Valletta – The Complete Guide to Malta’s Capital City
Ever fancied yourself exploring what feels like one huge open-air museum?
Valletta might just be the perfect place for you.
Founded in 1566, Valletta is Malta’s capital city and is one of Europe’s smallest (and southern-most) capital cities, with many buildings having a strong Baroque character. Built on a peninsula between two natural harbours (Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour), the city sits perched on higher ground. Its streets were aligned in a grid-like layout, being wide and straight, which is said to have been chosen to allow the sea breeze to provide respite from Malta’s hot summer weather.
Valletta is Malta’s administrative and commercial hub, with several government departments occupying some of its historical buildings and several financial and logistics companies having their offices here.
Despite its small size, Valletta is packed with sites of historical significance, with buildings dating back to the 16th century. So much so that it’s been an officially listed UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980.
That’s right, the city of Valletta as a whole is recognised by UNESCO for its historical and cultural value. That doesn’t mean the place is swarming with tourists however, although tour groups aren’t an uncommon sight, particularly during the summer months.
Intrigued? In this article, I cover the basics of what you need to know about Valletta, what makes it so special and what’s worth seeing and experiencing when you decide to pay Malta’s capital a visit.
Other articles in this section
- Valletta travel guide [EBOOK]
- Hotels and accommodation in Valletta
- Top 10 Valletta restaurants
- Points of interest in Valletta
- Getting to & Getting around Valletta
- History of Valletta
Quick facts – Valletta in a nutshell
- Population: 6,444 (2014 census)
- Malta’s capital (since 1571), and the smallest capital city in the EU (at just 0.55 sq km)
- Flanked by two natural harbours: Marsamxett and Grand Harbour
- Also called il-Belt (‘The City’) by the locals
- Commercial centre and place of work for thousands of Maltese working in government, finance and tourism.
- Parliament and a number of ministries reside within the city.
- Valletta was strategically built like a fort with bastion walls surrounding its perimeters by the Knights of Malta (Knights of the Order of St. John)
- Named after Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette, who founded the city in 1566.
- Rich in Baroque architecture, some buildings date back to the 16th century
- High concentration of historical sites
- UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980
- Over 25 churches in Valletta alone, despite its small size
- Main public transport hub (bus route terminus) for Malta sits right outside Valletta’s City Gate
- (Joint) European Capital of Culture for 2018.
Points of Interest in Valletta
NEW: Valletta travel guide!
Get the most out of your visit to Malta's capital city with this 159-page Valletta travel guide packed with my best tips on:
- Detailed information on the top points of interest
- Walking routes and itineraries for up to three days of exploration
- 1-Day itinerary with "must sees" for short visits (perfect for cruise passengers!)
- Best places to eat and drink (including vegetarian and vegan options)
- Where and when best to stay in Valletta
- ...and more!
Get your copy and get ready to explore!
Besides being one of the smallest capitals in Europe, it’s also one of the youngest, having been founded a little over 450 years ago. The city was built by the Knights of the Order of St. John (also known as the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaller), on a peninsula with large natural harbours on both of its flanks.
Having survived The Great Siege by successfully warding off an attempt by the Ottoman Empire to invade the Maltese islands, the Knights strategically chose Valletta’s location for its highly defensible position.
With funding from the Vatican, amongst other benefactors, the Knights built Valletta to fortify Malta as a stronghold for Roman Catholicism. Despite its small size, Malta had a significant military advantage due to its location and was the perfect location for the Knights to accommodate the sick and injured, which was (and still is!) their core mission (as opposed to being a military order as such).
Even if you’re not into history much, if you really want to understand Valletta at its core, it pays to read up on the city’s history. Why and how was Valletta built? Who were the people that built Valletta? How is it that there’s so much to see in terms of history and culture?
I answer all of these questions here: Valletta’s history: A tale of conflict and cultural development
Map of Valletta
How to get to Malta’s capital city
In a nutshell:
- All roads lead to Valletta, which means major road signs can be found all across Malta and finding your way there by car is easy. It also means that most bus routes start and terminate at the capital’s bus terminus that sits right outside the city’s walls.
