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Destination guide: Valletta

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When UNESCO granted Malta’s capital city World Heritage status it called it ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’ and it’s easy to see why. You might be able to walk around this pocket-sized city in a single day but the busy boulevards hide more cultural treasures, historic houses and points of interest than you could cover in a week.

Nearly all of the most influential civilisations in history have set foot on Valletta’s shore at some point and the city is an effortless mixture of ancient architecture and modern infrastructure from the elaborate St John’s Co-Cathedral to the futuristic Barrakka Lift and new city gates. Outside the city walls you’ll find archaic towns, vineyards, ports and harbours built into the fertile Mediterranean landscape, all in a country that’s roughly the same size as the Isle of Wight.

Where to stay

The Phoenicia Hotel Malta

You can’t get much more central than The Phoenicia Hotel Malta. Located next to the Triton Fountain in City Gate Square, the Phoenicia was the first five-star hotel to open in Valletta under British rule in the thirties and has retained its quintessentially English flavour, albeit tempered by a mixture of contemporary design and Maltese history.

Traditional afternoon tea is still served in the Palm Court Lounge and having a drink in the safari-themed Club Bar feels like you’ve stepped back in time to an era where gun-toting gentlemen would relax here with a cigar and a negroni. In fact the whole hotel is steeped in history, from the marble ballroom where the then Princess Elizabeth danced in 1949 to the sumptuous Art Deco piano bar and columned Phoenix restaurant.

The recently-renovated rooms are pure 21st century with flat screen TVs and modern amenities. Some of the rooms come with their own Juliet balconies and sweeping views of the Marsamxett Harbour while the regal harbour view suites come with cavernous marble bathrooms and separate lounges.

Fancy a dip?

Unusually for a hotel in Malta, the Phoenicia is set in seven acres of rambling kitchen and tropical gardens. In the heat of summer these gardens and the adjoining Bastion Pool Deck overlooking the harbour are an ideal refuge from the fierce Mediterranean sun.

Food and drink

Slate platters of juicy prawns at Pegasus restaurant

Despite being a tiny island, over 30% of Malta’s landscape is used for farming and the balmy, Mediterranean climate and warm sea means that the country has a plentiful supply of olives, oranges, peaches, capers, figs, tomatoes and fresh fish as well as some distinctive local cheeses, prickly pears and a burgeoning wine industry.

Saul Halevi, the head chef at Pegasus at the Phoenicia specialises in home grown, fine dining experiences with 80% of the ingredients on the menu sourced from the Phoenicia’s own gardens. When Saul isn’t rooting around in the garden for vegetables and fruit, he’s serving up slate platters of fat, juicy prawns, artistically arranged tuna and baby aubergines stuffed with mellow ricotta.

Typical Maltese pastries (Viewing Malta images by the MTA found at viewingmalta.com)

Take a trip outside Valletta to one of the hillside wineries to taste some of the wine that, due to domestic demand, never makes it off the island. At the Meridiana Wine Estate visitors can learn all about the Maltese wine-making process before sampling their current portfolio of exotic, peppery whites and full throttled reds with plates of local cheese and Maltese water biscuits.

Within the city centre there are plenty of brasseries and cafes, the best of the bunch being Rampila, a restaurant set into the bastion walls serving modern Maltese cuisine like white balsamic glazed, pan-fried rabbit with garlic, thyme, celery and carrots.

Where food meets art...

Rubino, a pretty little restaurant in a converted cellar off Old Bakery Street, is also worth a visit and specialises in Italian dishes and Maltese mezze with the best cannoli and bread on the island. Driving outside of Valletta you’ll find some of the freshest, salt-baked fish at the acclaimed Tarragon restaurant in St Paul’s Bay and local staples like fried rabbit and Lampuki fish on the water’s edge at Gululu in Spinola Bay.

If you’ve got foodies to buy for then Café Cordina sells traditional Maltese sweets like honey rings made with black treacle and jars of honey, cheese and olives.

