Last Updated on by Rodrigo @ OutofYourComfortZone
I still remember the first time I laid eyes on Valletta’s skyline as the ferry approached the Grand Harbour. The towering honey-colored limestone buildings rising steeply from the cerulean blue waters instantly captivated me. Even after multiple visits, that initial awe never fades. There’s something about Valletta that always charms.
As Malta’s tiny capital and cultural heart, one could argue Valletta punches well above its weight. Measuring less than 1 square kilometer, everything is accessible on foot. Wandering beneath ornate stone balconies along narrow winding streets positively transports you to medieval times. Yet despite the old-world exterior, this OPIC World Heritage Site throbs with modern energy.
Join me below as I share my insider tips to experiencing Valletta like a local after numerous personal trips. From savoring the tastiest traditional foods to uncovering hidden corners tourists rarely reach, consider this your essential travel guide for getting the most out of this magical fortress city by the sea.
Table of Contents
Orientation & Neighborhoods
Valletta occupies a peninsula flanked by two natural harbors which has always made it prized real estate. The Knights of St John fortified the capital after the Great Siege of 1565, encircling it in mammoth perimeter walls dotted with bastions. Walking the barricades rewards you with stunning sea vistas.
The rectangular grid design makes navigating easy. Republic Street serves as the main thoroughfare running straight from City Gate to Fort St Elmo. Most attractions branch off this central artery.
Neighboring Sliema and the Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea) across the Grand Harbor offer alternative bases with easier parking. The Valletta ferry and frequent bus connections make for easy access.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
This elaborate consecrated church cannot be missed. The richly ornamented Baroque interior will make your jaw drop. Caravaggio’s large canvas painting depicting the beheading of St John the Baptist is an undisputed masterpiece.
Yet the real showstoppers are the mosaic marble tombstones embedded in the floor memorializing the Knights of St John. These colorful works of art exhibit stunning detail chronicling the lives of the crusaders who lie beneath.
Don’t skip the museum housing precious artefacts like the Maltese Cross reliquary containing a fragment of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified.
The Grandmaster’s Palace
Until 2015, Malta’s parliament convened within this imposing 16th century palace which formerly served as the residence of the Knights of St John’s Grand Master.
Wandering through the State Rooms gives you a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by these crusaders who ruled Malta for hundreds of years.
Magnificent artworks by old masters like Caravaggio, Rubens and Mattia Preti adorn the walls in gilded frames. The famous Gobelins tapestries woven in France during Louis XIV’s reign depict exotic animals and bucolic landscapes meant to show off French craftsmanship.
The highlight is standing on the palace’s balcony with sweeping views of the Grand Harbor framed by the Valletta cityscape – an iconic shot.
Valletta Waterfront (Il-Foss)
One place I enjoy watching the sunset while sipping a cold Cisk (local Maltese beer) is the Valletta Waterfront. The modern pubs and restaurants along the quay create a lively atmosphere in the evenings.
During the day, the yacht marina offers a front-row seat to all the harbor action. Luxury cruisers and weathered fishing boats ply the turquoise waters as ferries busily shuttle passengers to and fro.
Don’t miss the multi-media Malta Experience show to immerse yourself in the country’s rich history spanning 7,000 years brought vividly to life through animatronics and special effects.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
For Instagram-worthy panoramas, make your way to the upper terraced public gardens perched along Valletta’s outer fortified walls beside the Saluting Battery. The unobstructed views of Grand Harbor with the Three Cities opposite never fail to impress.
This green oasis offers tranquil respite from the city bustle with flowers, palms, and fountains scattered amidst the stone architecture. Lines of cannons stand ready to fire their noon-day salute reminding visitors of Valletta’s militaristic heritage.
Grab a table at the small cafe to relax over coffee or lunch as ships glide by through the azure waters far below. The scene is equally stunning at night when the harbor lights sparkle like jewels against the darkness.
Wandering the Backstreets
My favorite activity in Valletta is getting blissfully lost ambling along the narrow winding side streets away from the main tourist drags.
