Malta’s capital, Valletta, is a grande dame undergoing rapid change. With more than 300 monuments crammed into the city’s small peninsular borders, Valletta has one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. This means that there are lots of things to do in Valletta, whether you’re an architecture aficionado, military-history buff or passionate wanderer eager to see a city reawakening from a long slumber.
Shawn and I were delighted to have called Valletta home this past year, living on one of the city’s most infamous streets – a narrow lane which was once a red-light district that lured sailors. When we first learned we’d be moving to Malta for Shawn’s studies, we thought we might develop island fever living on a tiny island nation for twelve months. Surprisingly though, there was so much to experience in and out of Valletta that our weekend calendar was always replete with activities.
A decade before moving to Valletta, I also played tourist in the capital city, making it my home base during a long-weekend visit. Back in 2006, Valletta was eerily quiet. Half of the city’s buildings were boarded up and abandoned. Accommodation in Valletta was so scarce that I literally had to sleep in a spacious maid’s closet for one night, until a proper room became available. Coincidentally, ten years later, my future in-laws would choose to stay at a boutique hotel located just across the street from the same guesthouse in which I stayed as a solo female traveler in 2006. It’s funny how life comes full circle like that!
As a solo traveler on that long weekend, I loved exploring Valletta’s streets and their characteristic golden-limestone buildings, radiant wooden balconies, and vintage storefronts. Therefore in 2015, Shawn and I were elated to have that impressive architecture, history, and culture just outside our doorstep for an entire year.
Drawing upon my experience as a visitor and one-year resident, I’ve created this guide to exploring Valletta. It highlights some of the Maltese capital’s top sites, plus a smattering of lesser-visited ones. Along with overviews of Valletta’s gardens, museums, churches, and palaces, I’ve thrown in generic logistical details to help with issues about transportation, groceries, and accommodation. I’ve also included a few photo-taking spots and a personalized map to help you plan your visit. Hop to my Table of Contents below for a post outline, or my Malta index for everything I’ve written about Malta.
A Bit of History
The Knights of Malta (also known as the Knights of the Order of St. John, or the Knights Hospitaller) started building Valletta in 1566, following the Great Siege of 1565. After this legendary fight against the Ottoman Turks, the Knights wanted to construct a fortified stronghold to protect against future attacks.
A Pope sent Italian architect Francesco Laparelli to Malta to oversee Valletta’s construction. Laparelli, who had once been Michelangelo’s assistant, designed Valletta in a grid-pattern fashion. Massive bastions, moats, and narrow streets were created, all with the intent of making the new city of Valletta easier to defend. An added advantage of the city’s grid pattern was that Valletta’s high walls helped shade streets on sizzling summer days, while ushering in refreshing sea breezes. Having lived on one of the city’s streets for a year, I can attest that this is still a good form of natural air conditioning.
The Knights of Malta remained in power until Napoleon seized the island in 1798. The French occupation was short-lived, only lasting about two years. Shortly thereafter, Malta became part of the British Empire. The country ended its colonial relationship with the United Kingdom in the 1960s.
Baroque to British Flair
From stately baroque buildings and classic old storefronts to ornate brass door knockers, devotional statues, and enclosed wooden balconies, Valletta’s narrow streets are replete with character. Historians are unsure when the first of the distinctive balconies (gallariji) appeared on the island’s buildings. The suspicion is that this architectural feature made its debut on Valletta’s Grandmaster’s Palace, and then other homeowners simply followed suit.
Since Malta was a British colony from 1813-1964, you’ll see remnants of that chapter of history in the form of cherry-red phone booths, rounded mail boxes, and the grand Victoria Gate. The city’s Catholic influence is equally evident in the devotional saint’s statues which rest in corner niches throughout the city. Some even have a donation slot built into the wall below the figure.
Finally, though it’s not as common in Valletta as it is in Maltese villages, you’ll notice a few name plates adorning the front of buildings. These little signs bear the name of the home given to it by its residents. Common house names honor religious figures or meld a husband’s and wife’s first names. (Shawn and I resisted the urge to dub our apartment ‘Trishawn’!)
Table of Contents
- Festivals and Holidays
- Maltese Newspapers
- Post Offices
- Tourist Information Offices
- Valletta Map
- Additional Links and Resources
- St. John’s Co-Cathedral
- St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral
- The Carmelite Church
- Our Lady of Victories Church
- Auberge de Castille
- City Gate
- De Valette Square
- Former Victory Kitchen
- Nelson’s Hook
- Saluting Battery
- Siege Bell War Memorial
- Queen Victoria Statue and Victoria Gate
- Fort St. Elmo and the National War Museum
- Fortifications Interpretation Centre
- Grandmaster’s Palace: State Rooms & Palace Armoury
- Lascaris War Rooms
- National Library of Malta
- National Museum of Archaeology
- National Museum of Fine Arts
- Sacra Infermeria (The Knights’ Hospital)
Entertainment & Theaters
- Manoel Theatre
- Pjazza Teatru Rjal
- St. James Cavalier (Malta’s National Centre for Creativity)
- Strada Stretta
De Valette Square
The year 2016 marked 450 years since Valletta’s foundation stone was laid by the city’s namesake, Jean Parisot de Valette. Having led the Knights of Malta to victory during the Great Siege of 1565 (as a 70-something warrior!), Grandmaster de Valette was seen as a heroic figure within the order.
Not long after their arrival on the island of Malta, the Knights had contemplated building a city on the then-barren Sciberras Peninsula. First came Fort St. Elmo, and later the fortified city of Valletta that we know today, both designed to help defend the island against attack.
Though the Knights officially took chastity vows, it’s interesting that de Valette himself is said to have covertly fathered at least two children: a son that would be ‘legitimized’ by the King of France, and a daughter that was tragically murdered by her husband.
Since he died in 1568, de Valette did not live to see Valletta’s completion. His ornate sarcophagus is located in St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral
The Carmelite Church
Two buildings punctuate Valletta’s skyline: the enormous dome of the Carmelite Church, and the pointy steeple of St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.
