The starting point has to be Valletta. It is the capital city of Malta, the country where I was born and lived for over 30 years. It is known by locals as il-Belt (the City in English). It is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen and for many years, especially after World War II, it stood in neglect abandoned by a nation which is once again discovering its glory at all times of day. Unlike other capital cities around the world, Valletta is a small peninsula with a population of just under 7,000 though more and more people are returning to live in what is considered as a World Heritage City.
While Valletta has always been busy during the day with tourists and locals alike who go there for various administrative reasons, the city would fall silent after sunset as offices, museums and shops closed. But the city has been transformed over recent years and is becoming a hub of activity in the evening, away from the hustle and bustle of other busier areas on the island such as Sliema/St Julians and Bugibba.
Our insiders tip to enjoy Valletta is to take the time to experience it like the locals do, without rushing, just absorbing its richness and enjoying the outdoor cafe culture. Unlike other capital cities, Valletta is not the hub of tourism in terms of accommodation, though boutique hotels have started to mushroom over the past few years. It is worth considering staying in the capital for many reasons. But if you find yourself in the Sliema or St Julian’s area we would highly recommend you wake up early to experience the sunrise looking at Valletta from the Tigné vantage point. We promise you it is a sight you will never forget.
An early start deserves some indulgence. If you are crossing by ferry to Valletta from Sliema, walk from Marsamxett to Republic Street, the main street of Valletta and have breakfast at Caffe Cordina. Our tip is to do as the locals do and have a coffee with pastizzi (either cheese or pea cakes). If it’s a nice day you can sit outside just in front of the national library and just watch people walk by. It’s the best place for people watching.
After an early start, beat the crowds and head to St John’s Cathedral and its museum. Don’t miss the Caravaggio masterpieces in the museum and the tapestries. The cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as a church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value. The cathedral’s interior is full of works of a great Baroque artist Mattia Preti who lived in Malta from 1659 till his death in 1699. There are two works of Caravaggio in the museum, the beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome writing.
From here, head back to St George’s square near Caffe Cordina to visit the President’s Palace. If you have young children, they might love the Palace Armoury. But beware, it might be difficult to get them out of the museum.
By now, you should be preparing for lunch. Valletta has a number of places for lunch. Here are a few of our recommendations. Booking for all these places is highly recommended. Much will depend on what you fancy and also the weather. If you are not too concerned about the service or quality, few places can match Sicilia Bar on a nice day. The view of Grand Harbour is amazing. But you could also venture outside the walls of Valletta to Harbour Club (though this could also be a great option in the evening). To get to Harbour Club, the best way would be to use the lift from Upper Barraka Gardens. If you want to eat al fresco another option worth considering is Malata in St George’s Square (with a magnificent view of the Palace).
If you prefer to follow the locals, then you should consider Rubino or Guzé in Old Bakery Street. Both serve local cuisine using fresh produce. A new addition to the capital, is Zero Sei just opposite the Manoel Theatre. It is run by a Roman couple and serves excellent pasta dishes.
After lunch take a stroll to the Valletta city gate where you will get a glimpse of Valletta’s new architectural gem, the Renzo Piano designed Parliament which is about to be inaugurated. Then head to the Upper Barraka Gardens walking past Castille, the building which houses the Office of the Prime Minister. Take a glimpse at the Malta Stock Exchange before you walk into one of the most spectacular gardens in malta.
Here you will be able to enjoy the views of the Grand Harbour. Nothing beats sitting on a bench with your favourite book or magazine and sun bathing or finding a spot in the shade if the sun is too strong. Having recharged your batteries, there are many things you can do. If you fancy another museum there are many to choose from. We also recommend taking a walk around the perimeter of Valletta. Here you will be able to enjoy exceptional views both of Valletta, Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. You will walk past many historic buildings in particular a number of auberges.
Before dinner have an aperitif in Republic street at the recently opened Charles Grech wine store. If you have had an abundant lunch, then our recommendation is to head to Trabuxu, one of Malta’s most popular wine bars. It has excellent service, a great wine list, superb atmosphere and a good selection of platters. Alternatively, you may want to go to Trabuxu Bistro just around the corner. It is owned by the same people. If you prefer to dine in a restaurant, then our above recommendations for lunch are also worth considering together with il-Horza.
We love Valletta at night as the atmosphere in the city changes completely. If you still have energy you should still make time for a short stroll in the evening. Strait Street, which used to be the heart of entertainment in Malta just after the war, is being revived. The view of Grand Harbour at night is also something to savour. If you happen to be there in summer, then check whether there are any village feasts on this side of the island, because the fireworks over Grand Harbour will make it a night to remember.
Places to stay: If you have decided to stay in Valletta, there are a number of places you may consider. Apart from two large luxury hotels just outside Malta’s capital city (the Phoenicia and the Hotel Excelsior) you may also want to check out a number of boutique hotels that have recently opened and which have good reviews. These include Casa Ellul, Palazzo Prince D’Orange and Trabuxu Boutique Living.