Escape to Malta
Make Valletta your next city break Explore history and nature on the Maltese islands’ pint-sized capital... and beyond
When you think of the classic European city breaks, your mind may not drift to the middle of the Mediterranean. But it ought to: Malta’s capital, Valletta, is a sun-rich city filled with history and a Baroque elegance ripe for exploring over a relaxed weekend or, better yet, extend your trip to the Maltese islands and discover Gozo and Comino. And with Valletta declared this year’s European Capital of Culture – and 400 events taking place throughout the islands to celebrate – 2018 is the ideal time to stroll those streets…
Pint-sized with a punch
Standing on a peninsula measuring 1km by 600m, Valletta is Europe’s smallest capital. No space has been wasted: its streets were forged by the Knights of St John, who fought off the Ottoman Turks in the 1565 Great Siege before fulfilling their vision for a bulwark against the East. Valletta still looks as good now (especially with 300 days of sun a year), with some of its star attractions rebuilt after being destroyed in the Second World War.
The spectacular, newly recreated City Gate whets the appetite for Valletta’s architectural gems, including the TARDIS-LIKE St John’s Co-cathedral – humble and fortresslike on the outside but gilded extravagantly on the inside. A tour of the similarly enriched Grandmaster’s Palace is fascinating, while the National Museum of Archaeology houses plenty of Neolithic artefacts.
Labyrinthine streets are filled with buzzing bars, hotels and restaurants set in restored 16th-century mansions – the local wine here is not to be missed. The pair of forts on its fringes – St Elmo and St Angelo – have watched over the city since the mid-1500s, while the terraces of Upper Barrakka Gardens give tranquil views across the Great Harbour – the former eye of the siege – and beyond.
Malta is compact, too, so it makes sense to turn your city break into an extended tour of the country. On the capital’s doorstep lies one of the planet’s best-preserved prehistoric sites, the 6,000-year-old subterranean necropolis of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. A ferry across the harbour (or pedal the scenic, long way round) takes you to the fortified ‘Three Cities’ of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, all rebuilt by the Knights, while the stylish Sliema also lies north of Valletta.
Malta’s other islands are worth venturing to as well. Only a 25-minute ferry ride away, Gozo leads a slower way of life; its trailwebbed rugged landscapes and recently added 42km coastal cycling route shows off the best of this isle. Sleepy gardens and squares speckle capital Victoria, while the maze-like Citadel lords over the whole island. Explore ancient villages and shores lapped by azure waters, diving in occasionally for some fine snorkelling. Meanwhile, sandwiched between Gozo and Malta (a 10-minute boat ride away) is Comino, a land ringed by sea cliffs and caves, and home to the rippling Blue Lagoon – perfect for a dip.
Boasting nature, history, culture and adventure, a trip to Valletta and the Maltese Islands offers a big, easily accessible travel experience that belies its size. Perhaps the best things really do come in small packages...