With 320 registered monuments, UNESCO describes Valletta as "one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world" and the entire city is effectively an open-air museum. The city was ‘built by gentlemen for gentlemen’ in 1566 under the order of the Knights of Malta.
It includes palaces and auberges with exquisite Baroque architecture, impressive fortifications, and the peninsula, on which it is built, is flanked by the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. In a few words, Valletta is a must-see, no matter the weather.
1. The Malta Experience
Visiting The Malta Experience as a first will help you appreciate all the rest the city has to offer. The audio-visual experience includes a 45-minute historical documentary outlining the history of Valletta and the Maltese Islands.
2. Mediterranean Conference Centre
This is where the Knights Hospitallers healed the sick. Included in the ticket for the Malta Experience is a 30-minute tour of La Sacra Infermeria, the hospital of the Knights of St John. The 16th century building is today a centre for multiple banquets, exhibitions, international conventions and theatrical shows.
3. National War Museum at Fort St Elmo
Don’t just see it on screen; in the same area, you can walk through the historic Fort St Elmo, one of the great protagonists of the Ottoman Great Siege of Malta of 1565. The star-shaped fort was built by the Knights in 1522. Overlooking the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour, the museum displays military armour of the Order of St John and the Ottoman Turks, and military memorabilia from World War II.
4. The Fortress Builders Fortifications Interpretation Centre
Enjoying all the history and fortifications? Learn more about Malta’s military architectural heritage. The Fortress Builders Fortifications Interpretation Centre displays all these historical sites in an interactive way under one roof. This cross between a museum, an information point and a resource centre is located within the bastions overlooking Marsamxett Harbour.
5. St John's Co-Cathedral
Step inside the city and go straight to its heart to see how the Knights prayed. St John's Co-Cathedral is the jewel of Valletta and reflects the wealth and importance of the Knights of Malta. Beyond a rather plain facade, expect a flamboyant Baroque interior opulently decorated with walls gilded in gold, ceiling paintings, the famous Caravaggio painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and a floor made of marble mosaic tombs of the Knights.
6. Grandmaster's Palace State Rooms and Palace Armoury
To further appreciate the opulence of the rulers of Malta through the ages, head to the Palace Square. Today, after being used by the Knights and the British, the Grandmaster's Palace serves as the office of the President of Malta. The rest of the building is a magnificent museum with grandiose Baroque decor and works of art. The Palace Armory displays the Knights' elaborate armour and weaponry as well as those of the Ottoman Turks.
7. Casa Rocca Piccola
This ancestral home of an aristocratic Maltese family is the private palace that was built for Don Pietro La Rocca, one of the Knights of Malta. It is complete with 16th century furniture, Murano glass chandeliers and crystal chandeliers from Bohemia decorating the bedroom, dining rooms and a host of elegant detailing. You can also enjoy its charming garden and visit its private World War II air raid shelter.
8. MUŻA: National Community Art Museum
The Knights greatly appreciated art so what’s more apt than turning one of their residences into a showcase of art? The Auberge d’Italie was a hostel for Knights of the Italian langue, a building that has been modified to give it a Baroque character. After serving various functions throughout history, it now hosts the national collection that was previously at the National Museum of Fine Arts. With its marble sculptures, painted ceilings and decorated walls, the auberge is, in itself, a work of art.
9. National Museum of Archaeology
Another opportunity to see an auberge comes with a journey into prehistory. The Auberge de Provence’s Baroque design and richly painted walls would be enough to impress, yet within those walls lie priceless prehistorical artefacts dating thousands of years. Exhibits include 7,000-year-old pottery, ornaments and statuettes, including the famous Sleeping Lady.
10. The Lascaris War Rooms
The journey through Malta’s history is not complete without a visit to the underground British headquarters during World War II. Located beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the underground tunnel complex includes the original fighter control rooms, where operations against the Axis were planned and executed. Everything there is intact, while in the recently discovered unfinished bunkers and war rooms that were abandoned suddenly, everything was left still lying about, untouched to this day. A must-see!
11. Manoel Theatre
It was not all serious stuff for the Knights. Here’s how they played. Commissioned in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, this is one of the oldest functioning theaters in Europe. Attend an evening performance within the lavishly decorated auditorium that features an exquisite ceiling, gilded box seats and plush velvet chairs, or take a guided tour of this magnificent little theater.
12. Citylights Movie Theatre & Cinema Bar
Here’s another famous theatre for altogether different reasons! If you feel like something lighter and more contemporary, the City Lights Cinema near Strait Street aligns with a fascinating and significant part of Malta’s cultural heritage: its historical red light district from the times of the British Navy. The historic cinema now screens classic films in a cosy, informal atmosphere.