Valletta is the capital of the island nation of Malta. A harbour city, Valletta preserves much of its 16th century architectural heritage built under the Hospitallers.
Valletta was one of the earliest sites inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage list. Referred to colloquially as Il-Belt (“The City”), it takes its name from its founder, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette.
With its large array of shops, catering establishments, entertainment venues and culture, Malta’s capital has what it takes to capture people’s imagination.
- St. John’s Co Cathedral is unremarkable from the outside but incredibly ornate on the inside. Each of the different ‘langues’ (knights of a particular nationality had their own langue) has a their own chapel lined along the side of the nave in which they try and outdo each other in splendour. The barrel shaped ceiling is a single huge fresco, the lifework of famed artist Mattia Preti. And last but not least the floor is entirely taken by knight’s graves all intricately inlaid marble in different colours, a recent book on the subject describes it as the ‘most beautiful floor in the world.’ This relatively unknown cathedral can count itself one of the most impressive in Europe. Open 9:30am and 4:30pm on weekdays and 9:30am and 12:30pm on Saturdays. Entrance is through the Carappechia Annex on Republic Street in between St John’s Street and St Lucy Street, directly opposite the Law Courts. As soon as you enter you will be provided with an audio guide included in the entrance fee which leads you through the cathedral in 24 stops enabling you to get further historical information about the paintings and special parts of St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
- The Cathedral Museum holds two works by Caravaggio who was briefly himself a Knight, one of them being his masterpiece the famous huge “Beheading of St. John the Baptist.”
- The Palace of the Grand Masters now is the President’s office and the Maltese parliament. The staterooms, when accessible are quite impressive. It also houses the Knights’ armoury which is open to visitors daily from 9am–5pm. (However, all other parts of the palace are closed to visitors, so what they can see is limited.) At the entrance you can receive an audio guide which is included in the entrance fee. It provides you with further historical information about the various armoury of different eras beginning from the medieval chain mail up to the 17th century armour.
- The Malta Experience, despite not being entirely cheap (3.5 Liri) visitors who have any interest in culture or history and who haven’t exhaustively read up on the country before coming here would do well by starting their visit to Malta by going here as it is an excellent introduction to the country. It gives an impression of major events that shaped the country, but as it’s only half an hour long and meant for first-time visitors one shouldn’t expect an in-depth dry scholarly treatment of the subject. St Elmo Bastions, Mediterranean Street, Tel +356 243776 +356 251284
- The Upper Barrakka Gardens at the upper south side of the peninsula offer a jaw dropping view of the Grand Harbour. Go on a sunny day and bring champagne!
- The National Museum of Archaeology Even though Malta has an impressive and unique ancient history this museum housed in the former Auberge de Provence in Republic street can be rather a disappointment. The museum is currently partially being renovated hopefully bringing something more worthy of its name. Auberge de Provence, Republic St, Tel: 2122 1623.
- Fort St. Elmo was built at the tip of the peninsula by the knights after the Dragut Raid of 1551. During the Great Siege of 1565 the Turks made the mistake of choosing to first try and take this fort, for which they had planned a week. Instead the knights and soldiers present fought desperately for a month, buying essential time. The knights in the fort knew they were fighting to the death, and so rather than being taken off the ramparts when wounded, knights would fight on while seated in chairs until they couldn’t even lift their arms any more. Today the fort houses the Police Academy and is only partially open on the weekend.
- Manoel Theatre is ‘La Scala’ in miniature, a very beautiful 17th century theatre in original state. One of the oldest active theatres in Europe, it is the place for many classical music performances but also for instance the hilarious Christmas Panto. Old Theatre St, Tel: 356/22-26-18.
- The imposing defence walls and ramparts at the entrance to Valletta built by the Knights in the late 16th century are interesting to explore.
- The National Library is an evocative old library on Republic Square, next to the Grandmaster’s Palace. Only part of it is open to the public: you will need to take a Passport or other Photo ID to get in. The entire archives of the Knights of St. John from the Crusades in the 11th century until 1798 when Napoleon took Malta, are kept here, in true Maltese style in rickety wooden filing cabinets. They were proud to mention that recently a sprinkler system had been installed to protect this priceless collection.
- The Sacra Infermeria was the great hospital built by the knights in the 16th century, open to everyone, it had the highest level of healthcare available in Europe at the time. It was mostly destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt and now functions as a conference centre. It is rarely open to the public.
- The Casa Rocca Piccola – a Maltese Noble Family House on Triq ir-Republika, a few hundred yards past the Grand Master’s Palace on the right hand side. Very enjoyable.
- The National Museum of Fine Art. The biggest collection of paintings by Mattia Preti. Also found here are paintings by Ribera, Erardi and many well known Caravaggisti.
- St. James Cavalier is a fortress opposite the Auberge of Castille (today the Prime Minister’s office) which was built as part of the elaborate defence systems of Valletta. Today it houses a ‘Centre for Creativity’, with its own theatre, cinema, music room and exhibition halls. Its twin, St. John Cavalier is currently the embassy of the Knights of St. John who are, like the Vatican, recognised by several countries as a sovereign entity.
The main street of Valletta is Republic street, a busy pedestrian zone leading down the middle of the Peninsula from the main gate down to Republic square, this is where many of the better shops are located, although it cannot quite compete with Sliema for clothing.
The best souvenir shop (the least worthless trinkets etc.) can be found at the Malta experience, but there are many other reasonable souvenir shops in Valletta. At the beginning of the Republic street there are several reasonable souvenir shops but prices are far cheaper if you walk 20m down South street (turn left if you have the bus station behind you) which crosses Republic street very soon after you have entered through the city gates.
The best bookshop of Malta is definitely the one formerly known as Sapienzas (know Agenda Bookshop as of 2008) on Republic street but can be a bit more expensive.
There is a daily market selling cheap clothing in the parallel street to Republic street called Triq il-Merkanti, or Merchants street.
Valletta has a collection of decent restaurants, due to most of the tourists residing either in Sliema or on the north coast of the island there are fewer of the trashy variety, although it does have the ubiquitous fast-food places (Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut). The Valletta waterfront is absolutely amazing especially at night, it contains different types of restaurants, from Chinese to the Hard Rock cafe, there is also a book shop and jewellery shop in the same waterfront.