Valletta: Malta’s Capital – the Top 10 Places of Interest
Do you want to take a trip but don’t know where to go? Well, look no further, because Valletta, the capital of Malta, has everything you could wish for!
Valletta is a Mediterranean port city with a fascinating history and loads of amazing sights. To help you prepare for your trip, we’ve collected some basic information about Malta and compiled a list with our favorite sights in the country’s capital.
Valletta in a Nutshell
Did you know that the Republic of Malta consists of more than one island? There are three inhabited islands in total. Apart from the obvious one, Malta, you can also visit Gozo and Comino. Another nearby island is Manoel, although there’s nothing but an 18th century fort to see here. All other islands belonging to Malta are uninhabited.
Malta has a population of around 520,000. This might not seem like a lot of people, but you should remember that they all live in an area covering only around 316 square kilometers. In fact, Malta ranks 5th in the list of the most densely populated countries in the world. Most Maltese people live in the area around Valletta.
Despite being the capital city, Valletta itself is pretty small. With just over 5,800 inhabitants, it’s actually the smallest capital in Europe. This isn’t really a disadvantage, though. The city has an incredibly rich cultural life and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. In 2018, it was – along with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands – even the European Capital of Culture.
It was the Knights Hospitaller who founded Valletta in the 16th century. Jean de la Valette, the city’s namesake, laid its foundation stone. The Knights are also responsible for the many fortresses you can visit here today. The capital’s ring of fortifications also make it one of the safest cities in the world.
Don’t worry, though – you won’t have any problems getting into Valletta! Once you’re there, the easiest way to get around is by bus. We recommend visiting Malta between May and November. In summer, it’s generally very dry because of the maritime climate, whereas the winters are rather mild and wet. No matter the time of year, though, you shouldn’t miss out on trying the Maltese national dish. Stuffat Tal-Fenek is a delicious stew and consists of rabbit meat, tomatoes, lots of garlic, and red wine.
If you’re visiting Valletta in January, we also recommend attending Malta’s biggest music event, the Valletta Baroque Festival. After all, when’s the last time you heard Baroque music performed by a live orchestra? Another fantastic event is the Maltese Carnival in February. The people of Malta have celebrated this holiday since the 15th century. Don’t miss out on experiencing its exciting Masquerade balls, wonderful costume and mask contests, and colorful parades! Although it’s hard to decide on a favorite event, we would probably choose the Valletta Green Festival if we had to. During this celebration, the capital’s largest square is transformed into a sea of flowers. While the flowers are definitely the highlight of the festival, the music performances during this event are also always a great experience.
The Top 10 Places of Interest in Valletta
Now that you know the basics about Malta and its capital, you’re probably wondering what such a small city can possibly have to offer. Well, despite its size, Valletta is home to many interesting places, and we had a hard time deciding on which ones to include in our list. In the end, we managed to narrow them down to 10 entries – here they are!
The Grandmaster’s Palace
The Grandmaster’s Palace takes up a whole side of St. George’s Square, thus dwarfing all other buildings in its vicinity. It was the seat of the Grandmaster of the Order of St. John until 1789. Nowadays, it’s home to some wonderful art works, such the paintings in the Great Council Hall and the embroidery in the Tapestry Hall. Keep an eye out for the frescoes in the Throne Room! They are the work of Matteo Pérez, a student of Michelangelo.
If you happen to be in Malta on the last Friday of the month, make sure you see the Changing of the Guard at 10:30 a.m. The ceremony involves a military band marching up to the palace, followed by the actual changing of the guard. It’s an unforgettable experience!
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
St. John’s Co-Cathedral was built from 1573 to 1578 under the rule of Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière. While the basic construction work was finished pretty quickly, the decorations inside took around 100 years to be completed! In 1820, Pope Pius VII elevated the church to the status of co-cathedral. The name, St. John’s, derives from the church’s patron saint John the Baptist, who’s also the patron saint of the country as a whole.
The cathedral’s facade consists of Maltese limestone and was built in the Mannerist style. Its interior, on the other hand, is a beautiful example of the High Baroque period. There are carved stone walls, painted vaults, side altars with scenes from the life of John the Baptist, and magnificent carpets on almost every wall. The cathedral has chapels assigned to each of the eight langues of the Order of St. John. The chapels are dedicated to the langue’s respective patron saints. Among the most valuable works of art in St. John’s Co-Cathedral are two paintings by Caravaggio. One of them is his is only signed work, “The Beheading of John the Baptist” from 1608.
Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is also worth a visit. Gerolamo Cassar designed the original church, and construction finished in 1570. The Basilica’s rather turbulent history is reflected in the numerous changes made to its design over time. In the 17th century, the church was given to the Order of Our Lady, and in 1895, it was made a minor basilica by Pope Leo XIII. Joseph Damato is responsible for the church’s interior design, on which he worked for almost 20 years.
As the Carmelite church suffered severe damages during World War II, its current appearance is still a rather recent design. The most striking additions are probably the red marble columns and the beautiful oval dome. The Carmelite church is definitely one of the most remarkable places to see in Valletta.
