28 September 2021

City Break in Valletta, Malta: Bex's Guide

After I got back from Edinburgh, I had a day in London to unpack and repack before heading out to Heathrow. I spent nine days in Malta, my first trip out of the UK since Seattle in February 2020. I originally booked a shorter city break to Valletta, Malta's capital, for March 2020, but for obvious reasons, that didn't happen. Luckily, I was able to reschedule my hotel booking and extend the trip to include a stay on the Maltese island of Gozo when I was eventually able to travel again. 

This is the first in a series of four posts about the trip and will cover the four(-ish) days I spent in Valletta. You can also read my write-ups of the day trips I took from Valletta, my experiences on Gozo and an overview of the whole trip, including an itinerary and practical information to help you plan your own visit to Malta.


THINGS TO DO
Valletta's UNESCO World Heritage-listed city centre is extremely compact, spanning just 0.61 square kilometres. The historic centre is characterised by gorgeous architecture, featuring many 16th century buildings constructed by the Knights of Malta around a neat grid pattern. You can see most of the sights in a day or two, but staying for longer means you can explore at a more leisurely pace and add in a few day trips. The city centre is best explored on foot, but you'll want to bring some good walking shoes as there are a few fairly steep hills and lots of cobbles.

Valletta walking tour. I joined a walking tour run by City Walking Tours Malta on my first morning in Valletta. The 2.5-hour tour was an excellent introduction to the city and its complex history, language and culture, and covered most of the key sights. I learned a lot from our knowledgeable guide, including why so many of the gallariji (covered wooden balconies seen on many Valletta buildings) used to be dark green — because the paint was the colour used to paint the hulls of ships that docked in the port, so they were making good use of the leftovers. You can also opt to add on an extra hour with the guide inside St John's Co-Cathedral.


St John's Co-Cathedral. Completed by the Knights of Malta (also known as the Order of St John) in 1577, Valletta's cathedral has a stunning baroque interior that belies its modest exterior. It took a year to decorate and almost no expense was spared (in some parts the gold was *only* plated over silver). You can also go up into the gallery for an aerial view and head down to the crypt to check out the Caravaggio. Beheading of St. John the Baptist was the painter's payment to the Order of St John for taking him in after he fled prison in Italy.


Architecture, old and new. Valletta's huge City Gate has been rebuilt and reimagined five times, the most recent a Renzo Piano design completed in 2014. The modernist gate and Piano's neighbouring Parliament building have had a mixed response from Vallettans, who were hoping for more of a plaza-like open space. The Grand Master's Palace wasn't open during my visit but I peeked at the grand Renaissance buildings from outside. I learned from my tour guide that the balcony outside was the first gallarija in the city and that one Grand Master, Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, even had his own personal green coffee roaster and barista.



Valletta's three parks. Although Valletta only has three public gardens — because of the freshwater challenges — they're all rather lovely. The Hastings Gardens and the Upper Barrakka Gardens sit on opposite sides of the City Gate. Both offer panoramic views — the former is quieter, but the latter has particularly good views of the Grand Harbour and of the Saluting Battery that fires every day at noon and 4 pm. The Lower Barrakka Gardens are on the same side of the peninsula as their more highly elevated counterpart; it's a popular spot in the evenings with views of the Three Cities and the St Elmo breakwater.


Boat trips to Sliema and the Three Cities. It's possible to take short boat rides from the harbour on both sides of Valletta: to Sliema in the northwest and to the Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua) in the southeast. I didn't have time to visit the Three Cities but I did spend a sunny afternoon in Sliema, which, unlike Valletta, boasts a beach. Well, a beach made of large, flat rocks, with a couple of natural seawater pools. Further round the promontory at Tign√© Point, you can jump from the rocks into the sea with an incredible view of the Valletta skyline — highly recommended on a sunny day! Sliema itself is much more developed than Valletta with a lot of big hotels, restaurants and shops, but it was nice to spend a few hours at the beach.



SPECIALITY COFFEE
Malta was the second European country to which coffee was introduced, back in the 16th century. Speciality coffee was a more recent introduction, of course, with the arrival of the excellent Lot Sixty One on Old Theatre Street in 2017. A sister company of the original Lot Sixty One in Amsterdam, the Malta operation roasts its own coffee locally, and there's another coffee shop in St Julian's, across the bay. The Valletta cafe is standing-room-only inside but the seats on the pavement outside are great for people-watching. There was an impressive array of coffees available: five single-origins, plus two espresso blends (including one decaf). 

During my stay, I went to Lot Sixty One every day and was able to try a naturally processed coffee from Finca Aurora, Nicaragua, as an espresso, flat white and V60 pourover — all of which were very well brewed. I also had a piccolo with an Ethiopian Guji, which tasted great too; so much so that I bought a bag of retail beans to take home. They also serve cold drinks and various sweet treats, several of which I sampled.

I also tried another local roaster, Coffee Circus, who have a cosy subterranean cafe on Triq San Gwann. They have several other coffee shops in the area too, several of which are named for Portuguese cities, reflecting their love of all things Lusitanic. I had a nice macchiato, though wish I'd had time to try a pourover too.


FOOD & DRINK
While in Malta, I tried a few Maltese specialities. One of my favourites was the pastizz, a flaky, savoury pastry usually filled with ricotta or, to my delight, mushy peas. You can pick up them from bakeries for about €0.50 each and a couple of them make a good breakfast. I also had a ftira or two — these are crusty rolls traditionally filled with tuna, olives, capers and tomatoes, although many other fillings are also available. The best ones I tried in Valletta were from Grano on St Lucia's Street.


