City break in Valletta: 3 days of history, culture and cuisine

By Stephanie Campisi

Among the smallest capitals in the EU, historic Valletta offers an unparalleled density of picturesque architecture, world-class attractions and incredible cuisine, all overlooking the harbour.

Measuring just 1km by 600m and wrapped by blue sea, historic Valletta packs a lot into a little. A UNESCO World Heritage site full of angled, cobblestone streets, towering palazzos and ancient churches, it’s where antiquity rubs shoulders with modernity in seriously photogenic style. Little wonder it’s a favourite of Hollywood: several blockbusters were all filmed here.

If you only have a few days to spend in Valletta, here’s how to spend them.

Day one: explore on foot

Valetta is a tiny destination, and with some determined walking you can cover an impressive amount in a single day. Follow this itinerary to hit the main sights.

Tritons’ Fountain

Tritons' fountain: the perfect place to start your exploration of Valletta
Tritons’ fountain: the perfect place to start your exploration of Valletta

Nothing says welcome like an enormous fountain. Featuring three massive bronze Tritons in a huge travertine base, this modernist masterpiece is hard to miss. It stands just outside the City Gate, close to the bus terminus – which you’ll use if you’re planning on a day-trip or two outside of the city.

City Gate
Past the fountain is the enormous City Gate, currently in its fifth incarnation. This iteration was designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, who was also the mind behind the adjoining piazza and the nearby Parliament buildings. Turn right to see Auberge de Castille, residence of the Prime Minister, and left to see the St John Bastion and the Hastings Gardens. Old Bakery Street ahead is the main thoroughfare.

Royal Opera House Ruins
Continuing the welcome is the Royal Opera House, or the remains of it – the original was destroyed during a German air raid. Its ruins now form the perimeter of an open-air performance space designed by Renzo Piano. Check out the full roster of concerts and performances, including the occasional free one, and make plans to return.

St John’s Co-Cathedral

A few blocks down Old Bakery Street and to the right, this enormous cathedral may look ho-hum from the outside, but inside is another story: every spare inch gleams with gold and marble. Marble tombstones lay underfoot, the nine chapels sparkle with ornate filigree, and priceless artwork from masters, including Caravaggio, adorn every wall. The dress code requires that bare shoulders be covered, so bring a scarf or shawl.

Cafe Jubilee
A quick stroll from St John’s Co-Cathedral and down a narrow alley, this tiny, eclectically decorated cafe plates up Maltese and Italian favourites as well as international fare. Try the rabbit stew or ravioli, or even a coffee and biscotti, and enjoy them in a setting characterised by elaborate pillars, vibrant green panelling and framed posters.

Manoel Theatre
Back on Old Bakery Street and to the left is the Manoel Theatre. Dating back to 1731, this incredible theatre wows with its tiered seating, Carrara marble staircase, Viennese chandeliers and a huge pale blue trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Book a tour and get snap-happy with your camera-phone – and make it a point to come back for a performance.

Grandmaster’s Palace Courtyard

The Grandmaster's Palace is one of Valletta's finest examples of exquisite architecture
The Grandmaster’s Palace is one of Valletta’s finest examples of exquisite architecture

Built between the 16th and 18th centuries for the Grand Master of the Order of St John, this towering building is currently home to the President of Malta. While a fair bit is off limits, the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury are open to visitors.

Malta Postal Museum
Just outside the Grandmaster’s Palace Courtyard is the Malta Postal Museum, a tiny, gleaming space showcasing stamps, letter boxes and other postal paraphernalia. Stop by to check them out and to send your postcards.

Grokk Cafe
Thirsty? Make a quick stop for a coffee or glass of local beer Cisk at nearby Grokk. This cheerful little venue is all about bright decor and hearty eats.

Lower Barrakka Gardens

Monument to Sir Alexander Ball in the Lower Barrakka Gardens
Monument to Sir Alexander Ball in the Lower Barrakka Gardens

A couple of blocks over from Grokk Cafe, this beautifully manicured area is a lovely place to unwind, snack on pastizzi and enjoy views of the Grand Harbour. It’s also a quick stroll from the Siege Bell Memorial and the National War Museum at Fort St Elmo.

Il Horza-Restaurant
Steps from the Lower Barrakka Gardens, this subterranean bar serves up traditional eats in a cellar-like setting. Maltese gbejna (cheese), fresh pasta, locally caught fish, and honey and date-infused desserts all feature on the menu, along with Maltese wine.

Ghost Tour by Colour my Travel
Don some comfortable shoes ready for a two-hour walking ghost tour. You’ll hear spooky tales about the city’s 400-year past, as well as plenty of nuggets of Malta’s history as well. The same company also offers city and free walking tours, all of which depart from the City Gate.

Day two: head out to Gozo and Comino

With its bus depot and harbours, Valletta is ideal for day trips. Dedicate a day of your trip to exploring Malta’s sparking waters and outlying islands.

Gozo and Comino day drip with Hornblower Cruises
Malta is such a tiny destination that you can cover plenty of ground in a single day. Cruises depart from most harbours, but to get to Gozo and Comino, you’ll typically need to get yourself to Bugibba. Buses depart from the depot just outside the City Gate, or you can grab a taxi if you prefer.

