One day isn’t enough for Valletta. Unassuming and under the radar, this charming city has enough treasures in its core to rival that of Rome and other historical heavyweights. But if you’re stuck for time and only have 12 hours in the city, here’s a one-day guide to the top things to do in Valletta.
Regular buses run to the Maltese capital from all around the island so it’s a doddle to get to, no matter which resort you’re staying in. You’ll step off next to the Triton Fountain, a tinkling bronze spectacle where you can catch your first glimpse of the city’s thick defensive walls. Walk across the bridge and you’ll be met with the sight of beautiful centuries-old buildings in a gorgeous buttery hue, with doors and shutters painted emerald green. A bright red post box on your left is the first British nod of many you’ll spot throughout the city and the rest of the island.
Take a right past the ruins of the Royal Opera House and make for the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Overlooking the Grand Harbour, this pretty spot offers sweeping views across the water. Tropical greenery is dotted all around, golden arches frame the twinkling harbour ahead and plaques dedicated to soldiers and important figures, such as Einstein, help paint a picture of Valletta’s rich heritage. There are plenty of benches nestled among the plants so you can just sit and soak up the hubbub of activity.
Look down at the Saluting Battery where every day at 12pm and 4pm, a cannon is shot (not by a soldier, but a finely-dressed actor). It’s worth paying the small ticket price to go down to the platform for a close-up view without the jostling crowds.
One of the best and most magical things to do in Valletta is simply get lost. The tangle of golden streets is any explorer’s dream. Steps lead down to rows of houses, with quaint doorways and shuttered windows. A melange of stunning churches, libraries, squares and government buildings unfold as you amble the buzzy streets. Keep your gaze high as you stroll, as the architecture here is a feast for the peepers.
Tucked down Valletta’s side streets you’ll find plenty of pavement cafés to rest your legs and refuel at. D’Office is one of the best, a family-run bistro with a line-up of tables draped in green-chequered cloths to choose from. Settle down and order an Aperol Spritz to sip while you peruse the menu, which features Italian and Maltese delights. For a decadent dinner, go for the Maltese Ravioli – plump pasta parcels stuffed with goat’s cheese and ricotta. For something a little lighter, it’s spaghetti marinara you’ll want. Ribbons of pasta are brought to life with lashings of white wine and oodles of seafood.
Work off your lunch at the Grand Master’s Palace. Behind its 16th-century façade you’ll find a series of flamboyant rooms that once housed the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, who ruled the island. Pass a pretty courtyard to get to the State Rooms and pick up an audio guide as part of your ticket for further insight into the palace’s history. Opulent touches are everywhere, with huge and heavy chandeliers glistening from the ceiling, tapestries depicting maps, enormous portraits of important figures in Malta’s political history and antique furniture. The armoury is just as impressive, with cannons, embellished suits of armour and time-old weaponry on display, dating from several hundred years ago.
Back outside, continue to potter through the streets until you reach Carmelite Church – you can see its gigantic dome from across the water in Sliema, dominating Valletta’s skyline. Pop in and crane your neck to marvel the dome’s almost oval-like interior. If you head back out, you can trace the seafront for a little while before diving into the warren of backstreets once more. It’s easy here to stumble across gems – just poke your head into a few unassuming churches and you’ll see what I mean. The Basilica of St Dominic is one such example. You could easily wander past this golden building but when you duck inside you’ll find a totally stunning interior, with dark tones, rich detailing and a series of mini domes to the right and left of the nave.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens offer a slice of tranquillity in Valletta. Wander into this green oasis and you’ll be greeted by trickling fountains, palm trees and flowers in purpley-pink hues. In its centre is a memorial that looks like it’s been flown straight in from Rome. This 19th century temple is an ode to Sir Alexander Ball, the British naval captain that spearheaded the capture of Malta from the French. Ponder its beautiful design from one of the half-moon benches and enjoy a moment to yourself to take it all in. It’s also worth venturing to the towering arches on the garden’s north side to admire the view over the water.
Polly’s Bar next door to the Lower Barrakka Gardens is a cute little place to make a pit stop and enjoy a drink. But for an authentic experience, go to Ellul for a wine tasting. For €15 each, you can sample three whites and three reds, all produced in Malta. Look out for Antonin, a beautiful bold red from the Marsovin estate that you’ll want to take home with you.
When the sun goes down, a little more magic can be found at Café Society. Gaggles of late-night revellers spill out onto the marble steps the bar is perched on. Grab a wine and join the largely local crowd chattering away here. The view down to Birgu, all lit up across the water, with the moon shining down, is quite the sight. A guy playing guitar really cements the laidback mood.
Finish off your day with a late dinner at The Rootz. This dinky place defines quaint, set out on the steps of a side street, with multi-coloured flags strung up above your head that flutter in the warm evening breeze. The menu’s all about showcasing beautiful Maltese wines and platters of meat and cheese. Sip a glass of red and listen to the bow tie-clad pianist play as you wait for your food to arrive. Cheese lovers will be in heaven when a board piled high with creamy cheeses with freshly-baked bread arrives at your table. The gorgonzola, with walnuts and drizzled in honey, is a real show-stopper.
Posted: 1st Nov 2019.