12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Valletta

Valletta is a distinguished city with a legendary past. The capital of Malta stands proudly on one of Europe's grandest harbors, surrounded by some of the mightiest fortifications in the world. The city's history is tied to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, an 11th-century order that provided shelter for pilgrims in the Holy Land and took on a military role to defend Christianity. In 1530, the Spanish King, Charles V, gave Malta to the Knights. Once Valletta became the new military fortress of the Order of Saint John, the knights set out to create a capital city equal to Europe's finest. The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights' stature as aristocrats from the noblest families in England, France, Spain, and other European countries. Valletta is called "a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen." Today, Valletta is a real working city and a fun tourist destination packed with cultural attractions.

1 Saint John's Co-Cathedral

Saint John's Co-Cathedral
Saint John's Co-Cathedral | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Saint John's Co-Cathedral is testimony to the wealth and importance of the Knights of Malta, who created a stronghold of Christianity in the 16th century. The Knights mission was to protect Europe and the Catholic faith from attacks by the Ottoman Turks, and this cathedral was built as a symbol to their success. Visitors are awestruck when entering Saint John's Co-Cathedral. The simple facade belies its magnificent interior, which appears more like a jewelry box than a church sanctuary. Unlike any other church in Europe, the nave of Saint John's Co-Cathedral features opulently decorated and ostentatiously gilded walls. The design epitomizes flamboyant Baroque style of the 17th century. After admiring the glittering space, viewers notice the gorgeous ceiling paintings. The most renowned painter of Malta, Mattia Preti, created the breathtaking series of overhead paintings, which depict the life of Saint John the Baptist. Throughout the cathedral, the entire floor is an intricate inlay of around 400 marble tombstones with Latin epitaphs that commemorate the Knights of Saint John.

The various chapels of Saint John's Co-Cathedral reflect the different "langues" (regions) of the Knights of Malta who hailed from many different countries in Europe. Among the eight chapels are a few must-see highlights: The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon (the region of Catalonia and Navarre in Spain) is one of the most richly decorated chapels in the church. This chapel is dedicated to Saint George and features Mattia Preti's splendid painting of Saint George on a white stallion after slaying a dragon. The Chapel of the Langue of France is another lavishly decorated chapel with ornate sculptural reliefs and impressive monuments to the Grand Masters of France. The Chapel of the Langue of Italy has a splendid Baroque artistic style. The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine altarpiece painting by Mattia Preti is dedicated to the patron saint of the Italian "langue," Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This chapel also displays the famous work of Saint-Jerome Writing by Caravaggio, one of Italy's most renowned painters.

Be sure to visit the Oratory, an opulent room decorated with ornate gilded moldings and filled with important works of art including the most famous painting in the cathedral. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio is an evocative piece and one of the artist's finest works. Adjoining the cathedral, the museum includes a collection of rare illuminated manuscripts, exquisite Flemish tapestries (from Belgium), and precious relics.

After visiting Saint-John's Co-Cathedral, walk down Republic Street to explore the area around Palace Square on the way to the next attraction-the Grand Master's Palace. This area has many quaint shops, cafés, and restaurants. A great place to stop is the famous establishment Caffe Cordina, an elegant café founded in 1837. Try the specialties like "Kwarezimal" a traditional Maltese pastry made during Lent.

Address: Saint John's Street, Valletta

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2 Grand Master's Palace

Grand Master's Palace
Grand Master's Palace | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Valletta's most magnificent building, the Grand Master's Palace stands in the center of the town on Palace Square, a spacious town square often used for traditional ceremonies. Grand Master Fra Pietro del Monte commissioned the palace in the 16th century as a residence for the Knights of Malta. The building was enlarged and enhanced in the following centuries. Part of the building is now used as the House of Parliament and the office of the President of Malta. The rest of the building is open to the public as a museum. Tourists enter through an impressive courtyard. The visit continues on the Upper Floor, where grandiose hallways lead to the State Rooms. The hallways feature lavish 18th-century Baroque ceiling paintings that were designed to impress visitors.

