Malta’s capital is also Europe’s most southerly, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits on a hilly peninsula in between two natural harbours. It’s incredibly pretty, a grid of golden limestone streets lined with charming old-town buildings that house cafes, restaurants and a handful of shops that seemingly haven’t changed their appearance in centuries.
Valletta is the perfect place for a European weekend break but it also a great stopping point as part of a longer Malta itinerary. If you’re wondering how to make the most of your visit to the capital of Malta then follow this guide as we share our top tips on how to enjoy one day in Valletta.
The first foundation stone for Valetta was laid in March 1566 by the Knights of St John. The Christian military order had been gifted the island (along with neighbouring Gozo) by King Charles V of Spain, then ruler of Malta. Recognising that what the island lacked in resources they more than made up for in strategic location, the Knights set about building forts, watch towers and fortifications along the coast.
Valetta itself was designed by military engineer Francesco Laparelli who created the capital after the Knight’s victory at the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when 700 knights and 8,000 local troops defeated 40,000 Ottoman Turks.
Valetta’s design, based on rectangular grids of wide, straight streets, remains unchanged today – the Knights believed that having straight streets would make the city easier to defend. Today, it’s a wonderful, wanderable city and, at less than a mile long, it’s also almost impossible to get lost!
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Morning in Valletta
First things first, get your bearings. Republic Street, which runs from City Gate to Fort St Elmo on the tip of the peninsula, is the main drag and runs past many of Valletta’s most famous monuments. You can pick up a map from the tourist office near City Gate.
The fountain just outside the City Gate is Triton’s Fountain that dates back to 1959 and was the result of a competition run by the Maltese Government.
Breakfast is not a particularly big deal in Malta but it’s worth trying Balbuljata while you’re here. This traditional Maltese breakfast is essentially scrambled eggs with tomato served with Maltese bread.
Some of the best places to head for breakfast while you’re in town include local favourites Piadina Caffe near St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum Café, on Valletta’s Melita street.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
Breakfast finished, the first place you should visit on your Valletta itinerary is St John’s Co-Cathedral, which was completed in 1666. Today it’s one of the most popular and famous sights in the city. While the exterior is nothing to write home about the ornately guilded Baroque style interiors will have you reaching for your sunglasses – almost every surface is covered in gold or coloured marble.
Highlights include the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio located in the Oratory. It’s the artist’s largest painting and the only one that he actually signed.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Wander along to Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens and be rewarded with blockbuster views over the aptly-named Grand Harbour and the “Three Cities” beyond.
The colonnaded public gardens, the highest point of Valletta, were created in the late 16th century by the Knights of Malta as private gardens for the Order (the only opened to the public in 1824). Today they’re filled with fountains, sculptures and monuments (including one to Winston Churchill) and benches but the real reason to come here are for the views.
Immediately below the gardens is the Saluting Battery, canons that once fired to mark the start and end of the day and to salute visiting naval vessels. If you visit just before midday you can enjoy the noon-day salute accompanied by music.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens sit nearby perched on top of St. Christopher’s Bastion. Both gardens are a great place to take a pause from sightseeing.
Afternoon in Valletta
The midday salute from the Saluting Battery signals lunch and there are plenty of good places to eat within Valletta’s city walls.
Lunch in Valletta
While the Maltese might not be big on breakfast, the same can not be said for lunch and dinner. There are some excellent dining options these days in Valletta serving all kinds of cuisine but do make sure to try some traditional Maltese dishes while here.
Some of the most popular dishes to try include pastizzi. These fluffy pastries com stuffed with either ricotta cheese or a type of pea puree and a a hugely popular snack.
You will find fresh fish on most Maltese menus including Lampuka (also known as Mahi-mahi), which is caught seasonally from August through to December. Pixxispad, grilled swordfish steak, is another local favourite.
For lunch head to The Harbour Club, where each dish is named after a different street in the Maltese capital.
