Valletta, the capital of Malta, is full of fun experiences. Here are my top choices for things to do in Valletta!
My husband and I recently returned from a weeklong trip to Malta, and we absolutely loved it. Our home base was Valletta. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is no wonder: there is so much to see and do.
First, a little bit of history. Valletta was founded in 1566 by the Knights of St. John, a Catholic military order. Previously everyone lived across the harbor in Vittoriosa (Birgu), but after the Knights barely survived the Great Siege they decided a new, more fortified city was necessary.
Valletta received its name from Jean Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master who defended Malta from the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege.
Valletta is thoroughly planned: unlike many old European cities, its streets lie on a neat grid pattern. This makes finding your way around a lot easier. But beware: Valletta is on a hill and there are some intense slopes.
The last thing I will note before we get to the specific attractions is that Valletta is an eminently walkable city. It’s the tiniest capital in the EU, with an administrative area of only .24 square miles (.61 square kilometers).
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Things To Do in Valletta, Malta
There is so much to do in Valletta, so you will have to pick what is most interesting for you. The first activities on this list will help you to familiarize yourself with the city. Then I move onto historical sites and museums.
1. Take a free walking tour around the city.
Colour My Travel hosts free 90-minute walking tours of Valletta twice a week: on Saturdays at 10:00 am and on Wednesdays at 5:00 pm. You meet at the Valletta City Gate and explore the city highlights before ending at St. George’s Square.
This relaxed, fun tour will give you a good idea of where things are and how Valletta developed. Plus it is a chance to hear about Valletta through the eyes of a Maltese local. Our tour guide was happy to answer questions about life in Malta as well as about the city.
Click here to sign up for a free city tour – and don’t forget to tip the guide afterward! If you aren’t around on Saturday or Wednesday or if you simply want something more in depth, Colour My Travel also offers paid 3-hour complete city tours on weekdays at 10:00 am.
2. Take a selfie or two at the Triton Fountain.
Just outside the Valletta City Gate is the Triton Fountain, one of Valletta’s most famous landmarks. Three enormous bronze Tritons (men with fish tails) support a basin that spouts water.
Step through the gate for a moment to pose and snap some photos. And then turn around, look toward the city, and admire the enormous fortification walls that encircle it. These walls, made of a yellowish local limestone, have protected the city for over 450 years.
On the plaza surrounding the Triton Fountain you will also find street food vendors where you can grab a snack.
3. Stroll up and down Republic Street.
Republic Street (Triq ir-Reppublika in Maltese) runs through the heart of Valletta. Pretty much everything important in the city is either on Republic Street or quite near it.
Cars can only access the main part of Republic Street with special permits, so pedestrians have free sway. And, since the city is so small, the street is only about 1 kilometer long. This makes it a great spot to walk.
Republic Street begins at the Valletta City Gate, an enormous modern structure built in 2014. The gate connects to the historic city fortification walls and is made of the same yellow limestone.
As you walk northward from the gate, you will pass the Parliament, the ruins of the Royal Opera House, and numerous shops and restaurants. The Co-Cathedral and the Grandmaster’s Palace are also along your path.
St. George’s Square, just behind the palace, has lots of benches and is a great place to eat snacks. After the square Republic Street slopes down toward Fort St. Elmo on the end of the peninsula. Note all the cute (and colorful) Maltese balconies!
4. Explore the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens.
If you want a beautiful view of the Grand Harbor, then head to the Barrakka Gardens. The Upper Barrakka Gardens occupy the top tier of St. Peter and Paul Bastion. This bastion is located in the highest part of the city’s fortification wall, so you can see the whole harbor and surrounding land.
Try to visit the Upper Barrakka Gardens around noon or at 4:00 pm. The Saluting Battery is just below the gardens, and twice a day it will fire some cannon shots. The battery used to salute whenever an important ship entered the harbor.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens are not right below the Upper ones; you have to walk about 10 minutes to get there. They offer another view of the harbor, and at their center you will find the neoclassical monument to Sir Alexander Ball.
Neither of the gardens is very big; in fact, they are both quite small. But your trip to Valletta wouldn’t be complete without a quick visit!
Top Attractions in Valletta, Malta
I have listed the following attractions in the order that makes sense given the history of Valletta. They are not ranked in order of preference!
If I had to say one place that you absolutely should not miss in Valletta, I would pick St. John’s Co-Cathedral. I have seen a lot of European churches, but this one really stood out to me.
National Museum of Archaeology
The National Museum of Archaeology is a must-visit for history buffs and anyone interested in learning more about Malta. This historic building, constructed as the auberge for the Langue of Provence in 1575, houses a unique collection of ancient artifacts.
The ground floor is dedicated to the Neolithic Era, which is no surprise given the imposing Neolithic temples dotted all over Malta and Gozo. You can learn about the first people who arrived in Malta around 5900 B.C.E. (almost 8000 years ago) and see how their lifestyle and culture developed over time.
