Valletta may be one of Europe’s smallest capital cities, but it squeezes a cluster of must-see cultural attractions in a condensed area. With an intense history that owes itself pretty much to the Order of the Knights of St John, Malta’s capital is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen” stands mighty proud with its fortifications above the majestic Grand Harbour, one of Europe's grandest harbours. Here’s our list of Valletta’s top attractions.
Valletta may have been torn to bits by the Ottoman Turks during the Great Siege of 1565 if it weren’t for this strategically located harbour and the Knights of St John. Surrounded by massive fortifications, it safeguarded many battleships while keeping the enemy at bay. The Knights, led by Grand Master Jean de Valette, used this large pool of sea in their defence. And now, thanks to them and the harbour, we can still enjoy the city that they themselves built to celebrate the siege’s victory. Go to the Upper Barrakka Gardens for your best viewpoint.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
The lovely Upper Barrakka Gardens situated on Valletta's highest point are a shady oasis of fountains and flower beds. Beyond the archways is a grand balcony from where you can enjoy panoramic views of the Grand Harbour and the fortifications of the Three Cities opposite. Try to coincide your visit to the gardens with the gun salutes that are fired from the saluting battery twice daily at noon and 4 pm.
St John's Co-Cathedral
This 16th-century masterpiece built by the Knights will fascinate you even if you’re not that into church architecture. You could be standing in front of the church thinking “What’s so special about this building?” Just step inside and see what all the fuss is about. Its interior dazzles with ubiquitous gold and rich decorative details. Look down to the marble floor inlaid with skeletons and angels. What are you stepping on? Tombstones, some of which provide a ceiling for the remains of as many as 400 Knights and officers of the Order. Now turn your gaze upward towards the barrel-vaulted ceiling covered in paintings by Mattia Preti. Magnificent! Don’t leave before you see Caraggio’s two masterpieces: the 'Beheading of St John the Baptist' and ‘Saint Jerome Writing’.
Grand Master's Palace
Another masterpiece of the Knights, the Grand Master’s Palace (aka Magisterial Palace) was the residence of the Grand Master during the time of the Order, and now houses the Office of the President of the Republic of Malta. The palace comprises impressive state rooms with paintings and tapestries illustrating a 400-year Maltese history. A highlight here is the Armoury that displays the knights' armour and weapons.
Casa Rocca Piccola
Get a glimpse of Maltese noble life at this 16th-century aristocratic home located on Valletta’s main street, Republic Street, just a few steps away from the Grandmaster's Palace. The palazzo is still owned by the noble Maltese family de Piro, but is open for you to view. And should you fancy a lie-down, there are a couple of characterful guest rooms.
National Museum of Archaeology
Housed in the Auberge de Provence, a former residence of the French Provencal Knights, the National Museum of Archaeology includes prehistoric artifacts found at megalithic sites, as well as ancient Roman objects and medieval antiquities. The exhibition is well thought-out and goes in chronological order, making it a delight for anyone who visits. Make sure to see the two most famous statuettes: the plump ‘Sleeping Lady’ and the ‘Venus of Malta’.
This little gem was commissioned in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta at the time. This grandmaster was kind enough to listen to the locals’ requests to have a theatre that would accommodate operas and other theatrical performances. No wonder the Maltese people loved him! You can best enjoy this theatre’s rich decor and fabulous acoustics by attending one of the many music or theatre events held here.
National Museum of Fine Arts
Fine art aficionados can have a blast at this newly opened National Museum of Fine Arts (locally known as MUŻA). Housed at the Auberge d’Italie—a Unesco World Heritage site, it contains more than 20,000 works of art produced by both local and international artists.
Rather overlooked by tourists, this colourful promenade below Valletta is more of a local hotspot. We say colourful because of the multi-coloured doors of the former warehouses that line the walkway. The warehouses that were once used to store goods were transformed into trendy restaurants and bars during a project undertaken to uplift the area. This promenade, set right on the water’s edge at the Grand Harbour, is well worth a stroll-around.
Fort St Elmo National War Museum
Last but not least, for you war history buffs out there: You can’t not visit Malta's National War Museum. Nestled into the historic Fort St Elmo at the tip of Valletta, the museum showcases military memorabilia from the British period, with a focus on World War II.