Valletta is a city that’s waking up and re-donning its glad rags after a period of hibernation. Hoards of the population left after the war and much of the city sat unused for years, fading into disrepair. Nowadays that’s changing. The grand palazzos and colourful balconies are being restored to their finest and young artists are flocking to the capital to re-claim its bohemian potential. In 2018, it will hold the crown of European Capital of Culture, which is further fuelling the energy that’s being put into the artistry of the UNESCO city. It’s an exiting place to be right now and I definitely recommend it for a city break. Here are some tips to get you started.
Valletta sits on the coast of Malta and is surrounded by impressive walls up to 47 meters tall. It overlooks Grand Harbour on one side and Marsamxett Harbour on the other so you often have a sea view. The most touristy areas are around the Cathedral but everyday life is found in the masses of narrow back streets. It’s small and simple to walk but also very hilly.
Outside the city walls are smaller towns that back onto Valletta and create a bigger sprawl. Off these, the modern and lively Sliema and St.Julian’s are the main hotbeds for tourists, while the three cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua) offer quiet, historical centres and a welcome respite from the crowds.
Things to do
As you wander the street of Valletta, be sure to look up. Some of the best architectural features – the balconies, the statues, the details – are high up on the buildings.
Visit St.John’s Co-Cathedral
I don’t always visit the major sites of a city, but the incredibly ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral is definitely worth a look not least for the two Caravaggio paintings it holds inside. Valletta was built by the Order of the Knights of St.John and this cathedral is a prime example of how rich and lavish they were.
Enjoy the gardens
There are few home gardens in Valletta as the knights wanted to conserve the island’s water but they did concede to some beautiful public gardens – the Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens and the Hastings Gardens. All offer panoramic views of the bay. The Hastings Gardens are particularly quiet and appear to be a favourite spot for canoodling young couples.
Stroll the city
The best way to discover Valletta is to simply stroll the city and see what you find – from the small art shops hidden in back streets to the galleries and museums of the open squares. It’s small enough for you to be able to take your time and let it unfold for yourself.
You can get from one side of Malta to the other in little more than 30 minutes so it’s worth venturing beyond the city. You could take a day trip to Gozo, visit historic and walled Mdina, explore the country’s farms, relax at one of the beaches, or get away from it all on the Dingli cliffs. Malta is also home to some of the world’s best dive sites with visibility of up to 30 meters. I’d definitely like to try that some day.
Restaurants / Cafes
This colourful restaurant made me smile with its declaration that “we specialise in Indian, Arabic, Maltese and Mediterranean cuisine”. Despite the varied palette, the food is good and has plenty of vegetarian options.
This is a cosy, atmospheric restaurant where you can sample some of Malta’s finest dishes. The charming owner will make you feel looked after and the food is cokked with fresh, local produce.
This restaurant / cafe is about as close to hipster as Valletta gets. Featuring a menu of piadina wraps (an Italian street food speciality) filled with a anything from vegan burgers to bananas and chocolate, it’s a perfect lunchtime spot. It also serves delicious Italian hot chocolate and a selection of juices.
This small hole-in-the-wall restaurant has lots of healthy offerings including salads, burgers and wraps, as well as smoothies and vegan cakes. It’s just round the corner from the main square so you can take-away to eat there.
This is one of a Maltese brand of art nouveau-style cafes that are well known for their pastizzi (pastries filled with cheese or peas).
There are also lots of cafes in the town’s various squares. None particularly stood out but all are good for people watching and enjoying the grand surroundings.
Bars / Nightlife
This quirky bar calls itself a hangout and attracts a young bohemian crowd who gather to enjoy the vegan food while relaxing on recycled furniture. The emphasis is on being social with games on offer and friendly reminders to enjoy each other’s company rather than your phone.
Django Jazz Bar
Catch some live jazz at this intimate bar with good cocktails and a friendly atmosphere.
Where to stay
While in Valletta, I stayed in a beautifully restored palazzo on St.Paul’s Street. Palazzo Prince d’Orange used to a merchant’s house and has now been transformed into a boutique hotel with four suites and a penthouse with panoramic views across the harbor. Achieving a stylish mix of old and new, it’s the perfect place to stay for a dash of luxury on your stay to the city. For cheaper options, I would recommend having a look at Airbnb. Also see this guide to where to stay in Malta.
Digital Nomad tips
Most of Valletta’s cafés and bars offer free wi-fi at good speeds.
How to get around
Valletta is so small you need only get around on foot. There is also a lift that can take you from the harbourside up to the Barrakka Gardens if all the hills get a little too much. To reach the surrounding areas, you can take taxis, boats or use the local bus system.
Things to be aware of
There is no denying that Malta is a magnet for tourists. Cruise ships arrive almost daily and spill onto the streets of Valletta. Coupled with the workers who arrive from elsewhere on the island, the crowds can be quite overwhelming. Come nightfall, everything is much quieter and Valletta has space to breathe and reveal its beauty. I recommend finding spots of respite in the gardens or your hotel. It can also be nice to get out of the city for day trips to some of the places mentioned above.