Journeys, Travel Guides

Exploring Valletta, the European Capital of Culture in 2018

Walking in Valletta feels like wandering a medieval movie set, where legends of knights follow you along the magnificent limestone walls of the biggest fortress in Europe.

Citadels, batteries, cannons and walled cities scattered around Valletta and Malta, all surrounded by deep blue waters, create breathtaking sceneries. This military architecture is maybe the only truly Maltese element (I’ll explain why in a bit).

Valletta is a European Capital of Culture this year, but the city has been a UNESCO heritage site for some time now. These two elements sparked my curiosity and made me hop on a plane to visit.

Maltese-Balconies-in-Valletta,-Malta

We landed in the middle of a National Holiday (Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck), and found the streets filled with people and kids dressed in funny costumes, carnival music, floats and dancers, and it seemed like all the island’s inhabitants gathered in Valletta for five days of celebrations.

Hearing Turkish music on the streets, serving cappuccinos on heated terraces like the Italians, embracing fiestas like the Spanish – all these little details convinced us that Malta has kept the best of its cultural heritage intact.

With so many cultural influences originating in Italy, UK, Spain, Turkey, and Morocco, it was hard to figure out what exactly was unique to Malta.

At times, it felt like visiting all these countries at once, but once we reached our last day on the island, we realized that every place we’ve been to was surrounded by limestone walls.

So here it is – the limestone fortress walls are unique to Valletta and Malta; it’s a medieval appeal I haven’t found anywhere else in Europe. And if you add the stories and legends of the Maltese knights to this military architecture, you’ll have one more reason to visit this sunny island.

Malta is like a big city with Valletta as its heart. Here is where the magic happens, and we spent a couple of days wandering its lovely streets adorned with timber balconies, visiting some museums, and enjoying warm weather in February while following the local celebrations.

Colorful-Maltese-Balconies-in-Valletta


Top things to do in Valletta, Malta

Follow the Maltese Templers at St. John Co-Cathedral

St. John Co-Cathedral is the most important religious landmark in Valletta and Malta, out of all the churches scattered on these islands (359).

It was built by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights of Malta / Knights Hospitaller), and that makes it an intrinsic part of Maltese history.

The architecture of this place of worship might be built in a Mannerist style, but the interior is a Baroque masterpiece, and one of the very few all baroque churches in Europe I’ve seen so far.

There are also nine impressive chapels inside the sumptuous co-cathedral, and one can spend hours admiring the craft behind the marble decorations, sculptures, and oil paintings. Still, there’s one masterpiece inside the museum not to be missed – The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio.

Since it’s not only a church, but a historical landmark, there’s an entrance fee than includes an audio guide (10€/person). It usually closes early, and it gets pretty crowded, so better visit it first thing in the morning (9.30-16).


Visit Grand Master’s Palace

Follow the Maltese Knights into one of the most interesting arms and armors collections in Europe.

Before entering the armory, it’s worth visiting the Palace with its gorgeous mosaic floors and mural paintings. The two gardens of the palace are quiet spots you can enjoy for a few minutes, if streets of Valletta get too hectic for you.

The palace is also built in a Mannerist style and it has a Baroque interior, but it doesn’t have the grandeur of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Still, I found it an interesting place to visit, and liked the armory more than I would have thought.

Hours / Entrance fee: 10-15, 24€/person.


Take a tour of Casa Rocca Piccola

Take a tour of this charming 16th century little palace with white washed walls and Art Nouveau windows, aboding one of the few old houses with a garden in Valletta.

Although it’s surrounded by water, the islands don’t have rivers, so drinking water used to be Malta’s most important issue. Therefore, with very few exceptions, gardens used to be forbidden for fear of water waste. Nowadays, there are enough desalination facilities in Malta for the issue to be contained.

Casa Rocca Piccola is one of these exceptions, but its garden is still rather small. Top three interesting things to see inside Rocca Piccola: the portable church and the inner chapel, the remarkable Gozo lace collection, and the war bunkers.

I didn’t visit the bunkers because of my claustrophobia. Vlad went in, but thought it was pretty small and not as impressive as others he’s seen so far. I loved the cozy rooms, each comprising bits and pieces of Maltese heritage.

Hours / Entrance fee: 10-17, 9€/person.


Wander Valletta’s streets to discover more lovely spots

Admire Tritoni Fountain at night, one of the locals’ favorite meeting point

Chill in the Upper Barrakka Gardens in the afternoon, when they fire an actual cannon

Wander the streets near St. Paul’s street to find the most beautiful Maltese Timber Balconies

Enter some of the numerous churches and cathedrals of Valletta to admire their frescoes and impressive interiors

Explore the streets near Upper Barrakka Gardens to uncover beautiful architecture and gorgeous viewpoints

Castille-Hotel,-Valletta


Panoramic viewpoints of Valletta

Take a trip to Sliema for the iconic view of Carmelite’s Church marvelous cupola
Admire Valletta from above in the Upper Baraka Gardens
Take an afternoon trip to Senglea for postcard photos of Valletta

Sunny-VallettaValletta,-Malta---seen-from-above-at-dusk


Enjoy the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck (February)

Since we landed on February 10th, we found the city filled with people listening to music, dancing and enjoying five days of celebrations due to the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck.

