Valletta, the southernmost capital in Europe, is a city entrenched in history and surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The Maltese capital stands on a promontory jutting out into the sea, with its old defence walls and striking sandstone architecture visible for miles around. Its gridded sloping streets are crammed with romantic old palazzos and townhouses, formidable cathedrals, quaint traditional Maltese shops and characterful little cafés. Not sure where to start exploring? We’ve compiled our favourite things to do in Valletta to help you plan your time in the city.
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Things to do in Valletta: sightseeing
1. Take a street food and culture walking tour
We had an amazing all-round introduction to Valletta’s history, hidden gems and food traditions on a Valletta street food and culture walking tour. For anyone visiting the city for the first time, this tour is a fun and insightful way to find your feet in the city and learn about it.
Marisa was our tour guide, and she had us smiling and laughing the whole way round. She clearly had a lot of passion for Valletta, and knew how to tell its stories in an entertaining way.
What I really liked about this tour was the balance between learning about Valletta’s history and discovering local food. Various culinary experiences were sprinkled throughout the three-hour tour, taking us on a journey through a typical day of Maltese food. We sampled snacks, pastries, local coffees, a legendary sandwich, and finished up with a sit-down meal and a drink.
Walking tours are always a great way to see a city for the first time, and this one is a must in Valletta if you love to discover new food. It’s also perfect to include in your Malta 3 day itinerary if you only have a brief time to see Valletta.
2. Walk through the city gate
The first thing you see when you enter Valletta is the City Gate. It’s worth taking a moment to pause here and appreciate the unique architectural structure, with two giant 25-metre spikes shooting up towards the sky.
Valletta City Gate has often changed its appearance over the years. In fact, the present version, which was unveiled in 2014, is the fifth gate structure to stand in that spot.
The gate is the work of the Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose footprint you can see elsewhere around the city. His work blends modern architectural techniques seamlessly with Valletta’s landscape of historic buildings. Flanked by high sandstone walls, the twin spikes of the new City Gate are now part of Valletta’s image.
3. See the impressive Maltese Parliament building
Immediately after entering Valletta City Gate you are confronted with another imposing structure designed by Renzo Piano. The Parliament of Malta building looms large ahead, and was built concurrently as part of the same project as the City Gate.
It is remarkable how this strikingly modern building flows in harmony with the heritage of Valletta and the traditional old architecture surrounding it.
The building was not met with universal acclaim upon its unveiling, and its ultramodern design has caused controversy in certain circles. A distinguishing feature of the building is its stone cladding, which is intended to represent honeycombs, but it has been dubbed by some as a “cheese grater”.
Whatever your take on the building, it is now doubtlessly part of Valletta’s story and identity. Alongside its construction, Renzo Piano also masterminded the transformation of the old Royal Opera House – which had been destroyed in World War II – into an open-air theatre. You can see this just a few paces away from the Parliament building.
4. Visit the National Library of Malta
One of the best free things to do in Valletta is to take a look inside the resplendent National Library of Malta. Located on Pjazza Regina, one of the city’s oldest piazzas, the library is housed in a grandiose neoclassical building that was constructed in the 18th century.
The library is majestic to behold from outside, and when you enter it is almost like stepping back in time. You can’t take any books away, but there are many unique historical archives and artefacts to discover. Large, centuries-old books are laid out on tall shelves beneath a splendid high ceiling, giving an aura of gravitas to the place.
Among the collections on display you can see original archives of the Order of St John dating back to the Middle Ages, including a public decree by Pope Paschall II from the 12th century. Other documents in the library date back as far as the 4th century BC.
The National Library of Malta is free to enter. It is open from 8:15 to 13:15, Mondays to Saturdays.
5. See Valletta’s oldest balcony at the Grandmaster’s Palace
The Grandmaster’s Palace is one of Valletta’s most important historic buildings. Completed in 1571, it was one of the first buildings in Valletta, and today it is still the official residence of the President of Malta.
In older times, the palace was the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St John, who were integral to the early development of the city. It also served as the home of the Maltese Parliament until the new building was completed in 2015.
Since February 2020, the Grandmaster’s Palace has been closed while major restoration works are being undertaken, and no date is set for its reopening. You can, however, still see the building from outside.
While its exterior is not as remarkable to the eye as some of Valletta’s other historic buildings, it does have one very notable feature. The deep green balcony that runs around its facade on Pjazza Regina was Valletta’s first balcony. Make sure you check it out when you’re exploring the city.
