The Maltese capital, surrounded by sea and 16th-century bastion walls, has an enduring charm all of its own. A Unesco World Heritage site steeped in history, Valletta has recently undergone a 21st-century revitalisation with lots of new boutique hotels, restaurants and restoration and renovation of historic sites and museums.
Valletta has an extraordinary density of sights and activities from 5,000-year-old ‘Fat Lady’ statues, to the ornate Baroque legacy of the Knights of St John; from Bastion-top gardens to boat trips on the Grand Harbour. And it isn’t all ancient. There’s also the City Gate redevelopment, designed by star architect Renzo Piano (of London’s Shard fame) including an ultra-modern parliament building and an open-air theatre inside the bombed-out shell of the Neoclassical opera house.
Buzzing bars spill out onto the city’s limestone alleys, concerts frequently grace its copious churches, and the restaurant scene serves up everything from scrumptious traditional snacks to Michelin starred menus. And of course, it’s only a short ride to the beach.
For more inspiration, see our guides to the best hotels in Valletta and the best restaurants, nightlife, beaches and things to do in Malta.
The best way to discover Valletta is on a walk around its fortifications and honeyed limestone streets. Begin at City Gate, the capital’s gateway since its construction in 1570. Take in the new Parliament House and open-air theatre designed by architect Renzo Piano, creator of The Shard, before looking into the buildings of the Knights of Malta and out over the sea.
Finish at the Upper Barrakka Gardens in time for the noon salute from the battery of cannons beneath this bastion-top pleasure garden. Peruse the many monuments and sculptures, cool off by the fountain and take in the spectacular panorama of the Grand Harbour.
Grab a coffee and pastry at the Upper Barrakka kiosk (you’ll want to leave plenty of room for supper) before taking the Barrakka Lift down to Customs House and hopping into a traditional Maltese dghajsa – a six-seater brightly painted wooden boat – for a tour of the Grand Harbour. You’ll putter beneath the towering bastions of Valletta, past the shipyards, and in and out of the creeks of the Three Cities – before rounding the corner beneath the freshly cleaned face of Malta’s oldest fortress, Fort St Angelo, to disembark in Birgu/Vittoriosa.
The Knights’ first base in Malta, this medieval mini-city is a gorgeous place for a spot of loafing. Stop in the square for a coffee at St Lawrence Band Club – where, as in each Maltese parish, the local band meets in preparation for the annual festa. From here wander through the Collachio, the Knights’ own area, which was once out of bounds for women and is still a very traditional district. Back on the waterfront, visit Fort St Angelo – which spans more than 800 years of Maltese history – before motoring back across the harbour (this time without the tour) in another dghajsa.
Wander Valletta’s honey-coloured streets as the sun sets, ending up at the Tap Room for a cocktail or an Aperol in the heart of the city, before strolling on a couple of hundred metres for an ideal introduction to Maltese food at Legligin.
In this typical Valletta cellar, owner Chris serves up a delicious ‘Maltese Meze’ feast of at least nine dishes – from carpaccio to Maltese sausage, dips to hot-pots – and there’s a great wine list, which features Maltese and international vintages. Here are more restaurants you need to try in Malta.
Let’s get behind the walls of some of those Valletta buildings – starting with the historic home of the Provencal Knights of Malta, now the National Museum of Archaeology. Here you will find the extraordinary 5,000-years-old ‘Fat Ladies of Malta’, and other statues, reliefs and stone furniture from the unique Maltese Temple culture. Upstairs are accessible galleries covering the Bronze Age and Phoenician eras.
A little further along Republic Street is the Knights’ church, St John’s Co-Cathedral. Do not be fooled by its plain exterior. Inside is one of the most dazzling Baroque interiors anywhere in Europe. Let the audio guide take you around this symphony of gold and marble, ending in the Oratory for a world-famous artistic experience: Caravaggio’s largest work, painted for this room, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608).
In the capital’s main square, just a few metres away, pay a visit to the Grand Master’s Palace: its state rooms were used by the princely leader of the supposedly monastic Knights, as well as various governments of Malta.
Pick up a pastizz (a traditional pasty filled with local cheese or peas) at the grand dame of Valletta meeting places, Caffe Cordina. It’s one of the city’s best places to watch the world go by.
If it is a warm sunny day (and from June to October it usually is in Malta) you might want to head to the beach.
Otherwise, some extraordinary time travel awaits. Back in the third and fourth millennia BC, Malta was host to a culture unlike any other known from so early, that began building complex stone temples before even Stonehenge was standing. Not far from Valletta is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (pre-book here), a Unesco World Heritage triple-layered subterranean tomb complex. It is carved, in parts beautifully, from the living rock and here the Temple people buried their dead.
There is also an above-ground temple just 10 minutes’ walk away at Tarxien, but for the most evocative temples it’s worth a little extra travelling time to visit Mnajdra and Hagar Qim on Malta’s south coast. Here are two well-preserved temple complexes – complete with monumental doorways, curved rooms, steps and carved stones, set in a landscape little changed since the temples were built.
Back in Valletta, treat yourself to antipasti followed by fresh fish or succulent steak: the food at family-run Guzé is particularly good, and the hot chocolate pudding is unbeatable. The restaurant is tucked away in a 400-year-old Valletta house, apparently once owned by the main Maltese architect of the city.
If it’s a Friday, your next call must be Bridge Bar. Grab a beer or a cocktail from the unremarkable interior and take it outside to lounge on the limestone steps where half of Valletta seems to gather each week to enjoy live jazz by the band on the little bridge. If it isn’t Friday, a few steps away is Café Society, a tiny shabby-chic bar with plenty of outdoor space – ideal for a quick nightcap or lingering ’til the early hours. Here are some more recommendations for nightlife in Malta.
