The capital of Malta
and Europe's southernmost and one of the smallest. Its location on a peninsula high above the island's Grand Harbour is second to none and the massive fortifications that surround it and the characteristic architecture are quite stunning.
For the dark tourist, there are a couple of war-related museums, underground war tunnels plus some extra bang for your buck in the form of the Saluting Battery
… as well as a few quieter monuments and quirky details. It also makes a good base for exploring other parts of the island.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Valletta owes its existence to its non-existence in 1565, namely during the Great Siege by the Ottoman Empire. At that time the seat of the then rulers, the Knights of St John (see under Malta
in general), resided on the other side of the natural harbour, which is now the Grand Harbour, namely where Fort St Angelo
is. During the battles, the Turks apparently used the rocky promontory opposite to great effect, so after the heroic Maltese defeat of the Turks, the victorious Knights decided not to leave such an advantageous position to potential future enemies again – and so quickly set about fortifying the peninsula and building a grand new capital within its walls … and they named it after their Grand Master and commander Jean Parisot de la Valette, who had led them to victory in the Great Siege.
So Valletta, whose foundation stone was laid in 1566, is a planned city, and it was planned on a grand scale … even though by today's standards it is tiny, just 0.3 square miles (0.8 square kilometres) in area and today home to a population of just about 6500 – so in terms of population size it wouldn't be called a city by any standard these days. But back then it was regarded as the finest fortified city in all of Europe. To make this happen, the Knights drafted in the top level of renowned architects and artists, many from Italy
, hence a distinct Italian influence on the architectural styles employed is palpable.
The Knights splashed out on palatial 'auberges' for the different sub-branches of the Order (called 'langues'), an oversized Palace for the Grand Master, a large hospital (after all the order was also known as 'the Hospitallers of St John'), a library, and of course various grand churches, including the central St John's Co-Cathedral, so labelled because the seat of the bishop was still in the former capital Mdina and was subsequently shared between the two towns. Other grand churches followed and still today Valletta has one of the highest densities of churches anywhere in the world. Non-religious grand buildings included an opera and the fabled Manoel Theatre.
During the “Blitz of Malta” in WWII
(see again under Malta
in general), Valletta suffered greatly as a result of the Italian and German bombing raids, but was subsequently reconstructed (but never the opera, for some reason). In 1980 the entire city of Valletta was given the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A lot of refurbishing has been undertaken in more recent years, in particular in the run-up to and during Valletta's stint as “European Capital of Culture” in 2018. One of the most substantial architectural transformations of recent times was that of the City Gate and the construction of an all-new Parliament House designed by famed architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2015 (where the opera had once been). The decidedly modernist design was (and remains) controversial, not just in terms of cost but also in that it contrasts sharply with all the historical architecture around it. Personally, though, I must say I find that very contrast highly appealing.
What there is to see: In terms of dark tourism, the most important attractions within Valletta are the following (hence given their own entries):
In addition, the whole city sits within massive fortifications and if that's your thing then you can even visit a Fortifications Interpretation Centre at St Mark Street (open Mo-Fr 9-13h, Tue and Thur to 16h, and in winter Mo-Fr 10-16h, Tue/Thur to 19h, and Sat 9:30 to 13h, admission free).
Of partial interest to dark(ish) tourists may also be a few memorial monuments within Valletta, in particular the Siege Bell and Memorial opposite the northern end of the Lower Barrakka Gardens. The Upper Barrakka Gardens further south-west are actually the highest point of the city walls and also contain a few monuments, including one of Winston Churchill.
Strictly speaking just outside the city walls, but within easy walking distance from it, is the war memorial in front of St James's Bastion and the central bus station on a traffic island. It's a classic design with a central obelisk with a few inscriptions at the base and two “eternal flames” (though on a rather windy day when I was there I found that one had actually been blown out).
