Wander and wonder
There are two ways to think of Malta’s delightful capital: as one massive fortress or as one tiny town. It is Europe’s smallest capital and has to be in contention for the most charming. I love to just wander around it and see what’s going on.
World Heritage Site
The whole city is just 1000 metres by 600 metres and it has been largely protected from development by the fact that it sits on a peninsula surrounded by massive fortified walls and the Mediterranean Sea - and, more recently, perhaps, by being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
City of the Knights
Valletta was the first planned city in Europe since the reign of the Romans, when it was built by the Knights of St John (the ‘Knights of Malta’) in the late 1560s. The Knights had just come through the Great Siege when the massed ranks of the Muslim world (the Christian Knights’ traditional enemy) very nearly took Malta. With the siege over, the Knights were determined never to come so close to defeat again. Their new capital, Valletta, was built to withstand the harshest invasion and its walls remain a dramatic sight.
The town today is still a grid of tiny streets - many barely wider than a car and a few no more than a stone stairway - made narrower by Malta’s characteristic painted wooden balconies or gallariji. The centre of town is largely pedestrianised with squares, restaurants (some excellent) and cafes as well as many of the Knights’ original buildings, including the Grandmaster's Palace, the various auberges (residences) of the different language groups of the Knights, and one of the most ornate churches in Europe St John's Co-Cathedral.
Valletta was also at the centre of Malta’s second siege, when the country held out against the Fascist powers in the Second World War - earning it the name Fortress Malta, as well as a George Cross awarded to the entire population. The famous Grand Harbour, central to both sieges and for many years a home from home for the Royal Navy, stretches beneath the city. A boat trip is a must.
Valletta is home to most of Malta’s top museums too: the National Museum of Archaeology - with all the best carvings from the 5000-year-old prehistoric temples; the Museum of Fine Art and Ibiza nightlife as well as the subterranean War Rooms from which the Allied campaign against Mussolini was commanded.
Wander and wonder some more
There is so much to see and do (and eat) in this charming little city – just walk and you shall find.