Malta is overwhelmingly Roman-Catholic but St. Paul’s stands as a remnant of Malta’s British colonial past. Groundbreaking for the neo-classical structure began in 1839, at the request of a visiting queen who lamented that there was no place of worship for Anglican parishioners. Originally, the Auberge d’Allemagne (quarters for the German branch of the Knights of Malta) stood here.
Surprisingly, the Carmelite Church was not constructed until the 20th century. The original structure was built in the 16th century, but because it was decimated during World War II bombings, it was reconstructed during the 1950s to 1980s.
Photo tip: Splendid places to photograph the Valletta skyline at sunset are either from the promenade in the city of Sliema (a short ferry ride across the Marsamxett Harbour from Valletta) or from this Valletta parking lot on St. Michael’s Bastion (map here). Both vantage points will allow you to capture these iconic buildings in your photograph. During our year in Valletta, we often strolled past this spot just before sunset, watching the neighborhood children play soccer in a nearby parking lot, as a scrappy Chihuhua ran about.
- Carmelite Church (official website) & Carmelite Church (Facebook page)
- St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral (official website)
Our Lady of Victories Church
This dainty church is Valletta’s oldest building, and is best known for being the first resting place of Grandmaster de Valette. After the colossal St. John’s Co-Cathedral was built, his remains were transferred from Our Lady of Victories to St. John’s.
The Grandmaster himself is said to have financed Our Lady of Victories Church, which was designed to express gratitude for the Knights’ victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1565.
- Admission free.
- Our Lady of Victories Church (Wikipedia)
- Our Lady of Victories Church (National Trust of Malta – Din l-Art Ħelwa)
Each day, without fail, visitors cram themselves onto the terrace of the Upper Barrakka Gardens, for the twelve o’clock cannon salute in the Saluting Battery below. To escape the garden’s crowds at midday, you can enter the Saluting Battery just below the gardens, which has the same commanding perspective over the Grand Harbour. (Note: the Upper Barrakka Gardens are free to enter, while the Saluting Battery has a small admission fee.)
The Knights built the Saluting Battery in the 1500s, near the site of a battery earlier established by the Ottomans during the Great Siege of 1565. This 16th-century map shows the Ottoman’s battery as it would’ve looked then.
Gun salutes have historically been fired here to commemorate anniversaries and religious feast days, to welcome dignitaries, and to help ships with their time-keeping.
Photo tip: If you stroll along the walls facing Valletta’s Grand Harbour, you will find a bounty of photo-snapping spots. St. Barbara’s Bastions (map here) offer some of the nicest panoramas of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities, and this area generally has less crowds than the Upper Barrakka Gardens. The Lower Barrakka Gardens also have commanding views across the Grand Harbour.
- Saluting Battery (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
Adorning a wall in our Valletta apartment was a turn-of-the century photograph of one of Valletta’s former city gates. At the time, the entrance was dressed in bunting and a huge ‘welcome’ sign. Since the black and white image hung over our kitchen sink, I looked at it whenever I did dishes, and analyzed the faces of the people frozen in time. Most of the passersby were dressed in black, with some wearing formal, big hats. Others wore the attire of laborers. What the two groups shared was a curiosity of the camera, which would have been a novel contraption at the time.
In the past 450 years, there have been five different versions of gates installed on this spot, each doing its part to help secure Valletta’s primary entrance. This most recent rendition was designed by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano (of London Shard fame), and inaugurated in 2015. Because of its minimalist design, the City Gate, as well as Piano’s adjacent Parliament building, remain controversial additions to this largely baroque city.
If you’d like to see what’s thought to be the gate’s original wooden drawbridge, you can find it at the Fortifications Interpretation Center (listed below).
Malta’s Parliament Building was controversially unveiled in 2015, receiving mixed reviews. Some lauded its contemporary design and how it incorporates the island’s traditional limestone, while others thought its abstract look was incompatible with Valletta’s baroque buildings. For a time, there was even concern that UNESCO might strip Valletta of its World Heritage Site status because of this addition. To this day, some displeased locals describe it as a ‘cheese grater’ on stilts. As you walk past the Parliament, note the fossilized remains in the limestone under your feet.
Fortifications Interpretation Centre
Housed in a 16th-century era building that was once a warehouse for the Knights, the Fortifications Interpretation Center describes itself as part museum, and part resource center. If you’re remotely interested in military architecture, or simply want to better understand Valletta’s prominent fortifications, then the Centre is a worthwhile stop. It’s just a two minute’s walk from the Valletta – Sliema Ferry.
One of the star attractions in the museum is a segment of a drawbridge that’s believed to date back to around 1645. Much of the weathered wood has been chipped off or devoured by woodworms. However, it still helps to paint a picture of what life in Valletta was like during times of insecurity.
Another exhibit displays a sampling of tools that would’ve been used by laborers to quarry and shape Malta’s rugged limestone into uniform blocks. In another wing, informational boards highlight how fortifications around the world have evolved over the millennia.
Other exhibits that help illustrate the island’s extensive fortifications include: models of Valletta, Malta’s coastal watchtowers, the medieval city of Mdina, and the Gozo Citadel. Shawn and I easily whiled away about two hours here.
- Admission free.
- Fortifications Interpretation Centre (official website) lists opening hours.
Walking Circuit Around the Exterior of Valletta’s Fortifications
While it is common for visitors to traipse along the top of Valletta’s fortifications, not as many tourists realize that it’s possible to explore them around the outside too. Shawn discovered this walking circuit while scouting out jogging spots. This route soon became one of our favorite early-evening walks.
Starting from the Valletta – Sliema Ferry and ending at the Sacra Infermeria, or vice versa, the walk takes you past the Breakwater, a cluster of boat houses, fishing spots, and WWII-era sites.
