Malta’s capital city of Valletta boasts a long and interesting history. Its oldest buildings date back to the 16th Century, during the rule of the Order of St. John. Since then it has passed through many rulers’ hands and was a base during both world wars. It was even recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980 and has been described as a ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’.
To this day Valletta has retained its 16th Century elegance but has moved on in many ways. Malta is now a festival capital and its streets are lined with boutique hotels, restaurants, live shows, street theatres and jamming session. It has even been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2018 (with more plans to grow its arts scene!). With all this going on it was hard to limit the cultural attractions to just 10, but if you are only here for 10 days here is what we recommend tops your list.
1. Casa Rocca Piccola
This historic 16th Century Palace is still occupied to this day (currently by the noble de Piro family) but daily tours are still available. The palace itself is stunningly beautiful and well-maintained, but the most fascinating historical artefacts are the World War two air raid shelters that give a fascinating glimpse into wartime life.
2. National War Museum
As we mentioned earlier, Valletta played an important role in both world wars. If that interests you, you’ll find two rooms dedicated to Valletta’s involvement in the war at the National War Museum. Some of the most important artefacts include The Gloster Sea Gladiator fighter plane, Roosevelt’s Jeep ‘Husky’ and the Malta award for gallantry, the George Cross. However, the museum’s collection spans further than the previous century, and you’ll find military equipment here that dates back to the Bronze Age.
3. Victoria Lines
Unofficially known as the Great Wall of Malta, the Victoria Lines is a defensive wall that separates the North and South of the island. It was built by the British Military in the 19th Century to protect the harbours in the south from northern attacks. Some parts of the wall have fallen but you can still book guided tours along the bits that still exist.
4. St. Francis of Assisi Church
This beautiful church is famous in Malta for both its Baroque architecture and its collection of paintings gifted by Italian Baroque painter Mattia Preti. It was originally built in 1598, opened in 1607, rebuilt in 1681 and then enlarged again in the 1920s – with all the different layers of gradual construction blended into one. These days it is mainly used for the classical music concerts held in its magnificent Baroque oratory.
5. Manoel Theatre
If you’re looking to combine both theatre and history, then you can’t do much better than one of Europe’s oldest working theatres. It was named after Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, Fra António Manoel de Vilhena, who personally funded and overseen its construction. An intimately-sized theatre, it has only 623 seats available for its shows that are performed in both English and Maltese (including opera, pantomime, and musicals).
6. St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Built between 1573 and 1578 by the Knights of Malta, and designed by military architect Glormu Cassar (who designed many of Valletta’s most prominent buildings), St. John’s Co-Cathedral six considered to be an extremely fine example of high Baroque architecture. The church has eight chapels, the entire marble floor is a series of tombs (housing almost 400 knights) and there is even a crypt beneath the cathedral!
7. Grand Harbour
Perched on a natural harbour, The Grand Harbour served as the base of the Order of Saint John from 1530 until 1798 (which is when most of the harbour walls were built). It was heavily bombed during World War 2, but has remained functional with effort to restore areas of historical significance.
8. Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens
For the best views of the aforementioned Grand Harbour, head up to the collonaded Upper Barrakka Gardens. Originally it was built in the 16th Century as a place for knights to relax, but these days it is a nice shady place for locals and tourists to unwind from the bustling city below. Also, the lower terrace holds the Saluting Battery where the cannon fires every day at noon.
9. Grandmaster’s Palace
The Grandmaster’s Palace is a must for anyone interested in Malta’s war history. Within its opulent walls exists over five thousand suits of armour and equipment used by soldiers and knights since the 16th century. It is also home to the only complete and intact set of the famous 18th century French Gobelins tapestries entitled, “Les Teintures des Indes”, in the world.
10. National Museum of Fine Arts
The collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts dates back to the Order of St. John (16th Century) – and includes the largest collection of paintings by the Baroque artist Mattia Preti (1613–1699) and a collection of rare, antique maps. The building itself is also historical and was originally one of the oldest in Valletta until a knight re-built it as his private home in the 1760s.