Valletta, which is the capital of Malta, embraces the famed charm of an Italian city, its many Baroque palaces set on narrow steep streets that form a grid pattern. Together with the Knights of the Order of St John, the founder, Grandmaster Fra Jean de la Valette, carefully planned the city.
As the saying goes, the city was 'built by gentlemen for gentlemen', with the first stone being ceremonially laid in 1566 after Ottoman forces withdrew their siege of the Maltese Islands and the Knights of St John took over.
The purpose of the city, built in a short span of 15 years on a plateau between two harbours on Malta's northeast coast, was primarily to fortify the island. Secondly, it was to provide palaces, inns for the eight Knight's groupings, churches for worship, and gardens for recreation.
These grand remnants of the Knight's occupation still adorn Valletta in the form of some splendid Baroque buildings and fortifications. But the majestic architecture manages not to overwhelm the island's carefree personality.
Valletta balances its sombre grandeur and religious tone with colour and jollity. The city has a fun but not raucous nightlife, along with some great restaurants and magnificent chances to see the sights. It's a very safe and friendly city, welcoming of tourists, and well-equipped to host them.
Valletta's magnificent medieval cathedral is famous for the painting by Caravaggio, which hangs in its oratory, and the 369 inlaid mosaic marble tombstones that cover the floor. Each tombstone depicts the lives of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John, buried beneath.
The façade is rather sever and militaristic. Yet inside, the cathedral is lavishly splendid in the grandest tradition of high Baroque. Carvings cover every each of wall, while the vaulted ceiling sports paintings depicting the life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights.
The cathedral benefitted greatly over the centuries from many donations given by the Knights and their Grand Masters. Some of the most impressive works of art were gifts from the order. It's still an active place of worship, with frequent services, and also operates as a beautiful venue for cultural events.
The stunningly ornate cathedral is an exceptional sight and a must for tourist in Malta. Guided tours and rented audio guides help to greatly enrich the experience. Travellers should be sure to check the website for visiting hours to avoid disappointment.
The Grandmaster's Palace, built around 1571, today serves as the office of the President and seat of the Maltese Parliament. When parliament is not in session, the palace and its State Rooms are open to the public.
The palace is a treasure trove of art, from the unique collection of Gobelin Tapestries to frescoes depicting the Great Siege of 1565 by Perez d'Aleccio that cover the walls of the Halls of St Michael and St George.
The Knights decorated the palace richly and elaborately, conscious of showing off their wealth and influence. For visitors, exploring splendid chambers like the Hall of the Supreme Council of the Knights is thrilling.
Visitors can also view the Armoury and state apartments adorned with friezes depicting the history of the Order of the Knights of St John. The Armoury is perhaps the greatest attraction of the palace and it boasts one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.
Malta has a tumultuous history and the Armoury holds the assorted weaponry of centuries of invasions, sieges, and battles, making it a paradise for military history buffs. Guided tours are available and wonderful audio guides offer comprehensive commentary.
The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta houses one of the inns of the Knights of St John: the Auburge de Provence. The establishment's focus on Malta's prehistory includes displays such as the reconstruction of prehistoric remains found at the Hypogeum.
Pottery, sculptures, statuettes, stone tools, and jewellery from the prehistoric, megalithic, and temple-building periods feature. Punic and Roman tomb furniture are also present, with all exhibits sourced from excavations across the Maltese islands. The age of some artefacts is staggering.
Only those interested in archaeology will fully appreciate the wonders on offer, its treasures wasted on those easily bored by ancient histories and cultures. Young children especially should give it a skip. The collection is well-maintained and labelled, with exhibitions in chronological order.
Valletta suffered great damage during World War II bombing raids. The war defence of Malta took place in the Lascaris War Rooms, with the island always holding a strategic military importance far out of proportion to its size,
Some of the most famous battles fought in the Mediterranean during the war were coordinated from these headquarters, a 17th-century underground complex of tunnels and chambers. Now restored, it acts as a museum with displays of charts, models, and dioramas.