We found out that it’s one of the most important Maltese holidays as it commemorates the shipwreck of St. Paul in Malta, in the year 60 AD. This is a huge event for locals because it is mentioned in the Bible, and it marks the beginning of Christianity in Malta.

Malta is deeply religious, and there’s an overwhelming evidence of its piety in the density of chapels, churches and cathedrals around the island. Just to be clear, Malta has a church for each 1000 of its residents. Also, it’s impossible to miss the religious niches on every major street corner, reminding us of Rome and Florence.

Celebrations and fiestas around the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck are also of great importance to the Maltese people. Locals work for months in advance to create huge floats that later cross Valletta’s streets, all accompanied by dancers and loud music, but also families with kids and youngsters dressed in funny costumes.

I love bumping into this type of fiesta because it’s a great way to discover the traditions and beliefs of another country, and it makes the trip even more rewarding.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the first time we found ourselves in the middle of a national holiday. I remember having a great time last year watching the celebrations around Semana Santa in Andalusia, Spain. Also, few years ago, we got into a public flower fight in Valencia, Spain.


Taste some traditional dishes in Valletta

Have a fresh tuna steak at Guze

It’s a very popular place among locals, offering lovely meals and a wonderful experience.

We got a table out of pure luck or maybe because we eat early (18-19), since this small restaurant asks for a reservation in advance.

One thing I liked about it was the starter that reminded me of Italian meals: pesto rosso, olive oil mousse with fresh bread, and a glass of veggie soup.

The tuna steak was perfect, as expected for a destination that gets fresh fish all year round. The fresh catch comes from Marsaxlokk, the amazing fishing village 30 minutes outside Valletta.

One thing I didn’t like here was the Maltese wine, even though I can’t really say why.

Try traditional Maltese food at Cafe Jubilée: rabbit stew and fish pie

There aren’t many restaurants and pubs in Valletta, and so we arrived at Cafe Jubilée without knowing anything about it, looking to taste some traditional Maltese food.

We tasted two staple dishes of the Maltese cuisine: Maltese rabbit stew – Stuffat tal-fenek and Lampuki or Torta tal-lampuki – a pie made out of the fish known as the ‘mahi-mahi’, or the common dolphin fish.

I liked the rabbit stew a lot, but even if I love seafood and fish, the lampuki wasn’t to my taste.

Service was great, the wine better than the one we had at Guze, and the whole place looked like a British pub, with a dimly lit wooden interior, creating a very cozy atmosphere.

Try Pastizzi

We got some pastizzi from a local shop called Sphinx Pastizzeria, near Casa Rocca Piccola, and it was better than the others we’ve tasted in Valletta. So we came back for more on our last day in Malta. A must try, if you ask me.

Visit Caffe Cordina

It’s one of the oldest places in Valletta, with a gorgeous interior and a myriad of cakes and sweets decorating the displays. It’s always pretty busy, although the pastizzi we had here weren’t great, nor the cannoli Siciliano. Still, it’s a beautiful palazzo to visit when in Valletta.

Have a taste of Maltese cookies

Streets of Malta are full of cookie stands. Lots of sweets of all shapes, colors and flavors stack up street food stands. I’ve tasted some almond ones, some Maltese cannoli, and some others which names I can’t recall.  All are pretty good, bearing some Italian and Turkish influences.

Maltese-Cookies---small


Accommodation in Valletta, Malta

The streets of Valletta were very crowded mid-February because of the festivities, and those local crowds might be similar to the tourist ones you might encounter when visiting Valletta during the summer.

Therefore, if you enjoy a more peaceful accommodation (like we do), it’s better to stay in Sliema, 10 min ferry trip or 30 min bus trip from Valletta.

If you want, I can recommend the hotel in Sliema we’ve stayed in, but only during the summer months. That’s because despite its great view of Valletta and the bay, the comfort level was low because our room was like a fridge, with no heat whatsoever (AC couldn’t compensate for the cold inside).


How to get to and around Valletta & Malta

We used local buses, which work good enough, always paying for tickets at the driver.

Valletta is also the only good bus hub that will get you to the other cities and villages in Malta. We used them to get from Sliema to Valletta every day, but also to get to Marsaxlokk, Senglea and Mdina.

The ferry wasn’t an option for us since we experienced the worst weather in Malta’s recent history – windy, rainy, colder than usual, not to mention scary waves. The ferries weren’t working on their regular schedule either, so we had to get around by bus only.

One funny thing about transport in Malta is that you can walk to the airport. Yes, we walked from the bus station. It’s pretty odd, if you think about it, especially when the airport is so close to a residential area.


Weather in Valletta and Malta during the off season

Malta is one of those great places to visit all year round, but I wouldn’t recommend February, even if I know that we just ran out of luck when it came to weather.

That’s because I would have loved to take a Grand Harbor Tour by boat, visit the other Maltese islands – Gozo and Comino, but the sea didn’t offer the best navigation conditions. So maybe end of March would be a much better time to visit Valletta and Malta.

Hope you found my guide to Valletta useful. If you have any questions about Valletta or Malta, please let me know in the comment section below.


Malta Trip: Valletta, Marsaxlokk, Senglea, Mdina, Sliema | February 2018 | All Photography ©Ana Matei > Instagram: @MateiAna


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Ana
Last updated: May 10, 2018
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