Written by Juan Dingli
Surrounded by two breathtaking harbors, a natural port with countless inlets, Valletta, the capital city of Malta or “Il-Belt” as it is locally known has to be one of the world’s most interesting capital cities. Few come close to what Valletta has to offer in regard to the amount of history, culture and stories that are interwoven with each stone, alley and corner. It is also worth mentioning that Valletta is a Unesco World Heritage site and that the next year will see Valletta titled as the European Capital of Culture for 2018. So how did this little 0.7km2 city come to be?
Let’s travel back in time to the 16th Century and the time when the Knights of St John’s reigned over Malta, a time when there was just a small fort known today as Fort St Elmo at the furthermost tip of the Sciberras peninsula. This served as the Knight’s first line of defense, protecting both the Grand Harbor on the Cottonera side and Marsamxett (pronounced mar- sam- SHEt) on the side of Sliema. During the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, Fort St Elmo was captured momentarily until reinforcement from Sicily helped to change the tide of the siege. This prompted the Grandmaster of the time, Jean Parisot de la Valette, to commence the building of a new mega-fort that would protect the island and the harbors in the event of a future attack from the Ottomans.
The grid like layout of Valletta almost did not materialize as the original plans were for the city’s roads to be similar to the island’s former capital city, Mdina. As one can still notice in Mdina, the snaking roads serve to deter and confuse any attacking rival, making it easy for anyone new to the town to get lost and even end up in a dead end, literally. Scores of new rulers have left their mark in Valletta which can be noted especially in the architecture. Sadly, during the Second World War, the majority of the buildings in Valletta were bombed by enemy airplanes. One of the biggest losses was the 19th Century Royal Opera House. The opera house ruins have been incorporated into an open air theatre on the same site during the city’s major reconstruction which happened some years ago, however, it will never compare to the original grandeur that was once there.
Present day Valletta is a melting pot of cultures, tradition and activity and is also home to around 6,500 inhabitants, some of which are foreign expats. One can spend a jam packed day walking around the city admiring the surviving architecture, large amount of churches, the various shopping establishments, fine dining and anything related to art. Assuming you decide to do just that, here are a few pointers to help you enhance your excursion.
Enter the town by crossing the bridge from next to the magnificent tritons fountain. Either choose to explore the city on foot, by Segway, Fun trains, electric taxis or even the traditional horse drawn carriages*. Have a coffee at Prego, one of Valletta’s oldest coffee shops dating back to 1947 and bearing the unchanged interior décor of 1964. The open air market should also be on your list if you’re looking for a deal or bargain. Take a stroll down Republic Street and keep an eye open for the statue man and other equally interesting street performers that have taken residency in this street. Occasionally, stop to take in the atmosphere as the people rush by and don’t forget to look up, or you might miss some of the city’s architectural features. Valletta’s best kept treasures has to be the Co-Cathedreal of St John which features priceless pieces of art, so put that on your list as well. Stop again next to the President’s Palace. Head down to the bottom of the street and you’ll end up next to Fort St Elmo and the prestigious Mediterranean Conference Center which was once a hospital of the Knights of St John. Coming back up, take the side of the Grand Harbor and have a look at the Siege Bell war memorial. Just make sure you’re not standing under the bell at noon. The Lower Barrakka Gardens are a definite must followed by the Upper Barrakka Gardens further up the hill. Here’s where you would want to be at noon. One can witness a single cannon firing from the Saluting Battery below. This tradition is a couple of hundred years old and marks noon, sunset or sunrise for mariners and curfew hours for residents in time of war. Outside of these gardens, you’ll find Castille and an open square in front of it which is frequently used as protest grounds for silent demonstrators.
Feeling tired? Go grab a bite at one of the various restaurants that can be found in any corner of the city. Preferably with a view but the restaurants in the core of the city are equally pleasing. Once you’re all full and ready to move again, visit the city’s various history museums, art galleries or even a pantomime at the renowned Manoel Theatre. Fast forward to the evening, Valletta is lit up with street lights and the sound of live music from the many quaint wine bars. Valletta is slowly but surely setting a new standard when it comes to nightlife. Strada Stretta or Strait Street in Valletta, which also used to be known as “The Gut” during the British rule over Malta, was once a place more notorious than Paceville. Nowadays, it hosts wine bars and various types of pubs, indoor and outdoor where one could enjoy quality music, live Jazz and have a good glass of wine with friends. What a day. I assure you that if you go again the next day, it will still be different and you will still find other interesting activities to do.
There are some events which are only held on certain days of the year, specifically the village feasts on the 10th of February celebrating Saint Paul, St Augustine on the third Sunday after Easter, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the 16th of July and Saint Dominic’s feast on the 4th of August. Notte Bianca, held on one of the first night in October sees the whole city lit up and populated with live events, art exhibitions, street performers and open access to Valletta’s many museums and historical sites. Write that down in your diary. Come Christmas time, Valletta morphs into a Christmas wonderland with many exhibitions, street lights and Christmas music to put one into the seasonal spirit. Earlier in the year, usually in February, spanning around five days, the Carnival of Valletta sees various floats and masquerades taking place in the city. Revelers can be seen dressed in anything from grotesque masks, movie characters, political figures and other daring costumes. Summer time in Valletta is also enjoyable as the city has various swimming spots located around the perimeter of the city.
Other honorable mentions are the recently refurbished Breakwater, the St James Cavalier which is a mecca for modern art fans, Hastings Garden and the Valletta Waterfront where one can dine in style. Valletta is surely a small city but it is largely underestimated by the people that do not stop to take in the atmosphere. I implore you to spend a full day in Valletta, it will be definitely worth your time.