Of 2018’s two European Capitals of Culture this city is by far the more alluring
Where to eat, sleep and shop in Valletta, Malta
This year, one of the world’s smallest and most surprising capital cities celebrates – along with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, it is European Capital of Culture. Complementing a labyrinthine history and the spectacular architectural heritage erected by the Knights of St John, Valletta’s plazas, palaces and churches are hosting concerts, events and exhibitions presenting a more modern and innovative version of the Maltese capital. Inspired by this international focus, new restaurants and boutique hotels have opened, and the former Auberge d’Italie – once the elegant but imposing base of Italian Knights – has been restored, reopening as Muza, Malta’s National Community Art Museum.
A comfortable bed
Run by the same family for more than 50 years, Casa Asti is a welcoming guesthouse looking out over a characterful pedestrianised street. Spotless bathrooms are shared, and hearty breakfasts are served in Asti’s downstairs cafe. On Saturday nights, musicians entertain appreciative locals. Double rooms cost from around 80 euro (Dh405).
The three boutique rooms at Valletta Vintage all feature a blend of heritage architecture – the building dates back to the 18th century – and stylish accents include retro 1960s and 1970s furniture and design. There’s an expansive roof terrace and double rooms begin at €120 (Dh540).
Once a favoured rendezvous for Queen Elizabeth II when she was living in Malta from 1949 to 1951 – her husband Prince Philip was stationed there with the British Navy’s Mediterranean fleet – the grand Phoenicia Hotel has been renovated to again be the best hotel in Valletta. Elegant rooms here start at around €350 (Dh1,590).
Find your feet
With a total area of less than a square kilometre and streets following a grid pattern, negotiating Valletta is straightforward. Linking multiple plazas and lined with shopping and cafes, Republic Street is the main thoroughfare. Throughout this year, these plazas are hosting modern art installations, and other special concerts, and exhibitions throughout the city (detailed at www.valletta.org). Running one block north of Republic St, narrow Strait St is the hub of Valletta’s burgeoning dining and cafe scene.
An excellent location to take in the Knights’ famed Grand Harbour, is from Upper Barrakka Gardens on Valletta’s southern edge. Each day at noon and 4pm, a cannon of the Saluting Battery is fired, recalling the days when it was sounded to advise ships’ captains of the time. From the gardens a convenient lift descends for regular ferry departures across Grand Harbour to the quieter neighbourhoods of Vittoriosa and Senglea. Tickets cost €1.50 (Dh4.50).
Meet the locals
On Friday nights from around 8pm, live jazz is played al fresco at the Bridge Bar, an impromptu gathering of locals sitting on cushions and at tables arrayed across a centuries-old pedestrian bridge. Moonlit views stretch across Grand Harbour to the Three Cities of the Knights of St John. During the day, mingle with Malta’s movers and shakers including politicians, socialites and business people at the busy Charles Grech Cafe on Republic St.
Book a table
Valletta’s fresh food market has had a fine heritage makeover and reopened recently as Is-Suq tal-Belt. Modelled after similarly versatile food halls in Barcelona and London, local culinary highlights at the various stalls include octopus salad at Gululu and pastizzi (traditional savoury pastries) at Ta’ Kelinu. Most dishes are around €10 (Dh45)
Tucked away down St Dominic’s St, Nenu the Artisan Baker is renowned as one of Valletta’s best places to try f’tira, traditional wood-fired Maltese flatbreads (from €10 [Dh45]). Their most popular fillings and toppings include ricotta cheese, honey and fresh fennel.
Booking ahead is essential at Rubino one of Valletta’s most loved and established restaurants. First opened as a confectionery shop by Sicilian Vincenzo Rubino in 1906, the Old Bakery St location is a classy white-tableclothed showcase of signature dishes including pan-fried rabbit, and involtini, delicate rolls of sea bass filled with fresh herbs and pine nuts. Main dishes cost around €20 (Dh90).
Befitting a history of centuries of artisans, glass and silver are good buys in Valletta. At The Silversmith’s Shop in lower Republic St, there’s a family tradition spanning multiple generations, and Mdina Glass (www.mdinaglass.com.mt) features hand-blown pieces from the company’s workshop near the town of Mdina in Malta’s interior. Overseas shipping can be arranged. A popular buy at the Valletta’s Artisan Centre are traditional brass door knockers. Sought after designs include a lion for protection or a dolphin for prosperity.
What to avoid
Visit the main attractions when they open around 9.30am. Valletta is an increasingly popular destination for cruise ships, and inevitably their big groups of passengers are disgorged from buses from around midday and later into the afternoon. To avoid disappointment for evening dining, it’s worth booking ahead to secure a reservation.
More than five millennia of history is showcased in Valletta. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is an underground necropolis dating from 3000BC. Entry is restricted so pre-booking is essential. Highlights in Valletta’s 16th century townscape crafted by the Knights of St John include St John’s Co-Cathedral, built from 1573-78, and the repository of a famous painting of John the Baptist by the Italian painter Caravaggio. Recalling the dark days of WWII, the courage of the Maltese people is brought alive at the Lascaris War Rooms, the underground Allied HQ during the hugely decisive Siege of Malta from 1940-42.
Emirates flies from Dubai to Malta via Larnaca, Cyprus, from Dh3,000 return including taxes.