The war-related structures are the most notable sites and include a Boom Defence, lookout towers, and bomb shelters. The cave-like bomb shelters were carved by Valletta residents to offer refuge during the air raids of 1940 to 1942. The shelters have since been transformed for more peaceful purposes, and are now utilized as spaces to house boats, tools, and picnic furniture. Owing to the number of men that we saw flocking to them on a routine basis, Shawn and I joked that they are Malta’s version of a ‘man cave.’
Please wear sensible footwear and tread carefully as parts of this walk take you over uneven rock and metal bridges. In other words, this area is blissfully devoid of hordes of tourists, and there’s not a paved sidewalk. This is a prime spot to enjoy a picnic too! I’ve created a walking route map here.
Auberge de Castille
Now the office of Malta’s Prime Minister, this stately building housed one branch of the Knights of St. John during the 16th to 18th centuries. Back then, clusters of knights were tasked with defending specific parts of the island of Malta. The knights were grouped together into eight different langues, administrative groups based upon the knights’ respective languages and cultures. Langue is a French word meaning ‘language’ or ‘tongue’.
Knights from the langue of Castile, León and Portugal were housed here, and when Malta was part of the British Empire, the Auberge de Castille housed British armed forces. The structure survived World War II bombings.
- Not open to visitors.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
A lovely place to get your bearings upon arriving in Valletta, the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer commanding views of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua. Birgu actually pre-dates Valletta, and is well worth a visit!
The park’s arches date back to the 17th century, and the gardens were once a recreation spot for the Italian branch of the Knights.
Bench real estate is often coveted, but there is a café inside as well. Because the garden was so often inundated with people, Shawn and I often flocked to quieter Valletta gardens (see below).
- Admission free.
- Upper Barrakka Gardens listing (Malta Tourism official website)
- Upper Barrakka Gardens (Wikipedia)
Lower Barrakka Gardens
When I visited Malta for the first time in 2006, I distinctly remember strolling through the Lower Barrakka Gardens, taking in the extraordinary views of Valletta’s Grand Harbour. I found it rather romantic, and wished that I could’ve been sharing the spot with my special someone, whom I hadn’t yet met. Fast forward to the autumn of 2015 and beyond, and that ‘special someone’ and I had moved to Malta!
Not long after relocating to Valletta, Shawn and I went to the Lower Barrakka Gardens to partake in a picnic. As we feasted and watched vessels of all sizes go by, I recounted tales to Shawn from my solo travel days in Malta. Not much had changed in the Lower Barrakka Gardens in the past ten years. The so-called ‘temple folly’ in the neo-classical style was still there, as were olive trees with twisted trunks. They were just a bit more mature.
The Lower Barrakka’s well-manicured lanes are great to explore any time of day, but there’s something especially nice about them at night. I’ll never forget the late-summer evening when Shawn and I watched an Old World vessel lift its elegant white sails and glide past the garden’s rampart walls. It felt like a scene from another age.
Note that during the summer months, you might find the Lower Barrakka Gardens closed to the public, as they are a popular spot for wedding receptions and private parties.
- Admission free.
The Hastings Gardens were one of our favorite spots for jogging, walking, or just taking in a splendid sunset. Shawn and I would occasionally bring a coffee or homemade banana bread to Hastings, climb onto a wide section of the mighty fortifications, and watch the world go by on land and on sea.
The gardens take their name from Lord Hastings, who was a Governor of Malta during the 1820s. Built atop Valletta’s formidable bastions, Hastings Gardens are shaded by olive and oleander trees. The park provides a bit of reprieve from the cacophony of honking horns in Valletta, and it offers a silhouetted view of the town of Mdina.
Like the Lower Barrakka Gardens, during the height of summer you might occasionally find Hastings closed to the public, as it’s a popular site for wedding receptions, private parties and community events. Teenagers also flock there with their significant others, so don’t be surprised if you turn a corner and see them locking lips. On such a densely-populated island, there just aren’t many places to go to find privacy!
- Admission free.
When elderly Maltese residents heard that Shawn and I lived on Strada Stretta (also known as Strait Street or Triq-id-Dejqa) they usually responded with a hushed “Oh!” Sometimes they smirked, other times they were embarrassed to relay the infamous street’s history to us.
Decades ago, Strada Stretta was the playground of visiting sailors who referred to the narrow alley as ‘The Gut‘. Because Strada Stretta was packed with bars, brothels and lively music halls – offering wine, women and song – many Maltese told me that they were once mortified at the thought of even walking anywhere near it. One woman remarked how embarrassed she was that her father’s law practice was situated there. Another Valletta resident took a more sentimental approach, relaying that her sister met her American husband-to-be on the narrow street.
After the British military’s departure from Malta, and several decades of neglect, Strada Stretta is having a more G-rated renaissance today. A popular television show of the same name has hit Maltese television airwaves. And on the once notorious street itself, restaurants offering everything from tapas to Maltese fare have cropped up. They are nestled alongside wine bars, offices, and abandoned buildings waiting to be restored. The street’s dining and drinking establishments regularly play host to fun (mostly free) musical performances, which are organized by the Strada Stretta Concept.
- Strada Stretta Concept (Facebook page features events taking place on Strait Street / Strada Stretta. During our time in Valletta, we enjoyed classical performances, an evening celebrating French vocalist Edith Piaf, gypsy jazz music, even a saxophonist accompanied by an opera singer.)
St. James Cavalier
Malta’s National Centre for Creativity
St. James Cavalier epitomizes the concept of adaptive reuse. The structure was built in the 16th century as a cavalier, but in the hundreds of years since then, it’s been a gun platform, a social spot for British officers, and even a printing press. Today, the austere building – its sole embellishment is a coat of arms – is Malta’s National Centre for Creativity. Inside there is a cinema, theater and multi-purpose halls. Visit the website below to learn about the facility’s upcoming events.
If you’re really into military history, Valletta’s other cavalier (St. John’s Cavalier) is practically identical and situated parallel to this one. It’s now the Embassy of the Order of St. John, the descendants of the Knights who originally built it.
