From the golden interiors of St John’s Co-cathedral to the historic halls of the Grand Master’s Palace, here are the best things to do in Valletta, Malta’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed capital city.
“This is one of the largest, deepest harbours in the Mediterranean,” Maltese local and tour guide Darrell Azzopardi explained as we looked out over the Grand Harbour from the heights of the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta, Malta’s capital city. “Nations fought wars for this harbour. The British Navy was here for 150 years. But now, the harbour has a more peaceful role, even if it does bring over 1 million cruise passengers flooding into Valletta every year!”
The Grand Harbour is the reason that Valletta, one of the world’s smallest capital cities, is where it is today. While Valletta has little ancient history to speak of (unlike other parts of Malta), in the 16th century, Malta faced a monumental challenge. The Ottoman Empire sought to expand its reach and set its sights on Malta in 1565.
The Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, paired with the local Maltese and defended the islands in the Great Siege. With their victory, the Knights, led by Grand Master Jean de Valette, realised the need for a fortified city to ward off future invasions. Construction of Valletta commenced in 1566 on the Sciberras Peninsula, with the city being named in honour of de Valette.
Under the patronage of the Knights of St John, Valletta was transformed into a significant cultural, religious, and military centre. Grand buildings, churches, palaces and an intricate network of fortifications are now found here today, reflecting the city’s importance in the Mediterranean. Napoleon Bonaparte took Valletta in 1798, but the British soon overthrew the French invaders to claim the islands for themselves.
Under British rule, which spanned from the early 19th century until 1964, Valletta’s fortifications were massively enhanced. The significance of its strategic position was again underscored during World War II, when Malta became integral to the war efforts, enduring heavy bombings and yet another relentless siege, the likes of which it hadn’t seen since 1565.
The post-war period was a transformative time for Malta and its capital. The islands achieved independence from Britain in 1964, with Valletta becoming the capital of the new nation. The world soon recognised the city’s historical importance, and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. With so much history and heritage, there are so many great things to do in Valletta. Keep reading, to find out more!
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Things to do in Valletta
Founded by the Knights of St John on the Sciberras Peninsula, Valletta is surrounded by two natural harbours: Marsamxett Harbour to the west and the larger Grand Harbour to the east. This strategic location in the Mediterranean has played a significant role in Valletta’s rich history and its prominence in European and Mediterranean affairs and makes it a spectacular place to visit today.
You can see the main sights in Valletta in a day or two, and I recommend taking a walking tour when you first arrive to get your bearings. While you can stay in the city itself, there are many better options in the surrounding area. I stayed across the harbour in Sliema, for example, where there are great restaurants and waterfront bars, and a regular ferry to Valletta.
1. Walk through Valletta’s historic streets and squares
Why not start with a walking tour of Malta? Its narrow streets and squares are made for strolling, and there are plenty of tour guides and companies offering free, tips-based walking tours to help out anyone travelling on a budget.
Begin your journey into Valletta at the grand entrance marked by the City Gate, with the Triton Fountain just ahead. Move forward onto Republic Street, where you’ll find the city’s main thoroughfare is a blend of history and modernity, with historical edifices standing tall among the many shops and cafes.
Continue, and you’ll come across St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The Baroque opulence inside, including the intricate marble floors and Caravaggio’s masterpieces in the Oratory, is a stark contrast to its relatively simple façade. A short walk will then lead you to the Palace Square, dominated by the Grandmaster’s Palace.
Venturing further, the Upper Barrakka Gardens awaits, with panoramic views of the Grand Harbour; and the booming of cannons from the Saluting Battery might catch your attention. Next, meander down Merchant’s Street, which runs parallel to Republic Street. Finish your walking tour at St. Elmo’s Fort, the star-shaped fortress that’s stood watch since the Great Siege of 1565.
Read more: 28 Best Places to Visit in Malta
2. Be awed by the golden interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral
St. John’s Co-Cathedral, in the heart of Valletta, stands as an architectural and artistic masterpiece of the Baroque era. Commissioned in the 16th century as the church for the Knights of St. John, its exterior is deceptively austere.
