Although we were in Malta primarily to relax for a week, we knew there was going to be more than a few must-see sites to check out as well. Topping our list was the world famous walled city of Valletta – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
If Malta is the perfect example of a small country that packs a whole lot into its tiny frame, then Valletta is its perfect capital. Ranking as the third smallest capital in Europe (can you name the two that are smaller?), Valletta somehow manages to fit 7000 people, more than 25 churches, and countless monuments in an area less than a square kilometer.
It is exactly this small and compact nature that makes it possible to pass from bustling squares to quiet backstreets in just a minutes’ walk, and makes Valletta the perfect spot to spend a day or two during any stay in Malta. In addition to a slower pace, exploring the capital’s cobbled side streets allows visitors to appreciate daily life in the capital as well as play Eye Spy with the thousands of colourful covered balconies that dot the peninsula.
The city itself is not actually that old compared to many in Malta – it dates back to only 1566 – “modern” for Malta. After the defeat of the Ottomans in the Siege of Malta, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights Hospitaller) decided that they needed to build a new, strong, impenetrable capital. The decision was made to build Valletta on a small peninsula adjacent to the Grand Harbour of Malta.
We began our day by taking the frequent ferry service from Sliema to Valletta. Cheaper than the countless harbour cruises on offer, the ferry service offers some pretty good views from the water and is a quick and efficient way to avoid the ever-present traffic around the capital. You can also take the ferry across the Grand Harbour to the three cities.
The ferry let us off in the quiet residential area of the city. The narrow streets in this part of the city were laid out in a grid patter to allow much-appreciated breezes the chance to cool down the blistering heat of the summer. In this part of the city small, family-run shops dominate the street-level, while up above hundreds of traditional Maltese covered balconies just out of the stone facades.
Just a short walk from the quiet backstreets took us to Triq ir-Republika (Republic Street) – the bustling main shopping and eating street of the city. With fancy shops, cafes, and fast food – it seems a world apart. It was also in this area of the city that we found the majority of of our favorite sites.
Perhaps the most impressive of Valletta’s myriad of sites St. John’s Co-Cathedral – so impressive in fact, that we decided it deserves its own post. It truly is a glorious example of a cathedral just dripping with baroque splendor – and a stark contrast to its austere exterior.
Remnants of the Knights Hospitaller legacy can be found all over Valletta – the most obvious of which are the massive walls and defense systems that surround the city and make it seemingly impenetrable. From Fort St. Elmo, where in 1565 the Knights held off the invading Ottomans for 28 days (none of the Knights survived) until reinforcements could arrive; to the Upper Barakka Gardens, one of the most beautiful locations in the city with sweeping views and a cannon salute every day; to the stunning Magisterial Palace of the Grandmaster, where the Office of the President and House of Representatives are located today.
All of these attributes make Valletta truly feel like a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can’t help but feel like you are in a truly unique place.
Have you ever traveled to Valletta or any other places in Malta? Let us know your thoughts and feelings in the comments below!
Logistics: To get to Valletta you can take the ferry service from Sliema or the “Three Cities” – fares are 1.50 one way or 2.80 return. You can also take the bus service from anywhere on the island. Buses drop off at the city gates near the Upper Barakka Gardens and the main shopping area.