- Malta’s National Centre for Creativity – Spazju Kreattiv (official website)
State Rooms & Palace Armoury
Ever since its construction in the 1560s, this Valletta landmark has served as Malta’s seat of government. Originally built as a lavish palace for the Knight’s grandmasters, the building later served as the official residence for British colonial governors. Until 2015, it was the meeting place for Malta’s Parliament, and today, it’s the Office of the President of Malta.
Inside, there are two sections of interest: the lavish State Rooms and the Palace Armoury. The State Rooms are renowned for the Parisian tapestries dressing the walls of the Tapestry Room. This area was under construction during our visit, so I didn’t get to see the exotic flora and fauna depicted on the tapestries. Still, I enjoyed overlooking the verdant courtyard, and exploring the building’s sun-drenched corridors, with their ornate ceilings and marble floors. We’d lived in Malta for a few months by the time we visited the palace, so it was fun trying to pick out the island’s various landmarks depicted in the paintings.
The Palace Armoury is located in another wing of the building in what was formerly the palace stables. The Knights’ extensive arsenal of arms and armor was moved to the palace in 1604, and while some of the collection has since been ‘depleted’ (between 1798-1800, Malta was occupied by Napoleon’s troops and some looting took place), the armory is still said to have one of the world’s largest collections of arms and armor. As I walked past the large glass cases holding instruments of war, I couldn’t help but notice how everything from breastplates to canons were intricately decorated. The objects were simultaneously beautiful and evil.
Just in front of the Grandmaster’s Palace, on St. George’s Square, concerts, annual holiday parades, and commemorative events are held, such as the 1942 awarding of the George Cross to the people of Malta. If you like pomp and circumstance, the Changing of the Guard Ceremony takes place here the last Friday of each month.
- Palace State Rooms (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
- Palace Armory (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
- Changing of the Guards (Malta Tourism official website)
Fort St. Elmo and the National War Museum
I often associate Fort St. Elmo with the sweet, but feral felines that call the granaries on the landward side of the structure home. Today, benevolent locals leave mounds of food for the cats on the lids of these 17th-century contraptions. This seems fitting – especially considering that these subterranean pits would have once sheltered a precious supply of grain for the island’s residents. Since Malta was so dependent on food imports centuries ago (it still is!) and because sieges were an ongoing threat, long-term storage options were absolutely essential.
Fort St. Elmo itself was built in 1552 by the Knights of Malta, designed to protect both the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour, which together flank the Valletta Peninsula. While impressive in its own right, the star-shaped Fort St. Elmo was and still is dwarfed by the more formidable Fort St. Angelo, located across the Grand Harbour from Valletta in the Three Cities.
During the Great Siege of 1565, when the Knights and the Ottoman army engaged in heavy battle, Fort St. Elmo held out for 28 days – much longer than expected. Though the Ottomans eventually took the smaller St. Elmo at great costs, leader Mustafa Pasha, turned in the direction of Fort St. Angelo and reportedly said, “If so small a son has cost so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?” A few weeks later, the deflated Ottoman army left Malta.
After the Great Siege, St. Elmo continued to serve various purposes, including serving as a prison during the French occupation (1798-1800) and as a strategic defensive point for the British during bombardments by the Italian Air Force in World War II.
Today, it’s possible to explore select sections of St. Elmo. The compound also houses Malta’s National Military Museum, which focuses on World War I and World War II-era collections, and includes the George Cross. This coveted award was given to the people of Malta for their bravery during World War II. The next time you see the red and white Maltese flag, make note of the George Cross in the upper-left corner.
- Fort St. Elmo | National War Museum (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
Siege Bell War Memorial
The Siege Bell Memorial overlooks Valletta’s breakwater, the Grand Harbour, and the open sea toward Sicily. It is also the perfect place to catch a magnificent Valletta sunrise. It honors the 7,000 people who lost their lives during the 1940-1943 Siege of Malta. During those three years, tiny Malta was bombed relentlessly by Axis powers Italy and Germany. In just two months of 1942, more bombs were dropped on Malta than on London and Dresden during the course of the war. Those statistics are especially dramatic given the country’s small size — about 27 km long by 15 km wide. Thankfully, the area around the Siege Bell is a more peaceful place today, with hobbyist drones replacing combat aircraft, and cruise ships, ferries and private yachts plying the water.
Photo tip: A brilliant spot to capture the sun rising over the Mediterranean (map here).
- Admission free.
Lascaris War Rooms
Situated about 40 meters (120 ft) under Valletta’s Saluting Battery (see above), these underground rooms and tunnels once served as the War Headquarters for the British during World War II. They were opened in 1940.
Top secret during its time, the Lascaris War Rooms housed radar equipment, encryption machines, and rooms for coordinating artillery fire. This allowed the military staff working within to transmit and receive clandestine communications. General Eisenhower used the subterranean complex to oversee the Invasion of Sicily.
During our visit, a dedicated volunteer guide enthusiastically shared the details of his recent meeting with a Maltese woman, now in her nineties and living abroad, who worked in the complex during the 1940s. The woman returned to Malta to see the rooms where she once covertly worked. She shared tales of not even being able to tell her family members about her true place of employment. She also relayed more lighthearted tidbits about trying to look attractive, so that she might be able to catch the eye of one of the foreign officers working there.
Even after World War II drew to a close, the Lascaris War Rooms continued to be used, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.
- Lascaris War Rooms (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
- Panoramic tour of the Lascaris War Rooms
- Lascaris War Rooms (Wikipedia)
National Museum of Archaeology
Auberge de Provence
If you’ve explored some of Malta’s temples and wish to complement your visit, or if you didn’t have enough time for the temples but still wish to absorb a little archaeological heritage, then The National Museum of Archaeology is a fantastic stop.
Located on Republic Street, the museum is housed in what was once the Auberge de Provence (residence for the Knights from Provence). There are sections devoted to Malta’s Temple Builders, Bronze Age people, and Phoenician period.