However, upon entering, visitors are greeted with an opulent display of art and craftsmanship. The cathedral’s floor is made of inlaid marble tombstones, commemorating the knights buried beneath. The walls and ceilings, adorned with lavish gold leaf and intricately carved stone, tell stories of faith and chivalry.
The most renowned feature is the Oratory, housing two paintings by Caravaggio, including the famous ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’. This artwork is the only signed piece by the artist and is considered one of his masterpieces.
3. See the president’s office at the Grandmaster’s Palace
The Grandmaster’s Palace is a symbol of Malta’s storied past. Constructed in the 16th century, this monumental edifice originally served as the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights Hospitaller. Over the centuries, its walls have witnessed a cavalcade of historic events and changing rulers.
While its exterior showcases classic examples of Maltese architectural motifs, the interiors are opulent, adorned with exquisite frescoes, tapestries, and portraits that chronicle the island’s history. Notably, the Palace houses the State Apartments, which are still used for official functions, and the Palace Armoury, one of the world’s largest collections of arms and armour.
Today, it serves dual roles as the official residence of Malta’s President and as a repository of national heritage.
Read more: 10 Best Things to Do in Mdina, Malta
4. Hang out with the protestors in St. George’s Square (Pjazza San Ġorġ)
St. George’s Square, known in Maltese as Pjazza San Ġorġ, sits in the centre of Valletta’s historic streets. This expansive square, framed by grand edifices, has been a central gathering point for centuries. Dominating the square is the Grandmaster’s Palace, a testament to the island’s storied past under the rule of the Knights of St. John.
Adjacent to it stands the Main Guard Building with its classical portico, a reminder of British colonial influence. While the square’s historic significance is undeniable, its present-day purpose is that of a lively urban space, complete with fountains and open areas that frequently host events, or that are the sight of protests against the Maltese government!
5. Take in the views from the Upper Barrakka Gardens
The Upper Barrakka Gardens, located atop the bastions of Valletta, offer an unparalleled vantage point overlooking the Grand Harbour and the historic Three Cities beyond. Originally conceived in the 16th century as a recreational space for the Knights of St. John, the gardens have since become a haven amongst the busy capital’s streets.
Enclosed within its historic walls are neat terraces, sculptures and monuments that pay homage to historical figures from Malta’s past. Amid the foliage and ornate fountains, you can find solace and a momentary escape from the city.
But perhaps the most anticipated event at the gardens is the daily firing of the Saluting Battery, a tradition that dates back to the time of the Knights.
6. Delve into military history at Fort St. Elmo and the National War Museum
Fort St. Elmo, an imposing star-shaped citadel, occupies a strategic position at the tip of Valletta, overlooking the harbours on either side. Built by the Order of Saint John in the 16th century, the fort gained prominence during the Great Siege of 1565 when it withstood fierce attacks from the Ottoman Empire.
Its valiant defence played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the siege. Today, Fort St. Elmo houses the National War Museum, a poignant tribute to Malta’s military history. Within its walls, you can trace Malta’s wartime experiences, from the age of the knights through World War II.
Among its exhibits is the George Cross, awarded to the Maltese people for their wartime bravery during the Second World War. Together, Fort St. Elmo and the National War Museum provide an immersive journey into Malta’s resilience in the face of conflict.
7. Get cultural at The Manoel Theatre
The Manoel Theatre in Valletta is one of Europe’s oldest working theatres. Commissioned in the 18th century by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, its purpose was to provide the citizens of Valletta with honest entertainment.
The theatre’s intimate setting, adorned with ornate chandeliers, gold leaf, and azure motifs, transports audiences back to the era of the Baroque. Over the centuries, its wooden stage has hosted everything from operas and plays to contemporary shows and concerts.
Despite surviving fires, wars and sieges, the theatre has been meticulously restored, retaining its historic charm while accommodating modern amenities. Today, the Manoel Theatre not only continues its legacy as a hub of artistic excellence but also stands as a monument to Valletta’s enduring love affair with the arts.
