Knowing that Malta is one of the most touristic places in South Europe, I didn’t want to limit my experience to a seaside resort town even if the primary purpose of my 10-day holiday in the Mediterranean archipelago was scuba diving. I love exploring cities as they are usually full of history and culture. I decided that a relaxing weekend in the smallest capital city in Europe right after landing at Luqa Airport was the best way to start my adventure in Malta. Would it be possible to visit Valletta in only 24 hours? Yes, of course, but during my stay, I realised that Valletta is strongly connected to Sliema and the Three Cities. These places worth the visit and in only one day it would be complicated to pack the discovery of Valletta’s treasures with crossing twice the harbour westbound and eastbound. Thanks to one day in “let’s get lost” mode and one day with a fantastic private guide, here is my ultimate itinerary to discover Valletta and beyond!
Day 1 in Valletta & Sliema
All around Valletta fortified wall
Valletta (Il-Belt in Maltese, it means the City) is the smallest capital city in Europe. It was built as a walled city on a peninsula easy to defend with a deep natural harbour. Walking around its thick ancient walls is an excellent way to start the discovery of the Capital of Malta.
What better way to start the day than learning through the best museum in town about the history of Valletta and hence, Malta? This way all your subsequent discoveries will make so much more sense. Please don’t be stopped by its name (like I was at the first glance), the Museum of War of Fort St Elmo (il-Forti Sant Lermu) is incredibly educational about the origins of the Knights of St John, How Malta became a part of British Empire and what happened during WWII. Fort St Elmo is at the very tip of Valletta Peninsula and offers a stunning view of the entrance of the harbour. The entrance is 10€, and you need a good 2 hours to visit it. I would suggest starting at its opening at 10 am.
After your visit of Fort St Elmo, head to the three gardens on the wall: the Lower Barraka Gardens, the Upper Barraka Garden and the Hastings Gardens.
- The Lower Barraka Gardens were my ultimate favourite. Small, pink and white Bougainville flowers everywhere, a fountain by a small temple, adorable half-moon benches in the shades of olive trees. It is close to Fort St Elmo, and this is the perfect place to enjoy a refreshment before walking all around Valletta. For information, free WiFi is available in Valletta’s gardens and Square so it’s also a good spot to load a few selfies on your favourite social media.
- The Upper Barraka Gardens offer the most impressive view from Valletta of the Great Harbour.The Great Harbour is the deep natural harbour formed by the bay between Valletta and the Three Cities. Usually, in the summer time, you will see huge cruise ships parking there. That why there is an elevator at the right side of the Garden linking the city with the cruise terminal.
- To join the Hastings Gardens, you will pass the main entrance gate of Valletta which has been beautifully reconstructed into a modern piece of art. The atmosphere was completely different at the Hastings Garden: so quiet and much drier with mainly olive trees. Compare to the high touristic activity of the Upper Barraka Garden due to the proximity to the cruise terminal; the Hastings Garden are a haven of peace. Nevertheless, don’t forget your hat as the shade is scarce. While walking along the thick wall, you can admire the views of the Fort of Manoel Island.
Return ferry trip to Sliema for the best sunset view
Having heard Sliema was the lively side of Valletta area, and since I needed a few things from a supermarket (there is none in Valletta centre, only a pricey grocery store), I thought it was worth jumping on the Ferry across Marsamxett Harbour to Sliema. It goes every 30 minutes during the day, and a return trip is less than 3€.
Unfortunately, I cannot say Sliema is beautiful. It is mostly made of concrete high-rise buildings. The many available shops make it the ideal destination whenever you need something in Valletta area. The sea promenade was lovely to walk, and if you’re looking for a place to swim and sunbathe while in Valletta, the rocky beach of Sliema will be perfect for that, only 5 minutes walking from the ferry pier.
If I’m recommending you to go to Sliema it’s not for the beach or the shops; it’s not even for Sliema itself. The ferry back at the golden hour just before sunset starts is the best view you can get of Valletta. So depending on how much time you have left, do accordingly, but make sure to take the ferry from Sliema to Valletta.
Day 2 in Valletta & Vittoriosa
Exploring the heart of Valletta and its treasures
After getting an excellent glimpse of the size of the city and its breath-taking views, it’s now time to explore the perfectly aligned narrow streets of the heart of Valletta. “Perfectly aligned?” Yes, it surprised me that such an old city would almost as perfectly designed as Manhattan in New York. The reason lies in the history of Valletta. The city is not “that” old as its construction “only” started in 1566 (which is rather recent if you compare to other Capital cities in Europe which were founded during Antiquity). The Knights of St John decided of its construction after the end of the great Siege by the Ottoman Empire. It ended well for the Maltese but during the months the siege latest the Ottomans had the advantages. Nevertheless, a significant number of losses and strong winter storms coming made them leave. The Knights realised then that they needed a much more robust fortress as the Fort St Elmo which was the only construction of the peninsula at that time, felt during the battle. So the perfect design of Valletta is more due to military strategy than pure aesthetics.
Give yourself a few hours to wander around the streets between the highlights of the city. There are high chances that if you like photography, you will spend time playing with the colourful Maltese balconies, the architecture symbol of Malta. I found it challenging to take good pictures as the narrow streets offer a cool shady area but at the same time, bright sunlight is on the top of the buildings. Early morning light is a good option to avoid this big difference of luminosity. My favourite Street for the Maltese balconies was St Ursula Street (Triq Sant’Orsla).
