Floating between Sicily and the North African coast, the archipelago of Malta quickly had me fooled by superlatives far from reality. While it features prominently on all of the world’s ‘smallest destinations lists’, the tiny islands pack such a vast amount of historic sites and beauties within their limited surface, thanks to a succession of rulers spanning thousands of years, that I can’t imagine anyone not underestimating the time it takes to truly explore the nation. I for one thought a long 3-day weekend would suffice though I was barely able to scratch the surface. What you’ll see in this post and the next is just a fragment of Malta’s glorious variety and should be the base to plan a much more fitted 10-days vacation…
On the largest island (Malta) you ‘ll find the tiny capital of Valletta, Europe’s smallest with its 1km by 600m size. Don’t let that fool you as you could easily spend a week here and still miss some of the major sights.
Everyone enters Valletta through the main city gates where you’ll find the bus station (a great way to get around the island) and right after you’ll be greeted by the unmissable new Parliament building designed by Renzo Piano and inaugurated last year. The two massive stone blocks, balanced on slender columns to give the building a sense of lightness, sure are a sign of modern times and a stark contrast to pretty much everything around it.
Right next door is the Royal Opera House or rather what remains of it. All over Malta are vestiges and reminders of the devastating destruction the island endured during WWII due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean.
Instinctively you’ll find yourself following the main street straight ahead, called Republic, which will bring you right into the center of Valletta (in under 10 minutes, no more!), passing by some of the most famous sites. St John’s Co-Cathedral was unfortunately closed in preparation for a religious celebration so we had to content ourselves with its stern facade, trying not to think that we were missing the dazzling interior as well as a famous Caravaggio painting…
That day was the Feast of St Joseph and it’s a real treat to be here during one of the numerous festas, Malta being the most Catholic country in all of Europe.
We watched the many processions from sidewalk cafes, snacking on traditional Easter cakes and lent biscuits at Kantina Cafe.
Further north you’ll find Valletta’s oldest and most popular cafe, Caffe Cordina. A real icon of the city, its terrace in the middle of Victoria Square is the best people-watching spot around.
Right across you’ll find St George’s Square, Valletta’s largest and most prominent square which also acts as the true ‘city center’ and is where inhabitants still gather today to celebrate public events and the likes.
Facing the square is the imposing Grand Master’s Palace which has always been the seat of Government of the Maltese islands since the new city was built in 1565 (today it is the President’s office and seat of the Maltese Parliament).
It’s worth visiting the handsome grounds and palace which was for over two hundred years the residence of the Grand Master, supreme head of the Order of the Knights of St John.
The Supreme Council Hall is the grandest room with glittering chandeliers and a magnificent frieze all around depicting the great siege of 1565.
My favorite part though had to be walking along the lavishly decorated Corridors of the Knights lined with portraits of the Grand Masters.
Before leaving the palace, the Armoury located in the former stables is a must for any fans of medieval weaponry and military hardware as more than 5,000 pieces are on display.
Two blocks ahead, la Casa Rocca Piccola is another chance to step back in time and learn loads about Malta’s notable past, the casa being the only private palazzo open to the public in Valletta. This beautiful palace is still the home of the noble Maltese de Piro family and guided tours every hour will let you peek into about a dozen out of the 50 rooms it contains.
Through the vast collection of rare and finely crafted furniture, curiosities, paintings and photographs, you get a unique insight into the customs and traditions of the Maltese nobility over the last 400 years.
The Sala Grande is the tallest room in the house and contains some very important paintings as well as a great example of a portable chapel, hidden within the large black lacquer bureau against the wall.
My vote goes to the art nouveau Summer Dining Room with its giant windows overlooking a secluded garden. The dinner parties I would throw in there…
The table has been laid out with silver, china and Maltese lace with the tablemats showing the family’s embroidered coat of arms.
One side of the room is dominated by a marble statue of the goddess Diana and the other by a large gilt Maltese mirror for an all-around dazzling effect.
In the garden you’ll find a staircase leading down to the underground tunnels and bomb shelters that became sadly necessary during WWII. It is said that there are more streets under Valletta than on the surface though most of the passages have been blocked off today for safety reasons.
Back outside, it’s time to leave Republic behind and start meandering around the sloping and charming side streets.
There’s so much to look at on every facade from the old balconies to the decaying signs and doors.
The red phone booths are a tell-tale sign of the British legacy on the island, as are the pubs and Maltese’s love for tea.
As you make your way down towards the water, you’ll encounter boats, storage rooms and old market stalls catering to the local fishermen.
A beautiful example of Valletta’s harbour conservation and revitalization is The Harbour Club, a fantastic restaurant and bar converted from 17th-century boathouses. It has a superb terrace and wonderful harbour views, perfect for a long alfresco lunch, sunset drinks, or dinner under the stars.