8. Visit The Malta Experience
‘The Malta Experience‘ is a journey through the millennia, unveiling the rich history of Malta’s history in a comprehensive manner. Situated in Valletta, this audio-visual spectacle takes its audience on a 5,000-year odyssey, charting the archipelago’s pivotal moments, from its earliest settlers to its role in World War II.
The engaging narration, complemented by vivid imagery and soundscapes, brings to life the tales of resilience, conquest and cultural amalgamation that define Malta. Beyond its historical recount, the show pays homage to the country’s unique landscapes and traditions.
For those new to Malta, ‘The Malta Experience’ offers an invaluable introduction, setting the context for exploration.
9. Go underground at the Lascaris War Rooms
Deep beneath the bastions of Valletta lie the Lascaris War Rooms, a maze of underground tunnels and chambers that once heaved with wartime strategy and urgency. This subterranean complex served as the Allied Forces’ headquarters during World War II, playing an instrumental role in the defence of Malta and the planning of the Sicily invasion in 1943.
From these dimly lit rooms, British and Allied military leaders coordinated naval and air operations in the Mediterranean. Today, the meticulously preserved chambers offer a vivid glimpse into wartime operations, with maps, equipment, and mannequins adorning the space, rekindling a bygone era of radio transmissions and strategic discussions.
Visiting the Lascaris War Rooms offers an insight into the military decisions that shaped the course of history in the tumultuous 1940s, making this one of the best places to visit in Valletta.
10. Visit Valletta’s Museums
Valletta, as the nation’s capital, is home to Malta’s best museums. The National Museum of Archaeology, housed in the grand Auberge de Provence, is an ode to Malta’s ancient past. As you walk its hallways you’re taken on a journey through prehistory, coming face-to-face with relics from the Ġgantija, Tarxien, and Ħaġar Qim temples. The museum’s pièce de résistance is the Sleeping Lady, a magnificent statuette from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, representing the island’s rich Neolithic heritage.
A short walk away is the National Museum of Fine Arts, a haven for art enthusiasts. Residing in a splendid Baroque building, it showcases a vast collection ranging from 15th-century works to contemporary pieces. The museum celebrates both local and international artists, offering a diverse array of paintings, sculptures, and prints, reflecting the myriad of cultural influences that have shaped Malta.
The lesser-known but equally intriguing Malta Postal Museum traces the evolution of communication on the island. Located in a beautifully restored townhouse, this museum offers an intriguing exploration of philately. Antique letters, postboxes, and an assortment of stamps chronicle Malta’s socio-political history, as well as its links to the wider world.
11. Take a traditional Maltese boat (Dghajsa) across the Grand Harbour
The Grand Harbour of Valletta, a natural deep-water port, has for centuries been the epicentre of Malta’s maritime activity, bearing witness to some of history’s most pivotal naval encounters. However, the true beauty of this historic harbour is best enjoyed aboard a traditional Maltese boat, the ‘Dghajsa’.
Gliding through the waters on a dghajsa is one of the best things to do in Valletta. The boats, with their iconic high prow and stern, have for generations ferried sailors, merchants, and locals across the harbour, and today, they offer visitors a unique, intimate perspective of Valletta’s maritime legacy.
The boatman’s tales are the backdrop as the fortifications of Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua rise up from the water’s edge, telling stories of sieges and battles through the ages.
12. Eat a pastizzi
In the labyrinthine streets of Valletta, amidst Baroque facades and historic monuments, lies a culinary experience that’s quintessentially Maltese: the pastizzi. This flaky pastry, filled with either ricotta cheese or mushy peas, is a beloved snack that encapsulates the soul of Maltese gastronomy.
Biting into a fresh pastizzi is delightful after walking through Valletta. The outer layer, golden and crisp, crumbles delicately, giving way to the warm, savoury filling inside. Paired with a cold Cisk beer, it’s the island’s answer to fast food, but with a deep-rooted tradition.
Wander through Valletta, and you’ll stumble upon age-old pastizzerias, often recognised by their vintage signage and the tantalising aroma wafting from their ovens.
