12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Valletta
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Valletta is a distinguished city with a legendary past. The UNESCO-listed capital of Malta stands proudly on one of Europe's grandest harbors, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and 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 delightful tourist destination packed with impressive historic monuments and vibrant cultural offerings. Learn about the best places to visit in this fascinating city with our list of the top tourist attractions and things to do in Valletta.
See also: Where to Stay in Valletta
1. Saint John's Co-Cathedral
Saint John's Co-Cathedral reflects the wealth and importance of the Knights of Malta, who protected Europe and the Catholic faith from attacks by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. This cathedral, with its opulent, flamboyant Baroque interior, was built as a symbol of the Knights' success.
The nave features opulently decorated, ostentatiously gilded walls and gorgeous ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti, Malta's most famous painter. The most renowned artwork in the church is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio in the Oratory.
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) features Mattia Preti's painting of Saint George on a white stallion after slaying a dragon. The Chapel of the Langue of Italy displays the famous work of Saint-Jerome Writing by Caravaggio.
After visiting Saint-John's Co-Cathedral, tourists can 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 (244 Republic Street), a fancy café that serves traditional Maltese pastries along with coffee and tea.
Address: Saint John's Street, Valletta
Official site: http://stjohnscocathedral.com/
2. Grandmaster's Palace and Armory
Valletta's most monumental building, the Grandmaster's Palace stands in the center of Palace Square, which is 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.
Part of the building is now used as the Presidential Palace, serving as the office for the President of Malta. The rest of the building is open to the public as a museum.
Tourists enter through an impressive courtyard, which leads upstairs to grandiose hallways with lavish 18th-century Baroque ceiling paintings. The enormous Palace State Rooms are richly decorated with gilded moldings and works of art, such as a series of murals that illustrates a complete narration of the Great Siege of 1565.
The Hall of the Ambassadors, also known as the "Red Room," is adorned with 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.
The Palace Armory displays the knights' armor and weapons (swords, bows, firearms, and cannons) dating from the 15th century to the 18th century. This collection 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.
Address: Palace Square, Valletta
3. Cruise around the 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 small ports, there are many yacht marinas and boat docks. These ports around the Valletta Grand Harbor provide enough docks for thousands of boats, making it one of the largest marinas in the world.
The entire Grand 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.
The best way for tourists to discover the Grand Harbor is by taking a guided boat tour that includes commentary about the sights. Boat cruises depart from Sliema, a seaside town located across the Marsamxett Harbor from Valletta, a short bus ride or drive away.
4. National Museum of Archaeology
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. 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 a chronological presentation. Exhibits include prehistoric artifacts and architectural elements found at megalithic sites, as well as ancient Roman objects 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.
The time periods represented by the collection span the prehistoric era, continuing until the Phoenician period of antiquity (4th century BC). A noteworthy piece from the Phoenician gallery is the bronze Horus & Anubis pendant. This pendant features the Egyptian Gods believed to deliver divine assistance in the afterlife.
One room contains models of the five best-preserved temples. The headless "Fat" statues of the Tarxien Temples are displayed here.
A small room houses The Sleeping Lady, considered a masterpiece of prehistoric art. This tiny figurine of a woman lying on a couch reveals the expression and emotion of centuries ago.
Address: Auberge de Provence, Republic Street, Valletta
5. Upper Barrakka Gardens and Military Ceremonies
The picturesque Upper Barrakka Gardens encircle part of the city's old fortifications, built on Valletta's highest point. The peaceful and shady gardens are beautifully laid out with fountains, flower beds, rows of archways, and statues of prominent historical figures including Winston Churchill.
There are multiple viewpoints from different outlooks around the garden, offering awe-inspiring panoramas 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 Saluting Battery (a former bastion), which is lined with military cannons. This space is now used for outdoor weddings and ceremonial events.
A traditional Gun Salute ceremony takes place every day at noon on the Saluting Battery, performed by members of the Malta Heritage Society dressed in authentic British Artillery uniforms. A tribute to Valletta's military history, this ceremony includes firing the cannons as a salute.
Tips for Tourists: The Upper Barrakka Gardens is 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 Barrakka 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 Barrakka Gardens.
Address: Saint Ursula Street, Valletta
6. Casa Rocca Piccola: An Aristocratic Maltese Home
For a unique insight into Malta's heritage, tourists can 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 take a guided tour to see the palace's elegant interior, including two dining rooms, a bedroom, the salons, and the small family chapel. One of the rooms displays 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. In the Sala Grande, there is a distinctive portable chapel, a cabinet crafted from black lacquer with an altar inside that was designed for personal devotion.
