Last updated on May 24, 2023
There is a good reason why Valletta was chosen the 2018 European Capital of Culture, as it boasts 320 monuments within an area of just 0.8 km2. In addition to this, the city plays host to numerous events. These include Malta Pride, Firework Festival, and its very own Fashion Week. I was lucky enough to visit Valletta on 3 different occasions, and yet, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of everything there was to see. That said, here’s my mini guide to Valletta and Sliema in case you were looking for the best things to do in and around the Maltese capital to get you started…
Getting around Valletta
Valletta is a very pedestrian-friendly city. The streets in the city centre are set out in a grid layout, making it very easy to navigate your way from one tourist attraction to another. Rumour has it, however, that the original reason behind it was not to facilitate pedestrian movement. Rather, it was to let the sea breeze move through the streets to keep Valletta’s citizens cool during the hot summer months.
Best things to do in Valletta
First time I ever visited Valletta was during my week of exploring Malta on a budget with a friend. That’s why we tried to get a feel of the city by allowing ourselves to get lost in its narrow cobblestone streets. It’s a great attraction in itself because you just never know what you’re going to find as you turn another corner.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at C. Camilleri & Sons
If you’re looking to indulge in some sugary delights or buy a gift for your loved ones, C. Camilleri & Sons is the place to go. It’s the oldest confectionery shop in Malta offering a variety of mouthwatering chocolate, cakes, and biscuits. Its cute display is enough to make you want to stop by. A word of warning if you decide to visit: make sure you have plenty of time to spare. We spent at least 15 minutes looking around the shop as I just couldn’t decide what to get!
Watch the cannon salute ceremony at the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Another must-see place in Valletta are the Upper Barrakka Gardens, perched high above the city’s fortified walls. These exquisite gardens filled with busts and statues lead onto a terrace offering unrivalled panoramic views of Malta. I found it really hard to get a decent shot, however, as I had many Marilyn Monroe moments due to strong wind.
Right below the main terrace and gardens is the Saluting Battery. For nearly 500 years, it protected the harbour from attacks and fired salutes on special occasions or to greet arriving vessels. Nowadays, history is brought to life as the cannon is fired daily at 12 PM and 4 PM. You can watch the ceremony for free from the main terrace of Upper Barrakka Gardens, which is what we did. If you want to witness it up close, you have to pay a fee of €3, which includes a guided tour of the place.
It is one of the unmissable experiences. You have to make sure to get there early though, as it understandably gets very crowded!
See a relic of St. Paul at the Collegiate Parish Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck
St. Paul’s shipwreck is thought to be one of the defining moments in the nation’s history, as it marks the island’s conversion to Christianity. There are numerous landmarks all over Malta that are either linked to, or have been built to commemorate his stay on the island.
Collegiate Parish Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is hidden away in a side street of Valletta. It is easy to walk past with its small, unobtrusive door. However, don’t be mistaken. It is actually one of the most important churches in Malta, as it holds a relic of St. Paul’s right wrist bone, as well as a part of the column used to behead him in Rome.
The church has an ornately decorated interior dominated by crimson and gold. It is covered with frescoes, paintings and statues of the Apostles, and there are marble tombstones along the nave. I absolutely love places with an interesting backstory. Even though we’d been to several churches in Malta, this one still made a great impression on me. It’s not the easiest place to find, though, as Google Maps might lead you to St. Paul’s Cathedral instead. So, to make sure you get to the right church, put these coordinates in the search bar: 35° 53′ 50.64″ N, 14° 30′ 49.9″ E.
Explore the city’s infamous past on Strait Street
I’ve lost count of how many times I highlighted the beauty of Maltese streets. However, if there’s one you absolutely need to add to your list of places to visit, it’s Strait Street. Interestingly enough, it is sometimes called Malta’s Red Light District. Throughout the 19th until the mid-20th century, it used to be a nightlife hub for American and British soldiers, as well as the locals. It was a place where people of various nationalities and from all walks of life could interact with one another. It is thanks to these social interactions with soldiers that some Maltese people learned to speak English.
