Valletta is not just another European capital.
Even as you first lay eyes on Valletta, the under-the-radar capital of the Mediterranean archipelago nation of Malta, it becomes clear that the city was built to impress, to inspire confidence in its cultural, commercial and military prowess.
Home to grand Baroque architectural masterpieces and palatial residences, Valletta boasts a rich, illustrious history; its stories being told over and over in the myriad patterns of the city’s old stone walls (nature’s handiwork), trails on the water where boats sail in to the fortified harbor, hilly cobbled backstreets where emerald and scarlet balconies adorn honey-colored buildings, and inside elaborate homes of nobility, with doors open to curious visitors.
A Brief History of Valletta
While Malta was ruled by 14 different cultures, from the Byzantine and Arabs to the Aragonese and Roman, each of which left their imprint on the country, whether it was in the architecture, language or cuisine, perhaps it was the Order of the Knights of St. John, whose influence is the strongest and most evident today, a result of its 250-year old rule over the country. What is not very widely known and sort of amazes the mind when one learns of it, is that Maltese history has played a vital role in the history of the rest of Europe and has had major implications on Catholicism in Europe.
In fact, Valletta, ‘The Fortress City’, was built after the bloody Great Siege of 1565, and named after the revered Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Parisot de la Valette, who was much later buried in the city. He decreed that Valletta should be ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen.’ Valletta was built over 15 years (entirely by hand at that) to inspire both admiration and respect; with captivating Baroque architecture, sculptures, fountains, art and the incredible St. John’s Co-Cathedral, but also forts and bastions and a fortified harbor.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also the European Capital of Culture for 2018, and 2018 is a great year to visit as Valletta comes alive with over 400 cultural events focused on art, fashion, literature, music, films and more, through the year. If you explore at a leisurely pace (as I would always suggest), there are enough Valletta attractions and activities to keep you busy for three to four days, considering you’ll have enough time to enjoy that coffee in that lovely café, enough time to sit on the harbor and enjoy a local Cisk beer, and not have to rush from one attraction in Valletta to another.
Perhaps the best way to soak up the historical appeal of the city is on a Valletta walking tour; after all, the sweet spot between historical accounts of cities and modern life is often found in their narrow, cobbled backstreets. But before you declare your love for the city on foot, take note that Valletta is just as intriguing from the water. Here are some of the best things to do in Valletta, Malta.
Best Things to Do in Valletta, Malta
Take a Valletta Walking Tour
There is no way better way to begin your Valletta sightseeing than by putting on your most comfortable walking shoes and taking a long, leisurely wander through the city’s old streets.
You’ll stumble upon modern architecture and quirky art installations that stand next to the city’s oldest structures, classic fountains and sculptures in complete harmony, beautiful squares, regal façades and palaces, narrow alleys where laundry hangs next to colorful balconies, streets that steeply fall down as you get to the tip of the peninsula, quaint cafés, bakeries, and gelaterias with appealing window displays. While the main streets (such as Republic Street) might be chock-full of tourist crowds, there are definitely plenty of other streets to get delightfully lost in, where the vibe is much more relaxed.
Much of Valletta was designed by Italian architect and military engineer Francesco Laparelli, who was sent by Pope Pius V and King Philip II of Spain. A fortified capital in Malta was important to Christian Europe to help the region fight off attacks from the Ottoman Empire. An important and easily noticeable feature of Valletta is the rectangular grid system of its streets that was meant to improve ventilation and keep the city as breezy as possible. Another feature is unusually wide staircases on some streets so that knights in heavy armor could easily climb them. UNESCO described the city as ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.’
Much of modern-day architecture is the work of Italian architect Renzo Piano; his work on the new City Gate and the beautiful Parliament building that uses Malta’s traditional building material, globigerina limestone from the island of Gozo, showcases seamless harmony between the old and new architecture in Valletta.
Here’s an excellent map of Valletta by Visit Malta to plan your walking tour, an audio-guide if you want to do it independently, or you can also book a walking tour with a licensed guide. Additionally, if walking around Valletta at night, looking for ghosts is something that appeals to you, check out this tour.
Baroque Magnificence at St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Malta, as a nation, is quite religious and 98% of the Maltese population is Roman Catholic, in yet another result of the rule of the Order of the Knights of St. John. Understandably then, the unassuming façade of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the conventual church for the Knights, does not prepare one for the awe-inspiring effect when one steps into its larger-than-life Baroque interior.
Designed by architect Girolamo Cassar (who also designed the Grandmaster’s Palace), it was built in 1578 using the richest materials and endowed by the Grand Masters and Knights with the finest works of art and sculpture of the time, as a sign of the wealth and prosperity of the order.
There are nine chapels inside the cathedral and eight of them are dedicated to each different langue of the Order of the Knights. The absolute highlight here is a Caravaggio painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (housed in the Oratory) that has an almost spellbinding effect on the viewer with the use of light and shadows to guide the eye to the story.
