City Guide to Valletta

Valletta Travel Guide

27. Oct 2022
by Punita Malhotra

The recent revitalisation of European’s tiniest capital has pushed it firmly into the limelight with dazzling monuments, prehistoric archaeological sites and world-class museums. Add spectacular cliffsides, sparkling lagoons and gourmet cuisine…and you have a sure-shot winner!

Valletta city view
Valletta boasts magnificent architecture

Built by the Knights of St John in the 1500s, the Maltese capital sits on a pretty perch above the deepest natural harbour of the azure Mediterranean. Imposing bastions, baroque monuments, limestone streets, honey-coloured mansions and Ottoman-style wooden balconies are the essential elements of Valletta's medieval charm. Europe's first planned city, UNESCO World Heritage site, European Capital of Culture 2018, sets the bar high…and delivers with flawless flair.

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Fort St. Elmo

For a dramatic introduction to the city, start with Valletta's Renaissance masterpiece, St John's Co-Cathedral. Ponder on the riches of the bygone era as you wander in lavishly gilded interiors. Gasp at the glass-like marble, ornate sculptures, soaring vaulted ceilings and spectacular frescoes. Come face to face with Caravaggio's largest and most famous painting, a dark depiction of the beheading of John the Baptist. Continue the tryst with larger-than-life history at the nearby Grandmaster's Palace in the capital's main square. The former seat of power for the Order of the Knights of St. John, and Governor's Palace during British rule, now houses the Office of the President. The opulent staterooms demand a few hours of ogling. Be sure to venture into The Palace Armoury to gawk at ancient artefacts from past wars. 

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St John's Co-Cathedral

Next, brace for a feel of Malta's epic reinvention at the mammoth City Gate and an open-air auditorium that seems to rise from the rubble of the WWII-bombed Opera House. Both were given a new lease of life by Italian celeb-architect Renzo Piano. Then make way to the Upper & Lower Barrakka Gardens at the top of the bastions for sweeping panoramas of the Grand Harbour. The former exercise grounds for the Knights are dressed with terraced arches, gurgling fountain waters, and lush foliage. A perfect vantage point for spotting the 17th-century Fort Ricasoli featured in Game Of Thrones.

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City Gate

Valletta is ideally positioned for a wealth of discoveries that lie beyond. Board a dghajsa (traditional Maltese wooden boat) to tour the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities, the medieval fortified towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Carry on to the hilltop citadel of Mdina, a mystical labyrinth of golden-stone walls, twisting lanes, sun-bleached piazzas and hidden convents. Stop at one of Malta's finest churches, St Paul's Cathedral, before arriving at Rabat to explore an excavated Roman villa and a bunch of eerie catacombs. If time travel fascinates you, bookmark the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a Unesco World Heritage triple-layered subterranean tomb complex dating from 3rd-4th millennia BC. The prehistoric clifftop temple complexes of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim on Malta's south coast are the history lover's dream. Be transported into fantasy as you wander through the monumental doorways, slip into curved rooms and touch the carvings on the stones. 

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St. Paul's Cathedral

If spectacles of nature intrigue you, don't miss the Blue Grotto, a system of underwater sea caves that glow with luminescent blue shades. Alternatively, plan a trip to Dingli Cliffs for a windswept hike along a sheer cliff that drops 722 feet into the water. Another surreal landscape to explore is Clapham Junction, where deep prehistoric ridges cut mysteriously across a sprawling limestone land.

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The fabulous Blue Grotto

Shopping

Republic Street: Valletta's main shopping drag is lined with stores offering everything from international luxury brands, high street fashion, cosmetics, accessories and home-ware. Two pitstops to add to your list are the flagship outlet of Malta's leading fashion house, Charles & Ron and Malta's high-end multi-brand store, Sarto.

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Republic Street:

Ta'Qali crafts village: The crafts village, located in the former RAF wartime airfield, is a treasure trove of local handmade artefacts, ranging from filigree jewellery and ceramics to lace and decorative glass. Let the hoarding begin. Take the opportunity to witness traditional Maltese crafts being handmade by artisans.

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Ta'Qali 

Mdina Glass: Head to the stores of this renowned homegrown brand to buy decorative and functional hand-blown glassware. Vases, bowls, paperweights, tumblers, jugs, candleholders, lanterns and sculptures are displayed in both traditional and contemporary styles. What takes your fancy?

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Mdina Glass

Merchants' Street: Walking along this pedestrianised shopping street is a pleasure, not just because of the enticing variety of goods on display. When you have had your fill of fashion, accessories, leather and souvenirs, stop by to browse for sweet treats at Camilleri, one of the oldest confectionery stores in Malta.

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Merchants' Street


Cekcik: Located in a classic Maltese townhouse, this quirky store is a medley of colourful knick-knacks of every imaginable variety, including Maltese tees, totes, costume jewellery, home accessories and antique handbags. Shopaholics can potter around for vintage Turkish ceramics, offbeat lamps, frankincense and much more.

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Museums & the Arts

National Museum of Archaeology: Converted from the original home of the Knights of Malta, this iconic museum houses an array of exhibits dating from 5000 BC, the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age and the Phoenician eras. The most impressive artefacts are Malta's famous 'Sleeping Lady' from Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and the 'Venus of Malta' from Hagar Qim.