Valletta's top drinking spots

The Palm Court Lounge of the Phoenicia Hotel Malta

  • The Club Bar, Phoenicia Hotel: Take a seat in one of the impossibly deep leather chairs and ask the bar man for something Maltese. You’ll get a delicious concoction of Maltese grapes and sparkling wine with Gozo honey and Bajtra, a local liqueur made from prickly pears
  • Legligin: A favourite with the locals, this tiny wine bar has tapas-style nibbles and a vast selection of wine, which Chris, the knowledgeable patron, will help you choose. 119 St Lucia Street
  • Trabuxu: Literally meaning ‘corkscrew,’ this ancient wine bar is housed in a 400-year-old cellar, packed with local art and serves exceptional wines
  • QBar: Perched on the picturesque Valletta waterfront, QBar is one of Malta’s latest concept lounge bars. The service here might be a bit brusque but the view over the water at night is unbeatable

Things to see and do

The view from Valletta's Gululu restaurant

Valletta’s architectural and historical city centre is easily explored on foot and, as it’s built on a grid system of roads, it’s almost impossible to get lost in this mini metropolis. If you wander up Republic Street you’ll stumble across Valletta’s most famous attraction: St John’s Co-Cathedral, a relatively unassuming cathedral that hides one of the most lavish interiors in Europe. One of the first examples of high Baroque to be found anywhere in the world, inside it’s a feast of carved stone, oil painting, marble and gold leaf that would put Liberace to shame. The cathedral also houses two Caravaggio paintings including the macabre Beheading of St John the Baptist.

St John's Co-Cathedral: a feast for the eyes (Viewing Malta images by the MTA found at viewingmalta.com)

If you can’t get enough of sumptuous surrounds then head to Casa Rocco Piccola, a 16th century palace where, if you’re lucky, you might get shown around the privately-owned house by the current Marquis de Piro himself. The Manoel Theatre, one of Europe’s oldest working theatres, and the antiques and armour on show at The Grandmaster’s Palace are also worth visiting. The Grandmaster’s Palace, which is ensconced in its own palazzo complete with musical fountains, is currently the seat of government, so if parliament is in session you’ll only be able to admire the building’s sculpted façade.

You can drink in one of the best views of the Grand Harbour from the highest point of the city - the Upper Barrakka Garden’s balcony. Here, the saluting battery of canons still perform the noonday salute and you can take the futuristic Barrakka lift back down to sea level, where you can catch water taxis across the bay.

Public buses run every 10 minutes to Mdina, an ancient, fortified city just outside of Valletta in neighbouring Rabat. This 4,000-year-old city is full of cobbled streets, monasteries and narrow alleyways and is flanked by a set of impossibly grand gates that provided the backdrop to scenes from the first series of Game of Thrones.

Valletta: know before you go

Malta's Grand Harbour by Clive Vella (Viewing Malta images by the MTA found at viewingmalta.com)

  • Malta joined the EU in 2004 and uses the Euro
  • Malta, with its strategic position in the Mediterranean, is one of the most conquered countries in history and Valletta has been controlled at various times by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Ottoman Empire, the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Knights of St. John and the British
  • The Italian painter Caravaggio was briefly a Knight of Malta, before he was expelled from the order and imprisoned when he injured one of the other knights in a brawl, and for generally being "a foul and rotten member"
  • Valletta was used as a film set for numerous movies including Munich, The Count of Monte Cristo, Gladiator and Alexander
  • The app: The Valletta Map and Walks app offers guided walks around the best sights in Valletta and can be downloaded from iTunes

Getting there and away

There’s only one airport in Malta in Luqa, 10kms from Valletta. There’s an airport shuttle service that drops passengers off at most of the major hotels in Valletta and across Malta from £6 one way.

Rooms at Phoenicia Hotel start from just £55 per person per night, based on two sharing on a room only basis, for advance purchase online bookings with minimum three-night stay. To book visit phoeniciamalta.com or call 0800 862 0025. AirMalta flies to Malta from Gatwick and Heathrow daily, with single fares starting from £60, excluding taxes. Visit airmalta.com to book. For more information on holidays in Malta see visitmalta.com

Words: Emma Sleight pictures: Emma Sleight and viewingmalta.com

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