Intricate gold designs adorn pillars, window frames, and arches, and paintings by Italian artist Mattia Preti, depicting scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, are on the vaulted ceiling. The floor is made of 405 inlaid marble tomb slabs, astonishing in their artistry, color, symbolism and detail, that depict messages of fame, death, victory, and triumph, and commemorate the most distinguished Knights of the Order, hailing from the most aristocratic and wealthy families. Also buried here is Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette, whose tomb lies in the crypt.
The cathedral is called St John’s ‘Co-Cathedral’ because in the 1820s, it was raised to equal status as St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, the seat of the Archbishop of Malta.
Tips to visit:
· The cathedral isn’t just a tourist attraction and museum; it is also a functioning place of worship. Dress appropriately with your shoulders and knees covered; take off your hat or cap when you enter.
· Bear in mind that stilettos aren’t allowed to protect the marble flooring.
· There is an entrance fee for tourists (not for those who want to pray) and audio guides in many languages are included in the ticket price. Flash photography is prohibited.
A Lesson in History at the Grandmaster’s Palace
Once the official seat of power of the Order of the Knights of St. John, the Grandmaster’s Palace is one of the oldest buildings in Valletta and now houses the Office of the President. It also housed the Parliament of Malta until 1976.
The original palace was built to serve the Grandmaster Jean de La Cassiere and was further enhanced through additions and modifications by subsequent Grandmasters. During the British rule, it also served as the Palace of the Governor.
Walk around the Palace State Rooms such as the State Dining Room to see portraits of the Presidents of Malta, the Throne Room to see the original Grandmaster’s throne, the Ambassador’s Room and the Palace Chapel. A visit to the Knights Armory is recommended to see a fascinating display of arms, armory and artifacts. In fact, the armory is the largest in the world that is still housed in its original building.
Call ahead to check if the Palace State Rooms are open to visitors on the day of your visit as this changes on short notice.
Wander Through the Covered Market of Valletta
The Covered Market of Valletta (also known as Is-Suq tal-Belt), built in the 1860s, was the first building in Malta to be constructed completely out of metal. An interesting feature is the intricate Victorian detail on the columns and the structures that hold up the cast and wrought iron and timber roof. After being neglected for several years since the mid-1970s, the market has been restored and now houses eateries, some shops and a supermarket. Step inside for a respite from the sun and grab a quick bite to eat at one of the eateries and a glass of Maltese wine. You’ll find everything from a mozzarella bar and pastizzi to Maltese sausages and fresh pasta.
Inside a Noble’s Residence at Casa Rocca Piccola
Casa Rocca Piccola is a 16th-century palatial residence that’s 430 years old and is owned by a Maltese noble family and a guided tour of the Palazzo is an insightful look into the life of Maltese nobility through the years. It’s absolutely worth booking a special guided tour by the owner Marquis Nicholas de Piro, 9th Baron of Budach, (whose family has owned it for the last 200 years), an especially gifted storyteller with a great sense of humor and impeccable comic timing, who brings the tour to life with candid stories, told as if to an old friend. “This is a living museum,” he insists, “a much loved, lived-in, privately owned family home.”
The Palazzo is home to rare antiques and objects, original pieces of furniture, commissioned portraits of nobility, other art and artifacts, as well as a signed portrait photograph of Queen Elizabeth. Our gracious host’s parents were even invited to the Queen’s Coronation and allowed to bring back the chairs they sat on during the ceremony as souvenirs!
There are countless stories that live on within the home, in every object, portrait, handwritten letter, flooring, and piece of furniture. The naturally lit Art Nouveau Summer Dining Room is an especially beautiful room in the house. Your tour ends with a visit to the largest of three underground bomb shelters.
Fun fact: Meghan Markle visited Casa Rocca Piccola and had a photo-shoot done here but Marquis Nicholas de Piro didn’t know she was someone famous when she visited!
Only guided tours of the Palazzo are available (7 daily) with the last one at 4pm. This might just be the highlight of your time in Valletta.
Visit the Upper Barakka Gardens and See the Saluting Battery
To rest your legs and enjoy panoramic views over Valletta and the peninsula, head to the Upper Barakka Gardens around late afternoon. Located above the Valletta Waterfront, the terrace offers a breathtaking, sweeping view over the Grand Harbor and the area’s forts and bastions.
Built in the 17th century to provide a tranquil haven for the leisure of the Italian Knights, the gardens were opened to the public in 1824 and have been restored after having suffered damages from bombing during the Second World War.
Across the water, you can see Fort St. Angelo and the Three Cities of Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa. Within the garden are busts, statues and plaques connected to historical personalities, events and social commentary.
At exactly 12pm and 4pm every day, a cannon is fired from the Saluting Battery, perhaps the oldest in the world, just below the Upper Barakka Gardens. Historically, the guns were fired to protect the harbor and to commemorate occasions, mark days and events of special significance and to salute visiting vessels and dignitaries. Later, they were fired every day at mid-day. After restoration, the Saluting Battery is back in operation and it’s absolutely worth it to position yourself just above it on the terrace if you’re visiting around one of these times to see the spectacular show.
