Inside the Maltese capital’s historic walls, Abigail Blasi falls for the city’s café culture, fresh seafood, Baroque architecture and stunning views
The Maltese capital, Valletta, has emerged as the ideal city-break destination. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a beautiful city, tranquil enough to make wandering around and drinking outside at pavement cafés a blissed-out pleasure.
Yet it’s also packed with splendid architecture, culture and museums, such as the state-of-the-art Malta at War Museum in Fort St Elmo, which recounts how the island has resisted would-be invaders from the Ottoman fleet through to the Nazis in the Second World War. Then there’s the beautiful St John’s Co-Cathedral with its huge altarpiece by Caravaggio; the open-air Opera House; and the magnificent Grand Master’s Palace. What’s more, the weather is consistently good, with more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
Since Valletta’s construction by the Knights of Malta in the 16th century, Europe’s first planned city has always been a place of remarkable beauty. Set on a narrow peninsula, it is almost surrounded by peacock-blue sea. Tall baroque townhouses fronted by traditional Maltese covered glass and wood balconies, line narrow cobbled streets.
The city lies alongside one of the world’s most magnificent natural harbours, so, as well as enjoying the views, visitors can take boat trips across to the historic Three Cities, small towns that predate Valletta. However, this is not a city stuck in time. Cool architectural additions add contemporary style and there are year-round festivals from pop to baroque.
Valletta, one of Europe’s smallest capitals, is eminently walkable so visitors don’t have to stress about taking public transport or tussle with traffic, allowing them to enjoy their precious few days away to the utmost.
With frequent flights from all major UK airports, Malta’s Le Luqa airport is only a short hop away. Four hours after taking off visitors can be sipping a glass of wine in a city square, or lying back on a beach with a book. When travellers arrive there’s no lengthy and arduous trek from the airport, it’s less than a half-hour trip by bus or by car.
Valletta’s buzz has been building over several years, in preparation for its role as 2018 European Capital of Culture. There has been a frenzy of renovation projects: museums given complete overhauls and historic forts and piazzas cleaned up and reopened. On June 7 there is the Pageant of the Seas, where locals race each other on specially-designed vessels, before a light show with tall ships in the harbour as night falls. An arts festival runs from late June until July, and the programme winds down with a book festival in November.
In recent years boutique hotels have opened in glorious heritage buildings in the city centre, offering accommodation for all budgets. Valletta’s gastronomic scene is also thriving as never before. Typical Maltese cuisine, including rabbit stew and aljotta (fish soup), has a strong Italian influence, but if you fancy Roman food head to Zero Sei trattoria near the Manoel Theatre, or sample seafood with a view at harbourside restaurants such as Scoglitti.
The Malta Tourism Authority has launched the Gastro Trail, a way of exploring the islands through its cuisine, visiting cheese makers, vineyards, fine dining restaurants and more.
There was a time when Valletta went to bed early, but the city’s nightlife scene has also undergone a renaissance. Strait Street is a lane so narrow that neighbours could shake hands across it, and was once the notorious red light district, sailors’ first port of call when they landed in the harbour.
The scene died once the British navy left, but the old bars along the street retained all their vintage signage. A few years ago they began to reopen as cool hole-in-the-wall bars, serving cocktails at their outdoor tables, and with regular concerts – from jazz to string quartets – out on the narrow street. Like the rest of Valletta, Strait Street has preserved its past, while embracing a new, vibrant present.
Within easy reach
There are few city-break destinations where it’s so easy to go and explore other parts of the country in a few hours or a day trip as well. Sights around Valletta include prehistoric temples, such as the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, which dates back to 3300 BC, earlier than the pyramids. There are also walled cities, natural sea-swimming pools and coastal caves. Malta and Gozo, its neighbouring island, have some of the world’s finest scuba diving opportunities, with trips possible from Valletta itself. It’s a great place to learn diving, and there is plenty for experienced divers, including submerged wrecks from the Second World War, underwater sea cliffs and caverns.