While I loved getting lost in Valletta (the city is so small that you cannot be lost long!), here are a few highlights of the city within my favourites worth checking:
- Grandmaster’s Palace (Il-Palazz tal-Granmastru): This historic building is now the Presidential Palace. It is the perfect complement of Fort St Elmo if you want to go deeper into Malta history. I liked the portraits of the different Grand Masters of the Knights of St John to see how they looked liked in their long black dress and then see their armour delicately carved.
- Republic Square (Misraħ ir-Repubblika): The most elegant square of Valletta feature the statue of Queen Victoria and the entrance of the National Library. It is also the perfect spot for a cake and coffee as it used as the outdoor terrace of the Caffe Cordina (don’t miss the opportunity to have a look inside to select your cake).
- Saint John Co-Cathedral (Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann): I’m sorry no picture from the inside here as I visited during a mass and pictures are obviously not allowed. Beyond the classic golden features from the Baroque style of this Cathedral, this is the floor that makes it unique. The floor is made of colourful marble tombs of about 400 Knights and officers of the Order. This Cathedral is often considered as one of the most beautiful baroque churches in Europe.
- Saint Paul Shipwreck Collegiate Church (il-Kolleġġjata ta’ San Pawl): Since I’m a scuba diver looking to explore shipwrecks in Malta, I was intrigued by the name of this church. This how I discovered one of the oldest churches in Valletta and another important historical event: the sinking of the boat of St Paul the Apostle. Malta is actually Melita Island described in the Bible, where St Paul and the crew found refuge whereas he was on his way to Rome to be judged as a political opponent. The church is dedicated to this event that led to the Christianization of Malta in 60 A.D.
Return ferry trip to the Three Cities
The perfect end of your visit to Valletta area will be with the Three Cities of Senglea (Isla), Cospicua (Bormla) and Vittoriosa (Birgu). For some inexplicable reasons, they can still be considered hidden gems as very few people think about going there or even know about these places. It was my case too, and thanks to my guide, I could discover an authentic and gorgeous part of Malta. The Three Cities were built long before Valletta, this from there the Knights of St John resisted the Ottoman during the Grand Siege. This is why Birgu in Maltese was named Vittoriosa to celebrate their victory.
While Valletta was packed with tourists on this end of July, I enjoyed Vittoriosa almost entirely for myself. After a copious lunch at Don Berto with seafood linguine with a chilled glass of Chardonnay from Gozo, overlooking the sheltered harbour between Vittoriosa and Senglea, we did a much appreciated digestive walk through the charming streets of Vittoriosa. The Three Cities benefited recently of incredible refurbishment works, so you can notice that everything is nice and tidy. Each door, each window and each balcony are so photogenic that you can expect time to fly as you take pictures. However, if you’re looking for the true spirit of Malta, head to Cospiscua, the least touristy of the Three Cities.
After the end of my walk is was time for me to leave for St Paul’s Bay where my Maltese scuba diving adventure started. As I left Vittoriosa, I crossed an impressive double fortification. No wonder why nobody could ever take the Three Cities.
Valletta by night
What type of party people are you? If you are looking for crazy parties, you will need to go to Sliema and even a bit further to St Julian and Paceville. On the side of the Three Cities, nothing at all so it’s perfect if you want to sleep. In the middle, Valetta centre offers chilled out evenings with lounge music in the different wine bars, cocktail rooftops and tapas venues. On my first night, I enjoyed a cocktail for the incredible price of 5€ while overlooking the Grand Master’s Palace and listening to live Jazz Music at the City Lounge (131 Old Theatre Street). On my second night, I wanted a cosy place with Maltese food, red wine, and good wi-fi connection to upload a video to YouTube; I found the ideal place at Cafe Jubilee (125 St Lucia Street). It is a chain you can find in other towns of Malta and Gozo, but I found the quality of their food (you got to try their home-made ravioli) and their house wine excellent at a reasonable price. If you’re looking for a bit more action, you’ll enjoy Strait Street which used to be, decades ago, the sailors’ favourite place to hang out. Check out Loop Bar which has kept its style from the 50’s.
Where to stay while visiting Valletta?
Where you stay in Valletta depends on what you want to do at night:
- As explained above, if you want to party, and you are on a budget, the hostels of Sliema and a good choice of cheap AirBnB rooms in Sliema will be the best option for you. You can have a look at Hostel Malti and Hostel Jones.
- Looking for a stylish and authentic AirBnb flat for a reasonable price while being in a quiet area? Don’t look further the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea are where to go.
- In my case, I was in the mood for chilled out evenings with a glass of wine (I guess that’s a sign I’m getting old). I knew that if it meant running after the ferry to go back to Sliema or the Three Cities, it would too stressful so I decided to sleep in Valletta. Most hotels and AirBnB rooms can be pricey, so I decided to stay at Sea-Esta Hostel (65 St.Mark St), which is a clean and stylish hostel, quiet as there is not any big common area to hang around (party people not your kind of place). As I was exploring Valletta on my own and I was planning to spend most of my time outside, that was just what I needed.
After this relaxing weekend full of discoveries about Malta History, I was fully ready for an intensive scuba diving week all around Malta and Gozo. Malta revealed to be a top wreck diving destination in Europe, while the bucolic island of Gozo surprised me with some of the best cavern diving I’ve seen. During my week in Malta, I took the opportunity to pass my PADI wreck diving specialty who took me for the final dive back to Valletta. What a surprise: You can actually make a short scuba diving holiday or long weekend by staying only in Valletta! Stay tuned, many articles to come about diving around the Maltese Archipelago.
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