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Valletta, Malta
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The 10 best things to do in Valletta, Malta

History, sunshine and plenty of pastizzi – here’s why Valletta is the ideal European city break

Ally Wybrew
Written by
Ally Wybrew

When it comes to why you should visit Malta it’s hard to know where to start. The more than 300 days of sweet Mediterranean sunshine a year? The extensive and complex history etched into every stone? Its incredible underwater vistas of wrecks, reefs and maze-like topography? Certainly. But perhaps the best reason to head to the island is to explore its UNESCO-listed walled capital. 

Valletta is a beautiful, bustling city with a history as dense as its sixteenth-century bastion walls. It’s made up of sandstone-paved streets overhung by wonky window boxes, roads tumbling down to the so-blue-it-looks-fake Mediterranean Sea, and the whole place is soundtracked by the tolls of church bells. Eating out is a showcase of the city’s centuries-old influences, while its nightlife scene still has echoes of its wartime origins. 

Valletta might be the smallest capital city in the EU, but it's got a big personality. Here’s what not to miss in Malta’s compact capital. 

Ally Wybrew is a travel writer and Malta specialist. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines and check out our latest travel guides written by local experts.

🏝️ The best beaches in Malta
🏰 The best things to do in Malta

The best things to do in Valletta

Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral

Malta wears its Catholicism proudly, with every town and village featuring at least one ornate place of worship – and St John’s Co-Cathedral, slap bang in the middle of Malta, is the country’s crown jewel. Outside, muted Mannerist-style architecture belies an almost overwhelmingly elaborate Baroque interior. Within, nine chapels, a crypt hiding Grand Masters’ tombs, marble headstones denoting famous knights and endless artworks are just the beginning of the building’s many offerings. 

Time Out tip: Invest in an audio guide. Not only will it give context to what you’re seeing, but it also ensures you don’t miss out on the finer details (such as hidden messages in the marble floor). Whatever you do, don’t leave without seeing Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ in the oratory. An iconic piece, it’s the artist’s only signed painting: look for his name in the blood trailing from St John’s neck.

Dig deeper with Underground Valletta
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2. Dig deeper with Underground Valletta

Getting beneath the skin of a city should be the goal for any intrepid traveller, and luckily Valletta offers a literal way to do just that. Beneath the capital’s flagstone streets and limestone buildings are a warren of ancient tunnels and passageways that provided water, grain and transportation to the city during the Great Siege of 1565.

In the last century, these passages were expanded and altered to assist troops during World War Two, as well as acting as bunkers for the terrified populace (Malta was the most bombed country in the war). Take an eye-opening tour with Underground Valletta, which reveals the struggles of the city in wartime, from cramped, stone-walled rooms to the soaring archways of the water cistern. Best avoided by those of claustrophobic disposition.

Drink your way along Strait Street
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3. Drink your way along Strait Street

Once the destination for joy-starved soldiers to let their hair down, Valletta’s old red light district is now the capital’s nightlife hub. It’s somewhat elevated since it earned the moniker ‘The Gut’, when its debauched reputation meant many locals gave it a swerve. 

A heady evening can be spent working your way along its various bars and clubs. Be sure to stop in at Yard 32, a gin bar featuring a 100-page menu of over 180 gins and 12 negronis alone, and then hop next door to its neighbour, Ginscal, a top-notch mezcal bar with pleasingly alternative cocktails. Both serve Mexican food, and though tasty, portions here are overpriced and undersized. Instead, eat at The Gut itself, a recently refurbished ‘restaurant hub’ sporting a collection of delicious eateries including N Japanese Bistrot, sushi and noodle bar The Victoria and, for those still imbibing, trendy mixology spot Alchemy Bar.

Explore the Three Cities
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4. Explore the Three Cities

I know: this isn’t technically Valletta, but the three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua played key roles in the capital’s formation, and are just a stone’s throw away. 

During the Great Siege, French Knight of the Order Jean de Valette defeated the Turks from fortifications here, earning the capital its name. Visitors can immerse themselves in this history with a tour of Fort St. Angelo (which is also a stone frigate, complete with mast and HMS designation), the Malta Maritime Museum and the Malta at War Museum, which includes access to some World War Two bunkers. 

Time Out tip: To get there, catch a Three Cities ferry from below the Upper Barrakka Gardens (next to where the Gozo Fast Ferry departs; Malta’s little sister is well worth a visit) and a ten-minute ride will drop you at the recently renovated Vittoriosa Yacht Marina for just three euros return. Alternatively, independent ferrymen offer transfers in colourful dgħajsa (a type of harbour boat unique to Malta) – just be prepared to pay more for the pleasure.

Chow down on pastizz in the Upper Barrakka Gardens
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5. Chow down on pastizz in the Upper Barrakka Gardens

Previously a play space for the Italian Knights of Saint John, the elevated Upper Barrakka Gardens are the highest point on the city walls, allowing visitors panoramic views of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. It’s the ideal place to appreciate the country’s incredible fortifications and understand how Malta was able to defend itself over the centuries.