The City Gate of Valletta
Welcome to Valletta! Maltese speakers call the city gate Bieb il-Belt. Like the Carmelite church, the gate has been rebuilt many times. The fifth – and current – gate is the work of Renzo Piano, an Italian architect, and has stood here since 2014.
The gate leads you straight to Valletta’s charming pedestrian zone. The area is perfect for strolling around and exploring the little shops. We also recommend visiting the 4-meter-tall Tritons’ Fountain, which opened near the gate in 1959. It’s a great place for relaxing a while and watching the people go by.
The Natural Harbors of Valletta
There are two natural harbors in Valletta, Marsamxett Harbor to the north and the Grand Harbor to the south. If you also want to explore nearby Sliema or one of Malta’s other two islands while you’re here, we would recommend catching a ferry from one of two harbors.
The Grand Harbor extends inland for over three kilometers and is, as its name suggests, very wide. Before World War II, the harbor was lined with shipyards, but the place had been used as an anchorage for a long time before then. Don’t forget to walk down the pretty harbor promenade while you’re here. You can admire its beautifully restored Baroque houses and have a bite to eat at one of its many cafés. The relaxed atmosphere and pretty view make the promenade also a good spot for taking photos.
The Barrakka Gardens
If you are already at the harbor, then the Barraka Gardens are only a few meters away. The walk up the steps can be quite strenuous, though, especially in summer. Luckily, you can also take an elevator to the top and therefore avoid getting sweaty. The view from up here makes any hike – or ride – absolutely worth it. You can see the whole harbor as well as the three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua from here!
The 17th century Barrakka Gardens are also well worth a visit. Head to the Upper Garden to see monuments dedicated to Gerald Strickland and Winston Churchill and plaques commemorating George W. Bush and Albert Einstein. Also keep an eye out for an impressive bronze figure of three children.
The Lower Barrakka Garden is about 600 meters away. Here, you can visit a beautiful temple and a fountain, which both commemorate f Alexander Ball, the first governor of Malta.
Fort St. Elmo
Fort St. Elmo is located between Valletta’s two harbors and makes up the northern end of the city’s fortifications. It was built under the rule of the Knights of St. John and then rebuilt after being destroyed in 1565 during the siege of the Ottomans. The fort came back into use and saw some extensions under British colonial rule. St. Elmo’s was last used to defend the city during World War II, when it was able to repel two Italian attacks. Since the end of the war, Fort St. Elmo no longer serves as a defensive structure.
Instead, it now houses the Police Academy and the National War Museum. The latter is open to the public and a great way to spend an afternoon for anyone interested in military history.
The Malta Experience
But if you’d rather learn more about Malta’s history in general, don’t worry – we have just the thing for you! You should pay The Malta Experience a visit. It’s a great way of getting to know the 7,000-year-old history of the city in just 45 minutes. The Malta Experience is like going to the movies, and it also includes the Sacra Infermeria Tour.
The Sacra Infermeria Tour
What’s the Sacra Infermeria Tour? Well, the Malta Experience is located in the former hospital of the Order of St. John and offers guided tours through its premises.
The Order of St. John originated in Jerusalem and has existed since the 11th century. Its Valletta hospital – the Sacra Infermeria – had enough room for more than 900 patients and even provided silver cutlery for each meal.
Today, the former infirmary not only offers the Malta Experience and guided tours but also an extensive exhibition. Located in a vaulted cellar, the museum uses information panels and recreated scenes to introduce you to life in a historical hospital. Standing underground in these century-old rooms is truly an unforgettable experience!
The National Museum of Fine Arts
The National Museum of Fine Arts holds many wonderful pieces for you to admire. Don’t miss this opportunity to see some stunning works by artists such as Mattia Preti and J.M.W. Turner, among others. Our favorite painting here is probably Turner’s panorama of Valletta’s Grand Harbor. The museum also exhibits some pretty silverware as well as Maltese furniture.
Although it’s certainly not the biggest capital in the world, Valletta nevertheless has everything you need for an unforgettable city trip. Whether you want to learn more about Malta’s long and proud history, visit some beautiful churches, or attend an exciting festival – Valletta has it all!
In addition, you can easily explore the rest of the country from here. But, of course, there are more than enough sights to keep you busy in Valletta! After you’ve learnt all about Maltese history at the Malta Experience and the Sacra Infermeria tour, head to one of Valletta’s wonderful restaurants to relax. Once you’ve regained your strength why not visit the Co-Catehdral, the Carmelite Church, and the Grand Master’s Palace? Not only their stunning architecture but also their fascinating history make these places always worth a visit. Of course, no trip to Malta would be complete without exploring the country’s natural harbors as well as the Barrakka Gardens!
We can’t wait to go back to Valletta, and we’re sure you’ll fall in love with Europe’s southernmost capital just as quickly as we did. So have you booked your tickets yet? If not, what are you waiting for?