100 years in Valletta

Alice Moynihan encourages Trinity students to visit Malta’s baroque masterpiece

First inhabited around 5200 BC by stone age farmers, likely from Sicily, and later taken over by the Phoenicians who sailed there from Lebanon, Malta is a tiny island nation often overlooked despite its capital’s unique UNESCO heritage status. Valletta was designated a world heritage site in 1980, in part due to its 320 historical monuments all within only 0.61 square kilometres. Not only is Malta a unique example of the deep rooted and lasting Sicilian cultural legacy, but because it fell to the Romans in 218 BC, it also displays the influence of an emerging Europe. Aside from its multifaceted cultural history, the island itself is a sight to behold.

Tumbling cliff faces, headlands that jut into the pristine blue of the mediterranean sea, echoey caves and sandy and pebbly beaches alike, Malta is the perfect getaway for anyone from everything. And at its heart is the bustling capital city of Valletta. Sitting on the edge of Europe, it is the continent’s southernmost, and smallest, capital city. Cobbled streets flanked with limestone houses and Byzantine and Roman architecture; the city of Valletta is truly the stuff of fairytales! As a walled city, Valletta is not particularly conducive to vehicles, which makes it an idyllic place to get away from the hustle and bustle of your average European city. With affordable restaurants, bars and attractions, Ryanair flights directly to Malta airport and a bus into the city for only €2-3, your visit won’t break the bank! 

 Main Sights

“Pjazzu Teatru Rjal, an opera house which was badly damaged during a World War II airstrike, was turned into an open-air theatre to celebrate the resilience of the arts and the Maltese spirit”

St John’s Co Cathedral, built in 1573, features a sprawling painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. Its plain facade is just that, a facade. Its interior is opulent and in the Maltese baroque style, as it was redone in the 17th century. The Grand Masters Palace, originally the Maltese parliament and now the official residence of the Maltese president. Pjazzu Teatru Rjal, an open-air opera house which was badly damaged during a World War II airstrike, its columns and hard stone base were all that survived. After many attempts to rebuild, it was decided that the site would be turned into an open-air theatre to preserve the original features of the structure, and to celebrate the resilience of the arts and the Maltese spirit. 

“The Three Cities of Valletta sit across the bay from Valletta and have remained largely untouched by time, making them the ideal day trip”

Wander down to Republic Square for a bite to eat. It’s famous for its statue of Queen Victoria but you can ignore that if you wish. The National Library is just off the piazza and makes for a nice visit. The building is in the neoclassical style and was officially set up in 1776. If you are in any way a World War II buff, a visit to the Lascaris war rooms deep inside the bastions of Valletta is well worth a visit (see where Eisenhower led the invasion of Sicily!). The Upper Barrakka Gardens offer magnificent views of the city and its waters, built by the Knights of St John and decorated by the British; these public gardens feature beautiful horticulture and monuments. If you arrive just before noon, you can see the Maltese heritage society salute! Valletta is not hard to do on a budget, its city gate is free to roam. Built in 1570, it is an amalgamation of the original fortifications and new modern features. Walk around the City Walls. These fortifications are another element of the city that stand as a testament to the Knights of St John and their influence on the islands. They were constructed in an attempt to protect the inhabitants from the Ottomans. They span around 3 km and overlook the sea the entire way. It makes for a beautifully scenic and perfectly short walk. Finally, a must-do during your stay in Valetta is the Three Cities of Valletta: Vittoriosa, or Birgu as it is known by the locals, Senglea and Cospicua. These neighbourhoods sit across the bay from Valletta and have remained largely untouched by time, making them the ideal day trip. Much like the Venetians, the Maltese used water taxis (dgħajsa). They cost just €2, and you will find them below the Upper Barrakka Gardens. If an unsteady canoe is not to your fancy, you can always take the “Cities Ferry” to Senglea for around the same price. 

Gastronomic Bliss

As it is an island nation, Malta’s distinctive cuisine has been influenced by many different cultures. Meals are an occasion and can last for hours. Portions are substantial and bursting with flavours influenced by the various occupiers of Malta throughout the centuries. Some of these include French, Italian, English and particularly Sicilian. Whether you fancy Mediterranean seafood or delicious Fennek (rabbit stew), Valletta’s table-lined streets provide the perfect setting for settling into a nice meal as the sun sets over the Mediterranean or a quick bite for lunch while you explore.  