Is-Suq tal-Belt is a cool food market housed within a once-derelict Victorian building. Spread over three floors the basement is home to an enormous deli selling everything from fresh fish to spices. On the ground floor is where you’ll find the food court and 15 different stands serving Maltese street food, Turkish kebabs, Mexican tacos and more.
A local favourite, Da’ Pippo Trattoria serves whatever they can source fresh that day so while you can’t expect a menu you can expect delicious dishes.
Casa Rocca Piccola
Located in the heart of the Malta’s capital city is Casa Rocca Piccola, a 400-year-old baroque palace and one of the first noble houses in the city. Not only that, it was one of the only houses in Valletta at the time that was permitted to have a garden.
Originally called ‘Casa del Giardino’ the 16th-century palazzo is still home to descendants of its original owner. Fortunately, however, the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro have opened up part of the home as a museum.
While the ancestral portraits and silverware offer a fascinating glimpse into how Valletta’s old aristocrat families lived perhaps the most intriguing part of the house are the network of underground passages and tunnels that have been carved from the rock beneath the palace. One tunnel leads into a huge cavern that was used to shelter locals during World War II.
If you’re feeling arty then head to MUZA, the National Museum of Art that opened in 2018 in a building that was once the seat of the Knights of St John. In the galleries hang artworks by old masters and contemporary artists.
National Museum of Archaeology
Alternatively you may want to step back in time and explore Malta’s past. Housed within one of the auberges used by the Knights (this one belonged to the Knights of Provence) is the National Museum of Archaeology.
Once you’ve admired the impressive painted ceilings, enjoy the extensive collection of artefacts covering the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Phoenician era in Malta. The most famous item is the wonderful Sleeping Lady of Malta, which was found at the neolithic Hal Saflieni Hypogeum monument.
Wander the streets
One of the best things to do in Valletta is simply to wander around and you should definitely schedule some time for exploring the old limestone alleys. Every street of this small city hides its own share of courtyards, churches, alleyways, artisans and shopkeepers but remember to look up so you don’t miss the painted gallariji (enclosed balconies).
Strait Street, known as Strada Stretta to locals, is Valletta’s most famous address. During the 19th and mid-20th century this was the city’s most popular entertainment district where
American and British military men would mingle with locals for wild nights out – there’s a reason why it was nicknamed “The Gut”! There were bars, live jazz music, bordellos, entertainment halls and rooming houses – and lots of people out to have a good time.
Today things are a little quieter on Strada Stretta but it’s still a great destination for delicious food, good drinks and live-music.
The two main streets for shopping are Republic street and Merchant street; these are lined with well-known stores so if you’re looking for something a little more unique then head off into the side streets.
Late Afternoon in Valletta
In the afternoon take the 15-minute ferry from the Valletta waterfront to the Three Cities (the ferry terminal is located near the Quarry Wharf roundabout, a short walk from the ferry terminal where the cruise ships dock). The ferry runs daily from morning to evening and until midnight during the summer months.
The Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Single and Cospicua lie around the Grand Harbour perimeter guarded by thick, impenetrable walls. These cities were among the first settlements and the earliest home to the Knights of St. John.
The narrow alleys are filled with family homes, historical buildings, churches, forts and ramparts – many of them far older than those that you’ll find in the city of Valletta.
If you are short on time then a guided tour is a great way to make the most of your time here. Or, if you have longer, then consider visiting the Three Cities on a day trip.
Evening in Valletta
Once you’re back in Valletta, stop for an aperitif at the beautiful Phoenicia Hotel positioned besides the main city gates. This was the island’s first five-star hotel and is a favourite with the Royals (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed here in 1949). If your wallet allows then it’s well worth booking a room here, otherwise come for happy hour and the views from the terrace of The Club bar.
For dinner head to Michelin-starred Noni that has been wining and dining customers for over 250 years. Located on Republic Street, this is the place to come for a traditional Maltese meal with a twist. Expect plenty of fresh local produce and flavours.
Where to stay in Valletta
All photos from Depositphotos