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Malta main min

Valletta: Travel guide to Maltese capital - what to do, where to eat & who to cruise with

Author: Nicole Carmichael

Published on:

Updated on:

Valletta, may be one of Europe’s smallest capitals, but the capital city of Malta is a treasure trove of Maltese gems waiting to be discovered – and it’s a perfect port to visit if you’re short on shore time.

Valletta has been independent since 1964 but retains a distinctly British feel, with red telephone boxes on the streets and English as an official language.

In fact, occupied by the Romans, Normans, Turks, Spanish, French and, most recently, the British, Malta’s history reads like a Who’s Who of conquerors.

The tiny island's national flag still bears the George Cross, awarded to the entire island by King George VI in recognition of the people’s fortitude under repeated air attacks during the Second World War.

The beautiful walled city of Valletta was established in the 1500s by the Roman Catholic Knights of St John, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its museums, palaces and grand churches. Its narrow streets are easy to explore on foot – and even if you get lost, you’re never too far from the cruise port.

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What to do in Valetta

The Grandmaster’s Palace

Located in St George’s Square, the imposing edifice of The Grandmaster’s Palace was built between the 16th and 18th centuries for successive Grand Masters of the Order of St John, then the island’s rulers. In the magnificent State Rooms, richly painted ceilings and sumptuous tapestries reflect the Grand Masters’ ambition to preside over one of the great courts of Europe.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Built by the Knights of Malta and embellished by the Brits, these glorious arcaded gardens sit at the top of Valletta’s towering bastion walls. Here you can look down over the Grand Harbour, wander round monuments and sculptures, and cool off by the picture-perfect fountain. There’s a lovely open-air cafe, too – but don’t be startled by the cannons of the saluting battery, fired every day at midday and 4pm.

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Valetta: Upper Barrakka Gardens were built by the Knights of Malta and embellished by the Brits

St John’s Cathedral

Completed in 1577, the plain exterior of this great church hides one of the most dazzling Baroque interiors in Europe. Feast your eyes on gilded frescos, sculpted monuments, ornately decorated marble floors and breathtaking vaulted ceilings. And don’t miss Caravaggio’s 1608 painting The Beheading of St John the Baptist – not only the great man’s largest work but also the only one to bear his signature.

Malta 5D

The 21st century meets the past in this stunning audiovisual experience, using a 3D movie and special effects to recreate Malta’s story, from pre-history to the air battles of WW2. With moving seats, air blasts and water sprays, it’s a breath-taking 20-minute journey that’s great fun for kids, and a brilliant cheat’s guide for adults too (you can always tell yourself it’s a springboard for further discovery).

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Valetta: St John's Cathedral hides one of the most dazzling Baroque interiors in Europe

Best restaurants & bars in Valetta

Is-Suq Tal-Belt

Malta’s culinary scene is a rich fusion of all the cultures to pass through here over the centuries, and you’ll get a sense of its diversity at Valletta’s delightful covered market. Spread over three floors of a restored Victorian hall, it’s foodie heaven – but if you try just one thing, make it a pastizz, a confection of flaky pastry that can be enjoyed either savoury or sweet.

Noni

A grand pedestrianised thoroughfare in the heart of Valletta, Republic Street is packed with excellent bars and restaurants – but if you are lucky enough to get a table at Noni, you are truly in for a treat. The ethos here is fine dining in a warm and informal setting, and head chef Jonathan Brincat was awarded a Michelin star in 2020 for his delicious Maltese/Mediterranean food with a modern French twist.

Legligin

Serving traditional Maltese home cooking, this cosy, friendly restaurant is housed in the cellar of a historic house on Santa Lucia Street. Try the slow-cooked hotpots or the Maltese meze with local goat’s cheese and homemade ravioli. It’s worth noting that Legligin stays open on Sunday nights, when most Valletta restaurants are closed, but it’s very popular and booking is essential.

Nenu the Artisan Baker

At this bright and buzzy venue on St Dominic Street, they’re master makers of ftira, the traditional Maltese ring-shaped bread that also makes a great pizza base. You’ll find an amazing range of toppings here, including pork belly and Maltese sausage with thinly sliced potatoes, but you can also go for more traditional favourites such as meaty stews (stuffat) and ravioli (ravjul).

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Legligin serves traditional Maltese home cooking

What to buy in Valetta

Blown glass

The town of Mdina, just outside Valetta, is known for its beautiful glassware. See artisans at work at Valletta Glass and purchase their stunning creations to take home – carefully packed, of course.

Cactus liqueur

Widely available, this unlikely-sounding tipple (actually made from the prickly pear) is traditionally served as an aperitif or digestif. With a flavour of strawberries and raspberries, it’s great in cocktails too.

Lace

Lace-making is one of Malta’s oldest traditions. Queen Victoria was a big patron and she is portrayed wearing a lace shawl in her statue on Republic Square. For the genuine article, visit Joseph Busuttil on Valletta’s Merchant St.

When to go to Valetta

Spring and early summer are the best times to visit before the city gets too hot and crowded. And if you don’t mind the slightly chillier waters, it’s a lovely time to take a swim from the stunning beaches of Mellieha and St Julian’s, just a short boat ride away.

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Lace-making is one of Malta’s oldest traditions

What's the weather like in Valetta?

Valletta has a Mediterranean climate, so June to September is generally hot and dry, and December to February is wet but mild. With average temperatures ranging from 16C in January to 32C in August, you won’t need to pack a fleece.

How to get around Valetta

Small and compact, the city is easy to explore on foot, given some good walking shoes to tackle the hills. It’s also worth treating yourself to a boat tour of the Grand Harbour to experience the beauty of Valletta from the water.

Where to stay in Valetta

If you really want to push the boat out, stay at Casa Rocca Piccola (casarocca piccola.com). Once the home of nobility, it’s now a chic boutique hotel of only five spacious rooms and suites, situated right in the heart of Valletta.

How to cruise to Valetta

MSC

Seven-night ‘Italy, Malta, Spain & France’ cruise aboard MSC Seaview, round trip from Messina (Sicily) via Valletta, Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa and Naples, departing 5 July 2022, from £949.

Norwegian Cruise Line

10-night ‘Greek Isles’ cruise aboard Norwegian Escape, round trip from Rome via Santorini, Athens, Corfu, Valletta, Naples, Florence and Cannes, departing 13 August 2022, from £1,461.

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