Discover the best things to do in Valletta, the compact capital city on the island of Malta, from gilded cathedrals and colourful painted balconies to boat trips and hidden underground tunnels.
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Golden stone buildings, ornate churches, colourful balconies and sparkling seas – Malta’s capital Valletta might be tiny but it’s packed full of charm. It stretches just 1km by 600 metres and is surrounded by water on three sides, but has so much historic architecture that UNESCO has designated the whole city a World Heritage Site.
Walking its sunny streets is like stepping back in time, but Valletta’s not just living in the past, with recent renovation and redevelopment after it was made European Capital of Culture in 2018. So whether you’re visiting on a city break, cruise stop or a day trip from a Malta beach holiday, here’s my pick of the best things to do in Valletta.
The best things to do in Valletta, Malta
Go for gold at St John’s Co-Cathedral
Malta is dotted with giant domed churches, by most impressive of all is St John’s Co-Cathedral. It looks plain from the outside, but once you go through the doors it’s a different story. Every surface is coated with colour and sparkling gold. There are frescoes on the ceilings, marble floors under your feet and walls covered with intricate gilded carvings.
The cathedral – or co-cathedral as it shares the job of Bishop’s residence with the cathedral in Mdina – was built for the Knights of Saint John between 1572 and 1577. But it was revamped and embellished in lavish Baroque style in the 17th century.
The cathedral is made up of nine chapels – one for each of the eight orders of the Knights of Saint John and the ninth dedicated to Our Lady of Philermos, patron saint of the Order. One of its highlights are the paintings by Italian artist Caravaggio in the oratory, including The Beheading of St John the Baptist. Climb up to the balcony to get a look up close.
Entry to the cathedral comes with an audio tour to learn about its history, or you can take a guided walking tour* of Valletta and the cathedral. Visitors need to cover their knees and shoulders, and high heels aren’t allowed as they can damage the marble floors.
Check out the views from the Barrakka Gardens
For one of Valletta’s best views, head to the Barrakka Gardens. There are two of them – the Upper and Lower gardens – but both lie on the east side of the peninsula and have panoramic views out over the harbour. The Upper Barrakka Gardens were originally built in 1661 as an exercise ground for the Italian division of the Knights of St John.
They’re surrounded by arches and originally had a roof, but once the French invaded Malta they turned them into a public garden filled with flowers, sculptures and shady spots. There’s also a café to relax in with a drink. And if you visit at 12pm or 4pm, you can catch the cannons firing from the Saluting Battery below the gardens.
Originally the cannons were fired to welcome ships into the harbour, but they’ve been restored and are back in action. Or the quieter Lower Barrakka Gardens are similar to the Upper Gardens, with the same arches as well as a Greek-style mini temple.
Visit the Grandmaster’s Palace
Note: The state rooms at the Grandmaster’s Palace are currently closed for refurbishment (expected to reopen to visitors in late 2022).
Valletta was built by the Knights of Saint John in the 16th century, and one of the city’s earliest and biggest buildings was the Grandmasters’ Palace. The palace was where the most senior Knight lived and was used for Malta’s parliament until recently. And although it’s still the official residence of the Maltese president, part of it is open to visitors.
Like St John’s Co-Cathedral, it’s another building where the plain exterior hides a much more elaborate interior. There are five state rooms you can visit, which are decorated with rare French ‘Gobelins’ tapestries, artworks and Baroque ceiling paintings.
You can also visit the palace armoury, with suits of armour and weapons used by the Knights of Saint John from the 16th to 18th centuries, including the armour worn by Jean de Valette, founder of Valletta (you can see a statue of him near the Opera House).
Admire old and new architecture
Valletta is perfect to wander around – small enough that you can’t get lost, not too much traffic, with tucked-away churches and original 16th-century buildings now converted into shops, restaurants and boutique hotels to explore. The city is a photographers’ paradise with an endless supply of vintage shopfronts and artfully peeling doors.
Valletta was designed on a grid pattern to bring cool sea breezes in, with narrow, hilly streets and tall buildings to keep it shady. So even in summer its not sweltering hot. And there plenty of cafés to stop off at where you can pick up a coffee and a pastizzi (a local flaky pastry filled with ricotta – or more unusually mushy peas).
Malta has its modern side too – in among the traditional architecture, the new City Gate and Parliament Building are a real contrast. They were designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and use the same kind of stone as the surrounding buildings, but still really stand out against traditional Valletta – and have been controversial with the locals.
Photograph colourful balconies
One of Valletta’s most iconic sights are the brightly coloured, square Maltese balconies, known as gallarija (meaning gallery) which decorate its buildings. When the city was built, the Knights of Saint John decreed that every corner had to have either a statue, a shrine or a corner balcony to decorate it, and many are still there today.
It’s thought they originated from Arabic mashrabiyas, which let people look out and take advantage of the breeze without being seen. They were first used in Malta at the Grandmaster’s Palace, where a long gallarija was built along one side so he could spy on his subjects, and became a status symbol in the 19th century – the more lavish the better.
Go back in time
For a small country, Malta has had an eventful history. It’s been fought over for centuries and ruled by everyone from the Greeks and Arabs to the Turks and British. For a tour through early Maltese history, head back in time at the National Museum of Archaeology.
The museum is located inside the impressive Baroque Auberge de Provence. Exhibits date back to 5200 BC and include the ‘fat ladies’ sculptures from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum Neolithic burial site, Bronze Age pottery and Phoenician pendants.
Explore Malta’s Second World War history
Malta’s strategic position between Europe and North Africa made it an important Allied base in the Second World War, but it paid the price with the heaviest bombing of the war. So much so that in 1942 the whole population was awarded the George Cross for bravery.