Marco Tanti Gelateria, Bugibba
Grab a cup or cone of gelato from this family-owned gelateria while you wait for your cruise to dock. Passionfruit and cookie dough a crowd favourites. If you’re a sweet tooth by nature, the “fantasy boat” will keep you busy for a while.

St Paul’s Island and the Blue Lagoon
Once you’re out on the open waters, you’ll cruise around Malta’s northern coast, checking out St Paul’s Islands and L’ahrax Point, a famed dive spot renowned for its circular coral caves and crystal clear waters. From there it’s off to the Blue Lagoon, a shallow, picturesque bay with azure waters. Go for a paddle or strap on a snorkel, but note that the crowds can be extreme in the high season.

Gozo

Mgarr - a scenic place for a day trip
Mgarr – a scenic place for a day trip

After the Blue Lagoon, you’ll head to Gozo, where you can explore the Mgarr Harbour, which brims with yachts, ferries and fishing boats. Keep an eye out for Fort Chambray, which presides over the area, as well as the neo-Gothic Loudres Chapel. From there, hop on a bus into Victoria, Gozo’s capital, and make your way to Cathedral Square, home to many of Victoria’s must-see landmarks, including the Citadella fortress and its ancient prison cells. Here you’ll also find the Gozo Museum of Archaeology, the Gran Castello Historic House, and the 1700s Cathedral of the Assumption, built atop a Roman temple.

Sadly, the Azure Window has collapsed; but a visit to see the rocky scenery is still worth it
Sadly, the Azure Window has collapsed; but a visit to see the rocky scenery is still worth it

If time permits, head up to the Il-Gelmus mountain peak and marvel at the lush, stepped fields. You can also take a bus to Dwejra Bay, where the Azure Window, made famous by various films and TV series, once stood. Unfortunately, it collapsed in March 2017, but the rocky scenery is still worth a visit.

Il Grappolo, Bugibba
Back in Bugibba, this tiny family restaurant serves up lovingly made authentic northern Italian cuisine that describes itself as a love letter to Piedmont. The beef carpaccio, homemade gnocchi, and wild boar stew make for an incredible dining experience, and the wine pairings are hard to beat.

Day three: history and architecture

By now you’re familiar with Valletta’s quiet charm and unexpected delights. Spend your third day getting to know its history – and experiencing the finer things in life.

Lot Sixy-One Coffee Roasters
Start your day with some freshly roasted, artisanal coffee and a pastry at this cosy cafe. There’s seating inside, but grab an outside seat to enjoy the views and do some people watching.

Doors and Door knockers

Colourful doors at every step
Colourful doors at every step

As you stroll the streets of Valletta, you’ll notice that its doors are vibrantly painted and adorned with enormous brass door knockers that speak to both creativity and status. Maritime motifs are the most common, but you’ll also spot lions and wolves.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Framed by terraced arches, these beautifully manicured gardens offer a spectacular view of the Ground Harbour; beneath them lie the compelling Lascaris War Rooms, home to Britain’s top secret command in WWII. Visit the gardens at midday or 4pm for the daily ceremonial cannon firing.

National Museum of Archaeology
Back towards Bakery Street on Republic Street, the National Museum of Archaeology offers a fascinating window into Maltese antiquity, with artefacts dating back to the Neolithic period. In addition to its dazzling displays, the building itself is well worth a look – it’s a gorgeous, elaborately decorated example of baroque style.

Casa Rocca Piccola
At the other end of Republic Street stands Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palace owned by the de Piro family. This enormous 50-room estate features antique decor, family records and an incredible collection of costumes and fabrics – including locally made lace. The on-site restaurant, La Giara, serves up impeccable Sicilian cuisine, so make a reservation for dinner.

Bridge Bar

After dinner, head back towards the wharf and grab an outside seat with views of the bay. Enjoy a local beer or wine as tap your foot along to some laid-back jazz. Friday night brings live performances along with the crowds, so claim your seat early.

Where to stay in Valletta

Palazzo Paolina Boutique Hotel
Spend the night in style in a baroque palace just a few minutes’ walk from Bridge Bar. The rooms are roomy and comfortable, but it’s the incredible marble-filled, frescoed lobby that seals the deal.

Book a room at Palazzo Paolina

Phoenicia Hotel
Your tour will drop you off at the City Gate, steps from the Phoenicia Hotel, a lovingly restored neoclassical marvel that retains its authentic tiled floors and extravagant common areas. Relaxing suites, sweeping harbour views and unabashedly opulent European-inspired dining make for an unparalleled stay.

Book a room at Phoenicia

Rosselli, Valletta
Upon returning to Valletta, enjoy five-star luxury at the Rosselli Hotel, a lavishly appointed boutique hotel that combines contemporary and classical decor, and all with a nod to the local Rosselli-Massa family who brought it to life in the 17th century.

Book a room at Rosselli

 

Note: These rates are based on the most recent data pulled from KAYAK.co.uk, the cheapest prices are always displayed first, regardless of specific dates mentioned. The prices are quoted in GBP. Flight prices are based on results for a return economy flight search. Hotel prices are for double occupancy, are per night and include taxes and fees. Prices are subject to change, may vary, or no longer be available.

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