalieri di Malta and Circolo Ceschi, had come into existence, and jointly organised a yearly feast in honour of Saint John the Baptist, which included marching bands, fireworks and a greasy pole competition.
A second parish dedicated to Our Lady Queen of the Sacred Heart, or Sacro Cuor, was declared in 1918. Other parish churches found in Sliema are Saint Gregory, built in 1923, which received parish status in 1940, and Jesus of Nazareth, originally built in 1895. Saint Gregory is a Romanesque building with marble floors and a 14-bell steeple. Its festa falls on the first Sunday of September. Jesus of Nazareth, known as in-Nazzarenu, was completed in 1895, and rebuilt after the Second World War, in 1908. The festa in honour of Jesus of Nazareth is organised on the last Sunday of February.
Sliema is also well-known for its ferry service. The ferry, which goes to and fro between Sliema and Valletta, was launched in 1882 with two vessels. Up to that point, private boat operators had provided the sole taxi-service unhampered by set fees. The ferry prospered, however after the Second World War, the business started to dwindle and came to a halt in 1959. It resumed again in 1991.
Sliema’s metropolitan area today thrives with a vibrant population, however due to space and practical restrictions, it is unlikely that it will grow anymore. The peninsula is hardly a quarter of a square mile long, and is hemmed in by the suburbs of Gżira and Saint Julians.
The town however, is and continues to be an ever-changing and evolving social hub, hosting diverse events, shopping complexes, hotels, businesses and services which contribute to make the island of Malta a complex and modern place to be in.