The enormous State Rooms are richly decorated with gilded moldings and works of art. An elaborate series of murals painted by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio illustrates a complete narration of the Great Siege of 1565. The murals depict specific events including battle scenes of the knights fighting against the Ottoman Turks. The State Rooms display official portraits of the Grand Masters, who led the knights to victory. One of the paintings depicts the dignified-looking Grand Master Jean de Vallette, founder of the city of Valletta. Also be sure to see the Red Room where the knights met with ambassadors for important diplomatic meetings. Another highlight is the series of Les Teintures des Indes tapestries. This rare set of 18th-century Gobelins tapestries (made in Belgium) depicts the New World and features scenes of the jungle in South America including images of exotic animals and plants.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Grand Master's Palace is the Palace Armory. This extensive armory collection displays the knights' armor and weapons (swords, bows, firearms, and cannons) dating from the 15th century to the 18th century. The armory reveals that the Knights of Malta were not ordinary soldiers-they were aristocratic warriors equipped with the most elaborate armor and weapons that money could buy. Some of the exhibits allow visitors to feel the actual weight of the helmets. The collection includes a special focus on the Great Siege Period as well as examples of armor and weapons of the Ottoman Turks.

Address: Palace Square, Valletta

3 Grand Harbor

Grand Harbor
Grand Harbor

Valletta owes much of its military success to its strategic location on the Grand Harbor. The enormous harbor could dock its battleships and still keep invaders out by closing off the entrance. The entire harbor is surrounded by massive fortifications, bastions, and defensive towers. This formidable setting was the scene of the Great Siege of 1565, the most famous event in Malta's history. Led by Grand Master Jean de Valette, the knights heroically defeated the ruthless Ottoman Turk invaders.

Today, the Grand Harbor allows entry of large commercial ships, ocean liners, and cruise ships. The harbor branches off into smaller creeks (shaped like a multi-pronged fork). In these quiet ports, there are many yacht marinas. The ports around the Valletta harbors provide enough docks for thousands of yachts, making it one of the largest marinas in the world. The entire harbor area encompasses a semicircle of densely populated little towns, including Kalkara, Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea, Paola, and Marsa. Just across from Valletta, the towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Senglea, known as the "Three Cities" were the original settlement of the knights. These towns are filled with historical monuments, such as auberges of the knights, beautiful Baroque churches, and important military forts.

4 National Museum of Archaeology

Roman Figures at the National Museum of Archaeology
Roman Figures at the National Museum of Archaeology | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The National Museum of Archeology is housed in the former Auberge de Provence, the historic residence of the knights originating from the Provence region in France. The building dates to 1571 and is a wonderful example of Baroque architecture designed by Glormu Cassar. The Grand Salon is especially noteworthy, with its richly painted walls and wood-beamed ceiling. The museum's exceptional archaeology collection tells the story of Malta through 100 objects that chronologically narrate a timeline of 85 million years. Exhibits include prehistoric artifacts and architectural elements found at megalithic sites as well as Roman era and medieval antiquities.

The museum is renowned for its Prehistoric collection, an extensive array of artifacts from the Maltese Islands' megalithic temples. These Neolithic-era archaeological finds include 6,000 to 7,000-year-old pottery, ornaments, altars, limestone statuettes, terra cotta bowls, and cult utensils from the Ggantija site on the Island of Gozo, the cult sites of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Hal Tarxien, and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. One room contains interesting models of the five best-preserved temples. The headless "fat" statues of the Tarxien Temples are displayed here. There is a separate room dedicated to The Sleeping Lady, a masterpiece of prehistoric art. The tiny figurine of a woman lying on a couch reveals the expression and emotion of centuries ago. Other sections are devoted to Phoenician, Punic, Roman, and Arab artifacts; medieval objects of art; and items related to the Order of Saint John.