I found the Sleeping Lady figurine, which was sculpted by the so-called Temple Builders, to be fascinating. Though miniature in size, it’s incredible that the statue survived for thousands of years inside the depths of the Hypogeum. So many mysteries exist about this chapter of Malta’s history, and I couldn’t help but wonder who the Sleeping Lady was modeled after, and what she represented? Peaceful sleep? Death?
Aside from this enigmatic figure and the architectural fragments taken from Malta’s temples, my other favorite display was the one devoted to the seafaring Phoenicians. The sarcophagus and description of how the Phoenicians made their noble purple dye by painstakingly extracting it from a seashell, were especially intriguing.
- National Museum of Archaeology (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
- Google Arts & Culture, a platform which aims to “democratize access to culture” offers a wonderful virtual reality tour of the museum too.
National Museum of Fine Arts
As I was researching this guide, the country’s Museum of Fine Arts was being moved to the Auberge d’Italie building, which once housed the Italian branch of the Knights. The new location for the National Museum of Fine Arts is said to be three times as large as the former museum. It’s projected to be open to the public by 2018.
If the museum is still undergoing development during your visit, the ornate exterior of the Auberge d’Italie, (particularly the crest and bust toward the top of the building), is worth a quick peek.
- National Museum of Fine Art (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
From 1866 to 1942, Valletta’s elegant Royal Opera House graced the corner of Republic and South Streets. Sadly, the grand building was mostly leveled during a World War II bombing raid, as this vintage photograph shows. For decades, the site lay in ruins, with only the terrace and parts of the ornate columns remaining. After the war, government leaders couldn’t decide what to do with the site. Indeed, when I first visited Valletta in 2006, the plot of land appeared completely neglected, a bit like long-forgotten Roman ruins.
By 2013, the remnants of the opera house had been transformed into the open-air theater called Pjazza Teatru Rjal that you can see today. Like the sleek City Gate and Parliament, the site is another project designed by architect Renzo Piano. The Teatru Rjal now holds concerts, dance performances and film screenings.
Teatru Rjal (official website)
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Built by the Knights in the 1570s, the interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral dazzles with its baroque opulence. St. John’s inlaid marble floor, comprised of the tombstones of prominent knights, is especially stunning. When we attended a Christmas concert there, the invitation asked that ladies refrain from wearing high heels, so that the precious floor could be protected. When you see the intricately-crafted tombs, you’ll understand why.
A plethora of rich sculptures and paintings cover practically every square inch of the cathedral, making your eye unsure where to rest. The most famous of the paintings is The Beheading of Saint John, painted by Caravaggio. The Italian artist is said to have committed a murder and then escaped to Malta with the intent of producing a painting in exchange for a pardon. He even became a Knight of Malta for a brief spell.
St. John’s Cathedral has eight chapels, one for each of the langues (linguistic groups) that existed during the time of the Knights. See the Auberge de Castille listing above for more information about the various langues. And, if you’re eager to scout out the Knights’ auberge buildings in Valletta and in Birgu (their first base) this list should be helpful.
- St. John’s Co-Cathedral (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
From the outside, the Manoel Theatre looks stately, but not much different from Valletta’s other baroque-style limestone buildings. Step through its main entrance and into the theater though, and this 285-year-old structure is dazzling – bringing to mind a terraced wedding cake.
One of Europe’s oldest working theaters, ‘the Manoel’ was built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master of the Order of St. John, and inaugurated in 1732. In the past, some of the Knights of Malta even performed there. While the venue does not hold performances year-round due to sweltering summer temperatures, it regularly offers behind-the-scenes tours. We enjoyed peeking at the theater’s colossal collection of costumes, while simulating the sounds of rain, wind and thunder using the museum’s 19th century ‘sound machines.‘
- Putting Malta in the Limelight: Valletta’s Manoel Theatre (my blog post)
- Manoel Theatre (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
The Knights’ Hospital
The Knights of Malta are famous for driving away the Ottoman Turks during the Great Siege of 1565. However, what’s less known about the order is its legacy of medical care. When the Knights built La Sacra Infermeria in 1574, it was one of the most advanced medical facilities of its time. The hospital remained open through World War I and into the 1920s, helping Malta earn its title, ‘The Nurse of the Mediterranean.’
The Knights Hospitallers exhibit features models of what the hospital’s wards would have once looked like, and outlines the Knights’ revolutionary medical practices, including the antibacterial use of silver for food service. The farther below ground you venture here, you’ll find shelters used during bombing raids in World War II, and see gloomy subterranean cells where patients with mental conditions were housed. Visually, the most impressive part of the facility is the former ward, which is 155 meters long (roughly 500 feet), and once the largest in Europe. Since the building now functions as a conference center and concert hall, this section unfortunately may not always be open to visitors.
- Sacra Infermeria / Mediterranean Conference Center (official website) lists opening hours & entrance fees.
- Malta Experience website You can purchase combination tickets to this audio-visual show and the Sacra Infermeria, or go into the Sacra Infermeria building itself to buy a ticket only for that site. I’ve never seen the Malta Experience show, as Shawn and I only purchased Sacra Infermeria tickets.
National Library of Malta
Certainly worth a peek if you are a bibliophile, the National Library of Malta exudes old world charm. In its atmospheric Reading Room, shelves of centuries-old books line the walls from hip to ceiling level. Many of these books and valuables were left to the library by Knights upon their death.
The elegant 18th century-structure, popularly known as the Bibliotheca, is situated on Republic Square, near the outdoor dining area of the opulent Caffe Cordina. It’s the last of the official structures built by the Knights, and for those interested in conducting research on either the Knights of Malta, or Maltese culture and history, there’s a good chance you’ll find the collections fascinating.
If you visit, be sure to bring a passport or other form of identification, as an ID is needed to obtain an entry badge. Photography is not allowed inside the Reading Room.
Queen Victoria Statue and Victoria Gate
Having been part of the British Empire for 151 years, Malta still flashes relics from its colonial past. One of the most prominent is the stately Victoria Gate, which faces Valletta’s Grand Harbour side. Constructed in the 1880s, the Victoria Gate replaced its 16th-century predecessor, the Del Monte Gate. We saw crackling oil paintings of the old Del Monte Gate at Valletta’s Museum of Fine Arts and thought it was neat that a marina had sprung up around it, creating a bustling area. It looks like there was once a fountain and fish market nearby there too. Nowadays, the Victoria Gate is a popular place for placid stray cats that lounge under the limestone structure.