- You can get pretty much anywhere on foot, considering the city’s small size and relatively little traffic (and pedestrianised centre). Alternatives are electric city cabs and (although not very practical) a few bus routes pass through a few of the main streets of the city.
- Parking in Valletta is notoriously difficult to find!
- You can also get to Valletta by ferry, from the nearby towns of Sliema (across Marsamxett Harbour) and Bormla (which forms part of the Three Cities, on the east side of Grand Harbour)
More info here: How to get to and how to get around in Valletta
Hotels and Accommodation
When it comes to accommodation in Valletta, these are the basic options:
- Traditional hotels – There are only a few, mostly high-end in and around Valletta
- Boutique hotels – Beautifully decorated classical buildings in the heart of the city
- Apartments rented out through sites like Airbnb.com, directly from owner.
If you’re travelling on a budget it might be a challenge to find suitable accommodation, especially during the high season (June – September). If budget isn’t as big of an issue there’s good choice for unique, comfortable accommodation.
More info here: Best Valletta hotels, apartments and other accommodation
Quick suggestions for hotels
Hotels level 1 – High end
- Just outside the city (technically located in the neighbouring town of Floriana), Hotel Grand Excelsior and Hotel Phoenicia are two good options if your budget allows it.
- Inside the city’s walls, Casa Ellul has an excellent reputation (and a price tag to match)
Hotels level 2 – Affordable ( < €100/night)
- The Grand Harbour Hotel is also pretty popular, although probably of a slightly lower quality. In any case, early booking is important with both of these hotels.
- The Osborne Hotel is located in one of the nicer parts of town and has a great reputation for offering value for money.
- Barrakka Suites is a modern, gorgeous looking hotel. If you find a good deal, you’re lucky. Otherwise, they tend to be a little more expensive than the average traveller is willing to spend per night.
Restaurants & food recommendations
Valletta’s nightlife isn’t known for its clubs with loud music, rather for dining and casual drinks. There’s a good choice of quality restaurants, none overly expensive, although few budget options are around. In general, it’s always advised to book a table for dinner, especially on weekends.
Most of the options mentioned are quite popular so the earlier you book, the better a chance you stand of getting a table.
These are my personal recommendations: Top 10 Best Valletta restaurants guide
Restaurants at the Valletta Waterfront
Fancy a 10-15 minute walk down to the Valletta Waterfront? You’ll find a number of restaurants and bars here, housed in the old (but recently renovated) store rooms. Apart from the international Hard Rock franchise, you should also try Pepe Nero and Brown’s Kitchen for a good selection of food which is reasonably priced.
Drinks & bars in Valletta
- Trabuxu is a casual but cool wine bar set up in a semi-basement cellar and rustic decor. Great place to get a good bottle of wine and a platter of cold cuts, cheeses, etc.
- Charles Grech is a local importer of liquors and opened a cafe at the start of Republic Street. In summer months, it’s a nice place to have a good drink while seated in Malta’s most popular street.
- Loop Bar is a recent addition, offering a nostalgic wink to days gone by on Strait Street, known as the hotspot for sailors stopping over in Valletta from the early to mid-20th century. Although having had the reputation of being a shady part of town, the area is also remembered in a positive light for its bustling nightlife of the time. Nice atmosphere and interesting interior to behold.
- Bridge Bar is located close to Victoria Gate, on the South end of Valletta and is a wine bar known to host jazz sessions on Friday nights in summer. Casual seating on the steps and the bridge just outside, combined with atmospheric lighting and good wine and platters make for a unique experience. The best place for info is their Facebook page.
What to see and do
There’s a lot to see in Valletta, in fact, you could easily spend three full days exploring the city without getting bored. The below is a starting point but check out my article on top points of interest and museums in Valletta and consider supporting my site by buying my Valletta travel guide eBook!