13. Visit Casa Rocca Piccola
Casa Rocca Piccola is more than just a historic house; it’s a living testament to Malta’s heritage. This 16th-century palazzo, once the residence of Maltese nobility, offers an intimate glimpse into the life and times of the island’s aristocracy.
With its ornate rooms, antique furniture, and family portraits, the house feels like a gateway to another era. Its network of underground tunnels, which served as bomb shelters during World War II, tells tales of resilience and survival.
But beyond its walls and artefacts, what truly brings Casa Rocca Piccola to life is the personal touch; the family that owns the palazzo still resides there, ensuring that it remains a vibrant part of Valletta’s cultural fabric. A guided tour offers stories, anecdotes, and insights, transforming a visit into an immersive journey through Malta’s societal evolution, from the Knights of St. John to the present day.
14. Attend a festival
Valletta is not just a city of historical landmarks and baroque architecture; it’s also a hub for the island’s many festivals.
The Valletta Film Festival transforms the city into a cinephile’s paradise. Every summer, the city’s cobblestone streets become venues for film screenings, ranging from international blockbusters to indie gems. The festival’s ambience is reminiscent of an open-air cinema, where the city’s rich history serves as a backdrop to cinematic narratives from around the world.
In the hot days of mid-July, the Malta Jazz Festival takes centre stage. This sonic celebration brings together renowned international jazz artists and emerging talents. Set against the stunning backdrop of Ta’ Liesse, the Grand Harbour’s edge, the festival resonates with the soulful melodies and rhythmic beats of jazz, infusing the summer air with musical magic that’s both invigorating and mesmerising.
Come winter, the Valletta International Baroque Festival offers a sublime retreat into the world of classical music. Celebrating Valletta’s rich Baroque heritage, historic venues like St. John’s Co-Cathedral and the Manoel Theatre come alive with the resounding echoes of Baroque compositions, capturing the era’s grandeur and elegance.
15. Visit Sliema and St. Julian’s
Just a short ferry or bus ride away from Valletta lie the towns of Sliema and St Julian’s, offering a contrasting taste of Malta’s cosmopolitan side. Sliema, with its modern seafront promenade, is a delightful blend of chic boutiques, al fresco dining spots and panoramic views of Valletta’s skyline.
The town seamlessly merges into St Julian’s, famed for its hectic nightlife, particularly in the Paceville district with its array of clubs, bars, and restaurants. Spinola Bay in St Julian’s, a picturesque harbour dotted with colourful fishing boats, offers a respite and a perfect spot for a leisurely meal. Both towns are home to some excellent swimming spots, with rocky beaches giving way to the clear Mediterranean waters.
Map of the best things to do in Valletta
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Valletta:
Best time to visit Valletta
Valletta, and Malta in general, is a destination that can be visited year-round. However, the best time to visit often depends on what you’re planning to do. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect throughout the year:
- Spring (March to May): This is one of the best times to visit Valletta. The weather is mild and sunny, making it perfect for sightseeing and outdoor activities. The countryside is lush and green, and wildflowers are in bloom. Easter is a significant celebration in Malta, and while it’s a fascinating time to experience local traditions, some sites and restaurants might be closed.
- Summer (June to August): This is the peak tourist season, primarily because of the sunny beach weather. It’s also the time for numerous festivals, events, and parties across the island, including the Malta International Arts Festival and Malta Jazz Festival. It can get very hot and crowded during these months. If you’re not a fan of scorching temperatures and bustling streets, this might not be the best time for you. Also, accommodation prices tend to be higher.
- Autumn (September to November): The weather remains warm but becomes more bearable than in the summer months. The sea is still warm enough for swimming. This season is also less crowded than the summer, and accommodation prices start to drop. Occasional rain showers can occur, especially in November.
- Winter (December to February): This is the least crowded time to visit Valletta. The weather is mild compared to most European destinations, making it a great winter escape. It’s an excellent time for cultural exploration without the crowds. Accommodation and flights can also be cheaper. While it’s milder than most of Europe, it can still get relatively cold, especially in the evenings. It’s not beach weather, and you can expect occasional rain. Some seasonal businesses might be closed.
