This miniature Maltese marvel still feels like a secret. While its spirit feels similar to southern Italy, its tumble of narrow streets is unlike any you’ve seen elsewhere, instead as unique as the locals who serve your cold Cisk to tables stacked precariously on steep ancient steps. Here’s how to spend 36 hours in Europe’s most underrated destination.
What to do in Valletta…
As a mere slip of a city, and a very walkable one at that, Valletta invites you to cram a lot into your time here. Excursions can take you north to Gozo and the Blue Lagoon but you have a whole itinerary of beautiful Mediterranean beaches ahead of you and with the Azure Window sadly no more, dedicate your time here to the city itself instead.
The best views in town are a five-minute walk from your ship at the Barrakka Gardens. The Three Cities are a sight for sore eyes at any hour but the sandstone walls of Birgu, Senglea and Conspicua glow golden when the sun starts to set. Take in vistas stretching across the Grand Harbour and out towards Fort St Angelo from Upper Barrakka Gardens, before taking the lift down to the waterside. It’s free to go down and you’ll emerge right where you need to be for ferries and taxi boats across the harbour, but save a euro to save your legs the trip back up to street level. If you’re skipping sunset, time your visit to the gardens at 12pm or 4pm instead to watch the cannon fire from the Saluting Battery below.
Tucked away inconspicuously in a stealth spot 150ft below the Upper Barrakka Gardens are the Lascaris War Rooms. Their cavernous tunnels offer shaded respite from the Mediterranean’s relentless heat at the height of summer but there’s more to them than that. Malta was bombed so relentlessly during World War II – at times enduring up to 10 air raids every day – that King George made the unusual decision to award the whole island with the George Cross. The War Rooms housed Britain’s War HQ and served as the point from which all offensive operations were directed during the war, it’s network of top-secret underground tunnels and control rooms vital to Malta’s defense. Since used by NATO before becoming one of Malta’s most popular attractions, the Lascaris War Rooms are a must for history buffs and are just minutes away from the port. Book a guided tour to get the most from your visit; the guides are incredibly interesting and knowledgeable. They’re available twice daily at 10.30am and 1pm.
Like any good city in the Med, Valletta’s skyline is scattered with church domes. St John’s Co-Cathedral looks like one of the most unassuming of them all from the outside but push open the doors to discover a different story altogether within. Every inch of the interior is opulent, gilded and marbled to within an inch of its life, from the floor beneath your feet to the frescoed ceilings overhead. The co-cathedral was built for the Knights of Saint John and while they were known to adopt a ‘more is more’ approach to décor, it was a Baroque-style revamp in the 17th century that really upped the ante. Italian artist Caravaggio spent a short time as one of the Knights of Saint John and you’ll find some of his work in the cathedral’s oratory. Leave your heels at home and make sure shoulders and knees are covered for your visit.
Valletta’s backstreets are an attraction in themselves. Malta as a whole still looks like it did decades ago, which is why Hollywood’s location scouts return here time and time again. Valletta’s well-worn vintage shop fronts and peeling corner balconies were the only things capable of competing with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on the looks front in By The Sea, the film they produced here during their honeymoon in 2014. The city is so small that it is impossible to get lost; you’ll find yourself at the water’s edge eventually, whichever way you walk. Grabbing a ricotta pastizzi for sustenance and embarking on your own walking tour of the city costs barely anything but it’ll have you hankering after a return trip within minutes of setting off.
Where to eat in Valletta…
Ever since the Knights of St John commanded the city, locals have come from across Malta to stock up their pantries at Is-Suqtal-Bel, Valletta’s indoor food market. Having reopened in January 2018, years after falling into a state of decay and dilapidation, Maltese specialities are back on the menu and drawing a mixed crowd to the market’s communal tables. The basement of the market is reserved for stalls selling local wines and cheeses, tasty souvenirs against which the usual fridge magnet just doesn’t quite stack up. Head back up to the ground floor and you’ll find a smorgasbord of eateries gathered from the island’s finest. There’s something about the hot Med sun that makes you crave fresh Asian fare and Zest has been Malta’s go-to since becoming one of the first Asian restaurants on the island 15 years ago. If you’re more inclined towards tasting your way around a destination, head to Gululu for Maltese dishes and sharing platters. Garlicky ‘bigilla’ beans are Moorish, as is the sweet and salty kapunata, but it is a traditional dish of fried pasta with bacon, egg and cheese that serves up the satisfying stodge you need after hours of exploring.
Osteria.Ve may be the number one restaurant in Malta according to Trip Advisor but the appeal of this tiny little place in Bergu isn’t down to food alone. Go here for dinner, taking a traditional dgħajsa from Valletta to the Three Cities, where an amble through tangled streets littered with tiny churches and lit with a golden glow finally brings you to a slip of a restaurant. Overlook the aesthetics of the menu; word-processed and laminated sound klaxons to those in search of authenticity but what Stefano and Thomas lack in style, they make up for in service with a smile. The food here is good, think fresh-today tuna tartar with juicy peaches, followed by Bigoli in rich duck ragu, but it is the service that makes eating at Osteria.Ve so memorable. There are only a handful of tables so booking in advance is a must; snag the table for two in the window overlooking Bergu’s eerily silent streets and you have hit the jackpot.
Where to drink in Valletta…
While once famous for its raucous Strait Street, an area frequented by potty-mouthed sailors in search of a good time, up until a few years ago, Valletta had a tendency to fall silent after 6pm. But that was then and this is now, a host of bohemian hideouts across the city stacking their chairs like dominoes on its steps after dark. Café Society has lead the change, becoming the kind of place locals are reluctant to wax lyrical about for fear of giving the secret away. Truth be told, it is Valletta’s favourite evening hideaway, where the cold Cisk costs a euro and the night plays out beneath crystal chandeliers and world flags strung end-to-end in the street. Café Society hosts its own film club too, a must-do if your visit to Valletta falls over a Thursday evening. The steps outside start to fill early as a handful of in-the-know tourists join locals for a film showing with the Three Cities glittering in the background beyond. Strait Street might be widely regarded as the best place to eat and drink in Malta but nowhere compares to Café Society for atmosphere.
If Strait Street has piqued your interest, TicoTico is worth a visit for its retro styling and mismatched interiors alone, having been lovingly restored to look just as it did in its heyday. Just off ‘The Gut’, as Strait Street was once known, is a place that still parties as hard as it did when the sailors were in town. The Pub hit the headlines when Oliver Reed had his last drink at its bar. In town filming Gladiator, party-loving Reed embarked on a boozy afternoon with sailors from the nearby HMS Cumberland, one which ultimately lead to his untimely demise. The English bar has become something of a shrine to its most famous patron, his portrait appearing numerous time in amongst the Union Jack flags and Royal Navy memorabilia. Sailors left their scrawls on the walls upstairs and while you can still do the same, it’s probably best to do so before The Pub has its wicked way with you.
Ask a local where to grab a beer and listen to live music in town and they’ll send you underground to the Beer Cave, deep beneath the Castille Hotel. This bare brick of this barrel-shaped spot means it keeps its cool when the rest of Malta sizzles in summer. It’s beer menu is vast with over a hundred varieties on offer and the open mic nights attract the best musical talent on the island.