Strait Street, long-known as The Gut, was the city’s red light district – once popular with the sailors of the Royal Navy. After they left, the street fell into near dereliction, but is now rising Phoenix-like as the gentrified centre of the capital’s nightlife. Start at the top of the hill with an ultra-civilised glass at Trabuxu Wine Bar, and work your way down.
For a real treat, book a private tour of Casa Rocca Piccola, guided by a member of the aristocratic de Piro family who still live here. From the Maltese lace collection to stories of knightly ancestors, there is anecdote and insight galore – served alongside a glass of bubbles, and, if you are lucky, a taste of some of the island’s best bigilla, the Marchioness’s version of a traditional Maltese bean dip.
Malta’s bus system is inexpensive and very extensive. From Valletta you can get pretty much anywhere on the island for a couple of euros (less in winter, and a bit more if it’s late at night). It’s not quite as quick as a cab but it’s a lot cheaper. Check routes, fares and rough frequencies here.
The Gozo Fast Ferry will whisk you straight from Valletta’s Grand Harbour to Gozo in just 45 minutes, at a cost of €9.99 return (€5.99 for children).
Did you know?
Early in the morning, music wafts from the open doors of Valletta’s churches as residents (especially older ones) pray before the day gets into full swing. It’s a lovely time to catch Valletta at its most authentic, before the tourists are out of bed or cruise ships disgorge.
Ursulino, a little boutique hotel, has a delightful terrace overlooking the Grand Harbour. Here, until the pandemic it served (included for every guest) early-evening aperitifs and delectable canapés – or afternoon tea in winter. A delightful way to start the evening. Hopefullly this will start again soon. If not, grab your own tipple and head up there solo.
Where to stay
Malta’s most historic hotel flanks the main gates of Valletta. Built under British rule in the 1930s, The Phoenicia was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, and has recently added an indoor pool, spa and renovated its charming gardens tucked beneath Valletta’s bastion walls. The circular Palm Court lounge and bar is the hotel’s heart, with glorious white-and-glass doors that lead into the main restaurant and on to the terrace overlooking the city walls.
Palazzo Consiglia is set in a 400-year-old townhouse, with just 13 boutique rooms. It is rich in character and original features, while also featuring modern comforts such as a roof terrace with heated plunge pool – boasting views of the neighbouring chapel, the Upper Barracca Gardens, and the Grand Harbour. The original vaulted limestone cellar, meanwhile, has been converted into a warm, atmospheric spa.
Asti Guesthouse is set in a 350-year-old townhouse, with original stone walls and staircases. It is the best-value budget accommodation in Valletta if you are travelling alone – and still pretty good if you are not. The location is the real draw, set on a typically steep street just inland from the fortifications of the Grand Harbour and close to the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
What to bring home
Silver filigree is a Maltese speciality, and there’s a row of little jewellers along St Lucy Street. The shops are tiny, with a mix of traditional and modern designs, though the most common motif is the Maltese Cross – a charming souvenir.
Maltese delicacies make great presents to bring home: local capers, fig or prickly pear jam, honey rings (actually made with molasses) and halva (a sugary sweet made with tahini) – to name but a few. Try Caffe Cordina or The Wembley Store.
When to go
Summer is delightful, with almost-guaranteed sunshine, blue skies and perfect Mediterranean Sea. This is the ideal time for sunbathing, swimming, diving and boat trips – as well as for outdoor music festivals and parish festas.
Spring and autumn are perfect for sightseeing and exploring, when the weather is often beautiful and the temperature comfortable. Winter brings greater risk of bad weather (although even in January the average daytime high is 15C), but is a good time for the budget-conscious, as flights are cheaper and accommodation often dramatically so.
Know before you go
Flight time: 3 hours from the UK
Time difference: GMT +1 hr
Currency: Euro (EUR; €)
Tourist Office: There is a tourist information office in the arrivals hall of Malta International Airport, and another in a large kiosk just outside the walls of Valletta at City Gate. For a list of all the tourist offices in Malta see mta.com.mt
Telephone code: 00 356 from the UK, followed by the Maltese number (there are no zeros to remove in Maltese phone numbers)
Foreign Office advice: Malta is mostly considered as safe or safer than the UK, except on the roads where standards of driving are described as ‘poor’.
Extra reading: There is lots of useful information on visitmalta.com. The most comprehensive guidebook to the country is Malta & Gozo (Bradt Guides, 4th Edition, 2019) by our destination expert Juliet Rix. A good holiday read which covers most of Malta’s history within a fictional narrative is Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel, The Kappillan of Malta.
Malta is best known in Britain as a sun and sea destination. There is much more to it than that, but there is certainly no shortage of either.
Emergency services: 112
British consulate: British High Commission, Whitehall Mansions, Ta’ Xbiex Seafront, Ta’ Xbiex XBX 1026; 00 356 2323 0000; gov.uk/malta
Local laws and etiquette
Malta is a southern Mediterranean Catholic country. It is quite socially conservative but much less so than even a few years ago. In some respects it has rather leapt into the 21st-century. Malta has topped the Rainbow Index for LGBTQI rights for several years.
Time can be ‘flexible’. Try to be a bit laid back about this when waiting for food, taxis or tour guides, for example.
Malta drives on the left like the UK – in theory. In practice, local people mostly drive where the road is smoothest or shadiest, so keep an eye in all directions. Driving laws are regularly flouted, but speed limits are enforced by police.
Juliet Rix, Telegraph Travel’s Malta expert, is an award-winning journalist. Author of the most comprehensive guide to the country (Malta & Gozo, Bradt Guides, 4th edition 2019), she tours the sunny streets of Valletta at every opportunity – sometimes leading groups of cultural tourists.