By Briana Seftel
Valletta might be Europe’s smallest capital, but it hardly lacks in history and culture. You'll be stopped dead in your tracks by baroque churches, fortified walls and winding streets. If you're on a budget or just looking to save a few euros, here are ten free things to do in Valletta.
1. Upper & Lower Barrakka Gardens
These gardens offer some of the most brilliant views and peaceful corners in Valletta. The Upper Gardens, established in 1661 as private gardens for the Knights of St. John, look out over the Grand Harbour and the three cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua.
The Lower Gardens are more tranquil and less crowded, while still offering beautiful views of the city. Don't miss the Siege Bell Memorial, a belfry in the form of a neoclassical temple which contains a huge bronze bell. The memorial was erected in 1992 to commemorate the 7,000 service personnel and civilians who lost their lives in the Siege of Malta during World War II.
2. City Gate
Officially the Door of the City (known as "Bieb il-Belt" in Maltese), the massive and modern City Gate was completed in 2014 and designed by Renzo Piano, the famed architect who designed the Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London. The original gate, known as Porta San Giorgio, was completed in 1569.
3. Saluting Battery
Located along Valletta's historic ramparts and below the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the Saluting Battery is considered the world's oldest saluting battery still in operation. At noon and 4 pm sharp, through a short re-enactment, one of the restored guns is fired with great fanfare. This is truly a must-see while you're in Valletta!
Birgu, also known as Vittoriosa, is a fortified city on the south side of the Grand Harbour. With its prominent location protected by Fort Saint Angelo, the city served as the de facto capital for the Knights of St. John from 1530 to 1571. Spend a few hours wandering through this historic city, making sure to see the Parish Church and the Inquisitor's Palace.
5. Church of Our Lady of Victory
While Malta is home to over 350 churches, the Church of Our Lady of Victory was the first - not to mention the first building completed in Valletta by the Order of St. John. In fact, the site holds the first stone of the city, laid in 1566. The church's name was selected to honor Malta’s victory during the Great Siege of 1565.
6. Malta Toy Museum
Okay, so this one isn't completely free, but at just €2.33 admission for adults, it's well worth it. Opened in 1998 by a man named Vincent Brown, the museum houses a large and impressive collection of toys from the 1950s and onward including model planes, boats, Matchbox cars, farmyard animals, trains and dolls. After visiting this museum, you'll wish you had kept all your toys from your childhood.
7. Church of St Paul's Shipwreck
Another famous church in Valletta, the Church of St Pauls's Shipwreck is named after Saint Paul the Apostle, said to be the spiritual father of Malta. As told in the New Testament, Paul was shipwrecked in Malta and brought Christianity to the people. The beautiful church houses many treasures, including bones from the saint's wrist and a gilded statue of the saint that's carried around during the Feast of St. Paul in February.
8. Is-Suq Tal-Belt
Is-Suq Tal-Belt ("Covered Market" in Maltese) is Valletta's newest food hall transformed from a Victorian-era structure into a 21st-century gourmet paradise. Inspired by Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid and La Boqueria in Barcelona, the market is home to an array of food vendors selling everything from Italian gelato to traditional Maltese pastries.
Malta hosts a number of festivals throughout the year, and if you time your vacation right, you'll be able to witness Maltese culture firsthand! One of the biggest celebrations is the Malta Carnival in February. Much of the action takes place in Valletta, where onlookers can admire the extravagant floats parading down the street. Other cultural events include the Malta Fireworks Festival, Malta International Arts Festival, Notte Bianca and Malta Jazz Festival.
Travel tip: Christmas and Easter are very popular times to visit Malta, with traditional festivities occurring day and night.
Originally a small fishing village, Sliema is now Malta's premier seaside resort town. Located just across the bay from Valletta, Sliema's wide waterfront promenade is the perfect place for a sunset stroll. Home to some of Malta's best shopping and restaurants, the town is also where you'll find the fortifications at Tigné Point.