Bursting with baroque architecture, Valletta, the beautiful and compact capital of Malta, offers rich Mediterranean cuisine and a unique mix of Arab and European influences
Surrounded by sea and encased in three layers of medieval fortress walls, Valletta is a Mediterranean capital brimming with history and charm. Built on the orders of the Knights of St John, the city is rich in medieval baroque architecture and crammed with beautiful churches; its skyline is quaintly dotted with small pink domes.
Nestled between North Africa and southern Europe, the city was strategically important to colonial powers. The knights established themselves here in the 16th century to continue their struggle against the Barbary pirates and Ottoman Turks. They were ejected by Napoleon, then the English arrived, staying for nearly 150 years and bequeathing flecks of English culture. Come here for Mediterranean cuisine, a splash of warming sunshine and a very real sense of times past.
What to do
Valletta is laid out in a grid-like pattern. Start your tour at its summit, the City Gate, where you’ll see the three levels of protective limestone ramparts and huge, deep ditch designed to ward off invaders. Head straight into the main thoroughfare and down Triq ir-Repubblika to lap up the lively city atmosphere.
St John’s Co-Cathedral should be top of your cultural list, with its beautiful multicoloured marble-paved floors, gold-festooned interior and Caravaggio paintings. Back outside, wandering the network of avenues will lead you past the Grand Master’s Palace and 16th-century churches, through the buzzing daily markets on Merchant Street, and down to Fort St Elmo on the glittering waterfront. Watch the ships for a while before strolling along the Grand Harbour, then on to Upper Barracca Gardens, flanked with cannons and rich with roses.
Grab a Kinnie (a Maltese marmalade-tasting soft drink) and a bite of local honey-ring cake at one of the cafés on Republic Street, and let the world go by. Notice the English red pillar boxes and colourful Virgin Marys adorning the buildings, and glimpse at the sun dancing on the sea at the end of every street.
If you have time, take the short journey to Fort Rinella in nearby Kalkara, the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim that are steeped in military history (00 256 2295 4000; www.heritagemalta.org), or the colourful fishing town of Marsaxlokk, to sample the delicious fish caught from the distinctive bright blue, yellow and orange boats each morning.
Where to stay
For views right over St George’s Bay, stay in the sumptuous Corinthia Marina Hotel at St Julians. Once a knight’s palace, the Castille Hotel is in the heart of Valletta. For excellent views over the city, try Le Méridien St Julians, which has a magnificent marble lobby. The British Hotel, overlooking the Grand Harbour, is one of the oldest family-run hotels in Valletta and as its name suggests has an English-colonial elegance.
Where to eat and drink
Maltese food is rich in Mediterranean fish, fresh vegetables and Sicilian-inspired pasta dishes. In a former knight’s residence, Spezzo (00 356 2122 8500) has a funky ambience and serves fabulous fish. Try the local kahli (blue bream) grilled, and the spaghetti rizzi (sea urchin pasta).
Have a prickly pear liqueur apéritif overlooking the harbour at De Robertis (00 356 2122 0173), then head downstairs for the atmosphere and tasty Mediterranean cuisine of La Cave in the wine cellar beneath the Castille Hotel. Rubino (00 356 2122 4656) serves tasty authentic Maltese dishes, such as meltingly tender rabbit stew or garlicky stuffed aubergine. Ambrosia (00 356 2122 5923) is an atmospheric, stylish bar where you can sip a glass of local Cisk lager and nibble on dried and peppered goat’s cheese for a Maltese apéritif.
For a snack seek out pastizzi, traditional pies containing various fillings, including beef and peas or feta and ricotta cheese. At Fumia Ristorante (00 356 2131 7053) munch on mqaret (spiced date pastries) in the courtyard next to the Manoel Theatre (www.teatrumanoel.com.mt).
Time running out?
Nip into the historic Café Cordina, on Republic square for some great cakes and qubbajt (nougat) to take home.
Watch the 45-minute audio-visual show at the Malta Experience (00 356 2124 3776; www.themaltaexperience.com) and learn about the island’s 3,000 years of history.
Currency is the euro. Valletta is one hour ahead of GMT and a three-hour flight from London.
Malta Tourism: 00 356 2291 5000; www.visitmalta.com.
Guide to Maltese Cooking by Darmanin Francis and Jack Dedomenico (Jumbo Productions, £4.95).
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.