San Paola Nafrega is a must visit restaurant, nestled in a narrow, tiered street adorned with fairy lights. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried their lasagna, and their pizzas aren’t half bad either. Its picturesque location is the stuff of highly curated Pinterest boards! In between sights, pop into Café Jubilee for anything from a nice cold beer to a three-course meal. This small café/tavern is something akin to a quintessential Irish pub and a Parisian speakeasy all wrapped up into one delicious package! Visit Rampilla, a baroque style restaurant quite literally in the city walls. White cloth topped tables and shady cream canopies nestled in between limestone walls. The setting is one you will never forget. Reservations are required! Have lunch with the locals at Ta’Nenu, a local pizzeria. This charming restaurant sits atop what was originally a family-owned bakery, the remnants of which can still be seen below through the glass floor. Adored by locals and tourists alike, Ta’Nenu will not disappoint. For food hall style dining try Valletta’s victorian market, Is-Suq Tal-Belt. You will find endless varieties of cuisine here and communal style dining tables, so you don’t have to limit yourself to just one. If you plan to take a day trip to Mdina, the old capital of the Maltese islands until the mediaeval period, stop for lunch in Trattoria AD 1530. It is situated in the square behind the Mdina cathedral which is also well worth a visit. 

Swim in the Mediterranean

“The sea has created a wonderful diving point from which you can either sunbathe from above or bask in the sheltered waters below”

Because of its size, Valletta itself does not have a beach. But if your holiday really isn’t complete without one, the surrounding area is packed full of them. Malta is famous for its breathtaking diving spots. Its rocky cliffs and warm Mediterranean waters provide the perfect setting for watersports and boat trips. Malta’s largest sandy beach, Mellienta Bay, has waters to die for and a plethora of watersports activities on the menu. Because of this it can be quite busy so if you are looking for a quieter spot to enjoy the calm of the ocean and a good book, this may not be the place for you. You may prefer Ghajn Tuffieha, ideal for sunbathing and the occasional dip in its sparkling waters, this inlet is much quieter than the beaches closer to the city. The 44 bus from Valletta, which costs around €2, will get you there in 45 minutes. It is a slightly longer journey but well worth it. Balluta Bay is the easiest to reach from central Valletta, a short bus ride will get you there. It is relatively small and surrounded by cafes and shops. If a natural swimming pool is more your scene, take a short trip to St. Peter’s Pool on the southeast of the island. The sea has created a wonderful diving point from which you can either sunbathe from above or bask in the sheltered waters below. And finally, the terracotta sands of Ramla Bay are a top choice for a day long trip, with restaurants just beyond the beach and pristine aqua toned waters in front. 

Outside the city 

Take a day trip to Mdina. The old capital is beautiful to explore and deserves as much of a day as you can give. Dubbed the “Silent City”, its mediaeval walls encompass its beautiful streets. Like most places featured in Game of Thrones, its beauty and atmosphere are unparalleled. It isn’t too far from the Dingli Cliffs, one of Malta’s most scenic points. Its shallow caves, reefs and its natural swimming pool are very popular with all the islanders and well worth a visit if you have time.  

The Hypogeum is an underground necropolis only rediscovered in 1902 and about 6000 years old. A limited number of visitors can enter each day, so booking about three to four months in advance is essential. This may seem a little extreme, but as the hypogeum is one of the world’s best preserved prehistoric sights, serious precautions must be taken to ensure its structural integrity. The site, which dates back to the neolithic period around 4000 BC contains multiple burial chambers in which it is believed to have once housed more than 6000 bodies. While the site itself cannot accommodate wheelchair users, the centre has a virtual tour that allows individuals to explore the necropolis from above ground.  

Take a boat out the Blue Grotto, Gozo and Comino. The Grotto is a hamlet of sea caves to the south of the island. There are a few companies that do this tour, “Get your Guide” being the most reputable. While it’s a little far from the city, about 40 minutes to the caves, you will be glad you did it. The aquamarine waters are a sight to behold. Stop by Marsaxlokk, a traditional fishing village adorned with colourful bobbing boats and rich limestone buildings.

“The Grand Opera House is a reminder to locals and tourists alike that this is a city which has seen war, fallen empires, technological and architectural advancements. Valletta truly is a gem of the Mediterranean”

The remnants of bygone eras are still clearly visible as you walk Valletta’s cobbled streets. Baroque, Byzantine, Arabic and later British architecture, food and culture still linger creating a perfect medley of its past influences. 100 years ago, Malta was a British colony, only gaining full independence in 1964. While early 20th century Malta streets may have looked a little different, the Grand Opera House still stood in all its glory. The now open air monument, is a reminder to locals and tourists alike that this is a city which has seen war, fallen empires, technological and architectural advancements. Valletta truly is a gem of the Mediterranean.