6. Take in a show at Manoel Theatre
You wouldn’t guess from the relatively humble exterior of Valletta’s Manoel Theatre that it conceals inside a breathtakingly beautiful performance space. This is one of Europe’s oldest functional theatres, and it is also quite a small venue with a capacity of just 623, so your experience when seeing a show is both an intimate and a historic one.
The theatre is named after Fra António Manoel de Vilhena, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller who ordered its construction in 1731.
Many of the theatre’s original features are still in tact, including Viennese chandeliers, a marble staircase and wooden box tiers decorated in gold leaf. One giant central chandelier hangs dramatically from the building’s centrepiece, a pale blue trompe-l’œil ceiling.
Take a look at the theatre’s website to see the upcoming performance schedule.
7. Walk down Strada Stretta, an old pub road
Valletta isn’t exactly renowned for raucous nightlife, but that hasn’t always been the case. At the height of British global influence in the 19th century and early 20th century, Valletta’s Strada Stretta – or ‘Strait Street’ – came to be recognised as the heart of nightlife in the British Empire.
Soldiers from England, America and many corners of the world congregated at the many bars that lined the narrow street, and it developed a reputation for bawdy activity.
Strada Stretta became legendary for its liveliness and diversity, and as a place where liberal art and expression could thrive. It is a very different place today, but you can still see remnants of its cosmopolitan days of old.
Bar Carmen is one of Strada Stretta’s original bars that has survived. These days, the cosy little bar is a popular hangout place for cocktails and evenings out. While the street has far fewer bars than in its heyday, there are still many spots you stop along it for a drink.
8. Stroll in the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Perhaps the most scenic spot in Valletta can be found at the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Not only are these 17th-century colonnaded gardens pristine to look at, you also get a glorious view over the Grand Harbour.
The gardens were originally a private space for Italian knights of the Order of St John, but they were opened to the public in 1824. After suffering bad damage in World War II, the gardens were fully restored to their original splendour.
You will find a peaceful vibe in the gardens, with ornamented fountains, statues and sculptures integrated among the greenery and colourful flower arrangements. We loved just slowing down here for a while and enjoying the views.
9. Watch the daily cannon fire at the Saluting Battery
Beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens stands a Saluting Battery, facing out onto the Grand Harbour. This is an artillery platform that was originally built as a defensive structure, but has increasingly been used for more ceremonial purposes.
Each day at noon and 4pm, one of the eight replica cannons facing out from the Saluting Battery is fired in a reenactment of historic salvos, performed by people in traditional costume. If you’re extremely lucky, you might also arrive on one of the rare occasions when a seven-fire salute is performed for docking cruise ships.
10. Cruise Valletta’s beautiful harbours
Valletta’s positioning on a promontory wedges it between two harbours: the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. These number among the very few natural harbours in the Mediterranean, and they provide a beautiful backdrop to the city. Taking time to appreciate the harbour views is one of our favourite things to do in Valletta.
Walking around the perimeter of the city will give you unrelenting views of the harbours, and you can stop off at vantage points like the Upper Barrakka Gardens. To get to know the harbours more intimately, you can take a popular Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour cruise in a ‘luzzu’, a traditional Maltese boat.
This cruise will give you up-close insights into the peculiarities and points of interests around the two harbours. From the water you also get to see Valletta from a different perspective, rising up above you.
Harbour cruises run throughout the year, so it’s a great activity to try even if you are visiting Malta in winter.
Things to do in Valletta: museums
11. Witness the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral
The architectural centrepiece of Valletta is undoubtedly St John’s Co-Cathedral. Its exterior has quite a modest design, which was typical of the works of the Order of St John after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. You will notice three clock faces on the main tower; this is an age-old Maltese tradition (or superstition, if you will) to confuse the devil by showing different times!
St John’s Co-Cathedral was built in the immediate aftermath years of the siege, when the Ottoman Empire tried to bring Malta under its control. It was completed in 1577, becoming Malta’s foremost Roman Catholic church and the headquarters of the Order of St John.
The cathedral’s interior was also fairly austere in the early days, but it was completely redesigned in the 17th century in baroque style, and transformed into a place of magnificence.
A museum is now attached to the cathedral, and for an entrance fee of €15 you can explore the collections and see the impressive interior design. For a more in-depth insight, you can also take a Valletta guided walking tour that culminates with a tour inside the cathedral.
12. Explore St Elmo’s Fort and the National War Museum
Perched at the very far tip of Valletta’s peninsula overlooking the sea, St Elmo’s Fort is a majestic defensive structure that has played a key part in protecting the island for over 450 years.
Malta has been a focal point of war many times throughout history, withstanding an array of bombardments over the centuries from the 16th century Great Siege of Malta to the world wars of the 20th century.