On the second floor of the museum are the Bronze Age and Phoenician collections. From bronze knives to ostrich-egg beads to miniature gold figurines, this level has a lot of fun surprises!
The museum has a free downloadable audio tour which I highly recommend. (Note: there is free wifi in the museum, but it is spotty on the upper level.) There is also a nice gift shop and free lockers to store your belongings.
My husband and I spent around 2.5 hours here altogether, but we are both ancient history nerds and you can certainly finish faster. If you plan to visit any Megalithic Temples during your time in Malta, you should definitely stop by and learn a bit more about where they came from.
Fort St. Elmo
At the very end of the Sciberras Peninsula stands Fort St. Elmo. The fort overlooks the Grand Harbor to the east and Marsamxett Harbor to the west, and it has played a critical role in protecting Malta since its construction in 1552.
Today Fort St. Elmo is open to the public as a historic site and it hosts the National War Museum. A single ticket gives you access to both fort and museum.
Military history usually bores me and I don’t like looking at lots of weapons, but this museum really impressed me. Wars and conquests have been such a part of Malta’s past that I left with a new understanding of Maltese history as a whole.
Much space is dedicated to the Great Siege of 1565, when the Ottoman Turks attacked Malta. Fort St. Elmo resisted for 28 days before falling to the Turks, and this bought the Knights of St. John valuable time. The museum explains the Ottoman attack in detail and documents how its aftermath inspired the Knights to build Valletta and incorporate Fort St. Elmo into it.
I would recommend spending between 2 and 3 hours at Fort St. Elmo, depending on how much time you want to spend on the exhibits.
The Grandmaster’s Palace
As I mentioned up above, the Knights of St. John decided to build Valletta after nearly being wiped out by the Turks. One of their priorities was to build a palace for the head of the Order (aka the Grandmaster).
The Grandmaster’s Palace is currently closed for conservation purposes (as of March 2022), which was a big disappointment for us. We walked around the outside, but just like in the case of the Co-Cathedral, it is the interior which is truly stunning.
I am leaving the Palace on this list because it is a major attraction. Hopefully it will be open again soon!
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
The new city of Valletta needed a church, and St. John’s Co-Cathedral was finished by 1577. If you appreciate history, art, and/or pretty things in general, then you will love the cathedral. The austere stone exterior clashes with intricate Baroque artwork and decoration within, a testament to the development of the church over time.
The church took its name from St. John the Baptist, the Order’s patron, and we see him everywhere. The central nave is covered by a magnificent barrel vault depicting scenes from the life of St. John, while the altarpiece shows St. John baptizing Jesus. The Oratory hosts Caravaggio’s famous Beheading of St. John.
The cathedral is a gorgeous example of Baroque architecture, but what makes it unique is its relationship with the Knights. Each of the eight langues (divisions of the Order) had its own chapel where knights could pray and be buried. The chapels are adorned with symbolism representing each langue.
And then there is the floor. We can’t forget the floor, because it is literally covered in tombstones made of colored marble. Hundreds of knights are buried in the nave and the chapels and each had a custom design made for their final resting place. I could have spent honors wondering around and examining all the marble tombstones.
The entrance fee to the Co-Cathedral includes an audio tour, which I highly recommend. There is so much to learn about this church – my husband and I were here 1.75 hours. We left with a renewed appreciation for Malta’s, and Valletta’s, history!
Did you know that there is a mini city underground? Back in the 16th century, when the Knights of St. John were building Valletta, they dug an extensive system of tunnels. These would prove crucial almost 400 years later during World War II.
For the knights, the primary purposes of the tunnels were water storage and sewage drainage. Water was needed for everyday life, but especially in the case of a siege. (In 1798, the French would use the water while besieged by the Maltese!)
During World War II, the tunnels came in handy in a different way: they served as bomb shelters. Valletta was heavily bombed by the Italians and the Germans, and the population survived underground for days, weeks, or months at a time.
Now you can take a 45-minute guided tour to explore the historic underground. I definitely recommend it (unless you are claustrophobic). It was shocking to see the small rock-cut rooms where entire families took shelter, usually without electricity. Some rooms frequently flood, and our guide told us that the residents would constantly empty them out with buckets.
Tours are in English and leave from the National Museum of Archaeology. Children under 12 are not allowed, and you must wear closed-toed shoes. Protective hats and headlamps are provided and there are secure lockers where you leave your bags.
We booked our tickets in advance online at the Heritage Malta website, just to be sure, but reservations are not required. The instructions say to arrive 30 minutes early; we did, and they told us to explore the museum for 15-20 minutes before it was time to go.
Casa Rocca Piccola
You will hear a lot about the Knights of St. John while you are in Valletta. The Casa Rocca Piccola gives you the chance to explore what life was like for the Knights and other nobles.
The palace was built in the 16th century for an influential knight and is still a private residence today. Nicolas de Piro, Marquis of Piro and Baron of Budach, lives here with his wife.
