Five nights in Valletta gave us plenty of time to explore both the city and enjoy excursions from Malta’s capital.
As it was our first visit to the country, a good starting point to the island’s long history was the Malta Experience, a 45-minute film show in a large theatre with a commentary through headphones in over 20 languages. However, it was expensive at €14, and I didn’t opt for the extra 30-minute tour of the underground hospital at €4 more, although I did enjoy browsing the extensive gift shop.
It took two attempts to see St John’s Co-Cathedral as our first coincided with the annual feast of St John, which meant a late opening. Having passed the entrance several times, and seen the snaking queues, we arrived just before 9am: advance online tickets enable you to join a separate line, although at the time we visited, the queues were relatively similar. The entrance fee for seniors was €12 (no proof required) and this included an audio set which took a bit of fathoming, and as is often the case, some of the explanations at the numbered stations were more detailed than I wanted. However, it was absolutely magnificent with around 400 marble tombs on the floor featuring skulls and skeletons, with every part of the walls and ceilings adorned with gold leaf and paintings. The most famous was in the Oratory and contained Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the largest canvas he painted and the only one signed by him. Side chapels were dedicated to the patron saints of each of the Order’s eight divisions, and 45 steps took us up to a balcony for a magnificent view of the entire cathedral. The early start was worth it, as when we left, people were flooding in.
Whilst there were lots of museums and galleries, we enjoyed randomly wandering the compact city with its grid of narrow, often hilly, straight streets. At the impressive Valletta Gate, a shallow flight of around 70 steps took us to the Hastings Gardens, whilst the Upper Baraka Gardens had canons below, and band music playing. The Parliament building was modern with distinctive brick work, in contrast to thick fortified walls with bastions and elegant wooden balconies. We came across monuments like the Siege Bell Monument and Victoria Gate, and, as its said to be one of the ‘most consecrated historic areas in the world’, we didn’t walk far before coming across a beautiful church.
The Valletta Waterfront is the main entrance for passengers arriving by sea and the huge P&O ship Azura was moored up. The surrounding pedestrianised area is designed to serve passengers, with restaurants and souvenir shops in converted warehouses.
On the edge of Valletta was the neighbouring town of Floriana where we kept spotting signs for the Floriana Heritage Trail which looked interesting, but was not in either of our guide books. Maglio Gardens was lined with statues and led to the Argotti Botanic Garden and Resource Centre, with shade and good views.
The Three Cities of Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu), Senglea and Cospicua, are located across the harbour from Valletta. We caught the regular boat over: a 15-minute journey for the bargain price of 90 cents return for seniors (again, no evidence required). On Senglea we found the American University with its restored buildings, before a walk along the harbourside took us to the end of the peninsular. Here a climb up to the Gardjola Gardens, rewarded us with views back to Valletta. On returning we took the route through the town. As the Victory Day celebrations had taken place the previous day, the church of our Lady of Victory was surrounded by garlands of green and huge statues. We then headed to the middle finger, Vittoriosa, where the harbour was full of expensive yachts, and several restaurants. At the tip was Fort St Angelo, however, the site looked vast and as we’d already covered 12,000 steps, we gave it a miss and caught the boat back.
We took two excursions by bus which were cheap (single fare €2.40) and easy to navigate.
The first was to the beautiful walled city of Mdina, with the impressive St Paul’s Cathedral, which pre-dates St John’s co-cathedral in Valletta. Here we wandered through the narrow alleys, carefully avoiding the horse-drawn carriages, and marvelled at the impressive door furniture, amazed to learn that people still live within the city. However, it was very busy and as all the restaurants had queues, we walked the short distance to Rabat, where we found a cheap and cheerful menu-less café with outdoor terrace which provided simple ftira, a Maltese sandwich made with tinned tuna, capers, olives and tomato puree.
The second outing was to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, where we enjoyed an hour’s boat trip to St Peter’s Bay and the Hofra Window (a natural hole in the rock). It was pleasant wandering the harbour side with a tourist market selling a range of souvenirs. Whilst there’s not much else to do, we had a fish lunch of panko crumbed prawns and herb crusted sea bream at Pisces, one of several waterfront restaurants. There is also what is said to be a very busy Sunday fish market which we deliberately avoided.
We were surprised at how much there was to do in Valletta, and it would have been easy to spend much longer exploring and taking trips out by bus to other parts of the small island.