Top 5 points of interest
- The Upper Barrakka Gardens is a popular, yet quiet location on the southern side of Valletta, with magnificent views over Grand Harbour. It’s a great stop for a quick coffee and snack at its quaint kiosk and terrace. You can also enter Valletta from down at the harbour using the Upper Barrakka Lift and it’s a good place to be at noon and 4 pm sharp daily for the firing of the guns at the Saluting Battery down below.
- City Gate, the main entry point to Valletta is located on the city’s southern side that leads you straight into the city’s main street (Republic street). After you cross the footbridge overlooking the ditch and the impressive bastions on both sides of City Gate, the city’s entrance provides an instant glimpse of Valletta. The contrast between the modern Parliament building to your right, the older stately buildings to your left and the (slightly polished) ruins of the Royal Opera House (a scar left from heavy bombing during World War 2).
- The foundation stone of Valletta was laid on the site of the Church of Our Lady of Victories (located at the southern end of Merchants Street). This small 16th-century church was the first building to be erected in Valletta and still stands proudly today, having benefited from recent restoration works. Although small in size, there’s some gorgeous art to admire, primarily the ceiling paintings.
- Merchants Street is one of Valletta’s longest and most interesting streets, and a good starting point to get lost and explore some of its side streets with churches and quirky little shops and cafes.
- If you’re not afraid of a little “off the beaten path” exploration, there’s a set of steps across the road from the Mediterranean Conference centre that will lead you to St. Elmo Breakwater bridge. There are some great views out over Grand Harbour to take in!
Top 5 Museums and attractions
- If you were in any doubt over how important religion and worship were to the Order of the Knights of St. John as well as the citizens of Malta, a visit to the St. John’s Co-Cathedral is the ultimate proof. With an unassuming exterior, you would never expect to find a place so richly decorated inside its walls and entering the cathedral for the first time is an awe-inspiring experience.
- Fort. St. Elmo is located at the tip of the peninsula on which Valletta was built. Built by the Knights, the fort was restored in recent years and is a sight to behold. The fort also houses the National War Museum, which contains a number of interesting artefacts covering centuries of war history in Malta.
- Being one of the most heavily bombed places on the planet during World War 2, Valletta (and Malta as a whole) endured a lot of hardship. At the heart of the British defence of the islands lay the top secret underground control centre. Nowadays referred to as the Lascaris War Rooms, the recently restored complex offers a glimpse of the important role the location played in keeping Malta out of the hands of the Axis powers.
- Although it might not be a mainstream attraction, I always highly recommend a visit to the Fortifications Interpretations Centre. They’ve done a great job to explain and visualise how and why Valletta was built the way it was. Even if you’re not a history buff there’s a lot to like about this museum. Did I mention entrance is free?
- The Grandmaster’s Palace (and State Rooms) functioned as the seat of power ever since it was built in the late 16th-century. It’s one of the most impressive buildings and interiors the city has to offer, and a combined visit to the Palace Armoury (a large collection of weaponry and armour) is well worth the time required.
Top Things to do in Valletta
- Grab a coffee and a snack at one of the city’s cafes at Republic Square, St. John’s Square or at the Upper Barrakka Gardens
- Attend a theatre performance at the Manoel Theatre (3rd oldest operating theatre in Europe) or The Royal Opera House (open air)
- Witness the firing of the gun at noon and 4pm sharp (daily) from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, with stunning views out over Grand Harbour
- Share a bottle of wine while enjoying an evening of live Jazz music at Bridge Bar (Fridays during the summer months)
- Get lost in the city and spot the quirky balconies, fountains and other details the many historical buildings in Valletta feature. Don’t worry about getting lost, Valletta’s too small for that!
- Take a cruise around Grand Harbour and explore the views around.
- Take a quick ferry trip to Sliema and to Birgu and Senglea (localities on either side of Valletta)
More info here: Top 20 Points of interest, museums and things to do in Valletta