Malta’s beautiful capital city has much to offer in the way of fascinating history, beautiful architecture and hearty, satisfying local cuisine. We’ve rounded up some of the best things to see, do and eat in this hidden gem of a city at the heart of the Mediterranean.
What to See
St John’s Co-Cathedral
Despite its somewhat plain exterior, this impressive cathedral is one of Europe’s most important Baroque buildings. The dazzling interior features soaring walls of ornate marble and gold glitters in every corner. Even the floor is a stunning expanse of coloured marble, covering ancient tombs. Each language group of the Knights of Malta had a chapel here, and their competition to have the most extravagant decoration can be easily seen today. It is also home to Caravaggio’s The Beheading of John the Baptist, which is the only signed work by the artist. The accompanying audio guide is actually very good and well worth a listen.
The City Gate
This imposing entryway has guarded the city since it was built by the Knights of Malta in the 16th century. It sustained heavy damage in the Second World War and the subsequent 1960s renovation left a lot to be desired, meaning it is currently undergoing a facelift by the architect behind the London Shard. This whole area, including Freedom Square and the Royal Opera House, is well worth seeing and a great place to start a visit to Valletta.
Casa Rocca Piccola
If you’re in luck, your visit to the home of this centuries old palace might be guided by a member of the noble Maltese family that still lives here. The home is full of beautiful Maltese antiques, including a set of 18th-century silver surgical instruments from the Knights’ hospital. The traditional gallerija still has a peep-hole in the floor, giving a view of the front doorstep so the occupants can decide whether they’re at home to visitors or not.
Beneath the house is the WWII bomb shelter carved out of the rock for the family, and the 16th-century cistern that would sustain the family during times of drought and siege. Tours take place hourly and give a fascinating insight into the life of Valetta’s nobility then and now.
What to Do
Visit the Upper Barracca Gardens and the Lascaris War Rooms Beneath
Built by the Knights of Malta and added to by the British; the Upper Barracca gardens sit on top of Valletta’s vast fortifications. With stunning panoramic views and the gentle calm of green space surrounded by urban bustle, they’re the perfect place to while away a couple of idle hours. When you’re bored of wandering among the fountains, sculptures and monuments, head down to explore the Lascaris War Rooms situated beneath the gardens. The tunnels were originally the slave quarters of the Order of St John, but were used as the secret headquarters of the British and Allied Mediterranean forces in the WWII. The ops rooms are still complete with maps, phones, plotting tables and unique communication systems.
Take a Boat Tour of the Grand Harbour
The centre of much of Malta’s history, the infamous Grand Harbour is a wonderful experience when traversed on the water. It is still possible to taste the life of a salty sea dog by taking a trip on a traditional dgħajsa, little wooden boats which were used to transfer sailors between ship and shore. The harbour is beautifully tranquil on a quiet day, and it is hard to imagine its history as the scene of the Great Siege of 1565 and some of the significant events of the Second World War.
Catch a Show at the Manoel Theatre
Whether you prefer a concert, a musical or a drama, getting tickets to a performance is definitely the best way to see this beautiful 18th-century theatre. It is the third oldest in Europe, and, as Malta’s National Theatre, hosts many performances as breath taking as its décor. There are many English plays to choose from and it benefits from being the location for a majority of the National Orchestra’s performances. If you don’t mind peeping behind the curtain and ruining the magic, backstage tours are also available most mornings.
Where to Eat
Named after the Maltese onomatopoeic word for glugging down a drink, Legligin has a particularly gluggable offering of wines lining the walls of its cellar-cum-wine bar. What’s more, it is also the perfect place to discover authentic Maltese food that tastes as though it was cooked in your mum’s kitchen. Indulge in the Maltese Meze of around nine heavenly dishes which really showcase local cooking at its finest. It starts with bread and oils, before moving on to delights such as traditional arjoli, local goats’ cheese, hotpots and chef/owner Chris’ homemade chocolates. There’s nothing quite like it, especially on a Sunday night when many other restaurants are closed.
As the sign on the original shopfront declares, Rubino was once a confectionary store in the early 20th century, before it became the wonderful eatery it is today. It is a favourite in Valetta among both visitors and locals, who can’t get enough of the blackboard menu of traditional Maltese food which changes daily. There is always a good mix of meat and fish dishes, as well as the much-loved local delicacy, rabbit.
It is the desserts that have made Rubino famous, however, so make sure you save room for the traditional and mouth-watering Sicilian cassata. The restaurant has become a sort of landmark and is a must visit for anyone in Valletta for the first time.
It is usually wise to avoid eating in the main square of any city, but Malata proves the exception to the rule, making it perfect for a spot of people watching as you eat. If it’s too chilly to eat outside, the restaurant’s interior is delightfully cosy and is decorated with the caricatures of Maltese politicians, who often frequent the establishment. The menu is filled with dishes that expertly blend Maltese and French flavours, with the fish dishes being particularly outstanding. If you’re lucky, weekend dining is sometimes accompanied by live jazz music, making the restaurant especially atmospheric.
If this guide has whetted your appetite for discovering the delights of Valetta yourself, why not visit as part of a Mediterranean cruise? Cruise1st has a huge range to suit all tastes, as well as unbeatable prices. For more information, browse our range of cruises online or call our expert sales team on 1300 857 345.
Image credits: R Muscat