Valletta is one of the smallest capital cities in Europe with a population of just above 5,500 people. Built as the new capital of Malta in the XVIth century by the Knights of St. John’s Order using a modern urban planning suitable for real gentlemen. At that time the predominant artistic style was the Baroque, so that gives the visitor a beautiful feeling of stepping into a fairy-tale world. For those who have previously been to neighbor Sicily, Valletta’s architecture will look familiar: luxurious palazzi, large squares embellished by colonnades, plenty of churches and saints statues marking the corners of the streets with Italian language inscribed plaques granting 40 days of clemency for those who will recite a prayer with ardour. As the Italian heritage is clearly there, you will immediately notice another cultural layer – the British one: the London style phone boots or round post boxes, most of the public bilingual inscriptions, the statue of Queen Victoria, the shops’ names or English convenience products such as Cadbury sweets or daily newspapers whose crazy news kind of vanish in the Mediterranean sun. The locals are very polite and smiling honestly. You are not getting those Nordic springy smiles: “Thank you, Sir”, “Here you are, Sir”. The third layer is the Semitic element difficult to peel out from the previous ones as the Maltese language is a fascinating mix of Arabic, Italian and English. It reminded me of Lebanon where people easily mix in their language Arabic, French and English. Street signs reveal Arabic origin words such as “dar” (‘house’) o “kittieb” (‘writer’), “triq” (‘road’).
When to Go
My visit was in December, just before Christmas with a very pleasant weather and balmy temperatures of +18C and beautiful sunshines and without a single cruising ship downloading its tourist waves within the fortified walls. Spring and autumn are also great times for the visit. I would probably avoid it during the scorching +40C and above of August.
How to Travel There
Getting there by plane is easy and often very cheap. An interesting way of travel to or from here is by boat from/to Sicily. The vicinity of Tunisia or Libya is tempting to any Marco Polo soul traveler. If you arrive by plane, grab a public bus (X3 route) that will drop you off at the gates of the old town in about 30 minutes for the small change of 1.50 euro.
There are plenty of beautiful accommodation options in the old town. I was lucky picking a lovely Airbnb one bedroom apartment with a breathtaking view over the harbor from its rooftop terrace (‘Valletta Centre, Designer loft with views’). Hosted in a historic building with original features, on the corner of St. Lucia and St. Paul streets, the flat makes a great base to discover the town. In the area there are also some amazing luxury boutique hotels with affordable rates for a couple.
Must see. My top 8
40 hours (one day and a half) are not too much, but Valletta filled in every single second of my stay. I was taking photos even on my way back to the airport! Here is my top of must see places that may suit any art and architecture lover.
1. Caravaggio Paintings
Two of Caravaggio’s paintings are hosted in the St. John’s Co-cathedral of Valletta: “The Beheading of St. John the Baptizer” is Caravaggio’s largest painting and the only one bearing the painter’s signature. You can spot it in the lower part of the blood spill. It is dramatic and theatrical, stripped off of any religious symbolism. In the same space you will find the painting of St. Jerome Writing.
2. St. John’s Co-Cathedral
When I stepped in I felt dizzy and amazed at the same time – the effect of the Baroque style and the showcasing of Malta’s honorable knights’ richness and power. These fine gentlemen of Western and Southern European roots created probably the most beautiful church in the world. Every inch is covered either with frescoes, colored marble tomb stones, monuments, stuccoes, sculptures, furniture, altars and relics. All blends in a perfect harmony.
3. The Sleeping Lady and the Ruts of MaltaThe National Museum of Archaeology of Malta stands out high on my list not for its lack of glam (the building and rooms need a renovation) but for two outstanding exhibits: the Sleeping Lady dating back to 3500 BCE – a Matisse-like statuette sleeping on a bending bed. The refined artistic representation on display depicts an advanced civilization during the Neolithic period on the island of Malta.
The other surprise and mind dazzling discovery of this trip is the display on the misterious cart ruts left in the strong rocky ground of Malta. These ruts are worn out railways that split or join, criss-crossing the island. Who created them? What kind of transport means used to run on them? Were they horseless carts? How were they powered, as there are no signs of animal traction in between the ruts. Some of them end by the edge of the cliffs. UFO lovers are welcome!
The National Museum of Fine Arts of Malta (MUZA) is one of the tiniest art museum in the world. Hosted in the Auberge D’Italie palace, it hosts a cute collection of painting and sculpture. Simple and refreshing.
5. Memorial for Free Speech
At the foot of the Great Siege monument, just opposite the Court of Justice building you will see a memorial dedicated to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a local journalist murdered in 2017 in a car bomb explosion for her uncomfortable investigation in high-level corruption. Worth a moment of silence and a consideration towards independent journalists and activists like her.
6. Upper Barrakka Gardens
These gardens stretching on an esplanade with Italianate arches offer romantic spots and amazing views over the harbor and towards the three fortified cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. They are worth a visit if you have more time on your hands.
7. Manoel Theatre
The third oldest active theatre in Europe, Manoel Theatre is a little architectural gem: It was built in 1731 in Rococo style. There are daily visits and guided tours. In early January (10-25) each year it hosts the Valletta Baroque Festival (https://www.vallettabaroquefestival.mt/).
8. Roaming the streets of Valetta
The old town is able to surprise you at every step. It looks like an open air museum and wherever you go you will find something worth taking a photo.
1. Theobroma Raw Cacao Collective (123 Old Theatre Street, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta) is my number one pick due to its core product: healthy raw desserts where pure cocoa meets the sweetness of dates, the delicate aromas of rose water, pistachios, roasted hazelnuts and cranberries. Beautiful and delicate tastes that will turn your day into a birthday celebration. The entire experience has been so super positive that I am already longing to get back to Valletta only for it. Bring your own tapper for take away goodies! https://www.theobromacacaocollective.com/
2. Legligin Wine Bar (117/119 St Lucia Street, Valletta) is my best recommendation for a complete Maltese and great tasting and flavorful food. The restaurant serves tasting menus (20 euros for lunch and 30 euros for dinner) – a 3 hour culinary parade where countless traditional dishes are served: olive oil and local bread, different tapas, fish, sea food, rabbit, veal, salads. The wine selection is beautiful. It is a pity there is no room for deserts. Reservations are a must.
3. Soul Food (76 Merchants St, Valletta) is a great option for vegetarians and those looking for food prepared from scratch with no un-necessary add-ons. The freshly squeezed juices and the Budha Bowl were fulfilling and nourishing. Namaste!
4. Zest – Asian Street Food (Food Market, Merchants St, Valletta) was my choice within the Victorian era food market, nowadays an elegant food court.
5. Chocolate District (13 Melita Street, Valletta) is the pit stop break for any real chocolate lover. I went for the Sea Salt Dark Chocolate made in Malta (I am munching it as I am editing this article and the combination of sea salt and chocolate is divine!). The shop assistant warned me that the Maltese salt is something unique compared to other salts and he was right. https://www.chocolatedistrict.com/
Visit Malta official site: https://www.visitmalta.com/
Casa Rocca Piccola – privately owned palazzo opened to the public https://www.casaroccapiccola.com/