As Malta's capital and largest city, Valletta is often the first stop for visitors to the tiny Mediterranean island nation. Although Malta has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, Valletta is a relatively young capital city. It was founded in 1566 by Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta. Though Valette died before its completion, his namesake city rose to be a European Baroque architecture model—most buildings in the old town date to this period.
Today, Valletta, aside from functioning as the hub of Malta, is a lively city offering a mix of historic sites, scenic spots, museums, nightlife, and other diversions. Spend a few days here to discover our top things to do in Valletta.
Gild-Out at St. John's Co-Cathedral
St. John's Co-Cathedral may look plain on the outside, but its interior is a stunning display of high Baroque style. Its central naive and numerous side chapels are covered in gilded plasterwork and frescoes and filled with symbols that reference the history of the Knights of Malta and its close ties to the Catholic Church. The floors are covered with tombs of hundreds of the Knights of Malta—Jean de Valette rests in a stone crypt with his likeness in bronze on the top. Of particular note is a side chapel with Caravaggio's "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist," a huge canvas that dramatically illustrates the famous moment from scripture.
Chill Out in the Three Cities
When you're ready for a break from Valletta's busy core, hop across the Grand Harbour and explore the area known as The Three Cities, the towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. Aside from offering great views of Valletta, the Three Cities contain historic bastions, churches, and palaces, lovely spots for waterfront strolls, and the chance to wander in quiet, stone-paved residential neighborhoods.
Hop in a Dgħajsa
If you decide to visit Grand Harbour, be sure to get there in style—aboard a colorful dgħajsa rowboat. Like Venetian gondolas, these brightly painted boats serve as water taxis for commuters and tourists and cost just 2 euros one-way. While tradition holds that dgħajsa boats are powered by rowing, most of today's vessels are fitted with outboard motors. Still, they're a fun, fast way to get from one side of the scenic harbor to the other.
Photograph the Baroque City Center
Europe's smallest capital city, Valletta's city center is less than one-quarter square mile, laid out in a neat grid. It is replete with Baroque-style palaces, government buildings, and everyday houses—some of them in various states of decay. It's also incredibly photogenic. Test your photography skills by wandering the old town and snapping photos of the old doorways, doorknockers, archways, and balconies that make up the historic center.
Ride the Barrakka Lifts
Sure, you could walk down to Grand Harbour—or make the steep climb from the harbor to the old city. But it's a lot more fun to ride the Barrakka Lifts, twin elevators that make the 190-foot trip to and from the waterfront to the upper town in a mere 25 seconds. The current elevators were opened in 2012, replacing a vintage elevator that had been out of commission since 1973. The elevators hold up to 21 people and can get crowded during morning and evening rush hours. A round-trip ticket costs 1 euro.
Hear Cannons at Upper Barrakka Gardens
At the edge of the old city overlooking Grand Harbour, Upper Barrakka Gardens is part botanical garden, part display of vintage military might. The gardens offer some shady spots among ornamental plantings and spectacular views—especially around sunset—of the harbor and The Three Cities. Be sure to visit at either 12 or 4 p.m., when a ceremonial cannon is fired each day. Admission is free.
Ogle the Grandmaster's Palace & Armoury
The Grandmaster's Palace serves as the seat of the President of Malta, but it's also a treasure trove of Maltese history. Built by the Knights of Malta, the palace and its halls are lined with sculptures, armors, paintings, tapestries, and murals depicting the island's military-heavy history. Self-guided tours allow visitors to access staterooms, ceremonial halls, and ornate courtyards, as well as the Armoury, which houses a vast collection of Medieval armaments. Note that the palace is temporarily closed for renovation. Tickets to the Armoury are 10 euros for adults.
Plumb the Past at the National Museum of Archaeology
Malta's archaeological history is one of the oldest and most important in Europe—neolithic temples dotted across the island country are the world's oldest freestanding stone structures, even older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The National Archaeological Museum in Valletta houses artifacts dating from the neolithic to the Byzantine eras, with the greatest focus on prehistoric Malta up to the Phoenician period. Admission is 5 euros.
Party on Valletta's Steep Steps
The old city of Valletta is built on a hill, and many of its streets are narrow, pedestrian-only alleys with steps or ramps leading down to the waterfront. Many of these are lined with bars and restaurants that really come alive at night. If you're up for an evening cocktail and socializing, wander until you find a place that looks inviting, grab a spot on the stairs, and make some new friends.
Dine and Shop at the Valletta Waterfront
Originally built as storehouses in the 1700s, the complex that is now the Valletta Waterfront was badly bombed in WWII, thanks to its vicinity to the British-controlled Malta Shipyard. Today, those vast storehouses have been restored, and the Valletta Waterfront functions as the cruise ship port and is home to several restaurants, bars, and retail outlets. It's a pretty, historical setting in which to spend an evening—and some money!
Troop Around the Fort St. Elmo National War Museum
On the end of the narrow point of land on which Valletta is built, Fort Saint Elmo recalls the city's earliest history. Once geographically isolated, in 1565, the fort, with a garrison of Knights of Malta and Spanish troops, withheld an Ottoman siege for 28 days in what became known as the Great Siege of Malta. The Knights, backed with reinforcements from Sicily, eventually fended off the Ottomans, and the city of Valletta was planned shortly thereafter. The fort has been modified over the centuries but still retains its original star-shaped design. The onsite war museum holds military artifacts dating to prehistory. Admission is 10 euros.
Visit Lower Barrakka Gardens and the Siege Bell
A smaller counterpart to Upper Barrakka Gardens, Lower Barrakka Gardens also offers some shady areas and sweeping harbor views. Just across the road from the gardens, the Siege Bell Memorial stands as a solemn monument to the 7,000 civilians and hundreds of Allied troops who died during the three-year Siege of Malta during World War II. At noon every day, the bell tolls to commemorate the hardship and loss during that dark period in history.
Set Sail at Sunset
Even though there are no beaches right in Valletta, it would still be a shame not to get out on the water while you're there. Book a sunset cruise, either on a sailboat or a cruising yacht, and get a narrated tour of Valletta and the surrounding area, accompanies by swoon-worthy views of the city and Grand Harbour. The VisitMalta website offers a list of established tenders.
Sample Stuffat Tal-fenek
The Maltese national dish, stuffat tal-fenek, is rabbit stew marinated in a sauce of wine, garlic, tomatoes, and other savory ingredients. There are many variations across the island, so you might find it served with pasta, rice, couscous, or more traditionally, with thick-cut fried potato chips. La Pira Maltese Kitchen's version of stuffat tal fenek is said to be among the best in Valletta.
Splash Around on St. George's Square
On a hot day, central St. George's Square is a great place for kids—and adults—to cool off a little bit. Set in front of the Grandmaster's Palace and Armoury, the square is a focal point of the old town and a meeting point for locals, tourists, and tour groups. A kids' fountain invites visitors to kick off their shoes and play a little. There are a few bars and restaurants right on the square.