Valletta – Malta

The Maltese capital has had a sensational makeover. Perhaps it’s to do with coming up to a big birthday. At over 450 years old, Valletta could be accused of going through a mid-life crisis.

Essential information:

Population: 199,000

Foreign visitors per year: 1 million

Languages: Maltese, English, Italian

Unit of currency: euro (€)

Cost index: cup of coffee €1 (US$1.40), hotel double for a night from €30 (US$40), short taxi ride €10 (US$14), pastizz (traditional pastry) €0.30 (US$0.40)

Why go ASAP?

You haven’t been to Valletta? If not, this oversight must be righted. As soon as possible. Thankfully you’re timing it right: the Maltese capital has had a sensational makeover.

Perhaps it’s to do with coming up to a big birthday. At over 450 years old, Valletta could be accused of going through a mid-life crisis. Over the past few years, it’s had a thorough overhaul, with architectural botox aplenty, not all of it to the local taste. The injection of contemporary architecture includes Renzo Piano’s graceful new gateway to the city, the Italian architect’s parliament building, faced with laser-cut stonework, and his open-air auditorium, a metal skeleton built atop the Opera House ruins.

Valletta City Gate – Malta

This tiny capital is limited by geography, sitting as it does on a small, almost-island peninsula, so it’s never had the facility to sprawl inelegantly outwards. Valletta has thus stayed remarkably trim, with its unspoilt 17th-century buildings lining a beautifully laid-out grid of streets, at the end of which you can glimpse the cobalt sea. The contrast between the old and the new is what makes Renzo Piano’s new additions all the more startling. Visit and make up your own mind.

Opera House ruins – Valletta, Malta

But the other reason that you should visit as soon as possible is that the city commemorated 450 years since the Great Siege. In 1565, a paltry number of Maltese Christian knights battled an army of marauding Turks, with much carnage, dirty tricks and bloodshed on both sides. This remembrance was particularly strong on 8 September, National Day, which is preceded by a special mass and literary evening the previous night.

Festivals & Events:

Valletta was built and decorated during the 17th century, and celebrates its all-out baroqueness via the International Baroque Festival, centred on the ornate Manuel Theatre and St John’s Cathedral for the second half of January.

The Valletta Jazz Festival

The Valletta Jazz Festival is held in July against the backdrop of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, with international and local artists jamming and playing every type of jazz, from flamenco fusion to traditional.

Birgu by Candlelight

During Birgu by Candlelight in October, the tiny city of Birgu across the harbour is lined with candles, so that the beautiful narrow streets are entirely flame-lit.

Life-changing experiences:

St John’s Cathedral – Valletta, Malta

Rich in museums, Valletta centres on one of the most fabulously decorated baroque cathedrals you are ever likely to see, St John’s Co-Cathedral, whose interior is a frenzy of decoration, a product of the Knights of Malta all trying to outdo each others’ chapels. It also houses Caravaggio’s largest painting.

Don’t leave without seeing a performance in the new open-air theatre, which rises, phoenix-like, from the ruins of the 19th-century opera house that was bombed in WWII.

Birgu (Vittoriosa) – Malta

Also make sure you take a boat trip around the harbour and a wander around the streets of Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa). This small town, the original Knights of Malta headquarters, has stunning views across to the capital that eclipsed it.

Current craze:

The Grassy Hopper – Valletta, Malta

The Grassy Hopper sells healthy, organic vegan and vegetarian food. Their first outpost was a van on Ta’Xbiex waterfront and they’ve now opened an outlet on Old Theatre St. Not only is the food delicious, healthy and inventive, but they donate leftover food to the YMCA to feed the homeless several days per week.

Random facts:

  • Malta suffered 154 continuous days and nights of bombing during WWII (by contrast, London suffered 57).

  • The British king George VI awarded the George Cross award for bravery to the entire population of Malta after WWII.

  • Malta and its seas frequently stand in as film locations, with recent shoots here including Game of Thrones.

Classic restaurant experience:

The backstreet, old-school, unfussy ambience of Trattoria da Pippo means that dishes here are served with lashings of atmosphere. You’ll eat hearty Italian-influenced Maltese cuisine amid a hubbub of local clientele: a place for those in the know. Lunch only.

Most bizarre sight:

Phallic stones – The National Museum of Archaeology,Valletta, Malta

Among the National Museum of Archaeology’s most treasured exhibits are some perky prehistoric stone phalluses.

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