After the British army left Malta, bars and restaurants started closing down one by one. Nowadays, restoration works are underway. New music clubs and hangout spots keep popping up as part of the objective to breathe some life back into Strait Street and turn it into the pinnacle of art, culture, and entertainment. The vibrant nature of this place was clearly visible even during the day, so I can only imagine how interesting it must get once the sun goes down.
Get a glimpse into the life of the Maltese nobility at Casa Rocca Piccola
On our second trip to Malta, we gained some unique insights into the life of the Maltese nobility during an exclusive tour of Casa Rocca Piccola. Clement de Piro, whose family has owned this 16th-century noble palace for over 4 centuries, showed us around while sharing some truly fascinating stories about his ancestors. I shared my favourite ones in my post about the 8 unforgettable experiences you can’t miss in Malta, including the story of a keepsake from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Oh, and yet another family member makes a guest appearance too… 😉
Try delicious plant-based food at Gugar Hangout & Bar
If you choose to visit Casa Rocca Piccola, just down the street you can find an alternative hangout spot offering different vegetarian and vegan options. We tried their peanut soup and a traditional Maltese ftira, and it may have been the best ftira I’ve had to date!
Everything was also more reasonably priced than what you’d expect from a bar in the centre of Valletta. If you’re looking for an escape from the touristy bars and restaurants of Valletta, Gugar Hangout & Bar is the place to go. I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit next time I’m in the city. The only thing to keep in mind, though, is that there aren’t too many seats. Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait for a table slightly longer, but the food is totally worth it 😉
Experience the city’s vibrant nightlife on St. Lucia’s Street
If you’d like to explore Valletta’s nightlife but aren’t keen on nightclubs, I highly recommend heading to St. Lucia’s Street. With tables perched on the steps under strings of lights, it creates a truly magical atmosphere that words can’t do justice.
There, you can find San Paolo Naufrago – a restaurant specialising in Mediterranean cuisine and platters. However, you need to bear in mind that it gets packed in the evenings. If you can’t get a table, try heading down the steps to a cocktail bar called 33 Steps. When we asked for a food menu, we were given the one from San Paolo Naufrago, so we could still get a little taste without the wait. We were there with the Traverse team, so we’re not sure if it’s a regular thing or something they arranged specifically for us, but it might be worth a try.
What I particularly loved about the food was that they put their own spin on traditional dishes by adding local Maltese ingredients to some of the options. And, you can also pair it with some delicious local wine for a full experience!
Take a walk through Malta’s history at the Lascaris War Rooms
Finally, there’s one more place on my list if you want to delve deeper into Malta’s history. Beneath the lush Upper Barrakka Gardens you can find the Lascaris War Rooms. This network of secret underground rooms was the war headquarters, where pivotal strategies, including the invasion of Sicily, were planned during the Second World War. These rooms were also the operational hub for the island’s defence during the siege of Malta.
Today, these rooms offer visitors a glimpse into the wartime era. They have been carefully restored to look just as they did during the war. You can either explore them on a guided tour or at your own pace with an audioguide. For history buffs, this place is a must-visit. At €14 per person, however, I do think that the price is way too high. So, if you’re not particularly interested in history or if you’re trying to explore Malta on a budget, I would consider skipping it.
Visiting the seaside resort town of Sliema
If you’re anything like me, you may have been wondering how to get the perfect postcard shot of Valletta’s skyline. Well, look no further… Sliema is the place to go!
On my first trip to Malta, I didn’t get the chance to explore much beyond the town’s promenade lined with palm trees and The Point shopping mall. That’s why, on my second visit, I was excited to stay in the area and finally see more of it.
How to get from Valletta to Sliema
While you could certainly catch a bus or even walk, the most efficient way to travel between Valletta and Sliema is to take a ferry. During the winter season, the ferries operate between 6:45 am and 7:30 pm, with a journey time of around 10 minutes. In the summer, the operating hours are extended until midnight. Prices start at €1.50 for a single trip, or you can buy a weekly pass for €10.