The Queen Victoria statue is in front of the National Library on Republic Square. She usually has a flock of pigeons vying for the limited seating space around her crown. Her likeness was inaugurated in 1891.
Believed to have been installed into a building’s exterior wall by the Knights, this iron hook on St. John’s Street is often overlooked by passersby. Though it has no signs alerting visitors of its significance, the unassuming hook is believed to have first been used to help hoist St. John’s Co-Cathedral’s gargantuan bells in the 1740s. A few decades later, it might have helped facilitate public punishment – propping up a pillory.
Lord Nelson, the curious hook’s namesake, was said to have squeezed his body through the hook after being dared. This supposedly happened in 1803, and thereafter the tale of Nelson’s flexible feat spread. A legend developed in the British Navy that a promotion could be achieved if a service-member succeeded in wiggling his body through the hook, as demonstrated in this vintage picture. Find the hook on this map.
Former Victory Kitchen
During World War II, Malta had more than 40 Victory Kitchens – places from which war-weary families could get food. Back then, families were issued meal vouchers, entitling them to food items like goat’s meat, tomato sauce and beans.
In the early 2000s, a Victory Kitchen sign was unearthed during restoration on this Valletta building. You can find the sign on the Melita Street side of the Clark’s shoe store building. This is right near the intersection with Merchants Street (map here).
Valletta Waterfront | Cruise Port
Technically in the neighboring town of Floriana, the Valletta Waterfront is the port of entry for visitors arriving by cruise ship. From here, you can access the city by taxi, via the Upper Barrakka Lift (elevator), or on foot.
While the restaurants, bars and shops here mostly cater to visitors, this spot still is historical. In the 1700s, the Knights – along with visiting merchants – used to unload their goods here.
Valletta Waterfront (official website)
Tourist Information Offices
There are two tourist offices in Valletta – one on Melita Street (in central Valletta) and another on the Valletta Waterfront. See the Malta Tourism Authority website for opening hours and contact information.
Valletta is known for its steep, San Francisco-esque streets and abundance of steps. While this makes for a picturesque atmosphere, it can also make getting around on foot challenging for someone with limited mobility. In this section, I’ve included information about alternatives to walking: horse-drawn cabs, electric taxis, and a trackless tourist train.
And, if you’re using Valletta as a hub for exploring spots elsewhere on the island, I’ve included links to Valletta’s bus schedule and bus card options, plus ferries to Sliema and the Three Cities.
- Taxis – From the airport to Valletta & surrounding areas | General taxi standards. We regularly used the bus to get around, but when we needed an early-morning taxi to the airport from Valletta, we used eCABS. We were impressed with the customer service we received, and the pre-arranged fare was the best I found too.
- Bus Travel – Valletta does have a circular bus, which might be useful for getting around Valletta if you have limited mobility or cargo to carry. If you’ll be exploring Malta for a few days or more, you’ll probably want to pick up a multi-use bus card. Depending upon how many days you’re staying, this will likely save you money, and it’ll make bus drivers happy too, since you won’t need to make a cash transaction. Journeys completed within two hours should count as one fare, so save your receipt if you choose to pay with cash. If you’re living in Malta for a longer amount of time, you’re eligible to apply for a residential Tallinja card, which offers even lower fares. Whatever card you choose, use this Journey Planner to map out your excursions. Keep in mind that short distances can be deceiving when it comes to travel times throughout the island! The island is densely populated, and it can take an hour just to go a few kilometers. This is especially true during rush hour, or if there’s just been a heavy storm. (When we first got to Malta in 2015, flooded roads meant that it took us about 2.5 hours to travel just 10 kilometers by bus!)
- Sliema Ferry – It takes about 5 minutes to travel from Valletta’s Marsamxett Harbour to the city of Sliema by ferry. This is considerably faster and more scenic than taking a bus! See the Sliema Ferry website for a timetable and fares.
- Three Cities Ferry | Dgħajsa– The journey time from Valletta to Vittoriosa (known locally as Birgu) is roughly 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, you can travel by dgħajsa, Malta’s version of a gondola. Dgħajsa drivers congregate near Valletta’s Three Cities ferry point. Like its Sliema Ferry counterpart, a ferry or a dgħajsa is a quicker and more enjoyable way to travel from city to city than by bus. Visit the Three Cities ferry website for a timetable and fares. As for dgħajsas, on one of our crossings by dgħajsa, Shawn and I met ‘Captain Bruce’ who pilots the Pici. He can be reached by mobile at 99 93 33 77. Alternatively, you can schedule a dgħajsa through this website. (I have no experience with this website.)
- Electric Taxi (Smart Cabs) – A fleet of electric taxis exists in Valletta. I’ve never ridden them, but here are pricing and booking details.
- Horse-Drawn Cabs – If you’d like to explore Valletta’s perimeter by horse-drawn carriage (karozzin), you can find horse drivers offering their services near Valletta’s City Gate (near the Bus Terminal), as well as near the entrance to Fort St. Elmo. I’ve never done this before, but as you would anywhere in the world, be sure to confirm the price in advance. There are actually signs posted at the pick-up spots, noting the established prices. As of 2016, it was €35 for the first 30 minutes. This is the price per trip, not per passenger. Also, use your own judgment about whether you think the horse is well-cared for.
- Tourist Train – Like the horse-drawn cabs, I haven’t had the occasion to ride the tourist train, but I often saw it snake through central Valletta. It might be fun for kids, or practical for those with limited mobility.
