The beautiful Maltese capital is enjoying a new buzz, for this 17th Century time capsule now has Renzo Piano’s new golden-stone City Gate and Parliament Building, all sharp edges and angles, demonstrating the latest in architectural innovation. And Valletta is smartening itself up to take over as European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Its beautiful town-houses are being turned into boutique hotels, and there are thrillingly scenic places to eat out. Strait Street was once the red-light district but now hosts regular outdoor concerts and art exhibitions.
From mid-November to January, there’s the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale, in the island’s ancient capital, Mdina, a walled hilltop town, 20 minutes’ drive from Valletta, where international contemporary artists will exhibit their work.
For those making the hop from the UK, Air Malta flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Cardiff and Glasgow; easyJet flies from Gatwick, Newcastle and Manchester; Ryanair flies from Luton, Stansted, Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow Prestwick, Liverpool and Leeds/Bradford; Jet2 flies from Glasgow, Manchester, East Midlands, Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford; British Airways flies from Gatwick.
From Luqa airport, five kilometres south-east of Valletta, bus X4, X5 or X7 will drop you outside the City Gate; single fares €2 ($A3.10). A taxi costs €15 ($A23.50).
Valletta has a neat grid street system, so it’s extremely hard to get lost. The city is largely pedestrianised but it is hilly, built on a thin peninsula by the Knights of St John on Malta’s east coast after they withstood the Great Siege of 1565 (repelling a huge Turkish army).
From City Gate, the main drag of Republic Street runs straight to Fort St Elmo at the peninsula’s tip. The tourist office on Merchants Street (visitmalta.com; open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 5.30pm, to 1pm Sunday) is near City Gate. The city’s foremost sights, the mind-blowingly Baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral and the frescoed Grand Master’s Palace, lie about halfway down Republic Street.
East of the city lies the Grand Harbour, with ferries from Valletta Waterfront to Three Cities – three smaller towns that predate Valletta. To the west is Marsamxett Harbour, with ferries to the elegant suburb of Sliema.
Casa Ellul, at Old Theatre Street, is a 17th-century wine merchant’s house converted by Maltese architect Chris Briffa in sympathetic yet contemporary style.
Valletta Vintage at 179 Republic Street is another Briffa baby, with harbour views, traditional tiled floors, and roof terrace.
Nelli’s is on Dock 1, across the Grand Harbour in Copiscua, one of the Three Cities. It’s a lovely B&B with elegant rooms, waterfront views and breakfast on a roof terrace.
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Start your day at Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offer wonderful views over the piercing-blue Grand Harbour, the Three Cities and Fort St Angelo, Malta’s oldest fort, which is due to open to the public in November after a restoration by Heritage Malta.
Start on the bridge across Valletta’s ditch, which opens into Renzo Piano’s City Gate. This is less a gate, more a breach, with smooth golden-stone walls. Beyond it you can wander around the spaces created by the Italian architect’s audacious new Parliament Building, a huge sandstone block that has been machine-sculpted to create a kind of angular lace.
Move on to overlook Piano’s controversial auditorium, built atop the ruins of Valletta’s Opera House. The 19th Century theatre was destroyed by bombing in 1942 and its shell and broken columns remain, now surmounted by smart moss-green seating.
Walk down Republic Street to St George’s Square, where you can visit the Grand Master’s Palace (open 9am to 5pm), Valletta’s older powerhouse built by the Knights of Malta. Here, a series of frescoed chambers are guarded by suits of armour, and you can visit the Armoury, with its elegant swords, weaponry and intricately decorated Turkish spoils.
Coming out, take Old Theatre Street and pass one of Europe’s oldest theatres, Teatru Manoel (take a tour of its gilt and red velvet interior; teatrumanoel.com.mt). At the end of the street is a view of the glinting Mediterranean.
Book ahead for Da Pippo on Melita street, an old-school Italian restaurant, which has a club-like, in-the-know feel, and is so popular it needs only to open for lunch (closed Sunday). It catered for 'Brangelina' when the A-list couple were in town (to shoot By the Sea on the neighbouring island of Gozo).
Opposite Da Pippo, you’ll find the vintage and vintage-inspired clothing of Blush & Panic, also on Melita Street (closed Sunday), where Samantha Gatt curates the clothes and accessories, with some exquisite summer dresses that are very Audrey Hepburn.
More of an alley than a street, Strait Street was once known as 'the Gut', a notorious hang-out for off-duty sailors. This arty, mini-Montmartre was bereft when the British Navy left in 1979 and took most of its clientele with it. The street still has the faded bar signs from its former life. Now, once again, it hosts nightly hubbub as people throng outside its hole-in-the-wall bars.
There’s often live entertainment here, from orchestras to jazz singers. Take your pick from a row of small bars, including the Loop, which opens from 1.30pm to 4am, and where you can sit outdoors and enjoy the ambiance while sipping an ice-cold Cisk, the excellent local beer.
Guze, a 16th Century house on St John’s Street (closed Sunday) was once home to the architect of Valletta, Francesco Laparelli. It’s an intimate space with flagstones, antique glass chandeliers and local dishes.
The Black Pig on Old Bakery Street takes its food seriously. It has a small menu of modern French dishes, such as slow-cooked pork neck with salt-baked beetroot and jamon iberico, served in a romantic wood-beamed room that seats only 20.
Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral for High Mass at 9.15am. Inside, each chapel seems to have been decorated in an attempt to outdo the others. The floor dances with polychrome marble (no high heels are allowed), and the ceiling is the work of the Italian artist and Knight of St John, Mattia Preti. Its other great treasures include two paintings by Caravaggio, who fled to Malta after committing murder in Rome. He spent several years on the island, becoming a Knight of St John (though he soon ran into trouble here too and ended up fleeing back to Italy).
Wander down to the waterside and Malta’s Harbour Club at 4 Xatt Il-Barriera, converted from a series of boathouses, with astounding harbour views. You can sit indoors or out, and there’s a restaurant and bar on several levels, designed by Chris Briffa, Valletta’s favourite architect. It serves the likes of mussel and clam hot pot.
Walk down St Barbara’s Street, outside the city walls, with views on your right, then re-enter the city at the shady bastion-top Lower Barrakka Gardens. At the end of Mediterranean Street you’ll see the magnificent Fort St Elmo, which has been recently restored and opened to the public.
Inside, the National War Museum (9am to 6pm daily) has been completely revamped and opened in May. The islands have had a tempestuous history, fought over for centuries, and this museum vividly brings all that to life, from the David-and-Goliath-style Great Siege, where the knights battled off a huge army of Turks, to the ferocious bombardment of the Second World War.
Well-thought-out audio visuals, involving cannon fire and insights into the difficulties of supply boats, make for an absorbing visit. Artefacts include the remains of the Gloster Gladiator biplane Faith – sole survivor of the war-time defence trio that included Hope and Charity.
Don’t miss a chance to ride the Valletta ferry, ideally over to the lovely Three Cities (the small towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea).
Ferries leave from opposite the base of the Panoramic Upper Barrakka Lift, which connects Valletta with Valletta Waterfront, and operate from around 7am to midnight from June to September.
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This article was written by Abigail Blasi from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.