Malta's capital, the minicity of Valletta, has ornate palaces and museums protected by massive fortifications of honey-color limestone. Houses along the narrow streets have overhanging wooden balconies for people-watching from indoors. Generations ago they gave housebound women a window on the world of the street. The main entrance to town is through the City Gate (where all bus routes end), which leads onto Triq Repubblika (Republic Street), the spine of the grid-pattern city and the main shopping street. Triq Mercante (Merchant Street) parallels Repubblika to the east and is also good for strolling. From these two streets, cross streets descend toward the water; some are stepped. Valletta's compactness makes it ideal to explore on foot. City Gate and the upper part of Valletta are experiencing vast redevelopment that includes a new Parliament Building and open-air performance venue. The complex, completed mid-2013, has numerous pedestrian detours in place along with building noise and dust. Before setting out along Republic Street, stop at the tourist information office on Merchant Street for maps and brochures.
This young and dynamic team is reinventing the traditional Maltese trattoria with a vibrant contemporary menu using traditional local ingredients. Set in a 400-year-old vaulted stone building, the series of small simply furnished and elegantly lit dining spaces are intimate. When the restaurant is full, space can be a little tight. Guzé is known for its monthly menu—a choice of chef-inspired dishes made with fresh seasonal ingredients—but there's also a good range of staple Maltese dishes on the à la carte menu.
On the ground floor of the original treasury of the Knights is Valletta's oldest café. Since 1837, this ornate, vaulted confectionery has produced hot, savory breakfast pastries and qaghaq ta' l-ghasel (honey rings). The lunch menu also includes sandwiches, salads, and a choice of daily specials. The interior air-conditioned café attracts Valletta movers and shakers, because of its close proximity to parliament and the law courts. The shaded outside tables in Victoria Square are the city's prime people-watching spots. Enjoy a coffee, beer, or glass of wine and relax.
This tiny shop sells a range of quality Maltese crafts including silver and gold filigree jewelry, blown glass, handmade lace, and limestone carvings.
National Museum of Archaeology
Housed in the Auberge de Provence (the hostel of the Knights from Provence), the museum has an excellent collection of finds from Malta's many prehistoric sites—Tarxien, Haġar Qim, and the Hypogeum at Paola.
St. Paul's Shipwreck Church
The importance of St. Paul to the Maltese explains the work lavished on this baroque marvel—its raised central vault, oval dome, and marble columns. The os brachii (arm bone) relic of the saint is housed in a chapel on the right, a splendid gated chapel is on the left, and a baptismal font stands by the entrance.
Casa Rocca Piccola
The exquisitely cultured current owners, Nicolas and Frances de Piro d'Amico Inguanez, host tours of the last of the patrician houses still occupied. The treasures inside chart the history of the house, from a portable baroque chapel for baptisms to a painting of "Miss Electricity," commissioned to mark the local contribution of an ambitious ancestor. New exhibits include a costume gallery and an underground bomb shelter, used by Valletta residents during the war.
This gracious building, the ancient hospital of the Knights of St. John or Knights Hospillaters, near the seawall has been converted into the Mediterranean Conference Center. For an introduction to the island, see the Malta Experience, a multimedia presentation on the history of Malta that is given here daily on the hour.
St. John's co-Cathedral
Functional in design but lavishly decorated, the Order of St. John's own church (1578) is Malta's most important treasure. The Knights' colored-marble tombstones on the floor are gorgeous. Each of the side chapels was decorated by a national hostel of the Knights. Many of the paintings and the decoration scheme are by the island's beloved 17th-century painter Mattia Preti (b. 1613). In the Oratory, Caravaggio's only signed work, the dramatic Beheading of John the Baptist (1607), is the collection's masterpiece. The cathedral museum has illuminated manuscripts and a rich collection of Flemish tapestries. The entrance fee includes an audio guide. Public access (main ticket office) is on Republic St. Narrow heeled shoes such as stilettos are not allowed, but slippers can be purchased at reception.
Great Siege of Malta and the Knights of St. John
A walk-through presentation traces the order's history from its founding in 1099 in the Holy Land and its journeys from Jerusalem to Cyprus, Rhodes, and Malta. Also depicted are epic scenes from the Great Siege of 1565, the naval Battle of Lepanto, and the order's eviction from Malta by the French.
Grand Masters' Palace
The palace houses the president's office; Malta's parliament meets here until the new parliament building is completed. The palace, completed in 1574, has a unique collection of Gobelin tapestries; the main hall is decorated with frescoes depicting the history of the Knights and the Great Siege. On view are works by Ribera, Van Loo, and Batoni. At the back of the building is the Armoury of the Knights, with exhibits of arms and armor through the ages.