It's fascinating to see all the old wartime paraphernalia and to explore the once top secret military operating rooms. Guides are enthusiastic and well-informed volunteers who greatly enrich the experience. Tours are conducted in English and take 75 minutes, after which visitors can freely stroll the grounds.
The Malta Experience is a dramatic presentation that illustrates the history of Malta, from Neolithic to modern times. Shown at the Mediterranean Conference Centre at St Elmo's bastion in Valletta, the building originally served as a hospital by the Knights of St John in the 1500s.
Wards are now great sweeping halls with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, functioning as exhibition areas. A modern theatre the Malta Experience audio-visual show in 17 different languages.
The show is a sweeping expose of 7,000 years of history covering the original stone-age inhabitants, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Knights of St John, and the nation's modern history. It is as entertaining as it is educational.
Indeed, the Malta Experience is a great way to begin a holiday in Malta as it provides an overview of the archipelagos' dramatic history and greatly enriches the sightseeing to come. This is particularly useful as not all sites on the islands have detailed information for tourists.
The documentary also offers great insight into the Maltese culture and people. About 45 minutes long, the Malta Experience is immensely popular and more than four million visitors have seen it since its opening.
Malta's main maritime towns have merged into a fortified conglomerate known as the Three Cities, resting on the promontories opposite Valletta. Vittoriosa is the oldest town in Malta after Mdina, featuring plenty of historical architecture, including several of the Inns of the Knights of St John.
There is also a hospital built by the Order in 1672, in which still lives a Benedictine convent of devout nuns. Dating from 1274, Fort St Angelo is the oldest fortified part of Vittoriosa and stands at the tip of the promontory. Additionally, the Museum of Maritime History is well worth a visit.
Founded in 1717, Cospicua is the youngest of the Three Cities and features some fascinating churches. Senglea, designed by Grand Master De La Sengle in 1551, exists as an important pilgrimage destination. Its parish church contains a statue of Christ the Redeemer, said to have miraculous powers.
There are many great restaurants and bars in the Three Cities and the marina area is becoming increasingly popular. The best way to explore is on a walking tour, wandering through the old districts and discovering unexpected joys and treasures.
Apart from the rich history, the Three Cities are famous for their residents' enthusiastic celebration of holy days and festas. The most exciting of these is the Easter procession, when status of Jesus Christ are carried at a run through crowded strets.
Just southwest of the Three Cities in the suburb of Paolo, the Hypogeum is a labyrinthine limestone complex of man-made chambers extending some 36 feet (11m) below the surface. Experts believe it was a burial site and temple for Neolithic humans who used antlers and stones to carve it out more than 5,000 years ago.
It's comprised of several interconnecting chambers on three distinct levels. Used over a span of many centuries, the oldest remains at the site date back to about 4,000 BC. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Archaeologists have recovered numerous statues, amulets, figurines, and vases, many of which are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. The Hypogeum has been open to the public since 1908 and the droves of visitors have unfortunately had a negative impact on the ancient environment.
Now, only eight tours a day take place with 10 people permitted on each tour. They are often booked up weeks in advance so tickets should be booked early to avoid disappointment. The tours are more or less an hour long and provide audio guides.
Haqar Qim is a prehistoric temple complex located in western Malta. Discovered in 1839, it dates back to around 3,000 BC and boast some of the oldest human structures on the planet. The Hagar Qim and nearby Mnajdra ruins are close to the village of Qrendi, about nine miles (15km) southwest of Valletta.
The megalithic temples are carved from giant limestone slabs, housing sacrificial altars, oracular chambers, and carved animals and idols, themselves fashioned by flint and obsidian. The largest megalith is 23 feet (7m) high and weighs about 20 tons.
