The Top Things to do in Valletta
and dive deeper
Discover the top things to see and do in Malta’s capital city!
A city full of charm, where old and new merge into one and culture abounds – the city of Valletta is a truly unique destination – in fact, it was awarded the European Capital of Culture for 2018. Situated on the south-east of the island of Malta, between two harbours, the peninsula is considered to be an open-air museum due to its major historical significance. Our beautiful capital city Valletta is a historic site with a story waiting to be told around every corner. Not only is it teeming with culture but it’s simply rife with activities for people from every walk of life. Whether you’re staying in one of its charming boutique hotels, visiting one of its traditional Maltese cafés or posing with some of its iconic monuments, you’re sure to have plenty to write home about. Many travellers will choose to book their accommodation in Valletta, as the beautiful city itself can be explored extensively over several days. Malta’s main bus terminus is also located in Valletta, so the city is a good base if you want to venture out to other parts of the island during your trip! Before we tell you all the top things to do in Valletta, let’s look at the city’s history.
The construction of Valletta
The first stone of Valletta was laid in 1566, by Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John, Jean de la Valletta, after whom the city was named. Following the Great Siege of 1565 against the Turkish forces – a colossal battle in Malta’s history – the Knights intended to build more fortifications around the island in order to prevent further attempted invasions. Thus, plans for the building of a new capital city – which would also guard two of the island’s main harbours – came into being.
Valletta is a unique example of Baroque architecture, a modern city designed by Pope Pius V’s foremost engineer, Francesco Laparelli. The new city would be built on a new site, a hill known as Mount Sceberras, and would be designed on a grid system to facilitate modern water, air circulation and sanitation systems. The completion of Valletta was then left to Laparelli’s Maltese assistant, Gerolamo Cassar. Cassar designed and supervised the building of several prominent buildings in Valletta, including the Sacra Infermeria, the seven Auberges, and the Co-Cathedral of St. John.
Valletta under the British
While many original buildings from the Knights’ period are still in use today, Valletta has also experienced new additions and alterations throughout its rich, diverse history. Up until Independence Day on 21st September 1964, Malta was a British colony. The British made a lasting impact on the island and its people during their 164 year rule over the island; English is one of the two national languages (together with the native tongue, Maltese), citizens drive on the left-hand side of the road, and many buildings and street names are named after British commanders. They used the Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta as the military headquarters for British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet during this time. The capital was subjected to heavy bombardment during the Second World War, and the number of inhabitants fell from 16,000 to 9,000.
Enough about history - let’s start exploring!
There’s so much to do and see in Valletta, so take your time to explore. The city is home to some of the best restaurants and bars in Malta, fascinating museums, beautiful churches, and an invigorating cultural scene. These are the top things to do in Valletta and the main points of interest:
› See the City Gate. The entrance to the city was revamped and completed in 2014. Designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, the fifth city gate is built upon the old bastions guarding the entrance to the city. The project gave a new, modern look to the entrance, including a newly–built Parliament House and an open-air theatre built in the ruins of the Royal Opera House (now called Pjazza Teatru Rjal).
› Walk down Republic Street. Upon entering Valletta from the city gate, you will find yourself in the busiest street of the whole city. Republic Street stretched from the entrance of Valletta all the way down to St George’s Square and beyond, and it is full of shops, bars and restaurants.
› Walk through Merchant’s Street. Parallel to Republic Street is Merchant’s Street, which was were most trade took place in the past. Nowadays, you’ll find more shops and restaurants, as well as the famous ‘Suq Tal-Belt’ food court here. Our Valletta hotels are both situated on this street. Rosselli – AX Privilege is the first 5 star luxury hotel in the heart of Malta’s capital city while AX The Saint John is an urban boutique hotel. You can also find two of our restaurants, located in Merchant’s Street – Cheeky Monkey Gastropub and Grain.
› Visit St George’s Square. The most famous ‘piazza’ in Valletta is St George’s Sqaure, wherein 1942, Malta was awarded the George Cross (proudly displayed on the national flag) by King George VI, “to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”.
› See the Grandmaster’s Palace. Located in St George’s Square, the Grandmaster’s Palace is a beautiful and imposing building that was home to several Grandmasters of the Order of St John. Nowadays, the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury are open to visitors.
› Visit the Auberges Several old ‘Auberges’ (houses) belonging the different ‘langues’ (nationalities) of the Knights of St John have been turned into historical museums. The National Museum of Archaeology is housed in the Auberge de Provence, while the Malta National Community Art Museum (the MUŻA) is housed in the Auberge d’Italie. Moreover, the office of the Prime Minister is located at the most impressive Auberge de Castille et Lyon.
› Discover Malta’s History Museums. Apart from those already mentioned, Valletta has some very informative museums to answer all your historical questions. The National War Museum at Fort St Elmo explore different periods of war in Malta while shining a spotlight on WWI and WWII. The Lascaris War Rooms are an underground network of tunnels that were used as the Military HQ for the British Royal Fleet, which played an important role throughout WWII, Operation Husky and the Suez Canal Crisis, before being taken over by NATO’s Communications Centre. Furthermore, at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre, you can learn all about the many fortifications in Malta.