The fort remained in military use until the 1970s. It has since been opened as the National War Museum, and a major restoration project in recent years has seen it returned to its original splendour
The history of Malta’s involvement in conflicts is documented compellingly at the museum inside the fort. It’s well worth the €10 to explore the grounds and see the displays, which take you through from ancient conflicts through to World War II. This is one of the best educational things to do in Valletta if you want to learn the history of the islands.
13. Browse collections at the National Museum of Archaeology
The human history of Malta stretches back some 8,000 years, and you can see evidence of this all over the islands. Some of the world’s most remarkable neolithic and megalithic ruins are located here, following years of meticulous excavation work.
In Valletta, you can gain a fascinating glimpse into Malta’s prehistory at the National Museum of Archaeology. Entry is fantastic value at €5, which gives you access to a range of collections and displays, charting a journey through the ages.
The museum is housed within Auberge de Provençe, a 16th century Maltese building that was once home to knights of the Order of St John. Among the collections you can see ancient artefacts, tools and carvings dating from 5,900 BC onwards. There is also a captivating section on maritime archeology, displaying items recovered from Malta’s earliest shipwrecks, as far back as the 7th century BC.
Upstairs, you can take a look inside the Gran Salon. This is one of the most impressive halls across the Maltese islands, decorated with beautiful paintings underneath an atmospheric wooden beamed ceiling.
14. Explore inside Casa Rocca Piccola
One of the finest old palaces you will find in Valletta is Casa Rocca Piccola. This 16th-century beauty was once the residence of the de Piro noble Maltese family, and it is one of the few buildings of its kind that you can access to explore inside.
Although still privately owned and used as a residence, the building is open to the public 10am to 5pm, every day except Sundays. For an entry fee of €9, you can see many of the palace’s highly decorated rooms and preserved antiquities such as artwork, furnishings and World War II air raid shelters.
Guided tours are held every hour in English, and last 45 minutes. You can also dine on the premises at the restaurant La Giara, which serves fine-dining Sicilian cuisine.
Things to do in Valletta: shopping
15. Peruse Valletta’s traditional old Maltese shops
Old haberdasheries and spice shops are part of the fabric of Valletta. Many of these establishments have been run by the same families for generations, and one of our favourite things to do in Valletta is to get lost among the cobbled streets and explore them.
On the Valletta street food and culture tour we were introduced to a very special old shop called George Zammit. This is a spice specialist, but also sells all kinds of seeds, confectionary, dried fruits and assorted items to stock in your dry cupboards. It first opened in 1888 and is one of the best examples of an authentic multigenerational family-run shop in the city.
Look out for many more haberdasheries, grocers and mini markets as you wander the streets of Valletta. Shops like these have been slowly closing down over the years to the dismay of many long-time residents, and they are now somewhat of a dying breed. Those that remain are an important part of the city’s history and identity.
16. Shop for jewellery on St Lucia’s Street
St Lucia’s Street is a little bit like Valletta’s own miniature version of Hatton Gardens. All along this street, which dissects sideways across the city’s main thoroughfares, are rows of independent jewellery shops.
Each shop has its own character and unique collection of jewellery. If you want to take away a special handmade rarity or just have a browse of the jewellery craftwork on display, St Lucia’s Street is a great place to add to your Valletta itinerary.
Things to do in Valletta: visual experiences
17. See the show at Malta 5d
One of the most unique and fun things to do in Valletta is to see the multidimensional show at Malta 5d. This place brings Maltese history to life in a way that you won’t see in a museum.
The 18-minute show at Malta 5d is a rollercoaster experience that engages all the senses. You take a visual journey through Maltese history and culture in moving seats while being blasted with air, water spray and leg ticklers.
The show is screened every 30 minutes and costs €10 for adults or €6 for concessions.
18. Learn more at the Malta Experience
If a more in-depth visual experience that is a little less boisterous sounds appealing to you, then check out the Malta Experience. Located next to St Elmo’s Fort, this 45-minute audiovisual show gives an educational tour through 7,000 years of Maltese history.
After the show has finished, you also get a real-life tour inside the old infirmary of La Sacra Infermeria, which is included in the price. Tickets are €16 and good value for an experience that lasts about 90 minutes in total.
Things to do in Valletta: food and drink
19. Have a legendary sandwich at Grano
Valletta may be a small city but it has an amazing choice of places to eat, especially at lunchtime. If, like us, you like to try local favourites and get a taste for Maltese delicacies, then you must try one of the sandwiches at Grano.
