When tourists seek a holiday in capital cities they often expect high rise buildings, a busy vibe, heavy traffic and modernism. Well, that’s exactly what Malta’s capital city is not and that is why Valletta is a very unique capital city.
It is one of the oldest capital cities in Europe, probably also the only one which you can cover simply on foot. Valletta has been attracting millions of tourists every year and the number is only growing larger. Cruise liners stop here for day trips combined with locals who enter the big walls of Valletta for shopping and the tourists who decide to live here, this gem in the Mediterranean is truly unique.
A changing Capital
Up until some ten years ago, the streets of Valletta were normally deserted after 9 pm. It sounds very unnatural for a European capital city but in the case of this city, Valletta was only considered as a place worth visiting only by day. Luckily, things have started to change. And this change came with a wave of drastic investment and a renewed interest into the arts and secrets which lie beneath the capital’s surface.
Artists from all across the globe started to invest in the Maltese capital seeking inspiration through its unique architecture and Mediterranean charisma. Streets which were before considered as desolated and abandoned were now being transformed into hotspots for cafes, bars and restaurants.
A perfect example of all this is Strait Street, a corner in the city which was infamous only due to its sinful past. The street, better known with locals as ‘Strada Stretta’, was the lane where soldiers travelling aboard ships during the wars would spend their nights in the company of local women. The place even became the source for novels and local TV dramas.
Because of this renewed interest, a Valletta which was otherwise left for the ageing local population was now seeing a lot of foreigners and Maltese from all across the island invest in the capital’s property. Whereas up until some years ago a property in Valletta was considered as a cheap and bad investment, now houses on the market in this area can go up to millions of euros. Recently the city has seen huge investment in magnificent boutique hotels, accommodations in old townhouses which were brilliantly restored to offer a unique experience. You can easily find accommodation in Valletta on Booking.com.
What really pushed Valletta into a new era was the complete restructure and modernisation of some of its most iconic buildings such as the Triton Fountain and St Georges Square. The next big investment was in a new parliament. This injection of artistic touch came with a helping hand from a world-famous artistic director Renzo Piano (architect of the Chard in London among others). All of these major attractions (which will be mentioned later on) have helped Valletta take a giant leap forward.
In 2018, Valletta was also named as the European Capital of Culture, yet another huge source of investment into this wonderful city. Today, nights in Valletta are as fun as can be. Dozens of restaurants (we mention some of the best below) fill every corner and artistic activities go on practically all year round. It has become the home of painters, poets and writers, but also the hub for modern bars and restaurants. The old meets the new. Art meets politics and palazzos meet modern apartments. Dear readers, we’d like you to meet our beloved capital, Valletta.
One thing which Valletta definitely manages to champion is history. The streets of Valletta have seen a lot of bloodsheds, French grandmasters, religious orders, violent conflicts and revolutions. If you are to visit this city you should equip yourself with, at least the very basics. Let’s start with the name.
Valletta is named after Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette who was the head of the Knights of St John in the mid-1500s. It became Malta’s capital in 1570. The city itself was built right after the great siege of 1565, a battle of legendary proportions which saw the Knights of St John clash with the then infamous Ottoman powers. Malta left the siege victorious and historians today agree that this important point in history would have changed the faith of all of Europe.
The city was designed by military engineer Francesco Laparelli. The epicentre of the city was built on an area called Mount Sciberras. After Laparelli, Giolormo Cassar took over the structural works after spending years in Rome. He adopted the style into the Maltese capital. If you are a history enthusiast then make sure you listen to a BBC podcast called In Our Time about the Great Siege of Malta 1565. You can find it on BBC radio 4 or through Spotify.
In 1798 Malta’s capital was seized by the French. Only two years later the Maltese revolt against the French garrison and that same year the British occupied our land. By 1814, Valletta became a strategic British naval base in the Mediterranean. That is why during the Second World War, the city was heavily bombarded through air raids by the Germans and Italians.
The 7th of June is an important date in the Maltese calendar. On this date in 1919, Maltese workers were demonstrating in the streets of Valletta against the British rule and because the colonial rulers failed to help with supplies of food to the local population. The date remained marked in history because the British invaders had shot at the crowd and killed four people. This event was seen as the first step towards Maltese independence.
Times have changed but still, Valletta has still seen its fair share of demonstrations. Only recently, following the murder of a famous journalist in Malta Daphne Caruana Galizia, thousands have taken to the streets demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation as many feared that the people closest to him were behind the assassination.
Where is Valletta located?
The city was built on a tongue-shaped piece of land surrounded by the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. On one side the city looks at the Three Cities (Birgu, Bormla and Isla) and on the other side, the fortifications look at Marsamxett and Sliema. Easy to say that Valletta sits on the perfectly located area. Both sides of the harbour give access to other major touristic towns like Cospicua and Vittoriosa which are accessible by a ferry boat. Sliema is also easy to get to by a fast ferry service.
How to get to Valletta?