Although the ancient ruins of Malta are generally called temples, very little is actually known about their purpose. Many of the relics recovered from the Hagar Qim site, including the famous Venus of Malta and her accompanying fat lady statues, are on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
Unlike some of the other temples on Malta, Hagar Qim has an impressive visitors' centre that offers plenty of background information through interactive displays. While there are shelters around the site to protect one from the elements, they hardly detract from the otherworldly experience of the ruins.
The Mediterranean climate of Valletta ensures the weather is hot and dry during summer (June to September) and slightly cooler in winter (December to March). Summer temperatures often exceed 84ºF (30ºC), but the heat tends to be tempered by refreshing sea breezes.
In spring and autumn, the hot Xlokk wind sometimes brings high temperatures and humidity but the weather is generally pleasant, hot, and sunny. Winters are mild, with temperatures averaging between about 50°F (10°C) and 59°F (15°C). Valletta experiences little rainfall, with it generally occurring only in winter. The city never gets any snow.
Valletta is a year-round holiday destination, as even the damp winter is mild enough to be pleasant for a sightseeing vacation. In fact, many tourists prefer to avoid the swelteringly hot summer in favour of the milder shoulder seasons, when it is also less crowded.
The best time to visit Valletta is probably in March, April, May, or September, but the peak tourist season is still the summer, between June and August. Winter is a good time to visit because it is slightly cheaper, less crowded and never really cold.
Spring is carnival time in Malta. Carnival week, with its traditional boisterous revelry, centres on the capital Valletta, but cities, towns, and villages across Malta host their own carnival celebrations and sometimes the smaller local festivities are the most authentic and charming.
Carnival includes extravagant, gaudy floats, fancy dress, lots of live music and marching bands, and some wild nightlife in the Paceville club area. The tradition is said to have started in 1560, when a massed Christian armada became harbour-bound in Malta and some jollification ashore ensued.
Carnival is a wonderfully festive time to visit Malta and foreigners are welcomed into the revelry, especially if they embrace the spirit of the event and arrive in outrageous costumes. Children will also enjoy carnival and the parades and floats particularly delight the local kids, who dress up even more enthusiastically than the adult party animals.
Weather-wise, February and March happen to be a good time to visit Malta as it is sunny but not yet swelteringly hot. If you are planning a springtime holiday in Malta, design your itinerary around the carnival. Valletta can get crowded during the festival but not unpleasantly so.
The Malta Fireworks Festival is an exciting event held annually at the Grand Harbour in Valletta. The event is organised by the Ministry for Tourism and the Malta Tourism Authority, commemorating Malta's inclusion into the European Union which took place on 1 May 2004.
The best of local talent from Malta's fireworks factories compete with foreign pyrotechnic companies to thrill audiences with a visual feast. The highlight of the festival is the 'History of Malta' laser show, featuring exceptional fireworks displays accompanied by invigorating music.
The fireworks light up the night sky to reveal stunning views of the nearby St Angelo, Ricasoli, and St Elmo forts, and illuminate the city in a sparkling and magical way. The fireworks are visible from many vantage points but perhaps the best place to watch the display is from the Barriera Wharf in Valletta.
The Malta Fireworks Festival is open to the public and completely free of charge. April is a good time of year to visit Malta as the autumn weather is pleasant and sunny and tourists holidaying in Malta over this period would be mad not to attend this wonderful festival.
Every year, a number of world-renowned jazz musicians gather in Valletta to entertain enthusiasts with a classy selection of live performances. The Malta Jazz Festival has been running for about 25 years, enjoying much critical acclaim and great support from locals and foreigners alike.
The event occurs annually during the third weekend of July and the main venue is the open-air Ta'Liesse in Valletta. The programme includes an array of the best contemporary jazz artists and the festival is fun for both the uninitiated and aficionados. In fact, it is a wonderful way to learn a bit about the genre.
In the past, performances have included some famous jazz musicians such as John Scofield, Al Di Meola, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The days preceding and following the festival show off a number of fringe events, including open-air concerts, and are held in venues all over the city. For more information, check the official website.