You can take a 45-minute guided tour of the palace and view all the rooms on the main floor. Our guide was excellent and told us lots of interesting tidbits about Maltese nobility and their way of life. (If you are really feeling fancy, then you can contact the Casa Rocca Piccola to arrange a private tour with the Marquis!)
The palace is full of beautiful objects, from gorgeously carved wooden furniture to papal slippers to silver surgical instruments. And outside in the garden is the family’s private bomb shelter. You can climb down and explore the shelter – it’s interesting to compare it to the tiny rooms you see in Underground Valletta.
Other Places to Visit in Valletta
The attractions above are my top recommendations. But here are a few other things to do in Valletta.
Visit the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck. This 16th-century Catholic parish commemorates the shipwreck of St. Paul on Malta (documented in the Acts of the Apostles). St. Paul’s presence in Malta is part of Maltese legend. The church has two relics of St. Paul: an arm bone and the column on which he is said to have been beheaded in Rome. Both relics are to the right of the main altar. The church is located on a side street, St. Lucia’s.
Attend the Malta Experience. Right next to Fort St. Elmo is a private company that shows a 45-minute video on the history of Malta. After the video you receive a tour of the Knights’ infirmary and learn about the original medical function of the Knights. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the Malta Experience while I was in Valletta, but I have read excellent reviews!
Pop into the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. A large dome dominates the Valletta skyline, and it belongs to this church. If you have the time, you can stop by to see the inside. The church is at 59 Archbishop Street, but you can see the dome from pretty much everywhere.
Tips for Visiting Valletta
Now, before you begin to rush around sight-seeing, I have a few tips for you.
- Most of the historical and archaeological sites in Malta are run by Heritage Malta. This organization offers various combo ticket options, so if you want to visit multiple sites, definitely take a look. It’s easier to have just one ticket, plus you save money.
- If you are a student, make sure you bring your student ID. Malta is great about student discounts. The best way to prove you are a student is to get an ISIC card. It costs $20 (in the US), but having it saved me over €50, so it was definitely worth the expense.
- Heritage Malta sites are almost all closed on Mondays. So plan accordingly!
Best Places to Eat in Valletta
Maltese food is delicious (you can read more about it here). My husband and I tried a lot of restaurants in Valletta and these are some of our favorites.
You can’t go to Valletta and not eat a meal or a snack at Caffe Cordina. This family-run business first opened its doors in Cospicua in 1837 and since 1944 has held a prominent place on Valletta’s Republic Street.
The café serves meals, but its true claim to fame are its amazing pastries and baked goods. Their kwarezimal are quite possibly my favorite food that I ate in Malta! We even purchased some packaged goods to bring back to the US with us.
Caffe Cordina is located on Republic Street across from the Bibliotheca Nazionale and the statue of Queen Victoria. Read more about Caffe Cordina here.
Nenu the Artisan Baker
Nenu the Artisan Baker serves traditional Maltese food. They are especially known for their ftira, or sandwiches on Maltese bread. I can attest that their beef olives are delicious, and my husband enjoyed their aljotta (fish soup).
The restaurant is at 143 St. Dominic Street. You can access their website and make a reservation here.
This chill café and bar has excellent sandwiches on traditional Maltese ftira. 67 Kapitali is also known for its selection of craft beers sourced from Malta and Gozo. Each sandwich is named after a beer, so you can order the pair and enjoy the combination of tastes.
67 Kapitali is at 67 Old Bakery Street. You can view their website and menu here.
This upscale restaurant serves Italian food with a Maltese flair. My husband and I loved the pulled rabbit bao buns as well as our main dishes: truffle ravioli and linguini with sea urchins.
Adesso is located at the Valletta Building on South Street. You can view their website and make a reservation here.
Sotto Pinsa Romana Valletta
Malta has delicious Italian food, which is no surprise considering the close connections between the two countries. Sotto Pinsa Romana specializes in Roman-style pizza (as the name suggests) and the results are truly scrumptious.
I am still dreaming about their margherita pizza. In any case, the restaurant is at 32 South Street. You can take a look at their website here.
Where to Stay in Valletta
We stayed in La Falconeria Hotel and we absolutely loved it. It’s technically a luxury hotel, but it was not that expensive. The location is excellent (only a few minutes’ walk from Republic Street) and the complementary breakfast is large and satisfying.
The hotel was also very understanding when our flight was cancelled and we arrived a day later than planned. They refunded us the first night, which we really appreciated.
If we have the opportunity to return to Malta, we will definitely return to La Falconeria. But there are many other hotels in central Valletta, so you can also look around on Booking.com a bit.
Final Thoughts on Valletta, Malta
If you love history and culture, then you need to put Valletta on your list! My husband and I arrived having no idea what to expect, but we left feeling attached to the tiny little capital.
In addition to having its own charms, Valletta is an excellent gateway to the rest of Malta. You can get from Valletta to pretty much anywhere on the island via public transportation. If you love day trips, then Valletta is your ideal base.
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