What Malta’s capital lacks in size, it more than makes up for in fascinating historical treasures. The tiny city, covering just one square kilometre of a peninsula on the island’s eastern coast, is home to a little over 6,000 people. Constructed by the Knights of St John in 1565 and decreed to be a city “built by gentlemen for gentlemen”, Valletta packs in countless ancient sites to uncover and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage City—described as one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
Walking around the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking you are in one huge, open-air museum. Inside imposing 16th century walls, many of the most impressive buildings date back to the Baroque period, most notably the wonderfully elaborate Cathedral of St. John. Inside, you’ll find priceless paintings by some of the great masters, including Caravaggio’s largest and most renowned work, The Beheading of St John the Baptist.
A short walk away, the tranquil Upper Barrakka Gardens overlook Malta’s Grand Harbour, often called the most beautiful in the Mediterranean.
At the end of the day, the friendly bars and excellent restaurants lining the narrow mediaeval streets welcome tourists with some of the best food you’ll find on the island.
Valletta hosts many cultural events throughout the year, from Jazz, opera and Baroque festivals to contemporary art and theatre productions. With its year-round beautiful climate, Malta’s capital makes the perfect getaway at any time.
St Paul’s Bay
If your holiday isn’t complete without some nightlife, St Paul’s Bay is just a short drive away on Malta’s north coast. Starting life as a small fishing village, it has managed to retain all of its old town charm, with a bustling harbour and stunning views across to St John’s Island. After a day soaking up the sun on one of the town’s beaches or exploring the crystal clear waters on a scuba dive, the vibrant resorts of Bugibba and Qawra are both within walking distance. Home to a great range of bars and clubs, along with cinemas and a casino, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
With a name meaning ‘Walled City’, Mdina sits on a large hill in the centre of Malta, encircled by formidable defensive bastions. There’s a real sense of going back in time as you walk around the island’s ancient capital, exploring the narrow cobbled streets with their maze of yellow-stoned buildings. Referred to by locals as the Silent City, as no cars are allowed inside its walls, it makes for a relaxing and fascinating day trip as you discover the perfectly preserved churches and cathedrals. Some of the best views of the island are to be had from the top of Mdina’s battlements.
Just outside Mdina, the village of Rabat is one of the most important historical sites in Europe and the birthplace of Maltese Christianity. It was here, legend has it, that the Apostle St Paul lived after being shipwrecked on Malta in 60AD. Today, you can visit the huge complex of catacombs that exist deep underground, including the grotto where St Paul supposedly resided—it’s said that stone scraped from the walls here has healing powers. Built over the grotto is the church dedicated to the saint, dating back to the 16th century. You’ll also find an ancient Roman villa that has been turned into an impressive museum. The Verdala Palace, official summer residence of the President of Malta, sits in nearby woodland and is a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture.
Visit St John’s Cathedral
For an architectural period as flamboyant as the Baroque, the exterior of St John’s Cathedral is surprisingly simple and understated. Inside, however, the elaborate nave, vaulted ceilings and side altars are awash with gold brocade and painted with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The floor is made up of a patchwork of marble tombstones, while the Oratory houses two works from the great master Caravaggio. There is also a cathedral museum containing illuminated choral books and a collection of 17th century Flemish tapestries.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens
A haven of relaxed solitude, the Barrakka Gardens have some of the most breath taking views in Malta. You can sit in the shade and take in the spectacular vista of Valletta’s two natural harbours, the Grand and the Marsamxett, or stop for a snack at one of the peaceful cafes on the balcony. Built on top of the city’s bastion, the Barrakka Gardens date back to 1661, when they were used as a training ground for the Knights of St John. Today, there are a number of monuments scattered throughout the grounds, including one dedicated to Winston Churchill and every day at noon and 4pm, members of the Malta Heritage Society fire a cannon salute across the bay.
National War Museum
An engrossing insight into Malta’s strategic role in WWII, and the hardships its people had to endure, the National War Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Valletta. There are many fascinating artefacts on display, including Eisenhower’s Jeep and the recovered wreckage of a Spitfire and Messerschmitt. There is also the George Cross that was presented to the whole population of the island in recognition of their bravery that now features on the national flag.
Malta has been occupied by many different civilisations over the centuries, and this turbulent history is reflected in the eclectic mix of tastes in their cuisine. You’ll also find influences from nearby neighbours in North Africa and Sicily. Keep a look out for the delicious Lampuki, a fish pie made with the incredibly diverse range of seafood of the Mediterranean, or Kapunata, the Maltese version of ratatouille.
There is a wide variety of restaurants in Valletta, from celebrity chef gourmet extravaganzas to small, family-run eateries offering great value for money. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll be able to find plenty of options to suit every palate and every wallet. For the authentic taste of Malta, head to local favourite Rubino, located in a sweet shop from the 1920s and specialising in pastizzi, a flaky pastry filled with ricotta.
The charming town of Valletta is a great getaway for people who want something a little different from their Mediterranean holiday. Tiny in size but crammed full of historical gems to discover, Valletta is a captivating destination.
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