A rather surprising find, I thought, was the monument stone for former Czech
president Vaclav Havel in Hastings Gardens, which are atop the inland-facing St John's and St Michael's Bastions. Also to be found here is an Armenian khachkar stone. The latter, as a plaque explains, is a gift from the Armenian community of Malta
in gratitude for Malta's support of Armenia
and for offering refuge to Armenians in difficult times, including the 1915 genocide
. Why the Vaclav Havel stone, however, remains a mystery. No plaque here. One monument that requires no explanation is the seated statue of Queen Victoria on Republic Square in front of the Library. The same sort of statue can be found all over the (former) British Empire.
left lots more relics
from their long presence on the island, including typical red telephone kiosks (which you don't actually find so often any more in Britain
itself) and similarly red postboxes in column form. Just keep your eyes open.
Another British institution, the pub, is also represented in the form of one such pub that is simply called The Pub
at 136 Archbishop Street, just round the corner from St George's Square. This tiny but very English-looking bar comes with a dark association that is amply celebrated on the walls inside: it was here that British actor and well-known hellraiser Oliver Reed (who had been in Malta
for the filming of the movie “Gladiator”) had his last order of drink before his death. This came after a prolonged daytime drinking session which literally was one too many for him – he passed out, turned blue, was rushed to hospital but was declared dead on arrival. On display in The Pub are various newspaper cuttings recounting the episode, a cartoon of him arriving at the Pearly Gates (where St Peter is already pulling him a pint as a welcome drink), and various portraits of the man, mostly from his younger years. You can even purchase T-shirts that list Ollie's Last Order (and quite a list it is). In addition there are also numerous signed military flags hanging from the ceiling as well as photos of a range of Royal Navy ships on the walls, apparently left here by British sailors; further evidence of a (formerly) strong association between the UK and Malta.
Roughly in the centre of Malta
's north coast, on a high promontory between the Grand Harbour, with the Three Cities (including Birgu
) opposite, to the south, and Marsamxett Harbour, with Sliema opposite, to the north.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: Quite easy to get to from practically anywhere in Malta; price levels vary.
Getting to Valletta is easy enough by bus, including from the airport (by line X4), the island's central bus station is right outside the city walls a few steps from the City Gate. A plethora of lines connect the city to all corners of Malta
. Going to Valletta by car, on the other hand, is less advisable, since parking in the city is pretty much impossible for non-residents and where it is available it is costly (and well-policed by an automated CCTV system). Transport between Valletta and the Three Cities (see Birgu
) is also possible by passenger ferry, likewise to Sliema.
within Valletta is best done on foot. The city is so small that you can easily walk everywhere – however, be aware that some parts are quite steep, including some long flights of steps, so it involves the occasional minor work-out climbing those. There is a bus lines that serves parts of Valletta, but that's of limited use. Quite useful, on the other hand, is the relatively new Barrakka Lift which for 1 EUR makes for a convenient ride between the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the waterfront level 200 feet (60m) below. From there you can e.g. get the ferry to the Three Cities
and if you already have a ticket for that the lift ride is free. Without the lift, getting down there would otherwise require a lengthy and roundabout walk. So especially for the way back up the lift is a godsend.
Accommodation options are plentiful, from holiday apartments, simple guest houses all the way to more swish hotels. Two bigger 5-star hotels are just outside the city walls. Prices vary a lot by season, and it's advisable to take some time shopping around.
Food and drink
options are even more plentiful, ranging from simple trattorias to more upmarket restaurants as well as the usual fast-food outlets. Foodies should check out the revival of traditional Maltese cuisine, e.g. at Nenu the Artisan Baker on Dominic Street (excellent for ftira – see Malta
). But many tourist restaurants tout “typical Maltese” dishes (such as the ubiquitous rabbit stew), but are of variable quality. Of non-Maltese cuisines the one most widely represented is (not so surprisingly) Italian.
A recently added and very convenient outlet is the central food market Is-Suq tal-Belt, which features a food shop (mostly supermarket style but also with individual stalls) in the basement and a food court at street level plus a few proper restaurants. A centrally mounted giant screen showing football (mostly English Premier League matches it would seem) and other stuff at great volume, however, makes this not a place for a peaceful and cosy dinner. But it's good for grabbing some supplies or a quick snack.