You can find all the necessary information on the Valletta Ferry Services website. There’s also another ferry service operating between Valletta and the Three Cities – just be sure to check out my Birgu guide before you go!
Where to stay in Sliema / Gżira
6 years on, I stand by what I wrote in my ultimate travel guide to Malta about preferring to stay outside St. Julian’s. That’s why, for the Keyframe 2023 conference, we chose to stay somewhere calmer, yet still close enough. Our hotel of choice was Urban Rooms by NEU Collective, who also own several other hotels in the area.
We could use all the amenities provided by the adjacent 115 The Strand Hotel & Suites, including access to their private Aqualuna Beach Club. There was also a rooftop terrace with a jacuzzi, but unfortunately, it wasn’t warm enough to take advantage of it.
At around €400 for an entire week, including breakfast, I felt like we got really good value for our money. My only real issue was that we arrived to find numerous small flies in our bathroom, and the receptionist downplayed it. It wasn’t until some back-and-forth that she finally agreed to move us to another room at 115 The Strand Hotel & Suites while they resolved the issue. After comparing both rooms, I’d probably go for the other hotel next time. I mean, you just can’t beat an amazing view of The Strand like this…
I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I’d like to think it was just a one-off thing. Other than that, we truly enjoyed our stay there and would definitely return. I guess you’ll have to stay tuned for my next trip to Malta to hear the final verdict 😉
Best restaurants and cafés to visit in Sliema
Even though our conference schedule was pretty tight, we still managed to find some time to explore Sliema on our own. If you only have one day in Sliema, here are the best restaurants and cafés to visit:
Ta’Kris is a restaurant specialising in homemade Maltese and Mediterranean cuisine. Tucked away in a quiet alley, away from the hustle and bustle of the Sliema waterfront, it can be a bit tricky to find unless you know what you’re looking for. We came here based on a recommendation from a fellow conference attendee and were extremely lucky to get a table. Usually, you need to make a reservation at least 48 hours in advance!
For starters, we shared a platter of fried Ġbejna cheese with breadcrumbs and nuts. For our main, Mac opted for a Maltese specialty – rabbit in a red wine gravy. I chose the Pasta Maltese with tomato sauce, Maltese sausage, green peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and cream. While I wouldn’t personally order the rabbit, everything else was absolutely delicious – especially the cheese!
Something I haven’t encountered anywhere else is that you can order each dish either as a main or as a starter. Perfect solution for indecisive eaters or larger groups who want to share multiple dishes! As you take your seat, you might notice that the majority of faces around you are likely locals. In my book, this speaks volumes about the taste and quality of the dishes louder than any review!
COFFEE & strangers
Another gem we discovered during the conference was COFFEE & strangers, an espresso bar in the heart of Sliema. On our first day, we had a coffee cupping session with the founder where we learned about the journey from a bean to a cup, and even got to see what unroasted or defective coffee looks like. You can read all about it and see the photos in my blog post about the best experiences in Malta.
We enjoyed it so much that we decided to pop in and try their coffee. Even if you’ve never tried specialty coffee before or don’t know your personal preferences, don’t worry! The baristas there will be more than happy to guide you through the different options available.
You can also sign up for a coffee workshop and learn from the best of the best. The founder is one of the world’s 6,000 (and Malta’s only!) Q-graders, who are certified to assess the quality of coffee. You can even learn how to brew a quality cup of coffee in the comfort of your own home!
So, that’s the end of my mini guide to Valletta and Sliema! If you haven’t read the other posts from my Malta series yet, I encourage you to do so. By the end, you’ll be able to craft your perfect Malta itinerary in no time!
In the meantime, I’d love to know – what type of traveller are you? Do you enjoy aimlessly wandering around places or do you prefer to stick to an itinerary?