A Mediterranean cruise is the perfect way to enjoy a little culture along with your sun, and Malta’s capital Valletta is certainly a place which offers visitors plenty of both. Arriving by cruise ship is the best possible introduction to this historic city which enjoys such a strong maritime heritage and Valletta’s Grand Harbour is indeed one of the finest in Europe.
Valletta traces its origins back to the 16th century, when in 1566, the Order of St John of Jerusalem laid the first foundation of a new city it had decided to build to strengthen its position on the island, after defeating the invading Ottoman Empire with the help of the city’s occupants and 2,000 soldiers in the Siege of Malta the year before. Popularly known today as the Knights of Malta, they still exist as a Catholic religious order and as with many places on Malta and its companion island Gozo, their history and that of the Catholic order can be strongly felt throughout Valletta.
With so much maritime and religious history to explore, a tour of the city’s top cultural sights should certainly be at the top of your tourist agenda during a visit to Valletta.
The city’s historic waterfront is an attraction in itself and after getting a great view of it as you arrive in port, you’ll certainly want to get a closer look. The maritime history of Valetta is all around and the renovated buildings offer dining choices galore, making it the perfect place to relax, enjoy a meal and take in the scenery. Take a walk up from the waterfront to the city’s upper level and you can visit the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which is the perfect place to get a view of the Grand Harbour from above. The gardens are certainly picturesque and offer welcome relief from the sun, but probably the most popular attractions in the garden area is the Saluting Battery. Nestled high on the city’s coastal ramparts, this ensemble of cannons was used throughout history to defend the city and is still in operation today, delivering a rousing salute daily.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is the city’s top architectural attraction, a true baroque masterpiece and one of the must-see religious buildings on the island. It was the key church of the Knights of Malta throughout the centuries and the knights would donate great works contributes to it, meaning that today, it houses a museum full of treasures, while its oratory houses works by the great Caravaggio. The Church of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck is somewhat of a hidden gem, tucked away down a side street close to the harbour. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside it is a real treat. Perfect if you want a taste of Malta’s religious architecture but haven’t got much time to spend in the city. The Lascaris War Rooms offer a fascinating insight into Valletta’s role in a more modern conflict which didn’t involve the Knights; the Second World War. This underground complex was the headquarters of the city’s wartime defence and consists of a number of tunnels and chambers which will transport you back in time, including a faithfully recreated war room.
Along with the Upper Barrakka Gardens I mentioned earlier, the Lower Barrakka Gardens are well worth a visit if you’re in search of a little greenery or some respite from the sun. Not too big and easy to navigate, they’re a great location in which to relax and enjoy a cool drink and like the Upper Gardens, offer a great view of the harbour and the waterfront and also of the Siege Bell, dedicated to the memories of those who lost their lives in the Second World War. The Hastings Gardens are located on the other side of the city from the Barrakka Gardens, but if greenery is your thing, then they’re well worth a visit and have been lovingly restored over the last few years. They offer great view over the bay and are a great place to get away from it all as they lie away from most of the well-trodden tourist routes.
If you want to pick up an authentic Maltese souvenir or two, be sure to head over to Merchant Street Market for a slice of Valletta street life. There are all manner of stalls selling clothing, food and the like and there are also a good number of decent cafes and bars in the area, so you’ll have no problem finding somewhere to take a load off, mid-shop. A little way out the city and only visitable if you’re there on a Sunday is Monti, the city’s bustling flea market, where you can find everything from lace, leather and liquor to capers, clothing and cakes. In the city itself, meanwhile there are a number of shops in which you can find some fine examples of one of Malta’s most popular exports, silver filigree jewellery.
By Simon Brotherton