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National Museum of Archaeology

National War Museum: Located in the Lower St. Elmo, overlooking Marsamxett Harbour, a trip to this museum is a capsule course on Malta's war history. You can trace the journey of Malta's battles and sieges from prehistoric times and the Bronze Age to the colonisation phase, the Great Siege of 1565 to the two world wars. 

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National War Museum: 

MUŻA Art Museum: Housed in a dignified 16th-century mansion, MUŻA is renowned for a collection of Maltese and Italian paintings and sculptures, ranging from the Renaissance to the modern times. Multimedia and interactive installations can be found next to centuries-old pieces.

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MUŻA Art Museum:

Casa Rocca Piccola: This privately owned museum, located in the 16th-century palace, offers a peek into the lifestyle of the Maltese nobles. Tour the grand interiors of the mansion, including dining rooms, bedrooms and salons. The archive room with family records and memorabilia is fascinating. Then explore the underground tunnels used as bomb shelters during WWII air raids. 

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Casa Rocca Piccola

Malta Postal Museum: Get acquainted with the history of postal mail in Malta starting from the 16th century to the present day. The well-curated displays are educational and entertaining, especially for fans of philately. Take back your personal sheet of postage stamps with your own photo printed on it. 

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Malta Postal Museum

 Sports 

Football: Fans of the sport will be surprised to learn that football is one of the oldest and most beloved sports in Malta. The national football team has made it to the finals of World Cups in Belgium and Hungary. Look forward to catching a live game in the Ta' Qali Stadium, the largest stadium in the country, and feel the intensity of football fever.

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Ta' Qali Stadium

Horse racing: The history of horse racing in the country goes back to the 15th century when the Knights of Malta introduced the sport to the locals. Races usually occur on Sundays at the Marsa racing course between October and May. Plan a trip during the horse racing season to immerse in the excitement along with the locals.

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Marsa Horse Racing Track

Kayaking: Glide over the brilliant blues of the Mediterranean in a slow kayak to reach hidden coves and secluded beaches of Malta and the neighbouring islands. You can take the adventure up several notches by opting for an overnight camping excursion. Instructors are available for newbies to grasp the finer nuances of kayaking.

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Kayaking

 Restaurants & Bars

Noni: This Michelin-starred restaurant on Republic Street is a local favourite for reinvented Maltese and Mediterranean cuisine. Realise your gourmet dreams with the slow-cooked octopus with Israeli couscous or the mushroom pannacotta and pickled mushrooms, accompanied by excellent wines and craft beers from Malta and Belgium.

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Noni

Under Grain: The cellar restaurant at the Rosselli Hotel has earned a Michelin star for skilfully crafted French classics soaked in bold flavours. Expect farm-to-table meats, poultry and fresh catch from Marsaxlokk. The signature Acquerello risotto with homegrown tomatoes, guanciale and Comté is highly recommended.

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Under Grain

ION The Harbour: Settle down at a table overlooking the panorama of the Grand Harbour in this stylish Michelin-starred establishment promising fresh, seasonal ingredients and classic cooking techniques. Order the Lampuki with cucumber, dill and smoked cream or the Hunter Chicken with Albufera sauce to experience the culinary craftsmanship.

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ION The Harbour:

Legligin: This cellar wine bar in a historic Valletta house is a great choice when you are in the mood for Maltese tapas-style food and innovative cocktails. The fixed menu with nine small dishes includes refreshing starters like Arjoli made from sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives and anchovies. 

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Legligin

Exclusive Experience

There are plenty of intriguing caves, reefs and wrecks in Malta, suitable for both beginners and pros. The most iconic of them, the Blue Hole, starts with a 12-metre pool that leads through a crevice to the ocean's clear blue waters. If the idea of spotting marine creatures like octopus, parrot fish and scorpion fish enthrals you, bookmark a swim. 

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The magnifient Blue Hole

Side trip

The neighbouring island of Gozo is the stuff of Mediterranean fairytales, thanks to towering sea cliffs, sparkling waters and stellar views. As part of the agenda, you can look forward to discovering the walled city of Victoria, its historic citadel and the rock formations of Dwejra. Indulge your inner historian at the Ġgantija prehistoric temples of Xagħra. For a laid-back day, say yes to long walks along the cliffs or escape to secret coves.

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Gozo is a must visit!

 Hidden gem

The Lascaris War Rooms are a living monument to Malta's military operations during World War II. This underground complex of tunnels and chambers lies 150 feet beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the Saluting Battery. Learn about the hidden site from where defence operations were devised, secret communications were received, and some of the greatest battles in the Mediterranean were planned.

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Lascaris War Rooms


Hotels

Valletta – the capital of Malta – is not filled with uber-luxury hotels but does offer some delightful, service-first, comfortable hotels that give their visitors a memorable stay. The Phoenicia is favoured by the rich, famous and royalty and is the island’s premier hotel address.

The BusinessClass.com guide to the finest luxury hotels in Valletta

Getting around

Malta International Airport, located 8 kilometres away, is an easy 20-minute drive from Valletta. The best way to reach the city is to hail a taxi or hop into a shared shuttle bus. Hiring a car will be a good idea if you prefer to drive around and beyond the city. Passenger ferries are convenient for commuting from Valletta to the Three Cities.

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