Malta is not just an island of sunshine and beaches. It is an island that has seen many ups and downs over the course of centuries. Not surprisingly, there are many cultural treasures that you can find here. If you are planning a vacation in Malta it is worthwhile considering also a day trip to its capital, Valletta.
Valletta has had many challenges and changes over the centuries, and they are all reflective in the distinct cityscape. With so many people coming to stay the mix of cultures is evident, too. This makes Valletta one of the most exciting and underrated city trip destinations in Europe. Granted, it is not easy getting around the old town as there are quite a few steep inclines and steps to master. But if you take your time you can still get around fairly easily and explore all the intimate details of this marvellous city.
I really loved walking the ancient streets of this beautiful city, feasting on delicious traditional dishes and enjoying the gorgeous views over the harbour. If you would like to know what else can be done in Valletta, here are my top ten things to do:
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
It really goes without saying that the St John’s Co-Cathedral is the absolute highlight for any visit to Valletta.
Built by the Knights Hospitallars in the 16th century this cathedral is as full of splendour as it is dull on the outside. Don’t let looks deceive you!
Your entry ticket secures you access to one of the most lavishly decorated Baroque churches of the Occident. You can explore it in your own time with a self-guided audio tour. Make sure you also take note of the details, as outlined in my earlier post here.
Plus, there is a real Caravaggio hanging in the Oratory next door. Another reason to check out this marvellous church in the centre of Valletta. By the way, the strange name of ‘Co-Cathedral’ originates from the fact that this is the bishop of Mdina’s second cathedral. The first one is located in Mdina.
The Co-Cathedral was originally built to serve as the conventual church of the Knights of Malta.
The Knights Hospitallers of Malta have left a lasting impact on the city of Valletta. Not only did they invest in the great fortifications of the city (which helped tremendously in most cases when warding off attackers, for example during the famous Great Siege). They also built hospitals and other infrastructure projects which turned the city into a thriving centre in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
Visiting the Grandmaster’s Palace is like stepping into the core of these operations. The building has a distinct medieval feel to it, not only because suits of armour of all shapes and sizes line the hallways. There is also the famous Tapestry Chamber, former meeting place of the Council of the Order of St John, where you can see some exquisite and delicate tapestry work.
The grand Throne Room is today the official reception room for state functions held by the President of Malta.
Valletta’s City Gate
Valletta is a city that is continuously reforming itself. It’s like a modern city squeezed into medieval fortifications. Straight and clean lines bumping into crumbling limestone foundations and barbicans.
There is one really striking feature in Valletta which sums up the relationship between old and new in a fascinating way: the Porta Reale, the City Gate.
This main gate to the city has been redesigned and rebuilt several times over the centuries. The latest design by architect Renzo Piano was just completed in 2014. High blades of steel, poking into the clear blue sky on a hot summer’s day, separate this new design from the old bastion.
As it is with many modern approaches to architecture, this gate has copped plenty of criticism left and right for not fitting in the Baroque feel of the rest of the city. In my opinion though, this clear and bold design works perfectly with the medieval fortifications all around it.
The Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens
So what’s the deal with these two gardens? They are not linked in any way, but they are like twins of the same idea. Dominated by stone, pavers and arches both gardens offer magnificent views of the Grand Harbour and the city, while shady trees and fountains help cool down the hot city air in summer.
Important historic figures have been memorised in busts and statues placed around the gardens. They make for an interesting history lesson when you visit with your kids.
If you are going to visit just one of the gardens, make it the Upper Barrakka Gardens which offer superior views. From here you can also clearly see the nearby Saluting Battery (cannons lined up to face the harbour). The striking lift conveniently connects the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the city centre with the harbour (you can see it more clearly in the first picture above).
The New Parliament House of Malta
Just like the nearby City Gate the brand-new Parliament of Malta has been designed by architect Renzo Piano. In my opinion, another great approach to linking modern elements to the city’s medieval past.
