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Boats and balconies: The best things to do in Valletta, Malta

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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Boats and balconies: The best things to do in Valletta, Malta

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 Maltese beach holiday, here’s my pick of the best things to do in Valletta.

The best things to do in Valletta, Malta

The Saluting Battery in the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta, Malta
The Saluting Battery

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.

St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta
St John’s Co-Cathedral

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.

St John's Co-Cathedral – one of the top things to do in Valletta, Malta
Golden details in the cathedral

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 and sculptures. There’s also a café to relax in with a drink. And if you visit at 12pm or 4pm (excluding on Sundays) you can catch the cannon-firing ceremony at 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.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta
The Upper Barrakka Gardens

Visit the Grandmaster’s Palace

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).

Exhibits in the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta
The Grandmasters’ Palace

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 which is filled with ricotta – or more unusually with 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.

Old and new architecture in Valletta
Old and new at Valletta’s parliament

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 of them can still be seen 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.

Colourful Maltese balconies
Colourful balconies

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.

Historic streets in Valletta, Malta
Valletta’s historic heart

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.

Discovering Malta's Second World War history at the Lascaris War Rooms
The Lascaris War Rooms

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 all lit up.

Outdoor bars on St Lucia Street in Valletta
Bars on St Lucia Street in Valletta

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 to the Three Cities from the south. They cost €2 one way/€3.80 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).

Boat trip to the Three Cities near Valletta, Malta
Ferry views on the way to the Three Cities

Longer 90-minute cruises* are available around Malta’s two harbours on board a traditional sailing boat known as a luzzi, with a commentary about Valletta’s history. If you prefer more flexibility, you can also hire a boat with or without a skipper though the SamBoat* rental site and explore the Three Cities or head out along the coast.

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).

On board a traditional dgħajsa boat from Valletta to the Three Cities
On board a dgħajsa from Valletta

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.

Quiet streets in Vittoriosa in the Three Cities, Malta
Pretty streets in Vittoriosa

The details

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 from 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 break towards the end of the season.

Harbour in Valletta, Malta
Looking out to sea

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 you can pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups,* which takes around 20 minutes and will transport you right into the city to your hotel.

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.

Book your travel to Valletta*

Valletta's traditional architecture
Valletta’s traditional architecture

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.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Valletta?*

The Saint John boutique hotel in Valletta
The Saint John

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 dishes with a Slow Food ethos, including rabbit stew and slow-cooked pork belly.

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 has 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.

Outside the Is-Suq Tal-Belt Valletta food court and market
Is-Suq Tal-Belt Valletta Food Market

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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 | What to do in Valletta | Valletta travel guide | Visiting Valletta Malta | Valletta things to do | Valletta city breakThings to do in Valletta, Malta – the best things to see, do and eat in the golden Maltese capital, from the best views and local dishes to museums and boat trips   | What to do in Valletta | Valletta travel guide | Visiting Valletta Malta | Valletta things to do | Valletta city break

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Saturday 3rd of June 2023

Hey Lucy, Thank you for your great post! Where are the closest authentic Maltese boats to the Valetta cruise ship terminal? We would like a little 30 minute harbor tour on one. Also, do you know of any stores where I could buy a Christmas ornament in Valetta? Thanks, Patti

Lucy Dodsworth

Tuesday 6th of June 2023

Hi Patti, if you follow the waterfront north of the cruise ship terminal you can pick up a dgħajsa from the water taxi station just below the Upper Barrakka Gardens, around a 10-minute walk. Afraid I don't know about Christmas ornaments but there are a lot of gift shops around where you may be able to pick one up. Have a great trip!