Time Out tip: Arrive just before noon or four pm when the saluting battery below sets off canons to great ceremony (every day except Sunday).

I also recommend adding a classic Maltese snack to the mix: a pastizz. These flaky pastries are usually filled with curried peas, cheese or rabbit (the national dish) and you can grab one for cheap (about 35 cents) from the cafe in the gardens, or pick them up en route from most shops in the city. Keen to try the best? Head west to Malta’s other walled city, Mdina, where you’ll find the most famous pastizz shop on the island: Crystal Palace Bar.

Soak up the city on the steps of Cafe Society
Photograph: Courtesy Cafe Society

6. Soak up the city on the steps of Cafe Society

Sitting outside a bar, sipping a beverage and watching the world go by is a favourite European pastime, and Valletta is no different. There are plenty of spots across the city to enjoy the alfresco lifestyle, but none possess quite the combination of views, drinks and good vibes as Cafe Society, which dubs itself ‘The wrong place for the right people’. 

A picturesque drinking spot by day and a raucous bar by night, this tucked-away watering hole on St John’s Street offers superb cocktails with matching views. Grab a cushion, a Painkiller or Pea-sco sour (or another of their eclectic cocktails), sit beneath twinkling lights and take in a window box view of the Grand Harbour and its mesmerising waters. In the evening, head inside the pink and purple-lit brick arched space and let loose to a soundtrack of live local music or DJ sets.

Eat, eat, eat
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7. Eat, eat, eat

Thanks to Arabic, Italian and northern European influences, Malta’s cuisine is pretty unique, and Valletta’s dining options pleasingly diverse. 

Begin at Fifty Nine Republic on St George’s Square, where Maltese Head Chef Maria Summat crafts seriously delicious dishes (like veal ossobuco with orzo) in a party-pink setting. For Italian fare, try Ambrosia on Archbishop Street; a popular spot with the locals. Menus change on Chef Christopher Farrugia’s whim, but classics including gnocchi and shrimp risotto sit alongside seared sea bass and veal escalope. Carnivores shouldn’t miss Sciacca on South Street, often lauded as the best steak in the city, while turophiles will love basement bar Trabuxu, where Fermier cheese-filled boards are served with Maltese bread and chutneys beneath 400-year-old vaulted ceilings. Veggies and vegans aren’t left out either: Elephant Shoe is a trendy brunch spot dishing up WAPs (Waffles Are Perfect), Migrains (a mixed grain bowl) and more to a noughties pop soundtrack.

Valletta also has three Michelin-starred eateries: Noni, Aki and Under Grain, the latter of which sports a chi-chi rooftop bar.

Go museum-hopping
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8. Go museum-hopping

While Valletta houses plenty of museums for those wanting to learn about the country’s tumultuous past (the Museum of Archeology, Palace Armoury and Lascaris War Rooms are great places to start) there are more curious offerings too. The Malta Postal Museum has four floors of postal artefacts spanning the last five centuries and doubles as an arts hub, with exhibits ranging from 1920s photography to historic military uniforms. 

Step into the foyer of the Central Bank of Malta to see their Currency Museum, a small but fascinating display of national coins and banknotes reaching as far back as Punic times. It’s free to enter and open when the bank is.

You can also peek inside one of the capital’s more prestigious dwellings. Casa Roca Piccola is an opulent sixteenth-century palazzo that’s well worth a visit for its Palladian-meets-art-deco-design and curious costume collection, the largest antique costume collection on the island.


9. Watch an arthouse film at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema

Malta’s movie-making credentials have skyrocketed in recent years, with huge international productions such as Jurassic World: Dominion, Napoleon and most recently Gladiator 2 shooting there. The isles have a strong local filmmaking scene too (Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu turned heads at festivals in 2021) and a collection of cool cinemas to go with it. 

Spazju Kreattiv is one of the more interesting. An artsy creative space in central Valletta, just metres from MUZA (the National Museum of Art), it has a 105-person screening room that shows major film releases alongside foreign language and art films, as well as recordings of opera, ballet and theatre performances. For more mainstream fare, try Embassy Cinemas, right alongside the Courts of Justice, which offers six compact screens ranging from a 16-seater to a 97-seater auditoriums. 

Experience a Maltese festival
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10. Experience a Maltese festival

Maltese celebrations are very much of the ‘go big or go home’ variety, and it’s hard to find a weekend (or weekday) when there isn’t something going on. A few of the biggest festivals in Valletta take place early in the year: Carnival and the Fireworks Festival. The former kicks off the weekend before Lent and starts five days of costume parades, extravagant floats, dance and theatre performances and live music. 

Of almost equal importance to the festival calendar is the Fireworks Festival, where the Grand Harbour is lit up by tightly choreographed sparkling displays across two days at the end of April. It’s a truly awesome sight, but it gets busy, so arrive early to grab a good viewing spot. 

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