Amongst the watering holes within Valletta are some specializing in wine, including Maltese varietals, and for craft beer lovers there is a lovely place on the corner of Old Theatre Street and Old Bakery Street (No. 67 of the latter). And then of course there is the legendary The Pub where you could have one to salute the late Oliver Reed who drank and breathed his last here (see above
Valletta is so small that you can basically walk every street of it within a single day. The dark attractions listed above could in theory also just about be done within a day, but that would be overload, so better spread it over a few days. Three I would say should be the minimum … and if you want to use Valletta as a base to explore Malta further (see combinations
), you should add even more nights there.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
In general see under Malta
The other places covered here that are easiest and quickest to reach from Valletta are those on the other side of the Grand Harbour, such as the ones in Vittoriosa/Birgu
, which you could reach by ferry or bus. Fort Rinella
can be reached by the free minibus ride offered from the Saluting Battery
if you take the tour there. Otherwise bus line No. 3 also gets you there independently.
But you can also get to Mosta
by bus from Valletta central bus station, but the rides take a while. Those places can be reached more quickly if you have a (hire) car.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Valletta is full of non-dark attractions, so much so that only a few can be mentioned here (for a fuller picture get a mainstream guidebook or consult the relevant websites or visit the tourist information office on Merchants Street …).
The best things about Valletta, I found, was the views from the city walls, especially those over the Grand Harbour, the Three Cities, the breakwater and Fort Ricasoli (not accessible to the public, by the way). The Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens offer the best vantage points for this.
The other joy of Valletta is simply wandering its (mostly narrow) streets and taking in the typical architecture with its characteristic covered balconies. You'll notice some refurbishment of old residential houses and palazzos spruced up obviously quite recently, but you'll also see plenty of non-refurbished buildings, which exude a certain “shabby chic” charm, I thought, and even some that are empty, apparently abandoned, and quite dilapidated.
You can also pop into some of the numerous small churches, as well as one of the really big ones: the Carmelite Church (nominally Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) with its enormous dome that dominates Valletta's skyline. The city's most famous church, though, is the Co-Cathedral of St John's … but this is quite touristified and an off-putting admission fee of 7 EUR is charged. (Yet I managed to sneak in a quick couple of photos from the exit …).
Those who appreciate modern architecture will marvel at the new Parliament House by Renzo Piano and the similarly modern City Gate. Just outside this is a vast space in the centre of which is another new addition to the area: the Triton Fountain … a rather kitschy affair, garishly illuminated at night.
Of the top mainstream tourism attractions, the Palace of the Grand Masters, including the armoury, the Manoel Theatre, the National Museum of Archaeology and the Auberge Castille deserve mention most … but, as I said, for all those sorts of things better consult mainstream tourism resources.
For more sites outside the city limits, see under Malta
- Valletta 01 - the Old Town seen from Birgu across the harbour
- Valletta 02 - view from Lower Barrakka Gardens over the entrance to Grand Harbour and towards Fort Ricasoli
- Valletta 03 - view over the old fish market into the harbour
- Valletta 04 - Siege Bell and memorial
- Valletta 05 - war memorial
- Valletta 06 - Hastings Gardens
- Valletta 07 - Vaclav Havel memorial stone
- Valletta 08 - Queen Victoria memorial
- Valletta 09 - very British
- Valletta 10 - yet more Britishness
- Valletta 11 - classic view
- Valletta 12 - typical city architecture
- Valletta 13 - a bit shabby-chic
- Valletta 14 - freshly restored building
- Valletta 15 - the controversially modernist new parliament building
- Valletta 16 - the parliament by night
- Valletta 17 - the Triton Fountain by night
- Valletta 18 - the Co-Cathedral by night
- Valletta 19 - Co-Cathedral interior
- Valletta 20 - Death making an appearance on the floor
- Valletta 21 - The Carmelite Church
- Valletta 22 - Carmelite Church dome
- Valletta 23 - yet another of the many smaller churches
- Valletta 24 - temple in Barrakka Gardens
- Valletta 25 - Auberge de Castille
- Valletta 26 - plenty of steps
- Valletta 27 - interesting approach to parking
- Valletta 28 - quiet Strait Street by night