There are a few places in Valletta where you can learn about Malta’s wartime role. The National War Museum in Fort Saint Elmo, at the tip of the peninsula, takes you through all Malta’s conflicts with a big WWII exhibition. On show is Faith – one of just three planes which made up the Maltese air defense when they were attacked by Italy in 1940.
There’s also the underground tunnels of the War HQ Tunnels and The Lascaris War Rooms. This complex of tunnels below the Upper Bakkara Gardens was a top-secret military base and Eisenhower’s command center during the invasion of Sicily. And across the harbour in the Three Cities you’ll also find the Malta at War Museum.
Have a drink on St Lucia Street
Valletta has no shortage of scenic spots, but one of my favourite was St Lucia Street. This street cuts right across the pensinsula, but on the south side from the junction with Merchant Street it’s pedestrianised with steps running down the hillside towards the harbour and the small Church of St Lucy, which dates back to 1570, at the bottom.
This part of St Lucia Street is lined with cafés and restaurants, with huge pot plants and lights draped across the street and chandeliers hanging between the buildings. It’s a charming spot for a drink, especially at night when the church is lit up.
Take to the water on a boat trip
Valletta is surrounded by water, and taking a boat trip around the peninsula is one of the top things to do in Valletta. There are lots of different options but quickest and cheapest are the public ferries, which shuttle people over to Sliema from the north side of the city and the Three Cities from the south and cost €1.50 one way/€2.80 return.
The journey doesn’t take much longer than five minutes but the views are stunning. For peak photography timing, head to the Three Cities in the morning and Sliema around sunset to see Valletta in the best light. Though beware that ferries don’t run if the weather’s rough or the swell’s too high (which affects the Sliema ferry more often).
There are also longer 90-minute cruises* available around Malta’s two harbours on board a traditional sailing boat known as a luzzi, with a commentary about Valletta’s history
Or for something uniquely Maltese, how about a trip on a dgħajsa? These tiny traditional wooden fishing boats are painted in red, blue and yellow. They were originally used to ferry sailors from their ships to land but now use motors rather than oars to take visitors across to the Three Cities (€2) or on a 30-minute tour around the harbour (€8).
Visit the Three Cities
If Valletta ever gets too busy, the peaceful Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua are just across the harbour. This was where the Knights of Saint John were based while they built Valletta, so their buildings are older than in the city, but have a similar style, with colourful doors, tubs of flowers, wrought ironwork and narrow streets.
Each of the Three Cities has a mix of forts, bastions and churches to explore, as well as great views across the harbour to Valletta. There’s also a more modern waterfront promenade where you can check out the superyachts lined up in the harbour and grab a sunset beer or glass of wine in one of the marina’s bars and restaurants.
When to visit Valletta, Malta
Being right in the far south of Europe makes Malta a popular choice for a short-haul winter sun break, and it never gets too cold in winter, with average daytime highs of 15°C/59°F and nighttime lows of 9°C/48°F in January. But December/January can be rainy.
Spring is a great time to visit Valletta, with eight hours of sunshine a day and average highs of 18–23°C/64–74°F, making it perfect for exploring. Malta’s summers are hot and dry with plenty of sunshine, but with average highs over 30°C/86°F you might rather be on the beach than in the city. Plus as it’s peak season the island can be busy and expensive.
And autumn is a bit warmer than spring, with average high temperatures of 20–28°C/68–82°F. There might be a few showers around but there are still plenty of sunny days and you can often bag a bargain towards the end of the season.
How to get to Valletta
Malta International Airport is 9km south of Valletta. You can reach the city in around 35 minutes on the X4 bus which costs €2 one way and stops in the bus station just outside the city gates. Or it takes 20 minutes by taxi or shared transfer which will take you right into the city. Taxis cost a fixed fare of €20 from the airport into Valletta.
If you’re visiting Valletta from another destination in Malta the island has a good bus network, and there are ferries from Sliema and the Three Cities. There’s also a high-speed car ferry which connects Valletta to Pozzallo in southern Sicily in 1 hour 45 minutes. And if you’re visiting Valletta on a cruise, the port is a 10-minute walk from the city gates.
Where to stay in Valletta
The Saint John* is a boutique hotel in the historic heart of Valletta on Merchants Street. Inside this traditional merchants’ house has been renovated in cool industrial style with high-tech features. The hotel has 21 rooms set around a central courtyard, some with balconies looking out over the city, and has a casual bar/restaurant.
Or stay in a 16th-century palazzo at the Casa Rocca Piccola B&B*, whose five colourfully painted bedrooms feature antique furniture, paintings and gilded mirrors. The palazzo is still owned by the Marquis de Piro and even if you’re not staying there you can take a tour of their historic treasures – including their own WWII bomb shelter.
Where to eat in Valletta
Valletta has a good range of places to eat but it can get busy in the evenings so it’s a good idea to book a table in advance for dinner. Ambrosia on Archbishops Street is a friendly, welcoming spot which uses local, seasonal ingredients to create traditional Maltese specialities like rabbit and slow-cooked pork belly with a Slow Food ethos.
Being so close to Sicily means there are lots of Italian options in Valletta too. Sotto Pinsa Romana makes authentic Roman-style pizzas with a huge variety of toppings, and gluten-free bases available. And cosy Papannis, tucked away down a side street, serves home-cooked Italian food, including fantastic lobster and crab ravioli.
Caffe Cordina is a local institution which has been serving coffee, cakes and Maltese specialities on its shady terrace since 1837. For something a bit different, Naan Bar does tasty Indian food, with gluten-free and veggie options. And if you fancy a quick bite or want to stock up on supplies, head to Is-Suq Tal-Belt food court and market.