The limestone features skilfully display the relationship between colours, shapes and textures. Shadow and light add to the dramatic viewpoints and playful angles of the building. I think this tastefully designed building really helps carry Malta over into the 21st century.
Although I do understand if critics don’t approve of yet another open space vanishing under a massive building project in a city that is struggling for space within its city walls.
The Maltese Balcony
Valletta’s long and hilly city streets come with an unique feature: the Maltese Balcony.
You really cannot walk the city streets and not take note of these building features. They play an important role in the city’s history. These enclosed wooden balconies have developed over time into signs of prestige and a status symbol of the families living in the buildings.
Balconies can be big and small in Valletta, some of them ridiculously high up and wrap around corners. Many of them are quite simple. Some of them do show that a lot of thought and effort have gone into the design of the balcony.
Maltese balconies have indeed been part of the building plan of the city for centuries. The Knights Hospitallers requested that building blocks would have to have some form of ornamental decoration on the corner. So if it wasn’t a saint in a glass case it might as well have been a lavishly decorated balcony.
Walk around Valletta and you will easily see some very fine examples of these balconies. More info can also be found here: https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/the-maltese-balcony/
The Saluting Battery
If you are arriving in Malta on a cruise ship you might be lucky to see the cannons salute you from the Saluting Battery. If that’s not the case then make sure you watch the spectacle at noon or 4pm.
In fact, you can visit the battery and its attached museum to learn a bit more about Malta during less peaceful times. The artillery battery goes back to the time of the Order of St. John, who had recaptured the area after the Ottoman siege. You can easily see the guns from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. No need to buy museum tickets if you just want to check out the sight.
Fort St. Elmo
Fans of military history and medieval fortifications will love Fort St. Elmo. It is the most prominent structure you will see if you happen to enter Valletta through the Grand Harbour.
This star fort is around 500 years old and has seen a lot of action and a lot of different owners over time. From the first occupation during the Bronze Age to the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the Spanish to the Order of St John’s, most armies have left some piece of their history behind. You can now see this best at the intriguing National War Museum.
The fort has only last year been greatly restored after it had been classified as one of the most endangered sites in the world in 2008. A must-see is the In Guardia Parade on Sundays which is an re-enactment of the Order of St John’s knights who will prove to the Great Bailiff in their finest uniforms their state of readiness in the event of a military threat.
If you are a British national chances are you have heard of Valletta’s Strait Street before. “The Gut”, as British sailors and servicemen liked to call it, was and still is today Valletta’s epicentre of the nightlife scene.
But as it is with many places that have an acquired a bad reputation many decades ago, things have changed. Today, visitors will find the Strait Street to be less raunchy or seedy than expected.
In the age of multiculturalism the street is no longer the only point of cultural and linguistic exchange. People living in this street even used to speak a distinct patois. But it is still a typical Valletta road, long and narrow. The night clubs, restaurants and bars are today popular with locals and visitors to the city.
Pjazza Teatru Rjal
Another great sight in the centre of Valletta is the Pjazza Teatru Rjal. The place used to be an eyesore for so many years but has been given new life recently thanks to the modern open-air theatre that is now filling this space.
This is the site of the Royal Opera House which unfortunately took a direct hit during WWII. For many decades it had been a square in ruins. But thanks to recent developments locals and visitors to the city now enjoy cultural performances here once again.
To me the site did feel a little bit unfinished, mostly due to the scaffolding that support the open-air ranks. Columns are erected as part of the design, most of them in ruined state, as to remind of the former grandeur of the Opera House.
If you do visit make sure you check out the tops of these columns which are all finished off differently – with spiky shards, a cat statue and more – probably to deter birds, or maybe as a piece of art?
And here’s a bonus tip
You can walk around the tip of the Valletta Peninsula, starting at the wharf of the Sliema ferry and then over the rocks around Fort St Elmo.
The walk takes around 30 minutes and you will end at the Malta Experience, a short audio-visual introduction into the 7,000 year old history of Malta.