Is Valletta worth visiting? That depends on whether you’re into eye-watering castles left over from the age of the Knights of St John, whether you like the sound of priceless medieval artworks by Italian masters, and whether you think a city that’s entirely encompassed by a UNESCO World Heritage Site warrants a little time.
See what we’re getting at here? Valletta, the pint-sized capital of the pint-sized island country of Malta, is something of a stand-out for city breakers who like their history and heritage. And there’s actually more than that, too, in the form of wild nightlife strips and charming beaches, along with day trips throughout this incredible country.
So…is Valletta worth visiting? That’s what we’re here to answer. We’ll take a close look at seven of the key features of the town to reveal the reasons why we think it deserves a spot on just about every Euro bucket list out there.
Because it’s just about the easiest place on the island to get to
Valletta is among the easiest parts of Malta to reach. The fact it’s the capital of the country helps a lot since there are good road links to here from all the major resorts and beach towns along the south and north coasts, not to mention a pretty easy transfer that takes no more than two hours to get you in from the separate island of Gozo.
The real thing to note, though, is the proximity of the main – and only! – airport in the country. That’s the Malta International Airport (MLA). It serves just shy of four million passengers in a normal year and is the sole commercial entry point for airlines. There’s lots of options: Air Malta from Frankfurt and Vienna, Jet2 from Manchester, Ryanair from Porto and Budapest, BA from London-Gatwick – yada yada.
Once on the ground you’re looking at a super short transfer of 15-20 minutes in a taxi to get to a hotel in the historic center of Valletta. And it’s even better if you choose to use the irregular ferry service that comes across from Sicily’s Pozzallo port (the only international ferry link to Malta), because that arrives into the harbor about 20 minutes’ walk from the historic city.
The medieval history
The history of Valletta is sure to strike any first-time visitor to the city. It oozes from every honey-tinged townhouse in the old center and swirls around the Gothic spires of the great citadels raised by the Knights of St John. In fact, the town is widely hailed as one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval capitals, up there with Barcelona and Rome, Strasbourg and Krakow.
So, what is there to see? Plenty. The main core of the old town exists on its own peninsula. That area is said to be “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world” – not our words, but UNESCO’s! Within lies a whole medley of amazing sights, but it’s St. John’s Co-Cathedral that steals the show for us. Built in the early 1500s, it’s a resplendent church with altar art that’s virtually priceless.
On top of that, you’ll want to be certain to check out:
- The Grandmaster’s Palace and Armory – The onetime personal collection of the Alof de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of the Knights of St John in the early 17th century, contains swords, spears, and suits of armor.
- Upper Barrakka Gardens – The highest point you can lookout above the Grand Harbour of Valletta below, these leafy gardens and miradors were once a part of the old fortification walls that the Ottomans bombarded during the Great Siege.
- City Gate – Big openings in the city walls that have been reconstructed numerous times since first being raised as the Porta San Giorgio back in 1569.
For the nightlife of Paceville
While you’ll want to stick to the narrow alleys of Valletta’s heart to see the historic relics left by the Knights of St John, there’s something else on offer just to the north. Cue the buzzy strips of Paceville. It’s the hedonism hub of the whole island of Malta, with its own dedicated strip running up the length of St George’s Road from the glistening sea waters of St George’s Bay.
The bars there run the gamut from chichi cocktail lounges overlooking the Med to rambunctious EDM clubs that party all night long when the season is in full flow. We’d recommend starting either in Spinola Bay, where there’s a clutch of tasty Maltese tapas joints and seafood kitchens, or in close-by Sliema, a more upscale dining quarter with a lived-in vibe.
Then, move to Paceville proper. That’s where you can hit the Guinness stouts in the Long Hall Irish Pub, glug mixology-made cocktails in The Thirsty Barber, and whack back tequilas and rakijas by the bucket load in the Alex House shot bar. Club wise, the names of Havana (for Latino dancing) and Prestige (for chart music) tend to lead the way.
There’s one piece of art in Valletta that ensures the town remains high up on the bucket list for lovers of all things paint and canvas. It’s so famous, in fact, that it’s been called one of the greatest pieces ever made in the history of mankind. We’re talking, of course, about The Beheading of St John the Baptist by a certain Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise known as Caravaggio.