You’ll get prime views of the famous Maltese Falcon, one of the largest privately owned luxury sailing yachts in the world at 289ft long.
You’ll feast on impeccably prepared local dishes with a focus on seafood as you watch the busy boat traffic passing by and will surely find yourself lingering for much longer than you originally planned.
Make your way back up for an even better view of the Grand Harbour by entering the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Valletta has a number of very scenic gardens, all with stunning views, to provide some peace and tranquility amidst the busy city, and this one is by far the best of them all.
Built on top of a bastion on the highest point of the city, it used to be a private garden of the Knights and is now one of Valletta’s most breathtaking spots.
You can literally spend hours admiring the panoramic view of the Three Cities across with the Saluting Battery down below, where a cannon once fired salutes to visiting naval vessels.
At the gardens exit you won’t be able to miss the imposing Auberge de Castille, one of the finest architectural works in Malta. Built in the 1570s to house knights of the Order of St John from the ‘Castille langue’, it was their hostel where they would live, host visitors and pilgrims from their home country and engage in social activities.
Some more baroque beauty can be seen right next door on the church of St. Catherine of Italy.
Pay your respect to the new city’s founder at Pjazza Jean De Valette which features a statue of the Grand Master. The Order’s hero and most illustrious leader fought and successfully repulsed the Turks during the Great Siege of 1565 after which he commissioned the construction of the new city of Valletta.
The Hastings Gardens on the west side gives you a glimpse of the ‘other’ harbour Marsamxett, the towns of Sliema, Msida and Manoel island (yes, more things I haven’t had time to explore!).
When in such a devoted catholic city, regardless of your own religious affiliation, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the myriad of statues adorning almost every street corners, the crosses graciously draped in the middle of a staircase…
…and the multitude of gorgeous churches that seem to call you in. Of course you should go in as many as you can as they’ll all be stunning with an insanely decorated interior.
When it’s time for a break, the great thing with such a small city is that your hotel is never really far. We checked into the charming Trabuxu Boutique Living, a 400-year-old palazzo converted into a fun and contemporary boutique hotel. The small courtyard with its bright ceramic tables and crystal chandelier won me over and is where we’d take their delicious breakfast every day.
There are only nine rooms, all completely different, and we loved our Napoleon themed refuge with its opulent interior, a nod to the great man’s love for art, fashion and travel.
One last garden to end the day, this one a lot quieter but no less scenic, the Lower Barrakka Gardens. You get a better view here over the Breakwater entrance to the Grand Harbour.
At its northern end you’ll also get your first sight of the Siege Bell Memorial, a neoclassical temple containing a huge bronze bell which chimes everyday at noon. It was erected in 1992 to commemorate the 7,000 service personnel and civilians who lost their lives in the Siege of Malta during World War II.
Dinner options abound, but if you’re looking for a great local experience I’d strongly suggest you hit Legligin first. The rustic wine bar tucked in a cellar below street level is a low-key and fantastic way to get introduced to Maltese traditional cuisine.
Cozy up in the small room and let the chef/owner show you Maltese food the way his mom used to make with a selection of nine-or-so meze, accompanied by tasty local wines.
You’ll discover traditional starters like arjoli (tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives and anchovies), local goats’ cheese, sausage, cured pork, etc.
Fish and meat dishes will follow in succession amounting to a pretty big quantity of food despite being called ‘meze’ and costing a mere 25 euros for the whole thing! It’s hard to beat such value and hard to find such a fun atmosphere, with a guitarist arriving mid-meal to add to the vibe.
The meal ends with the owner’s handmade chocolates and we ordered a glass of their own limoncello… fantastic way to spend the night!
For something a bit more upscale but equally local and scrumptious, I highly recommend you visit Michael’s at the Civil Service Sports Club. Chef Michael Cauchi is well-known among the locals as a prodigy in fish cuisine and gave us a memorable last meal in Valletta we’ll be talking about for a while.
While the room does feel like a gentlemen’s club, the warm service with frequent apparition and greetings by Michael himself tells you you’re in a true family restaurant. The sophisticated comfort food served here comes with a gentle price tag and I could feel we were surrounded by regulars which is always a very good sign!
And here is the theatrical behind my main dish of Smoked Swordfish with basil pesto, sweetcorn puree and pickled grapes…incredible!
And if you’re lucky (like we were), you might get the chance to see a magnificent performance at the Teatru Manoel, one of the oldest working theaters in Europe.
The baroque interior is a gem with wonderful acoustic and well worth the ticket price.
Throwing a bit of culture is a favorite way to mix with the locals. Even though I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked in Valletta, I feel she gave quite a memorable performance, one I look forward to revisit…