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The Essential Guide to Valletta

By AFAR Editors

Dec 16, 2019

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The Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel towers 138 feet into the Valletta skyline.

Photo by Eo Naya/Shutterstock

The Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel towers 138 feet into the Valletta skyline.

With everything from glorious cathedrals and extravagant palaces to historic war sites and important museums, Valletta is ripe for exploration.

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At one-third of a square mile, the ancient city of Valletta is easily explored on foot. Walk a few feet in any direction and you’re likely to find a monument, church, or garden, each brimming with fascinating history. 

Given Malta’s strategic location and succession of rulers—from the Romans, Normans, and Sicilians to the Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British—it’s somewhat surprising to find Valletta so well preserved. The capital city dates back to the 16th century and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. When it was recognized as the European Capital of Culture in 2018, extensive restorations of such historic buildings as the city entrance took place, making Valletta more enchanting than ever. 

Decades of British rule mean that English remains an official language in Valletta, along with Maltese, a curious mix of Italian vocabulary and Semitic roots. Because Malta sits just 50 miles south of Sicily, Italian influences dominate the cuisine and culture, but the Maltese also have traditions of their own, such as folk music known as ghana, which features strong yet poetic male vocals over slow guitar music. Explore it all with the following list of the best things to do in Valletta.

Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Perhaps Valletta’s most iconic landmark, at nearly 138 feet high, the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel looms large on the city skyline. Although the church itself dates back to 1570, it was badly damaged during World War II and only reopened in its current form in 1981, after 23 years of rebuilding. Today, the interior features prominent columns of marble, which were erected during the restoration, and a 17th-century painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, all amid a mix of rich baroque elements and simpler decoration. 

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral 

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral boasts eight chapels, a crypt, and a Caravaggio painting.

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Hidden behind a nondescript facade is Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, named as such because the bishop of Malta also sits at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. One of the world’s must-visit churches, it features a glittering gold interior that represents the pinnacle of high baroque architecture, plus eight chapels dedicated to the eight branches of the Knights of Malta. History buffs will want to explore the crypt, which houses the tombs of several Grand Masters, while art lovers will appreciate the ceiling frescoes by Mattia Preti and Caravaggio’s 1608 masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, in the oratory. A ticket here includes entrance to the cathedral and the attached museum as well as an audio guide, which can be helpful in explaining both the artwork and impressive architecture. 

Grand Master’s Palace

Learn about Malta’s military history at the Grand Master’s Palace.

The administrative center of Malta for more than 300 years, the Grand Master’s Palace provides visitors with an atmospheric look at Malta’s military history. Immaculately preserved weapons and armor send viewers’ imaginations back to the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottomans in 1565. Especially notable is the personal armor of Grand Master La Valette, who led the resistance against the siege, but also worth seeing are the Gobelin tapestries in the Council Chamber that portray hunting scenes from around the known—and unknown—world. 

Upper Barrakka Gardens

From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, visitors can see all the way to the fortified cities of Senglea and Birgu.

Located on the highest tier of the 16th-century St. Peter & Paul Bastion, the Upper Barrakka Gardens are one of Valletta’s most scenic spots, with memorable views of the Grand Harbour, the fortified cities of Senglea and Birgu, and the shipyards below. Within the actual gardens, the city’s history is alive and well in sculptures depicting Gerald Strickland, the former prime minister of Malta, and Sir Winston Churchill. Every day at noon, members of the Malta Heritage Society dress in British Artillery uniforms and fire a salute. Visitors here can also look forward to beautiful fountains, plenty of manicured green space for picnics, benches for sitting with a cup of coffee from the on-site café, and an elevator connecting the gardens to the Valletta waterfront. Ride it at dusk and you’ll be rewarded with panoramas of the sun setting over the city’s rooftops and the Mediterranean Sea. 

Lascaris War Rooms

The Lascaris War Rooms served as the secret headquarters for Allied operations in World War II.

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These underground tunnels and chambers 150 feet beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens served as the secret headquarters for Allied operations during World War II. Commanders stationed here oversaw some of the most ambitious campaigns in the Mediterranean, including the 1943 invasion of Sicily. After the war, the War Rooms were used by the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy. Today, visitors can meander down staircases and passageways to explore exhibitions about wartime Malta, or take a guided tour to better appreciate the site’s historical significance. 

National War Museum

See what life was like on Malta during WWI and II at the National War Museum.

Perched on the tip of the Valletta peninsula at Fort Saint Elmo, the National War Museum is one of Malta’s most famous institutions. The main collection focuses on World Wars I and II and includes the fuselage of a Gloster Sea Gladiator, a Willys Jeep named “Husky” used by General Eisenhower, and a collection of photographs showing island life in wartime. In a newer gallery, guests can also view artifacts from Malta’s military history dating back to the Bronze Age. 

National Museum of Archaeology 

The National Museum of Archaeology takes visitors back to Malta’s prehistoric times.

Housed in the baroque Auberge de Provence, the National Museum of Archaeology features a collection dating as far back as 5200 B.C.E., during the Neolithic period. Through objects like delicate stone tools and Phoenician amulets, it provides a solid introduction to Malta’s prehistoric times and adds context to many of the historical sites around the island. A perfect starting point to a tour of Valletta, the small museum can easily be explored in an hour.

Casa Rocca Piccola

Casa Rocca Piccola has more than 50 rooms filled with lavish furniture, silver, and more.

A 16th-century palace, Casa Rocca Piccola offers a fascinating journey through 400 years of family history. The property features 50 rooms—including two libraries, two dining rooms, and a chapel—plus the noble de Piro family’s archives, which are regularly used for academic research. On a tour of the palace, you’ll see everything from extravagant furniture and silver to a World War II air-raid shelter and a gallery showcasing the work of local artists. 

Merchants Street Market

Shop for jewelry, clothes, and gifts at the Merchants Street Market.

Stalls at this busy street market, which is open every morning of the week, sell traditional Maltese crafts alongside bargain clothing, jewelry, and other gifts. The gift shops remain open even when the market is closed in the afternoon, so Merchants Street is worth a visit on your way to Saint John’s Co-Cathedral or the Grand Master’s Palace at any time of day.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Malta

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