From the gardens, an easy way to get to the Valletta Waterfront and Grand Harbor is to take the Upper Barakka Lift.
See Valletta from the Water on a Dghajsa
From the Upper Barakka Gardens, head down to the water at Valletta Waterfront by the lift and hop onto a colorful traditional boat called dghajsa to tour the Grand Harbor. The boats are hard to miss; plenty of boatmen call out to you as you walk along the harbor.
The harbor itself holds great historical significance in Maltese history (and subsequently European history), as this is the site where much of the fighting during the Great Siege of 1565, in which the Knights of St. John managed to defeat the Ottoman Turks, took place. And it was after that, that Valletta was planned to be built as a fortified powerhouse strong enough to fend off any attacks, did the Ottoman Turks plan to return.
The 30-minute boat tour offers fantastic views of Valletta, the Three Cities and the fortified harbor and is a great excuse to relax after you’ve spent the morning and afternoon exploring Valletta on foot.
Tour the Manoel Theater
Visit the Manoel Theater, one of the oldest working theaters in Europe constructed in 1731 by the Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. The theater was built with the intention of providing people with ‘honest’ entertainment, as inscribed in the Latin motto above the main entrance. Check for events and shows at the theater and if you can’t make it for one of those, book a tour to see the opulent Baroque interior of the theater.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The prehistoric subterranean burial site of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, believed to be built around 4000BC and was in use until 2500BC and discovered in 1902, is a must-visit for history and archaeology buffs and is yet another fascinating site created perhaps by the same civilization that is responsible for the Ggantija (older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids) and other prehistoric temples in Malta.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is essentially an underground, rock-cut complex of chambers, cut into the same soft globigerina limestone that is the building material of most of the architecture around the country, and built over three levels, that were used to house the deceased and rooms to conduct related rituals.
Spiral and honeycomb designs adorn some walls and ceilings and are to be believed the oldest prehistoric painting found in Malta while one of the chambers consists of an echo niche.
The ‘Holy of Holies’ is perhaps the most important room in the deepest level of the complex. While it all sounds a bit morbid, it’s an interesting look at the practices and traditions of prehistoric civilizations when it came to death.
To maintain the delicate environment of the site, only 10 visitors an hour are allowed for a maximum of 8 hours a day, so if you really want to go, book tickets online as much in advance as possible.
Tuck into Maltese Cuisine at Rubino
Opened in 1906 originally as a confectionery, Rubino, one of the oldest restaurants in Valletta is something of an institution. While Vincenzo Rubino from Sicily was the original founder, today this family-run restaurant is owned by brothers Karl and Michael Diacono whose family incorporates their own love of good food and unique food traditions into the recipes.
The restaurant itself, housed in a converted cellar, is cozy and has the kind of charm that makes you forget about the world outside its doors. The menu, written on a black board, changes daily and portions are generous. Sample local dishes such as pan-fried rabbit and sea bass involtini (rolls) filled with pine nuts and mint (highly recommend) as well as baked pasta and risotto, along with a glass of local wine.
Rubino is also popular for its desserts, especially the Cassata Siciliana, a delightful marriage of ricotta, candied fruit, liqueur and sponge cake, and a must-try when dining here. In fact, during festivals, the restaurant closes and functions only as a dessert shop where all hands are at work preparing their famous Cassata Siciliana, which really, is just heavenly. Booking in advance is recommended.
Where to Stay in Valletta
To stay in the heart of Valletta, book your room at the quaint Domus Zamittello, a restored 17th century Palazzo turned boutique hotel. The location on Republic Street is at the heart of the cultural capital of Malta, and is within walking distance to all the main sights and attractions in Valletta, as well as lovely restaurants, cafés, bars and shopping.
The design itself is elegant, with an old-world charm, and the terrace offers great views over Valletta’s grid of streets. Baroque touches and classic details adorn the design in the common areas as well as inside the classic but modern rooms. The central courtyard feels like a world away from Republic Street, just outside the entrance of the hotel.
There are 21 classic rooms to choose from, of which six are suites. Double glazed windows keep the noise out from the streets and guarantee sound sleep. Think of it as a romantic, timeless home away from home with lovely touches such as embroidered linen and vintage furniture but also modern amenities such as Wi-Fi, minibar, international TV channels and in-room safe. Duplex suites have two bathrooms and some come with kitchenettes. Breakfast is complimentary.
Private Guide in Malta
If you’re looking for a private guide in Malta, look no further than Clive Cortes of Malta Private Guide, who is deeply passionate about the country, very knowledgeable and offers insightful context to sightseeing in Malta. With a great sense of humor and infectious energy, he is an expert, licensed and experienced guide who has helped media from respected publications such as National Geographic and Forbes, among others, (as well as little old me) get the most out of their Malta travels.
To know more about the events and festivals in Valletta planned in 2018, check Valletta 2018.
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I visited Malta as a guest of Malta Tourism Authority. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent, and I would never recommend any experience that I haven’t or wouldn’t book for myself.