Golden stone buildings, ornate churches, narrow streets, colourful balconies and sparkling seas – Malta’s capital might be tiny but it’s 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 designated the whole city a World Heritage Site. Walking the streets is like stepping back in time, but Valletta’s not just living in the past. It’s the 2018 European Capital of Culture which has meant renovation and redevelopment, so it’s shining even brighter than ever. It’s a great place for a spring or autumn break, with tons of off-season sunshine, and a popular stopover for cruise ships. So here are some of my favourite things to do in Valletta, Malta.
Go for gold in St John’s Co-Cathedral
Valletta – and all of Malta – is dotted with giant domed churches, by the most impressive of all is St John’s Co-Cathedral. From the outside it looks pretty plain, 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 every patch of ceiling, 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. But it was revamped in Baroque style in the 17th century, and they really went all out on the decor.
The cathedral is made up of eight smaller chapels plus an oratory which has paintings by Italian artist Caravaggio, who was briefly one of the Knights of Saint John. Don’t miss the stairs up to the balcony too where you can get up close to the frescoes. The cathedral’s €10 entry fee (€7.50 concessions) comes with an audio tour with lots of detail about its history. Visitors need to cover their knees and shoulders (you can borrow a wrap if you need one), and 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 along the east side of the peninsula and both come with a panoramic view out over the harbour. The Upper Barrakka Gardens were built in 1661 as an exercise ground for the Knights of the langue of Italy. They’re surrounded by arches and originally had a roof, but once the French invaded Malta they turned them into a public garden. The gardens are filled with flowers, sculptures and shady spots as well as a café where you can stop for a drink – they’re also a favourite for wedding photoshoots.
If you head to the Upper Barrakka Gardens at 12pm or 4pm, you can catch the cannon firing from the Saluting Battery, just underneath the gardens. Originally the cannons were fired to welcome ships into the harbour, but they’ve been recently restored and are back in action. There’s a little show before each firing with guides in military costumes explaining what’s going on. Or the Lower Barrakka Gardens look similar to the Upper Gardens, with the same arches as well as a mini Greek-style temple, but are a bit quieter.
Get lost in the backstreets
Valletta is the perfect place to wander around – small enough that you can’t get lost (walk in any direction and you’ll probably hit water), not too much traffic, lots of hilly narrow streets and tucked-away churches to discover. The city was designed on a grid pattern to bring cool sea breezes in, with tall buildings to keep it shady. So even in summer its not sweltering hot. A lot of the original 16th-century buildings have been converted into restaurants and boutique hotels. And there are tons of pavement cafés too if you need to refuel with a coffee and pastizzi (a local flaky pastry filled with ricotta or more weirdly mushy peas).
Wherever you are in Valletta, if you look up you’ll see the distinctive, brightly coloured, square Maltese balconies. 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 most are still there. It’s an Instagrammers paradise with an endless supply of vintage shopfronts and artfully peeling doors. But Malta’s got it’s modern side too – in among all 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 they still really stand out (and have been pretty controversial with the locals).
Explore Malta’s history
For a small country, Malta has had a seriously eventful history. It’s been fought over for centuries and ruled by everyone from the Greeks and Arabs to the Turks and British. There are a few places in Valletta where you can learn more about Maltese history, starting off way back in 5200 BC at the National Museum of Archaeology. Then there’s the National War Museum for Malta’s wartime history. It’s set inside Fort Saint Elmo, right at the tip of Valletta’s peninsula. The museum takes you through all the conflicts over the years – from the Great Siege when Valletta was built right up to Malta becoming independent in 1964.
Valletta was built by the Knights of Saint John in the 16th century, and you can still see a lot of the original buildings. One of the first and biggest buildings in the city was the Grandmasters’ Palace. It was where the most senior Knight originally lived and was used for Malta’s parliament until recently. The palace is still the official residence of the Maltese president but part of it is open to visitors. There are five grand staterooms you can visit, decorated with tapestries and artworks, as well as the palace armoury. Entry to the palace costs €10/€7.50, the Museum of Archaeology €5/€3.50 and the War Museum €10/€7.50.
Take to the water on a boat trip
Valletta is surrounded by water, so one of the best ways to get a different perspective on the city is with a boat trip. There are a various options you can take. Quickest is the public ferries, which shuttle people over to Sliema from one side of the peninsula and the Three Cities from the other. The journey doesn’t take much longer than five minutes and costs €1.50 (€2.80 return) 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 if the weather’s rough or the swell’s too high then the ferries won’t run.
There are also longer cruises which take you all the way around the harbour with a commentary about Valletta’s history (usually around €15 for an hour-long cruise). There’s a choice between normal ferry-style boats and some smarter sailing ships. Or if you want to try something uniquely Maltese, then how about a trip on a dgħajsa? These tiny traditional fishing boats are painted in bright red, blue and yellow. They were originally used to ferry sailors from their ships to land but now take tours around the harbour.
Visit the Three Cities
The Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua might technically be separate from Valletta, but as they’re just across the harbour they’re near enough for me! This was where the Knights of Saint John based themselves while they were building Valletta, so they’re older than the main city, but have a similar style and feel – just with a lot less people. If Valletta ever starts to feel a bit too busy, then it’s only five minutes on the ferry over to Vittoriosa (aka Birgu) where you can almost have the streets to yourself. It’s a peaceful place with lots of colourful doors, tubs of flowers, wrought ironwork and narrow paved streets.
Each of the Three Cities has a mix of forts, bastions and churches to explore, and great views back across the harbour to Valletta. They’re not quite so sleepy all year though – if you’re visiting at Easter then there’s a spectacular procession with crowds of people as statues of the ‘Risen Christ’ carried through the streets. There’s also a more modern waterfront promenade where you can check out some of the superyachts lined up in the harbour and grab a sunset glass of wine in one of the marina bars and restaurants.
We stayed at: The Saint John, a boutique hotel with a cool industrial style and lots of high-tech features in a traditional old merchants’ house. It’s right in the middle of the city so it’s really easy to get everywhere. The hotel has 21 rooms set around a central courtyard, some with balconies looking out over the city.
We ate at: There are tons of places to eat in Valletta, but it can get busy so it’s a good idea to book in advance for dinner. We loved cosy Papannis’ tasty Italian food, tucked away down a side street, and had fantastic fresh seafood overlooking the harbour at Porticello. Also recommended are Rampila, built into the city walls with a terrace outside and a cave-like restaurant inside, and Caffe Cordina – a local institution, serving coffee, cakes and Maltese specialities since 1837 in a historic palazzo with a shady terrace.