Noni. I'm partial to a tasting menu experience when I travel and Noni, a Michelin-starred restaurant on Republic Street, was the ideal venue for a signature meal. With a focus on locally sourced ingredients, the seven-course menu took me on a journey around Malta. Stand-out dishes were the tuna belly with sea urchin, radish, strawberry and coffee dashi, and their famous dessert: milk chocolate 'Aero' with coconut mousse, tonka bean and coconut ice cream. The Aero texture was spot on! The service and the atmosphere in the vaulted, underground dining room were great too. 


Guze. Set inside a historic building with period features, Guze is a popular bistro — indeed, during my meal, the wait staff kept having to turn away would-be diners who hadn't booked. They have a tasting menu but I stuck to the √† la carte, starting with the seared tuna, which came with celery and a bloody mary sauce, and then hopped outside my comfort zone to order the rabbit for my main course. Rabbit is a popular dish in Malta; it's often served in a stew, but Guze's version, with leg, loin and croquette, was more to my taste.

Ambrosia. Set on a bustling pedestrianised section of Archbishop Street, the outdoor seating at Ambrosia was a great place to soak up the Valletta ambience on my first night in the city. I started with a burrata salad and then had the escalope de veal. The food was tasty but be warned that the portions are huge!

Casa Sotto. After a long day trip, I returned to Valletta in need of a quick supper and Casa Sotto, a pizzeria on Archbishop Street that serves pinsa romana. I had a buffalo mozzarella margherita, which was excellent. It gets very busy so it's worth booking a table.

Yard 32. A gin and tapas bar with more than 200 gins and 40 tonic waters, Yard 32 was the best cocktail spot I found in Valletta. Even I got overwhelmed by the range of gins on the menu (some more tempting than others...lobster gin? Beef gin?) and ended up choosing a fruity gin cocktail instead. The ambience outside was wonderful and my only regret is that because it's closed on Sundays and Mondays, I didn't get to go back for a G&T.

Is-Suq Tal-Belt food market. This new food market has various street-food-style eateries, as well as a supermarket in the basement. I had breakfast at Star Bistro every day, using the vouchers from my hotel, and enjoyed the 'taste of Malta' breakfast with a pastizz, ftira, local bacon, fried egg and tomato. It's also handy for a coffee stop at Lot Sixty One.

Three other places I wanted to try were: Under Grain, Rubino and Aaron's Kitchen.


SHOPPING
I didn't do a lot of shopping in Valletta — coffee beans from Lot Sixty One were my main souvenir — but I wanted to mention two shops I liked a lot. Newly opened Il-Lokal showcases products made by local designers — I bought a lovely turquoise bracelet. For a more tongue-in-cheek take on a gift shop, check out Souvenirs That Don't Suck, which has some fun design-oriented gifts. Although there is more shopping over in Sliema, Valletta has a lot of the basics covered — and Brits will delight in the M&S on Old Theatre Street.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Accommodation
I stayed at The Coleridge Hotel, a boutique hotel in a gorgeous restored palazzo on Old Bakery Street. My room, on the third floor, was huge with a big bed, a lovely writing desk (if you're feeling inspired by the spirit of Coleridge) and a private balcony, as well as a separate living room. The location is great — it's a couple of minutes' walk from all of the main sights, but because it's slightly outside the hustle and bustle it was quiet at night. The staff were also very helpful and accommodating when it came to moving my booking from last spring to September 2021. Owing to COVID restrictions, they currently can't serve breakfast at the hotel but each guest receives vouchers for a big breakfast at Star Bistro at the Valletta food market, a five-minute walk.



Getting there and around
You can take the X4 bus from right outside the airport to the City Gate. It normally takes about 30 minutes but there is major construction going on just outside the airport so it took me about 50 minutes. The bus is a regular city bus and there isn't a huge amount of space for luggage, especially during peak times. A single fare anywhere on the bus network (transfers allowed for up to two hours) is €2 and you can pay via contactless or cash, but no change is given. I bought a 12-journey Tallinja card for €15, which is good value if you plan on using Malta's bus network as much as I did. 

Ferries are also a good way of travelling around Malta's islands. The brand-new Gozo Fast Ferry voyages from Valletta to Mgarr on Gozo in about 45 minutes and runs about every hour. After accidentally booking a ticket online in the wrong direction and not wanting to wait an hour for the next one, I discovered that there's a second company, Virtu, which runs a similar service that seems to be targeted at locals rather than tourists. The seats are a bit less comfortable but it's the same price and takes the same time, so it's worth checking both schedules.

Most Valletta streets have multiple names — an English name (which usually reflects the activity that used to be conducted on the street, such as Old Bakery Street) and a Maltese name (such as Triq il-Fran).


Money and language
Malta uses the Euro and I found that most places in Valletta accepted payment by credit card and contactless. Some places have a minimum fee for credit card purchases, a few smaller places only accept cash and almost everywhere prefers cash tips, so it's worth carrying some small-denomination Euros with you. Maltese and English are the two official languages of Malta, and everyone speaks excellent English. You'll win extra brownie points if you can learn a few Maltese phrases like grazzi ('GRAT-si'; thanks) and bongu ('bon-JU'; hello).


2 comments:

  1. It sounds like you had a great trip! Looks like another place I will have to put on my (very long) list.

    Brian.

    ReplyDelete