How to travel to Valletta, Malta
Travelling to Valletta is very straightforward, given that Malta is a well-connected island nation. Here’s how you can reach Valletta:
- By Air: Malta International Airport (MLA): Located in Luqa, it’s the only international airport in Malta. It services numerous airlines with connections from major cities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. From the airport, Valletta is about 9 km away. You can get to the city via taxi, public bus (the X4, X5, and X7 routes go directly to Valletta from the airport), or car rental.
- By Sea: There are regular ferries between Pozzallo or Catania in Sicily (Italy) and Valletta. The journey takes about 90 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the service.
- By Road: If you’re already in Malta, you can drive to Valletta. Malta is a small island, so most places, including popular tourist areas like St. Julian’s, Mdina and Mellieha, are within an hour’s drive or less to Valletta. Keep in mind that finding parking in Valletta can be challenging, especially during peak times. There are paid parking lots and street parking available, but it’s often easier to park outside the city and then walk or take public transport in.
- Public Buses: Malta has an extensive bus network operated by Malta Public Transport. Buses connect Valletta to all parts of the island. The central bus station is just outside Valletta’s city gates, making it convenient to reach the city.
- Taxi and Ride-Sharing: There are traditional white taxis available. You can also use eCabs, Uber or Bolt to travel to and from Valletta.
FAQ: The best things to do in Valletta
Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Valletta, Malta:
Q1. What are the must-visit historical sites in Valletta?
A1. Valletta is steeped in history. Key historical sites include St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the Grandmaster’s Palace, Fort St. Elmo and the Upper Barrakka Gardens with its Saluting Battery. Each offers a unique glimpse into the city’s rich past.
Q2. Are there any museums worth exploring in Valletta?
A2. The National Museum of Archaeology and the Malta War Museum are two must-visit institutions. For art lovers, the MUŻA (National Community Art Museum) is a contemporary addition showcasing Maltese art and history.
Q3. I’ve heard Valletta has beautiful gardens. Which ones should I visit?
A3. The Upper Barrakka Gardens is a favourite, offering panoramic views of the Grand Harbour. The Lower Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the Marsamxett Harbour, is also a serene spot to relax and soak in the views.
Q4. What are some unique activities to do in Valletta?
A4. Apart from the usual sightseeing, consider attending a performance at the Manoel Theatre, one of Europe’s oldest working theatres. Also, explore Valletta’s streets during nighttime to experience its vibrant nightlife, or join a harbour cruise for a different perspective of the city.
Q5. Are there any local festivals or events that travellers should look out for?
A5. Definitely! Valletta hosts several annual events, including the Valletta Film Festival, the Malta Jazz Festival, and the Notte Bianca, a night where the city comes alive with performances, exhibitions and open-air festivities.
Q6. How about shopping in Valletta?
A6. Republic Street and Merchants Street are the main shopping thoroughfares, lined with international brands and local boutiques. Don’t miss the local crafts, especially filigree jewellery and hand-blown Maltese glass.
Q7. Any recommendations for foodies visiting Valletta?
A7. Valletta offers a range of culinary delights. Explore local eateries to try traditional dishes like rabbit stew (fenkata), pastizzi and Maltese bread. Waterfront cafes offer fresh seafood, and numerous wine bars serve local wines to savour.
Q8. Is Valletta suitable for family travel?
A8. Yes, Valletta has attractions that cater to travellers of all ages. Kids can enjoy exploring the forts and watching the cannons fire at the Saluting Battery, while adults will appreciate the city’s history, architecture and vibrant atmosphere.
Q9. What’s the best way to navigate around Valletta?
A9. Valletta is compact and best explored on foot. However, if you want to travel to other parts of Malta, the central bus station outside Valletta’s city gates is convenient. Ferries and water taxis are also available for scenic routes.
Q10. Any tips for first-time visitors to Valletta?
A10. Wear comfortable shoes for walking on cobblestone streets, stay hydrated, especially during the summer, and always keep a camera ready!