By Briana Seftel
"A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen." Valletta, the elegant capital of Malta, is not your typical European city. Like an open-air museum, Valletta is chock full of perfectly preserved historic and cultural gems just waiting to be explored. Discover the heart of Malta with this helpful guide!
What to Know
The smallest capital in the European Union, Valletta was established in the 1500s by the Knights of St. John, a Roman Catholic order who sought refuge in Malta during the Crusades. Named after Grand Master La Valette, it was to become Europe’s first planned city. It is flanked by two natural harbors, Marsamxett and Grand Harbour.
Thanks to its high concentration of historic monuments, Valletta was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It has also been designated a European Capital of Culture for 2018. You might hear locals calling Valletta il-Belt ("The City") in their native Maltese language.
When to Go
Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Valletta has hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Like the rest of Europe, the city is busiest during the months of July to September. To have Valletta’s streets all to yourself, consider visiting in April and May.
How to Get Around
Valletta’s city plan was based on a grid system - similar to Manhattan - which makes the Maltese capital very easy to navigate. Due to its tiny size, it comes as no surprise that walking is the best way to get around, so grab a street map and get exploring! Keep in mind Valletta is quite hilly, and some streets can be steep towards the harbor. You can also see the city by bike, bus, horse-drawn carriage or electric taxi.
Where to Eat
Maltese cuisine is a unique blend of Sicilian and Middle Eastern influences. With an emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients, there’s no better place to sample the specialties of Maltese cuisine than in Malta's cosmopolitan capital. Below are a few of our favorite places to eat in the city.
- Guze VLT, 1454, 22 Old Bakery Street, Il-Belt Valletta Phone: +356 2123 9686
- Panorama 267 St Ursula Street, Il-Belt Valletta VLT1222 Phone: +356 7987 7980
- Porticello (Scoglitti) Valletta Phone: +356 7723 5548
- Cafe Society 13, Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt Valletta Phone: +356 2713 7491
- Da Pippo Melita St, Valletta Phone: +356 2124 8029
- Trabuxu Wine Bar 8/9, South Street, Il-Belt Valletta VLT 110 Phone: +356 2122 0357
- Giannini 23 Windmill, Il-Belt Valletta Phone: +356 2123 7121
- Ta’ Kris 80 Fawwara Ln, Sliema Phone: +356 2133 7367
What to See
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Completed in 1578, St. John’s Co-Cathedral was the religious seat for the Knights of St. John. Pay the admission fee to enter inside the elaborately adorned baroque cathedral, complete with frescoed ceilings, gilded vaults, tapestries, chapels and marble inlaid floors. Don’t miss Caravaggio’s stunning “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in the oratory.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Admire stunning city and harbor views from the Upper Barrakka Gardens overlooking the Grand Harbour. These terraced gardens were designed as a retreat for Italian knights in 1661 and opened to the public in the 19th century. If you plan your visit at the right time, you can witness the daily firing of the gun at 12pm and 4pm from the gardens.
When parliament is not in session, visitors can tour the 16th-century Grandmaster’s Palace, the former residence of the Grand Masters of the Order of the Knights of St John. Currently the office of Malta’s president, the palace is filled with opulent paintings, tapestries and armory from the Malta's history.
City Gate & Parliament
The famed Italian architect Renzo Piano designed two structures that now make up the fabric of Valletta: the City Gate and Parliament. Enter at the massive golden-stone city gate and stroll past the striking Parliament buildings, which present ancient Maltese stone in a modern way. At the top is St. James Cavalier, a cultural center that hosts exhibitions and performances.
Tips and Tricks
Malta is one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, so both women and men are advised to cover up when entering a church.
Notte Bianca is an annual arts and culture event in October where many attractions, shops and restaurants stay open all night.
In Malta, it’s common to tip 10 percent on your restaurant bill.
If you plan on taking day trips, Valletta’s public buses are the best option for getting around. Pick up your bus at the terminal just outside the city gate.
Mdina & Rabat
Explore the walled city of Mdina, Malta’s capital for centuries before Valletta was built. Taking its name from the Arabic word for “city,” Mdina is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Cars are banned during the day, making exploring on foot a pleasure. Rabat, the village just outside Mdina, is known for its rural beauty and significant archaeological sites.
A traditional fishing village in southern Malta, Marsaxlokk looks like a postcard come to life. Brightly painted fishing boats (known as "luzzus") bob in the harbor, where locals haul crates of fresh seafood for the fish and souvenir market every Sunday.
On the undeveloped island of Comino, the Blue Lagoon is a little slice of heaven. This small bay with azure water is a great place to spend the day snorkeling, swimming or simply floating. You can get to Comino via daily ferries from Malta.