Address: Auberge de Provence, Republic Street, Valletta

5 Upper Barracca Gardens and Military Ceremonies

Upper Barracca Gardens and Military Ceremonies
Upper Barracca Gardens and Military Ceremonies | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The lovely Upper Barracca Gardens encircle part of the city's old fortifications, built on the highest point of Valletta. The peaceful and shady gardens are beautifully laid out with fountains, flower beds, and rows of arch ways. There are multiple viewpoints from different outlooks around the garden, offering stunning views of the Grand Harbor. It's possible to see across to the towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Kalkara. The level below the gardens is the former bastion, which is lined with the old military cannons. This space is now used for outdoor weddings and ceremonial events. Every day, a traditional ceremony at noon is performed by members of the Malta Heritage Society dressed in authentic British Artillery uniforms. The ceremony includes firing the cannons as a salute. Fitting of its associations with military history, the Upper Barracca Gardens also features several bronze statues of prominent historical figures, including one of Winston Churchill.

The Upper Barracca Gardens is in the heart of the city next to Castille Place. To arrive here, go to the Victoria Gate and turn left past the Church of Saint Mary of Jesus onto Saint Ursula Street. The entrance to the Upper Barracca Gardens is at the end of the street. There is also an elevator at the foot of Saint Barbara Bastion that goes up 60 meters to the Upper Barracca Gardens.

Address: Saint Ursula Street, Valletta

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6 Casa Rocca Piccola: An Aristocratic Maltese Home

Casa Rocca Piccola: An Aristocratic Maltese Home
Casa Rocca Piccola: An Aristocratic Maltese Home | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Visit the ancestral home of an aristocratic Maltese family who still lives here. Just past the Grandmaster's Palace, this 16th-century palace was built for Don Pietro La Rocca, one of the Knights of Malta. The current owners are the 9th Marquis and Marchioness de Piro. Visitors can tour 12 of the palace's elegant rooms including two dining rooms, a bedroom with a four-poster bed, the salons, and the small family chapel. The palace displays numerous heirlooms as well as a family tree that traces their noble lineage back several generations. The rooms are decorated with antique 16th-century furniture, Murano glass chandeliers imported from Venice, and crystal chandeliers from Bohemia (Czech Republic). In the Sala Grande, there is a unique portable chapel, a cabinet crafted from black lacquer with an altar inside, that was designed for personal devotion. A visit to the Casa Rocca Piccola includes a short tour of the underground tunnels used as WWII air raid shelters. The Casa Rocca Piccola also has a charming courtyard garden and gift shop. The family-run La Giara restaurant prepares the authentic cuisine of Sicily from the palace's old kitchens.

Address: 74 Republic Street, Valletta

7 Manoel Theater: One of the Oldest Theaters in Europe

Manoel Theater: One of the Oldest Theaters in Europe
Manoel Theater: One of the Oldest Theaters in Europe | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

This magnificent little theater was commissioned in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, to meet the local demand for operas, pageants, and theatrical performances. With this distinguished heritage, the Manoel Theater ranks among the oldest theaters in Europe. The lavishly decorated auditorium features gilded box seats and plush velvet chairs. Every seat in the house offers a good view, and the acoustics of the oval room are excellent.

Visitors may take a self-guided tour with an audio guide. During the theater season (September through May), there are performances in the evenings. It is a delightful tourist experience to attend an event in this sensational historic setting. The schedule includes classical music concerts, traditional opera, dance recitals, dramatic theater, and visual arts. In January, the Manoel Theater hosts a renowned Baroque Festival. In the theater's courtyard, the Café Teatro is a relaxing spot to enjoy a light meal of Sicilian cuisine.

Address: Old Theater Street, Valletta

8 Collegiate Parish Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck

Collegiate Parish Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck
Collegiate Parish Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck

With its impressive dome, the Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck is an important landmark in Valletta. The church is dedicated to the father of Christianity in Malta, the Apostle Saint Paul, who arrived on the island because of a shipwreck in 60 AD. Designed by renowned architect Cassar, this church is one of the oldest in Malta, dating back to the 1570s. As befits a church dedicated to one of Malta's patron saints, the interior is sumptuous and houses venerated relics. Pope Pius VII donated the most precious relic, the block upon which Saint Paul was said to have been beheaded, as well as what is believed to be part of his wrist bone. This relic stands on a pillar in a small chapel.

The wooden gilded statue of Saint Paul is solemnly carried through the streets on February 10th every year to commemorate the day Saint Paul's shipwreck occurred. The ceiling frescoes depict Saint Paul's brief sojourn in Malta and were painted at the turn of the century. The main altarpiece displays a painting of Saint Paul and Saint Luke in a scene of the shipwreck. This work was painted by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in 1580.