Here you’ll brush shoulders with suited dignitaries and briefcase-carrying office workers during the day joined by young hip locals later on heading out to trendy wine bars or jazz clubs.
Ducking into an old ornate doorway may reveal a hidden courtyard café, cozy bookshop stacked high with novels, or tiny corner bakery selling savory pastizzi hot from the oven (more on those below!).
The intrigued explorer in me adores turning down random alleys never knowing what delightful shop or crumbling baroque palace lies around the next corner.
Tasting the Local Cuisine
You cannot visit Malta without indulging in the island’s tasty traditional food. And Valletta offers plenty of excellent options to tantalize your tastebuds without emptying your wallet.
For breakfast, join the hungry locals queuing up at the family-owned Continental Breakfast Club. This unassuming corner spot tucked along Old Theatre Street plates up scrumptious bacon & egg baguette sandwiches alongside frothy cappuccinos for great value. Quick, delicious, and inexpensive – the trifecta of an ideal morning meal!
Of course, no trip to Malta is complete without sampling their signature savory pastry – the pastizz. These diamond-shaped baked goodies, flakey on the outside with burst of warm, cheesy deliciousness inside, make the perfect snack.
My go-to is the hole-in-the-wall Cafe Cordina, patronized by local officials and business execs, which has been churning out tasty pastizzi non-stop since 1837! Pair your order with a strong Maltese coffee or cold Cisk and bliss out.
Diving the Wrecks & Reefs
I was thrilled to discover that Malta is home to some of the world’s best scuba diving spots, and there are diving opportunities found right off Valletta’s coast. The protected harbors host several exciting wreck dive sites along with a vibrant marine ecosystem populating the rocky reefs.
The WWII submarine HMS Stubborn sits upright in 90 feet of water making her deck guns an easy target for experienced divers. Off the tip of Sliema lies the P29 patrol boat intentionally sunk as an artificial reef now encrusted in coral and sponges while hosting an abundance of sea life.
A personal favorite was exploring the aquarium-like waters of the Marfa Ridge teeming with octopi, cuttlefish, barracudas, sea breams, and Mediterranean rainbow wrasses darting amongst the kaleidoscopic coral formations.
As Malta’s main gateway, Malta International Airport conveniently lies only 8km outside Valletta. Frequent bus routes connect the capital in under an hour for only €2.
A taxi will zip you directly to your hotel in half an hour. Just follow the ancient dusty stone fortifications looming above the horizon guiding your way. Officially named the City of Valletta, you’ll soon understand why the locals simply refer to it as “il-Belt” – The City.
Crisscrossing Valletta’s grid layout on foot is my preferred mode to soak in the ambience. The compact area keeps destinations within a 15-20 minute walk. Just be prepared for many stairs!
Public buses provide an affordable option connecting you to neighboring towns and beaches. Given the convoluted routes, I suggest downloading the Tallinja app to decipher schedules and stops.
Taxis stands dot the city with drivers always willing to give you an earful about Maltese culture along the ride. Hiring cars isn’t advised within the city itself due to horrific traffic and nowhere to park.
Where to Stay
Valletta offers quality lodging options suiting most budgets. Boutique hotels and rental apartments fill beautifully restored 16th and 17th century buildings packed with character and history. My tips below will point you in the right direction.
Luxury Pick – The Saint John
For a posh experience, check into this contemporary designer hotel located inside a former 16th century Auberge dedicated to the Knights of St John. Sleek rooms outfitted in black and white with chrome accents exude modern elegance befitting Valletta’s premier location along Merchants Street.
Unwind after a day of exploring at the rooftop pool and terrace overlooking Fort St Elmo and Marsamxett Harbor. The hip lounge fills nightly with young professionals and foreign guests mingling over cocktails and tapas-style plates. Expect top-notch service at a price.
Mid-Range Pick – Castille Hotel
For period details on a budget, check into this 17th century palazzo transformed into a casually elegant hotel. The spacious rooms retain their original stone walls and painted wooden beamed ceilings offset by plush beds. Ask for a room overlooking Castille Square’s fountain for prime people watching.
