Valletta is an intimate and spectacular place with a history that belies its petit size. The sixteenth-century fortress was built by the Knights of St John and is now a Unesco world heritage site, a crisscrossed peninsula with remnants of the British Empire on every street corner.
When Benjamin Disraeli, the future British Prime Minister, visited Valletta in 1830, he described it as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen,” and later referred to the city as “comparable to Venice and Cádiz”.
With its red pillar boxes and air raid shelters, the Maltese capital is the only place outside Britain that the Queen has ever called home. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the city’s side streets are a joy to explore on foot.
Valletta is packed full of attractions, from the Renzo Piano-designed city gates and parliament building to St John’s Co-Cathedral, the gilded home of Caravaggio’s dark masterpiece, the Beheading of St John the Baptist. These cultural institutions, alongside the newly restored Royal Opera House and Manoel Theatre, have made it a boutique tourist destination.
For all of its artistic sensibilities, the Maltese capital remains an imperial fortress with a melancholy sense of departure. Malta only gained its independence from Britain in 1964 and had been ruled over by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, and French during its 7000-year-old history, leaving a mosaic of colonial influences.
Valletta is now attracting modern tribes to its shores, with freelance travellers and iGamers arriving in a period of urban renewal. After being declared the European Capital of Culture 2018, new museums, hotels, bars, and restored golden-stone fortresses have opened up across the Maltese capital.
With over 300 days of sunshine a year and English being one of the island’s official languages, there are plenty of reasons to visit Malta beyond seventeenth-century architecture.