The palace features a charming courtyard garden, typical of Mediterranean architecture. Also within the property is an inviting restaurant, La Giara, which serves authentic regional Sicilian cuisine. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner.
Several of the palace bedrooms have been renovated for use as bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Breakfast is served on the courtyard garden's sunny terrace or in a cozy room that looks out onto the courtyard.
Address: 74 Republic Street, Valletta
Official site: http://www.casaroccapiccola.com
7. Manoel Theater: One of the Oldest Theaters in Europe
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 guided tour or a self-guided tour with an audio guide.
Throughout the year, the Manoel Theater hosts performances including music concerts and classic opera. For tourists, one of the most delightful things to do in Valletta is attend an evening performance in this sensational historic setting.
In January, the Manoel Theater hosts a two-week Baroque Festival featuring the music of Vivaldi and Bach.
Address: 115 Old Theater Street, Valletta
Official site: http://www.teatrumanoel.com.mt
8. Collegiate Parish Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck
An important landmark in Valletta, the domed Church of Saint Paul's Shipwreck is one of the oldest churches in Malta (dating back to the 1570s.) The church is devoted to the father of Christianity in Malta, the Apostle Saint Paul.
As befits a church dedicated to Malta's patron saint, 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.
Visitors should take time to admire the church's ceiling frescoes, which 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.
The church's marvelous gilded wooden statue of Saint Paul is paraded through the streets of Valletta on February 10th every year. This date commemorates the day Saint Paul's shipwreck occurred and is celebrated with much festivity.
Address: 74 Saint Paul Street, Valletta
9. Visit MUŻA (National Museum of Fine Arts)
Malta's National Museum of Fine Arts is housed in a majestic palace, the Auberge d'Italie, 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 famous artist of Malta, Mattia Preti, who was from Calabria in Southern Italy. His most renowned 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.
Another exquisite painting that stands out in the collection is the early Impressionist View of the Grand Harbor by J.M.W. Turner.
Address: Merchants Street, Valletta
10. Explore the Valletta Waterfront
Overlooked by many tourists, the Valletta Waterfront is a popular spot among locals. This is one of the best places to visit in Valletta for an atmospheric meal by the harbor.
The row of Baroque buildings along the Marsamxett Harbor was commissioned in the 18th century by Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca. The buildings were once used as warehouses, to store goods unloaded at the docks. The different colors of the doors indicated the type of contents stored inside: 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.
11. Festivals, Theater, and Cultural Events
Valletta has earned the title "European Capital of Culture" because of its happening art scene and well-rounded calendar of cultural events.
The Malta International Arts Festival draws talent from all over the world to perform at various venues in Valletta, as well as in other towns on the Island of Malta. From folk music concerts to contemporary dance and theater performances, and even circus acts, the program includes a wide range of events on the calendar (June and July).
Another high-profile cultural event in July is the Malta Jazz Festival, with concerts held in Valletta and at other nearby locations.
In July and August, the city of Valletta (along with other Maltese towns) hosts a spectacular Malta International Fireworks Festival. This tradition goes back to the era of the Knights of the Order of Saint John.
Another exuberant festival is the religious celebration for the Feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24th. Valletta's important churches are illuminated, and marching bands parade through the town carrying icons, while locals throw confetti and enjoy the merriment.
Official site: http://maltaartsfestival.org/
12. World War II History
Malta's National War Museum displays military memorabilia from the period of British rule, with a special focus on the Second World War.
The museum is housed within the historic Fort St. Elmo, which was built by the Order of Saint John knights in 1552 and played a critical role during the Great Siege of 1565. An innovation in 16th-century military architecture, this star-shaped fortress provides commanding views of the Grand Harbor and the Marsamxett Harbor.
The Lascaris War Rooms underneath the Upper Barrakka 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
Valletta delights visitors with its cultural attractions, lively ambience, and great choice of hotels and restaurants. Anywhere within Valletta's walled historic center (entered at the Valletta City Gate) is close to the top tourist sights. In fact, it's possible to walk across the entire city center in less than an hour, by taking a leisurely stroll. We recommend these highly rated hotels in Valletta's historic city center or just outside the city gate.
- Steps away from the Valletta City Gate, The Phoenicia Malta is a sumptuous five-star hotel set in seven acres of gardens. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool, a fine-dining restaurant, spa, fitness center, free parking, and room service. Guest rooms feature bright Mediterranean decor. The pool area and many of the rooms afford breathtaking views of the Grand Harbor.