& Longer-Term Accommodation
When I first visited Valletta in 2006, short-term lodging options were few and far between. Back then, I stayed at the Asti Guesthouse, run by sweet Annie and her family, and situated on atmospheric St. Ursula Street. In recent years, more and more charming boutique hotels and self-catering apartments have appeared on the scene in Valletta (affiliate links), some occupying pretty old palazzi. Since we lived in Valletta, we never had the need to stay elsewhere in the city. Still, Valletta boutique hotels like the Casa Ellul, Trabuxu Boutique Living and 10 Strait Street piqued my curiosity, as they look like they offer a stylish blend of old and new. Airbnb is also an option for finding accommodation. If you’re new to Airbnb and sign up using this link, we both get $25 in travel credit. Some readers have mentioned that Airbnb modifies the promotion from time to time, so the figure might be a bit more or less.
Since Valletta is compact, chances are that you’ll find yourself in a convenient spot wherever you choose to stay on the peninsula. Valletta hosts the island’s main bus terminal, so staying there makes day-trips to sites elsewhere on the island convenient. Even if you’re visiting for a long-weekend or city break, you can see from this guide that there are lots of things to keep you busy in Valletta itself.
While I would wholeheartedly recommend staying in Valletta, it might not be a good fit for you if you’re planning to spend most of your time at the beach, or if you’re not accustomed to lively surroundings. We found it rather noisy living in Valletta: honking horns, a rambunctious family next door, construction noise at many hours of the day and night (even at midnight and at 4 AM). Living on Strada Stretta where there are wine bars, we expected bar-related noise, but not the other types that I mentioned. The live acoustic guitar and chatter of guests emanating from the wine bars & cafés was pleasant and not bothersome; the other noise – pretty intrusive! So, in short, check to see that your Valletta accommodations have sound-proof windows. Or, be prepared to embrace life in a ‘spirited’ capital city.
As for longer-term accommodation, it can be challenging finding a Valletta apartment to rent on a long-term basis. This is because owners prefer short lets (higher profit margins for them), plus only a fraction of the city’s buildings have been restored. The rest of the buildings are derelict, with many undergoing refurbishment. When we moved to Malta in September 2015, I found these practices to be helpful for finding an apartment for a long let:
- Work with several real estate agents at a time, and be persistent! At the height of our apartment search, I was calling or emailing about 7 agents on a daily basis to see if any new properties had appeared in their database since our last conversation. Though we had hoped to avoid paying a realtor’s commission, in the end working with an agent was the only way we could find an apartment. As commission, we paid half of one month’s rent; our landlord paid the other half of that commission.
- If you can, partner with an agent who specializes in properties in Valletta or the Three Cities. If you are set on living in Valletta, clearly communicate this to your agent. Persistence pays off.
- Join accommodation-themed groups on Facebook and publicize that you’re looking to rent in Valletta.
- Distribute your phone number to locals within Valletta. At one point, I even went into shops and restaurants to strike up conversations with employees, inquiring if they knew of anyone with a vacant apartment. I got a few leads this way.
- If you’re looking for a long-let during the winter months, you might have better luck than someone searching during the summer. Otherwise, keep in mind that many apartment owners are eager to rent their properties on a shorter-term basis, especially during the prime tourist season.
- The Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture designation has created a flurry of interest in the city, sparking a ‘seller’s market’. When we were offered a handful of Valletta apartment viewings, we encountered high-pressure sales. Often, a realtor scheduled several clients at once, injecting a feeling of competition.
- We paid €675 monthly rent for an 11-month contract. We had a 1-bedroom apartment, with a combined kitchen/living room. Electricity was approximately €65 a month, and water was about €20 a month. Internet was €30 a month for a 30 Mbps speed.
Groceries & Bakeries
Valletta has a fair number of ‘mom & pop’ grocery markets, making shopping for bottled water and essential nibbles rather convenient if you’re staying in the capital. Some cater to locals, while others target tourists.
Though I like supporting smaller establishments, Shawn and I did most of our grocery shopping outside of Valletta, at Lidl or Pavi supermarkets in the town of Qormi. We did this for several reasons. For one, we tended to do a week’s worth of shopping at a time. Also, larger grocery stores outside of the capital have a greater selection, including gluten-free products. I still occasionally popped into Valletta’s small shops when I needed a last-minute ingredient, or to restock our fruit and veggie basket.
In Valletta, I took a liking to a tiny grocery store named Fresh Direct run by Valletta resident, Tanja, who was happy to share details about Maltese life with me. You can find Tanja’s shop at 143, Old Bakery Street, or via the shop’s website.
If you can, go there on a Saturday (before the afternoon closure), and mingle with some of the Valletta locals. I met 83-year-old Richie, a former cabaret performer, who might even have been a drag queen in the 1950s. The ladies at the grocery store told me that Richie can still dance, and that he was quite handsome during his performing days. I also had a chance meeting with a cosmopolitan Maltese diplomat at the grocery store. He was sporting a straw hat – perhaps from his years spent in South America. He seemed thrilled to share historical tidbits about the island. Other down-to-earth locals there were always eager to tell me what Valletta life was like back in the day too. They lamented that it was much better years ago, because there were less people and things felt more private.
However crowded it is, the shopping experience at Tanja’s felt authentic, with people yelling over the counter in a boisterous fashion. They were quick to tell me that they were passionately discussing issues – not fighting!
When I was writing this guide, Valletta was in the midst of restoring its atmospheric old covered market on Merchant’s Street, called is-Suq tal-Belt in Maltese. Reports say that the ‘new’ covered market will feature food shops and stalls, and catering establishments. We peeked inside this 1860s-era market before the restoration began, and loved the look of the wrought ironwork. It’s lovely to hear that the structure is experiencing a renaissance after many years of neglect. Some locals I chatted with expressed regret that it will “not be the same” experience that they once had buying fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. Nevertheless, I hope it might be able to incorporate some degree of authenticity.
Late during our time in Valletta (lucky for Shawn who is addicted to bread!), we discovered Borg Bakery, an authentic bakery frequented by Valletta locals. You can get ftira and Ħobż Malti there, ranging from 25 to 75 Euro cents for a bread bun or sliced loaf of sourdough, respectively. Find the Borg Bakery at 76, Triq San Nikola. It’s at the tip of the peninsula, heading toward Fort St. Elmo.
