Malta may be a little island in the sunny Mediterranean, but Rina Chandarana explains why its capital Valletta is a city on the sea you need to see. Consider this your ultimate Valletta Travel Guide.
Malta Luxury Travel
“Malta?” asked the operator on the line. I was calling my bank to put a travel notice on my account and the person on the other end reacted as though I was going to Mars.
I may as well have been. Malta — that tiny dot in the Mediterranean — brimming with heaps of culture, cuisine, and a charismatic people isn’t exactly on many people’s travel bucket lists. But it was on mine.
At the airport, I collect my bags and walk straight into the country. No security. After so many years of invasions, it seems the Maltese are no longer worried about outsiders.
As my car whizzes along, I find it hard to pay attention to the living museum of sandstone colored churches and buildings going by. Instead, I am more concerned about my life. Drivers in Malta seem a little bit like the ones in India, minus the stray cows and goats that clog up traffic there. Road markers are ignored on a whim. Also, darting into the oncoming lane to overtake someone is standard procedure.
I finally arrive safely at my charming coastal hotel tucked into a pretty corner of Sliema, a town not far from Valletta. Elegant homes are punched with pops of color; doors and window shutters painted in bold reds, blues and greens. Doorknobs are a nod to the maritime character. As such, brass mermaids, dolphins, and seahorses had me stopping at nearly every one I passed (and there are a lot).
History of Malta
There are hints of the Arab legacy everywhere in Malta. The Maltese language sounds like an eclectic combination of both Italian (Sicily is its northern neighbor) and Arabic. City names like Mdina and Rabat are further reminders of this cultural tie that ended around 1090. Also, street names are written in both Maltese and English script. For example, St. Dominic street is written as “Triq San Duminku.” Even the locals are quick to inform me that the Maltese are a combination of many cultures. I can see what she means. It’s hard to pinpoint if the Maltese look more Italian or Arab, and their language and food has found a perfect balance.
Despite its size, Malta has been fought over many times. A watchtower sits next to a crepe restaurant and a giant old fort looms over the water, a reminder that Malta’s strategic location was once attractive to many invaders. Red phone booths and post boxes and driving on the left side of the road are leftovers from when Malta was once part of the vast British empire and an important base for Britain during World War II.
Even Malta’s red and white flag with the George Cross on its left was awarded to the Maltese by Britain’s King George VI in recognition of their loyalty during the Second World War.
Valletta Travel Guide
Crossing the Marsamxett Harbour from Sliema to Valletta, I am able to admire Europe’s smallest capital. I disembark and trod up the sloping hill leading into its core. Here is what I recommend based on my explorations:
Visit St. John’s Co-Cathedral
“Once you have seen one church in Europe, you have seen them all,” my Dad once quipped. But the Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is different. Inside, an arched ceiling pulls my gaze to the heavens. Detailed paintings soar above me and exquisite carved motifs of foliage, flowers, and angels line every spare space. Shiny inlaid marble tombstones cover the floor of the main nave, each one the final resting place of a knight. Skeletons and shields tell the life stories of these heroic men. Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is an opulent place of worship. Indeed, it is Biblical eye candy.
Explore the UNESCO Sites
Back outside, the clear, blue sky invites me to take my time exploring Valletta’s UNESCO World Heritage Center. I glide down the sumptuous darkened halls of the 16th century Grand Master’s Palace, once the residence of the Knights of St. John, a Christian military that protected the area. One lengthy hall is lined with armor resting on a chess-style floor adorned with a colorful pattern of crowns and knights. The Armory showcases the valiant lives of these men who fought off the Ottomans in heavy gear that was weighed down further with frightening weapons. I think of the upheaval in the world today and mutter how humans still have not learned.
Discover Biblical History
It must have taken a lot of faith to get through the tyranny that the Maltese have endured. It seems there’s a church on every block in Valletta. Indeed, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the island in A.D. 60 bringing early Christianity along with him. As such, Malta is deeply Catholic. The 16th century St. Paul Shipwreck Church, for example, is dark, quiet, and serene. Its chipped corners reveal marble statues of benevolent saints, reminding the people that whatever troubles they are enduring, this too shall pass.
Taste the Cuisine
At the pretty Café Cordina, in a busy piazza surrounded by manicured trees, waiters zip around the busy tables. I bite into a crispy bruschetta, topped with capers, olives and tomatoes; as good as any I’ve eaten in Rome. The coffee so strong that I want to savor it till the very last drop. The desert menu makes my mouth water, but I narrow in on the banoffee, a cake layered with whipped cream, bananas, caramel, and a light chocolate shavings. I didn’t think I had much of a sweet tooth, but I do now. I highly recommend pastizzi and coffee here.
Additionally, some other can’t-miss restaurants include:
- The Harbour Club located near the Upper Barrakka Gardens, with its sparkling sea views
- De Mondion at the Xara Palace, an ideal indulgence after exploring Mdina
Head to the Water
A Valletta Travel Guide must-see is The Lower Barrakka Gardens. It produces vast vistas of Mediterranean water as well as golden facades and forts. Across the way lies Birgu, where the knights used to live. A large barge floats on the shimmering water below, preparing for the night’s fireworks show. Malta’s tradition of lighting up fireworks goes back to the knights when they would fire canons to celebrate the arrival of a new recruit.
View the Art
There are many opportunities to witness Valletta Travel Guide-worthy art. However, in the Malta School of Art, seniors get to learn age-old Maltese art traditions for free. On the second floor, a retired group mold sculptures out of clay. They tell me that at one time these designs would have been delicately painted over and plastered to church walls.
Meet the Locals
Soon I find myself in a quieter, less unkept looking part of town. Laundry floats like visible ghosts on the tiny balconies. Stray cats nip into the walls’ shadows. An old lady lowers a basket down from her second-floor home so the local grocer can put bananas and other produce in it for her.
William Goodlip, half British and half Maltese, stops to chat. It seems a lot of people left Malta during World War II, but many are returning. The old folks of Valletta love to talk about the good old days. He tells me the island has been invaded by the Turks, Napoleon, and the British. “There’s no other country like Malta,” said Goodlip.
As I sail back to Sliema, the sun casts a honey kissed glow on the sandstone buildings, casting even more magic over Valletta than I thought was even possible. I couldn’t agree more with Goodlip: Malta really is one of a kind.
Book Malta Luxury Travel with Ker & Downey
Love our Valletta Travel Guide? Use it as inspiration, and contact a Ker & Downey travel designer to plan your own trip to this Mediterranean island. Some additional unique experiences Ker & Downey can incorporate include:
- St. John’s Co-Cathedral private after hours visit
- Private palazzo visit with dinner
- Private tour of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples
- Pastizzi making class
- Artisan visits and workshops
- Private sailing experience
- Kayaking near Gozo
- Bocci game with the locals
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