Stylist’s acting deputy production editor Jenny Tregoning discovers why Malta’s capital is having its moment in the sun
It’s 9pm and I’m lounging in a deck chair, sipping an Aperol Spritz while a marching band plays Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. This wasn’t quite what I was expecting from my first night in Malta, but as I am soon to discover, this tiny Mediterranean archipelago revels in the unexpected.
My visit is timed with Valletta’s annual Notte Bianca (White Night) festival, so the city’s usually subdued streets are heaving. As the band moves on, we stroll to a 17th-century marble-floored social club, Casino Maltese, where a string ensemble is playing, before peeking inside the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral. A baroque masterpiece with huge colourful frescoes, gilded archways and an original Caravaggio painting, it’s one of many heritage sites open free of charge for the occasion.
I had previously pigeon-holed Malta as a destination for a, shall we say, older crowd. My grandad visited annually, a fan of the reliable sunshine (it averaged 24°C on our visit in October), short flight (three hours from London) and the fact everyone speaks English (it’s a national language alongside Maltese). Just 58 miles south of Sicily in the middle of the Med, Malta – and its sister islands Gozo and Comino – is finally having its moment. Buoyed by the reopening of the five-star Phoenicia Hotel, as well as a raft of new boutique hotels, plus huge investment for its 2018 European Capital of Culture status, Valletta is fast heading for the top of savvy travellers’ lists. A 20-minute drive from the airport, Valletta is one of the most uniformly beautiful cities I have ever visited. Surrounded by water on three sides, the city was constructed by the Knights Of St John in the 16th century and every building is hewn from the same sand-coloured limestone.
Long, narrow streets rise and fall past former palazzi, and at every corner (the city is built on a visitor-friendly grid system), the vivid blue of the Mediterranean twinkles in the distance. It’s also tiny. We are staying at Palazzo Consiglia, a 13-room boutique hotel set in a 400-year-old townhouse no more than a 10-minute walk from all the major sites. Our room is decked out in muted greys with vintage furniture and ornate Persian rugs, but the highlight is the original ‘gallarija’ – an enclosed wooden balcony overlooking the street – the ideal spot for people-watching over a morning coffee.
Palazzo Consiglia packs a lot in. There’s a rooftop pool with panoramic views across the city, while the cellar houses a spa, complete with steam room and a grotto-like jacuzzi carved out of the building’s former well. Tempting as it is to linger, there’s plenty to see a short drive from Valletta – you will need a car as public transport is patchy. The term ‘melting pot’ is overused, but in Malta’s case it holds up. From the neolithic settlers who first arrived 7,000 years ago, Malta has been colonised by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and, most recently, the British. Which makes for a fascinatingly complex culture.
For a real step back in time, visit the megalithic temples at Hagar Qim. A half-hour drive south of Valletta, they date to between 3600 and 3200BC – to put it into perspective, Stonehenge wasn’t constructed until 2500BC. The huge stone structures remain in astonishing condition – strolling around, we make out doorways, rooms and even an altar, with views to the sea beyond. In the centre of the island is Mdina, the country’s original capital – a walled, hilltop city of tiny streets and medieval architecture. Malta’s abundance of historical buildings has made it a popular filming location – Gladiator and Assassin’s Creed were both shot here, as was much of series one of Game Of Thrones, with Mdina standing in for King’s Landing. Our guide Audrey’s side hustle is as an extra, and she shows us pictures of her dressed up as a Dothraki alongside Emilia Clarke (who remains a Facebook friend to this day). Back in Valletta we pass Renzo Piano’s modernist City Gate development, opened in 2015, before heading to the harbour for a cruise in a traditional dghajsa (pronounced ‘dye-sa’) – brightly coloured gondola-style boats that ferry locals and visitors across Valletta’s vast waterways.
Sightseeing works up an appetite and the cuisine in Malta is heavily influenced by its close Mediterranean neighbour Italy. Stop by Taproom, a cosy cocktail bar and bistro, for lychee martinis and buttery tagliatelle laden with black truffle and five different types of mushroom. For a more romantic setting, Panorama is a tiny balcony jutting out the side of the British Hotel with spectacular views across the Grand Harbour. We feasted on pistachio-crusted lamb and quaffed a bottle of local Meridiana Isis chardonnay (so good we brought a few bottles home).
Valletta can be quiet in the evenings, so take the ferry across to Sliema and St Julians for a wider choice of bars, restaurants and clubs. If you’re staying in the old town, then Bridge Bar is a buzzy venue with live jazz every Friday, its drinkers spilling out onto the steps to soak up the harbour views. As we wander down cobbled streets back to the hotel, I think how easily Valletta holds its own against other European capitals. It might not have been on my radar before, but something tells me it won’t remain a secret for much longer.
Rooms at Palazzo Consiglia from £160 per night, including breakfast; palazzoconsiglia.com; flights to Malta from London Gatwick from £132 return with British Airways (britishairways.com); for more information, visit maltauk.com