For sweet treats I found some lovely cannoli (kannoli) at the kiosk near the City Gate entrance. It’s the first stand on the left if you’re facing the City Gate. It’s a dangerous neighborhood for those with a sweet tooth, because it’s situated next to the celebrated imqaret (date treat) stand. Being gluten-free, I didn’t get to try the kannoli or the imqarets, but Shawn and our Maltese friends gave the cannoli great reviews.
As for restaurants, our Valletta picks follow. If you’re a gluten-free eater, as I am, rest assured that several restaurants offer gluten-free pasta options. If you ask, some might even bring out gluten-free bread to accompany your meal.
Wherever you choose, do consider making reservations – especially on weekends and holidays. Also note that many establishments are closed on Mondays.
- La Mère – Hands-down, this was our Valletta favorite! Perhaps one reason I liked this restaurant so much is because eating there reminded me of our time exploring India. Couple that nostalgia with a delightful menu of Indian, Arabian and Mediterranean-inspired dishes, kind staff, and a cozy interior, and you have a winning combination. All of the waiters I encountered understood what gluten is, and were able to recommend dishes accordingly. I loved the spicy curries!
- D’Office Bistro – Friendly staff, pleasant Mediterranean-style food, complimentary gluten-free bread, and an awareness of what is and is not gluten-free, made this centrally-located restaurant a nice pick. It’s just around the corner from the Grandmaster’s Palace.
- Rampila Restaurant – Tucked into Valletta’s fortifications overlooking the City Gate entrance, the setting is what makes this restaurant special! Stepping inside, you might be tempted to dine under the attractive limestone-arched ceiling, but if you can, reserve a table outside on the terrace for lovely views. After dinner, it’s fun to pop into Rampila’s wine bar for a drink. Its walls are studded with wine from around the world, and through the floor’s glass panel, you can spy the old wine cellar below.
Pharmacies are located throughout Valletta’s main thoroughfare, Republic Street, and on some side streets. Our go-to place for drugstore needs was the Empire Pharmacy, which has a shop on Melita Street and Old Theatre Street. Karen, who works there, was always very helpful and kind.
Valletta’s most convenient post office is situated just across the street from the Auberge de Castille. For other locations and opening hours, visit MaltaPost’s website.
Crime-wise, Shawn and I never felt unsafe in Valletta. There are occasionally reports about pickpockets in Valletta’s (and Malta’s) most touristic areas. Open grates with drop-offs, low fortification walls, gargantuan piles of dog droppings and wreckless drivers disregarding signs and speed limits probably pose the biggest hazards. I can’t emphasize the poor driving enough, as drivers often do not stop at stop signs or designated pedestrian crosswalks. Unfortunately, news articles about pedestrians and bicyclists being hit in Malta are all too common.
- If you’re looking to take home an ink drawing, mug, or set of notecards capturing the essence of Malta’s colorful doors, floor tiles and street scenes, check out the work of local artist Stephanie Borg, whom we met while on a Maltese olive-oil tasting ecotour. Note that her shop is in Rabat (near popular Mdina), not Valletta.
- A good gift for ladies who appreciate handmade jewelry is a piece of sterling silver filigree. When my beloved Croatian handcrafted filigree earrings needed a polishing, I sought out The Silversmith’s Shop (on Republic Street). They had stunning bracelets, necklaces and pendants there, and I enjoyed talking to the son whose father started the business. A traditional Maltese symbol would be the Maltese Cross, but there are loads of options. I also popped into other filigree jewelry stores to peek at their work, and one shop-owner confessed that many of their pieces are no longer produced in Malta. Be sure to inquire about where the jewelry is made, if that’s important to you.
- The National Museum of Archaeology Gift Shop features items inspired by Malta’s Temple Builders. I thought the shop’s limestone candle holder, featuring the prehistoric people’s trademark swirl design, was neat, but I couldn’t add more weight to our luggage.
- If your country allows you to import honey, it could be fitting to bring home a jar as a souvenir because Malta has been known for its remarkable honey since ancient times. Speculation exists that the name Malta even evolved from names given to it thousands of years ago. Numerous stores in Valletta sell honey, but scrutinize your purchase carefully, as fakes are reputed to exist. The best way to determine authenticity is to purchase directly from the beekeeper. Two Maltese beekeepers we met live outside of Valletta, but perhaps you can meet up with them elsewhere on the island. We visited the apiary of beekeeper Michael Muscat (find his contact details and the story of our visit here) and we also crossed paths with beekeeper Ray Sciberras at several community events.
Festivals and Holidays
The Maltese excel at celebrations and fanfare! From a film festival to a baroque music festival, a plethora of special events take place in Valletta year-round. I suggest that you consult the Malta Tourism Authority’s What’s On calendar to see what’s happening during your visit.
What follows, however, are just a handful of Valletta’s most popular festivities. These dates change, so check them before your visit.
- Feast Days:
- St Paul’s Shipwreck – 10 February
- St Augustine – 11 May
- Our Lady of Mount Carmel – 16 July
- St Dominic – 3 August
- Christmas & New Year’s
- Notte Bianca
- Valletta 2018 Events
- Wine Festivals (Delicata and Marsovin)
If you want to keep abreast of happenings in Malta before or during your visit, peruse the country’s online newspapers:
Additional Links and Resources
From Maltese apps to a weather forecast website, here are more links to help you plan your stay in Malta:
- Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture
- Visit Malta (official tourism website)
- City of Valletta website and City of Valletta Facebook page
- Malta Yellow Pages
- Malta 7-Day Forecast
- Malta Apps (recommendations from the Malta Tourism Authority)
- Do you need more trip-planning ideas? From an island hopping sailing excursion, to ecotours in Malta’s greener corners, this index highlights all my posts from Malta.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.
Have you visited Valletta, or do you now call Malta’s capital city home? If so, which of your favorite spots have I missed? Please share your thoughts below.