› Get a taste of Maltese nobility at Casa Rocca Piccola. This privately owned 16th Century Palazzo is the residence of a Maltese noble family, who give guided tours to curious visitors during the week.
› Malta Postal Museum & Arts Hub. If you’re interested in philately, visit the Malta Postal Museum. The museum traces the postal history of Malta from the 16th century onwards, displaying every local stamp that has been issued in Malta between 1860 and 2010. Upstairs, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions.
› Visit Malta’s National Library. The beautiful building on Republic Street is where one can find all of the old documents and books from different periods of Malta’s history. While the building can be appreciated from the outside, you might want to book a tour to explore further.
› Watch a Play. The beloved Manoel Theatre is one of the oldest operating theatres in Europe. You can watch a show here, or simply explore the magnificent building during the opening hours. You could also watch a performance at the open-air Pjazza Teatru Rjal. There’s nothing like it!
› Immerse yourself in Contemporary Art. In recent years, Valletta has become one of the main cultural hubs in Malta. ‘Spazju Kreattiv’ (creative space), located at St James’ Cavalier, is one example. You can see a play, watch an arthouse film or visit an art exhibition here. The Valletta Contemporary museum and Iniala Galleries are also worth a visit for art lovers!
› Explore the views by sea. One of the more interesting aspects of Valletta is that it’s a peninsula. You can say that it is adorned with one of the most picturesque harbours in Europe. One can travel to and from Valletta by ferry to visit Sliema whilst taking in the view of Manoel Island, or to Bormla, whilst enjoying the spectacular view of the Three Cities. One could also go around the Grand Harbour on one of the harbour cruises. They sail past the magnificent forts that guard our harbour whilst giving a detailed commentary and explanation of what happened in the two Great Sieges of Malta. Perfect to tickle any history buff’s interest.
› Enter the St John’s Co Cathedral. Possibly one of the most famous buildings built by the Knights of St John, the Cathedral is a sight to behold. Inside, you’ll also find Caravaggio’s masterpiece ‘The Beheading of St John’, which will inspire awe in every visitor.
› Explore Valletta’s Churches. There are over 25 churches located in Valletta alone, which are worth visiting in order to understand Malta’s deep-rooted religious culture. Two examples are the Chapel of Our Lady of Victories, where the first stone of Valletta was laid, and the Church of St Catherine of Italy, both of which have beautiful artworks inside.
› Have a Drink on Strait Street. This narrow backstreet in Valletta has a seedy past, as sailors used to frequent the bars and brothels located here. Nowadays, the street is where many locals and tourists hang out in the evenings, due to the wide choice of bars and restaurants present. It’s worth taking your time to explore the backstreets of Valletta, as you’re bound to find a surprise around every corner.
› Take a stroll through the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Here, you can take in the breath-taking views of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities, located across the harbour. The gardens are an ideal spot for a romantic walk, with benches all around. You’ll also find lots of locals spending their coffee breaks here.
› See the Saluting Battery. From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, you’ll be able to see the canons located on the Saluting Battery below. Every day at noon, the canons are fired ceremoniously, too.
› Ride the Upper Barrakka Lift. Opened in December 2012, the lift acts as a link between the Grand Harbour and the city centre. Before the new lift was built, a previous one operated in the same spot between 1905 and 1973.
› Similarly, the Lower Barrakka Gardens offer fantastic views of the entrance to the Grand Harbour. Located on the lower side of Valletta, close to Fort St Elmo, the Lower Barakka Gardens also overlook the Valletta breakwater, Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo and the city of Senglea.
› Visit the Malta Experience at the Sacra Infermeria – the old hospital used by the Knights of St John, which was restored and turned into the Mediterranean Conference Centre. The award-winning audio-visual show explains Malta’s 7000-year history, while also taking you on a tour of the Sacra Infermiera.
› Explore the Valletta Waterfront. The seaside promenade is where you can take in some of Malta’s best views, and enjoy a spot of lunch, shopping and entertainment. Situated on the west side of the Grand Harbour, the Valletta Waterfront is a collection of old warehouses turned into a dynamic area full of dining establishments and shops.
› Share a Meal at Grain. A culinary gem in Valletta – Grain is innovative in all aspects. You can choose a laid-back dining experience with plates to share at Grain Street, or opt for a more refined experience at Under Grain.
› Eat at the Cheeky Monkey Gastropub. If you’re looking for something more casual, head to the Cheeky Monkey. A local favourite, the gastropub is a great place to enjoy a few drinks, good food and music with friends.
› Finally, make sure to keep updated with the events that will be taking place during your stay. Valletta’s cultural calendar is packed with annual events! Don’t miss out – follow our page for news about the latest events taking place in Valletta!