- Within the historic city center, the Domus Zamittello is a four-star boutique hotel that occupies a lovely 17th-century palazzo. This prestigious property has been renovated with comfortable lounge areas and an outdoor terrace. Adorned in classic style, the guest rooms feature fine linens and luxuriously plush towels. Amenities include concierge services, transportation arrangements, and complimentary continental breakfast.
- The Casa Ellul is a hidden gem in the middle of the city center. This four-star boutique hotel occupies a Victorian-era palazzo but has only nine guest suites, giving the place an intimate and exclusive feel. The suites are decorated in a sophisticated modern style and feature balconies or private terraces with fabulous city views. The hotel offers concierge services and airport transportation arrangements.
- On a quiet street in the historic city center, La Falconeria offers refined accommodations in a centuries-old building. Amenities of this four-star hotel include a concierge, fitness center, indoor swimming pool, and a rooftop sundeck. Guest rooms feature sleek modern decor; suites have outdoor terraces. Breakfast is complimentary.
- The Palais Le Brun occupies a 17th-century palace appreciated for its elegant Baroque architecture. This four-star hotel offers spacious guest rooms that feature Persian carpets, espresso machines, and marble-accented bathrooms. Within the palace walls is a Maltese restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hotel amenities include a rooftop swimming pool, complimentary buffet breakfast, and room service.
- In a Baroque palace at the heart of the city center, the four-star Palazzo Paolina Boutique Hotel features contemporary-style decor that blends well with the stately architecture. The tastefully appointed guest rooms are outfitted with coffee makers and cable television. A breakfast buffet, including Maltese specialities, is available. The hotel also has a concierge and spacious lounges.
- Standing above the bastions of the Grand Harbor, the Grand Harbour Hotel surprises visitors with dazzling views of the city's seaport. This two-star hotel provides minimalistic contemporary-style accommodations. Amenities include 24-hour front desk and a complimentary breakfast buffet. A rooftop terrace allows guests to admire unobstructed vistas of the Valletta harbor, including the towns of Senglea and Kalkara across the harbor.
- For affordable accommodations in a historic building, the Castille Hotel is a good choice. This three-star hotel occupies a 16th-century palace next to Upper Barrakka Gardens. The hotel offers a 24-hour front desk and concierge. Guests may opt for lunch or dinner at the hotel's restaurant or café. The complimentary breakfast buffet is served on an outdoor terrace with views of the harbor.
- In a great location overlooking the Grand Harbor, the two-star British Hotel in the city center provides simple but sufficient accommodations at a great value. The main selling point of this hotel is the astounding view of Valletta's seaport.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Valletta
Valletta is the ideal base for a vacation on the Island of Malta because of its convenient access to public transportation. Travelers can reach most of the top attractions on the island by bus from Valletta. However, if time is limited, it's easier to take day trips (via organized tours) to destinations around the island.
- Admire Malta's Seaside Scenery: The Explore Malta by Self-Driving Car tour is an easy, breezy experience in an electric car guided by pre-programmed GPS. The 2.5-hour tour explores a scenic 18-kilometer stretch of the Malta coastline, while sharing commentary about the history and culture.
- Take a "Game of Thrones" Tour: Discover amazing sites on the Island of Malta that were featured in the thrilling drama. Departing from Valletta, the "Game of Thrones" Filming Locations Tour takes you all over the island to see the ancient forts, medieval streets, and countryside spots that appear in the show.
- See the Top Sights on the Island: Travel to all of Malta's must-see cultural and historical treasures by taking an organized tour. The full-day Malta Sightseeing Tour hits the island's most interesting places, including the UNESCO-listed medieval hilltop town of Mdina, the magnificent domed church at Mosta, and the gorgeous Dingli Cliffs.
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Nearby Attractions on the Island of Malta: Travelers could spend an entire one-week vacation in Valletta and simply make day trips to other tourist attractions on the island of Malta. Many of the top tourist destinations on Malta are less than a three-hour drive away, including the enchanting medieval hilltop town of Mdina and the UNESCO-listed Hal Saflieni Hypogeum archaeological site.
Other Dreamy Mediterranean Islands: For an idyllic seaside getaway, the island of Gozo can be visited as a day trip from Valletta (by organized boat tour) and is equally appealing as a week-long vacation destination focused on sunbathing and sightseeing. Another island-hopping idea is to take the ferry from Valletta to the island of Sicily, a place of stunning Mediterranean scenery, amazing ancient temples, and charming historic towns.