Brace yourselves. It’s no pretty picture a la Monet. This is a visceral, cathartic, shadowy work of trademark Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. It’s a piece that leaps from the glinting lights and darks of the oiled canvas, revealing as much about its religious subject as it does about the artist’s own tumultuous life as a swashbuckler, rogue, and even onetime murderer back in his native Rome. You’ll find it standing more than 3.5 meters tall above the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
There’s more art to come after that masterwork. You can hit the National Museum of Fine Arts (usually called, simply, MUŻA) to see sculpture works by Sciortino and illustrations by Edward Lear. Or go to the Casa Rocca Piccola, a grand mansion from the 1500s that has original furniture works and classical garden designs.
To explore Sliema
Valletta is the official capital of Malta but it’s actually super small. Over the centuries, the sprawl of the town has run north and south, joining it in one continuous mass to neighboring cities and districts. One of those is the area of Sliema, which is an upcoming part of the east coast conglomeration.
Long synonymous with the bourgeois strata of Maltese society, there’s a certain jet-setter vibe to the place. Its streets are gilded with colorful Art Nouveau mansions with bold bay windows that jut over the pavements. Down on the shoreline, there’s also a whiff of Monte Carlo about it all, what with soaring high-rise hotels offering pools and leafy gardens that open onto the promenade.
We’d say Sliema is worth a day or two out of your jaunt to Valletta if you’re a keen shopper or foodie. The area has big malls like The Plaza Shopping Centre, boutique craft and concept shops in the blocks around Triq Ix – Xatt, and a string of lovely seafood and country taverns for dining on the shoreline walkway.
For the day trips
It should hardly come as a surprise that Valletta is a prime jump-off point for exploring all of Malta island and even beyond. It’s tucked midway onto the east coast with fantastic road and boat links to some of the most enticing corners of the country. We’re talking about shimmering beaches and wave-washed bays, ancient history sights, and even rugged coast caves.
Some of the most popular day outings from Valletta are:
- The Blue Grotto – There’s hardly a part of the Malta coastline as jaw-dropping as the Blue Grotto. This deep cave on the south shoreline gets illuminated by the morning light (hence why you should visit early) to give pure turquoise swimming H2O under the whittled-away rocks.
- Mdina – Mdina was once the stomping ground of the elite medieval nobles of Malta. It’s got grand palaces but also haunting alleyways and plazas that are ghostly to behold. It’s a must for history buffs; some say even better than Valletta itself!
- Marsaxlokk – Come here to see traditional Maltese fishing boats in a sleepy harbor and taste some of the finest seafood on the island.
- Comino – You can launch a boat trip to this tiny isle off the edge of northwest Malta by transferring from Valletta to the port at Cirkewwa. The reward for the long journey is the Blue Lagoon, a pristine swimming spot over glistening clear water.
For the beaches and the sea
Look, we wouldn’t really recommend Valletta if ALL you’re after from your trip is lazy day after lazy day on the beaches. There are better places on this island for that, like the lush north coast of Gozo (where rust red Ramla Beach dashes under the cliffs) or Bugibba (where a series of lively resort beaches string along the Maltese north shore).
But it wouldn’t be right to say that Valletta has nowhere enticing to enjoy the Med. It does. Track the promenades through Sliema north of the center and you’ll soon come to the shallow reef lagoon of Fond Ghadir. Past that are the so-called Roman baths, which actually date from the 19th-century – think manmade bathtubs that get washed by the oncoming waves like a natural hot tub.
Further north there’s even more still virtually within town limits. The best comes with postcard-worthy St George’s Bay, a run of lovely yellowy sand under the seafood bistros and bars. Then there’s Spinola Bay, which looks like something plucked off the Italian Amalfi Coast. Is Valletta worth visiting for the beaches? Not on their own, but they are a nice addition, we’re sure you’d agree.
Is Valletta worth visiting? Our conclusion
Is Valletta worth visiting? It sure is. This town has some of Europe’s most amazing medieval relics, from the great Fort St Elmo to the gold-glimmering Co-Cathedral that hosts the iconic work of Caravaggio. It’s clear to see that it’s a doozy of a destination if you’re into your history, your art, or your culture. But there’s also some wild nightlife courtesy of nearby Paceville, some urban beaches, and great day trips to do all around the isle.