Address: 74 Saint Paul Street, Valletta

9 National Museum of Fine Arts

Malta's National Museum of Fine Arts is housed in a beautiful palace that was originally a residence for the Knights of Malta. The monumental staircase at the entrance makes a grand impression, worthy of Valletta's finest art collection. The museum's collection represents important works of Maltese art from the 12th century to the 20th century, as well as noteworthy pieces by other European artists. There is an excellent assortment of works by the most famous artist of Malta, Mattia Preti, who was from Calabria in Southern Italy. His finest work on display here is the Baptism of Christ painting. The museum also displays a few masterpieces by Italian artist Guido Reni and the exceptional Judith and Holofernes painting by Valentin de Boulogne. One of the most exquisite paintings in the museum is the early Impressionist View of the Grand Harbor by J.M.W. Turner.

Address: South Street, Valletta

10 Valletta Waterfront

Valletta Waterfront

Overlooked by many tourists, the Valletta Waterfront is a popular spot among locals. The elegant Baroque buildings along the Marsamxett Harbor were once used as warehouses. The row of buildings was commissioned in the 18th century by Grand Master Pinto for the purpose of storing goods such as grain, vegetables, and fish. The doors were painted in different colors to indicate the type of contents stored inside. For instance, yellow represented wheat, and blue was for seafood. The warehouse buildings have been beautifully restored and the pathway has been enlarged. Fringed with shady trees and leafy palms, the spacious waterside promenade is lined with trendy restaurants. This is a perfect place to enjoy an atmospheric meal by the harbor.

11 Festivals, Theater, and Cultural Events

Festivals, Theater, and Cultural Events
Festivals, Theater, and Cultural Events | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Valletta has a vibrant art scene and has earned the title "European Capital of Culture" because of its wealth of cultural events throughout the year. The Malta Arts Festival draws talent from all over the world to perform at various venues in Valletta as well as in the nearby towns. The main performance venues are the Pjazza Teatru Rjal, the Royal Opera House (destroyed during WWII but now serving as an outdoor venue), and the Saint James Cavalier Center for Creativity in Valletta. From film, ballet, and classical music to Shakespeare, Puccini operas, and circus acts, the schedule of events offers something for everyone. There are also fun local Maltese theater performances.

In April, the city of Valletta hosts a spectacular International Fireworks Festival. This tradition goes back to the era of the Knights of the Order of Saint John. The festival features beautiful fireworks displays, gun salutes, and the firing of muskets. Another traditional festival is the religious celebration for the Feast of Saint John on June 24th. There are also lively religious parades in July, when the parish churches pay tribute to their patron saints. Valletta's important churches are illuminated, and marching bands parade through the town carrying icons, while locals throw confetti and enjoy the scene. Another reason to visit in July is the Malta Jazz Festival, a high-profile program of musical events held at beautiful venues on Valletta's Grand Harbor.

12 World War II History

World War II History
World War II History Kieran Lamb / photo modified

Malta's National War Museum is in the historic Fort Saint Elmo overlooking the Grand Harbor and the Marsamxett Harbor. The museum displays military memorabilia from the British period with a special focus on the Second World War. The Lascaris War Rooms underneath the Upper Barracca Gardens is an underground tunnel complex. Here, visitors can see the original fighter control rooms, where WWII operations against the Germans and Italians were planned.

Where to Stay in Valletta for Sightseeing

We recommend these great hotels in Valletta, near top sights like Saint John's Co-Cathedral and the Grand Harbour:

  • The Phoenicia Malta: 5-star luxury, Grand Harbour views, bright rooms, old-world charm, beautiful gardens, inviting outdoor pool.
  • La Falconeria: 4-star boutique hotel, quiet street in the old town, exquisite food, tea and coffee-making facilities, underground pool.
  • Castille Hotel: affordable three-star hotel, steps from the Upper Barracca Gardens, faded elegance, rooftop restaurant.
  • Grand Harbour Hotel: 2-star hotel overlooking Grand Harbour, roof terrace, multilingual staff, complimentary breakfast.

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