Start your day munching fresh croissants on the roof terrace with sweeping city views. The location can’t be beat – right beside the upper Barrakka Gardens. Wander next door each evening before dinner to watch the harbor sunset with aperitifs.
Budget Pick – Labour Hostel
If you want to pinch pennies, this simple no-frills hostel tucked down an alleynear the bus terminus suits perfectly. Snag a bottom bunk in their tidy four or six bed dorms equipped with personal night lights and charging ports.
Despite the barebones vibe, the convivial atmosphere compels mingling around the communal kitchen or narrow lounge area. You’ll swap travel tales over cans of beer on the rooftop terrace lined with potted plants.
For more recommendations, check out this comprehensive guide on where to stay in Malta.
Day Trips from Valletta
While Valletta occupies enough sights and experiences to keep you happily engaged for days, a few nearby excursions worthy of your time include:
Mdina – Malta’s silent city and former capital exudes a mysterious medieval aura along its car-free narrow alleyways. Enter the imposing Mdina Gate and lose yourself within the golden stone fortress city perched high above the island.
Gozo – Escape to Malta’s greener, more rural sister island, taking the quick 25 minute ferry across the Gozo Channel. Admire the rugged coastlines wrapped in vineyards and farmland before descending into the azure blue Ggantija Temples older than the pyramids.
Marsaxlokk Fishing Village – This photogenic port crowded with candy-colored fishing boats remains the most traditional in all Malta.
Wander the lively Sunday seafood market then grab harborfront seats at one of the many restaurants serving the freshest catches along with local wines as you watch the vessels bob gently offshore.
Blue Lagoon – Found between Malta and Gozo, these stunning turquoise waters invite you to swim or snorkel in the deep natural pools created by the surrounding jagged cliffs. Arrive early to beat the crowds on peak summer days.
If your schedule allows, Comino Island offers an idyllic spot to extend your escape surrounded by beaches and bays perfect for carefree lounging in the sun.
What Valletta may lack in size, it certainly compensates through exuding more charm, flavor, history, and beauty crammed within each alley and corner than imaginable. Wandering along the ancient fortified limestone ramparts peering out across the timeless harbors never loses its magic.
From savoring melt-in-your mouth pastries to exploring majestic Baroque cathedrals and palaces, Valletta captivates. Nibbling fresh seafood along the waterfront as the lights sparkle and dance across the indigo waters makes you appreciate why so many have fought fiercely over centuries to claim this special city as their own.
One visit and I have no doubts you’ll soon count yourself amongst the conquered!
Valletta City Guide: FAQs
What is the best way to get to Valletta?
Malta International Airport serves Valletta located just 8km outside the city. Frequent affordable bus routes reach Valletta in under an hour or taxis provide door-to-door service in 30 minutes.
What language do they speak in Malta?
Both Maltese and English are the official languages in Malta. Italian is also commonly spoken and understood in Valletta.
What is there to do in Valletta at night?
At night, Valletta buzzes with activity. Trendy wine bars, lively pubs and jazz clubs fill with locals and visitors alike. The illuminated harborfront offers stunning nocturnal views for strolling.
What is Malta’s weather like?
Malta enjoys a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and mild rainy winters making it a year-round destination. Late spring and early fall provide peak weather conditions.
How do I use the buses to get around Malta?
Maltese buses follow set routes covering the island. Download the Tallinja app for mobile schedules and stops. Bus passes offer the most affordable rates for using public transportation.
What traditional Maltese food should I try?
Visitors must sample Malta’s signature pastizzi – flakey baked pastries filled with ricotta or pea filling. Also try fenek (rabbit), bragioli (beef olives), and aljotta (fish soup).
Are there nice beaches in Valletta?
No, Valletta itself does not have beaches being a fortified peninsula. However, neighboring resort towns like Sliema, St Julian’s, and Mellieha offer sandy beaches and rocky coves all within 30 minutes by bus.
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