Valletta's attractions revolve mostly around its architecture, with a number of churches, cathedrals, and other sacred sites taking centre stage. There are other interesting buildings, including historical residences, palaces, and forts, some lavishly displaying the wealth of artwork donated by the Knights of St John.
Attractions in Valletta include the Palace of the Grand Master, St John's Co-Cathedral, the Lascaris War Rooms, and, just outside of the city, the remarkable ancient sites of Hagar Qim and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Tourists should also be sure to explore the historic Three Cities.
For first-time visitors who don't know much about the country, The Malta Experience is worth considering. It provides a great overview of the country's history and culture in roughly half an hour. If you are travelling to Valletta with children, there are some fun attractions and excursions to enjoy, including Popeye Village and the Splash & Fun Water Park.
Perched on top of Mount Sceberras and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Valletta has many beautiful views. While there are no sandy beaches within the city itself, the docks and harbour fronts are pleasant areas to stroll along.
But beyond the city lie sandy coves if one wants to feel the beach between their toes. Lastly, St George's Square puts on an evening show with jumping fountains and coloured lights, making a perfect ending to a day of sightseeing.
Known as the Noble City, Mdini was the original capital of Malta before the arrival of the Knights of St John in the Middle Ages. Initially a Phoenician town, it underwent periods of Roman, Arbaic and Norman occupation.
Situated on a rocky outcrop about nine miles (15km) west of Valletta, the elegant walled settlement can trace its origins back more than 4,000 years. Although today, all that remains is the largely restored medieval town.
At the heart of Mdina is the landmark Baroque Cathedral of St Paul. While the Knights reigned over Malta the city became the home of the Maltese nobility, who lived there under autonomous rule and deemed unworthy of joining the Order of St John.
Descendants of some of these families still live in the city. Mdina and the ancient suburb of Rabat not only offer some fascinating and valuable sightseeing opportunities, but also come alive in their own unique ways when the sun sets.
Lamplight accompany ambient evenings spent in restaurants, tucked away in bastions and palace courtyards. Motor vehicles are banned inside the city walls, and pedestrians have free reign to walk the streets and take in this precious site of Maltese heritage.
A beautiful church usually occupies the centre of every Maltese town and village. One of the most impressive of these is St Mary's in the central Maltese town of Mosta, also known as the Rotunda of Mosta or the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which has a glorious blue, gold and white dome.
The unsupported dome is one of the largest found anywhere in the world, with a design visibly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the church began in May 1833 and ultimately ended in the 1860s.
Many say that St Mary's Church was the site of a World War II miracle: in 1942, while 300 people were praying in the church, a bomb crashed through the dome and landed on the mosaic floor, but did not explode. A replica of the bomb is today displayed in the church sacristy.
This famous miracle draws many pilgrims and curious tourists to the church, but the ornate interior is reason enough for a visit. The church has a fine collection of religious art, including one of the largest collections of paintings by the famous Maltese artist Guzeppi Cali.
The church is still an active place of worship and visitors are welcome to attend services. Entry to the church is free but donations are welcome. The church is usually closed between 12pm and 3pm.
Also known as Sweethaven, Popeye Village is the actual set used in the 1908s musical of Popeye starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall. Since then, the set has grown into one of the country's major tourist attractions and is a must for those travelling with children in Malta.
Kids can wander around the authentic wooden buildings such as the bakery, post office, and school house. But there's also lots of fun activities for the whole family, including meeting famous cartoon characters, boat rides, water trampolines, sun bathing decks, and games.
The park now boasts the Popeye Comic Museum, showcasing more than a hundred original comics dating back to 1936. Sweethaven hosts fun stuff for kids but also organises adult events like team building exercises upon request.
The little village is gorgeously situated and quite charming. The opening times and activities vary according to the season so it's best to check the official website for information before visiting in order to avoid disappointment.