Grano is on a narrow section of St Lucia’s Street as it slopes down towards the Grand Harbour. Seats and tables are clustered together in the cosy space outside the café for al fresco dining, a common sight along many of Valletta’s side streets.
Lunch here is simple but oh so delicious. There are many sandwiches to choose from. I had the spicy pulled chicken in a traditional ftira bread, accompanied with a bottle of the sweet local pop drink Kinnie.
Another great place to try nearby is Submarine. Located just around the corner from Grano, at this place you can build your own Maltese sandwich. It’s cheap and delicious, but also very popular, so you may have to queue for a little while at midday.
20. Enjoy lunch at Cafe Jubilee
Every time we visit Malta we come back to Cafe Jubilee. It’s a homely local place where you can count on having a delicious Maltese meal without having to spend too much.
Cafe Jubilee in Malta has quite an extensive menu including some international dishes, but we’d highly recommend going for the local specials. Nanna’s ravioli is a go-to classic and a hearty dish for lunch. We also love the kuksu, which is a Maltese soup with goat’s cheese and beans. Tasty and filling!
Portion sizes tend to be generous in Maltese restaurants, and Cafe Jubilee is no different. The ambiance is great too. It has a very retro feel, with old framed posters on the walls and 60s classics playing. It’s a place you’ll always feel happy coming back to.
21. Dine at Merkanti with terrace views
At the culmination of the Valletta street food and culture walking tour we had a group lunch at Merkanti. This restaurant occupies the top floor of Is-Suq Tal-Belt, a 19th-century market hall that was restored and reopened as Valletta Food Market in 2018.
Valletta Food Market is spread over three floors and is more of a food hall in reality, where you can buy street food from various stalls and sit in communal areas. There are also arcade games scattered around, and a supermarket in the basement.
Merkanti, at the top level, has an open-air feel and views down onto the streets below. It’s a great place to try traditional Maltese food served with presentational flair, and maybe accompanied by a cocktail.
22. Explore the Valletta coffee scene
There was a time when Valletta was one of the coffee capitals of the world. Back in the 1660s, the city had about a third as many coffee shops as London, despite being a tiny fraction of the size.
Coffee culture in Malta stretches back even beyond the Roman period. It was one of the first countries to introduce coffee to Europe, and still today you will find a thriving coffee scene in Valletta.
Maltese coffee is actually quite hard to find in the city. It is infused with chicory, cloves and aniseed, giving it a spicy festive flavour. At Micallef café in Valletta you can try it with a traditional Maltese honey ring.
Around the city you will find many more coffee houses of all shapes and sizes. A couple of our favourites are Kuncett, which has a creative vibe, and Coffee Circus, which is a place for true coffee connoisseurs. We’re compiling a complete selection of our favourite coffee shops in the city for a separate article, so look out for that soon!
23. Try local wines at Ellul
How better to finish your trip to Valletta than with a glass of local wine? This was my last treat in the city before heading to the airport on my most recent visit, at a charming little boutique shop in the heart of the city called Ellul.
At Ellul you can buy wines to take away or sit on one of the cosy barrel-tables outside. The owners are passionate and knowledgable about wine, and helped me choose a local white to try. Don’t be shy to ask for advice! The menu has a mixture of Maltese and international wines.
Where to stay in Valletta
When we visit Malta we usually stay outside Valletta in popular areas like Sliema or Gzira, and then take the bus into the capital to explore. Our guide to where to stay in Malta is packed with recommendations in each of the areas around the islands.
I recently had an amazing stay on a workation at Hilton Malta in St Julian’s. If you ever want to treat yourself to a five-star hotel, you won’t find anywhere better than this. It is located right on the Mediterranean seafront on a private marina, with absolutely top-notch facilities.
If you want to stay in Valletta itself, these are our top recommendations for each budget level:
- Budget: Dormitory by Vallettastay. This is the only hostel accommodation in the capital, and by far the cheapest option you will find. It also has a historic setting inside a 16th-century townhouse with old wooden-beamed ceilings.
- Mid-range: Casa Asti. A boutique hotel in set in a 400-year-old Maltese townhouse, with a great location next to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. It has a brasserie and bar, and hosts live music at weekends.
- Luxury: Domus Zamittello. A beautiful hotel in an authentic 17th-century palazzo, located right next to the City Gate overlooking Freedom Square. Features terrace areas with prime views over the city and its landmark buildings.
Things to do in Valletta: map
You can see the various sights, activities and attractions in Valletta highlighted in this article on the map below:
Have you visited this fabulous city? Let us know about your recommendations on other things to do in Valletta in the comments below.
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