Valletta is home to the island’s main bus terminus and from here you can practically catch a public transport bus to every corner of the island. In the same way, it is really easy to get to the capital city from every other town or village.
- If you are coming from the Airport catch the X4 which goes to Valletta.
- If you are arriving from Gozo island by Ferry, you have to catch numbers 41 and 42.
Things to see in Valletta
A holiday in Valletta alone can take up an itinerary of multiple days. The UNESCO-listed fortified city just has so much to offer and that is why we are going to list the attractions according to specific likings.
- Toy Museum
- Malta Postal Museum
- National Museum of Archaeology
- National War Museum
- MUZA (housed in Auberge d’Italie has over 20,000 pieces of art)
- Visit the former Parliament Building sitting in front of the beautiful St Georges Square
- New parliament building which sits on the right side of the grand entrance to the city
- Manuel Theatre
- The Grandmasters Palace
- The National Library
- La Sacra Infermeria and the Malta Experience (A screened film which gives you a good introduction of the history of Malta and Gozo translated in 15 languages)
- St John’s Co-Cathedral
- Fort Saint Elmo
- Visit the Royal Opera House (A heavily bombarded building now used for concerts and events)
Things to do in Valletta
With so many things to do and see in Valletta it’s pretty easy to get confused (but not lost! Valletta was designed in a square grid shape which makes it very easy to navigate). The ideal way to start your journey in Valletta is by taking a Free Walking Tour which takes you around the most important sights in the capital. They are free but make sure you give the guide a nice tip for the effort. If you want your orientation to get even better, then a boat ride down the harbour would also really help.
- Grab a couple of traditional Maltese pastizzi and Malta’s favourite soft drink, Kinnie from Malta Pastizzi in Merchant Street and find a nice spot in Pjazza San Gorg as you watch the world go by. (Make sure to take cash, most pastizzerias in Malta don’t accept cards! A pastizz costs around 40c of a euro)
- Get lost in the narrow streets of Valletta including Strait Street, St Lucia Street, Republic Street (bottom part) and watch out for the traditional Maltese balconies and doorknobs.
- Spend a night in one of the restored boutique hotels
- Take a boat tour around the Grand Harbour
- Sip a coffee at Cafe Cordina, make sure to check out the interior of this old palazzo.
- Take the lift from Upper Barrakka and head down to the Valletta Waterfront
- Watch the sunset from the Upper Barrakka Gardens or Marsamxett Gardens
- Watch the saluting battery which takes place every day 12.00 and 16.00 at the Upper Barrakka.
- Grab a bite at the newly renovated Suq tal-Belt (An open market with a similar design to the San Miguel Market in Madrid)
- Experience Malta’s history in 5D at the Malta5D
- Walk the St Elmo breakwater bridge for stunning views of the Grand Harbour
- DON’T MISS the famous Caravaggio painting Beheading of St John the Baptist which can be found at the Co-Cathedral of St John.
Where to eat?
Valletta has a great selection of good restaurants and every year the choice just grows larger.
- Museum Cafe: A tiny shop in Melita Street, this is as local & cheap as it gets. (Map)
- Gugar: For a healthy vegetarian option, good variety of juices, smoothies & ice-cold beer! Try out their Famous Ftira and feel free to have a chat with their friendly staff. (Map)
- Nenu the Artisan Baker: Offering a selection of traditional Maltese food, don’t miss their pizza style traditional ftira which is baked in a 100-year-old stone oven, just like the good old days. (Map)
- Cockney’s Restaurant: Great for mouth-watering fish and a spectacular sea view. (Map)
- Zero Sei Trattoria Romana: Fantastic Italian food, we suggest the carbonara and tiramisu. (Map)
- Rubino: For a nice Mediterranean meal, good ambience and great food. (Map)
- Balzunetta Gastropub: If you don’t mind walking for 5 minutes, you can discover a very local place outside the city gates of Valletta. Its has a great outdoor area and live music in summer. Here is on the Map.
Where to drink?
In Valletta you will find endless bars to tickle your fancy:
- Trabuxu Wine Bar: If wine is your thing head down to this outlet nestled below street level in a 400-year-old stone vaulted cellar. Here it is on the Map.
- StrEat Whiskey bar & bistro: For a great choice of whisky. Here you can find it on the Map.
- Yard 32 Gin & Tapas: Great spot for a gin or two. Here is a link to this place on the Map.
- Cafe Society: For a good variety of cocktails. You can find the place here on Map.
- Bridge Bar: Famous for jazz sessions and a friendly atmosphere. Here it is on the Map.
- Carnival (Celebrated in February): The locals deal with this particular time of the year with great enthusiasm. Watch out for the politically-motivated carnival floats which will tell you a thousand stories.
- Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck (10th of February)
- Holy week processions (April)
- Malta International Fireworks Festival (end of April)
- Malta Jazz Festival (end of July)
- Wine Festivals from local producers (July & August)
- Notte Bianca (early October)