Red-top: the dome of Our Lady of Liesse with a view of Valletta’s Mount Carmel church /

A resident of Valletta takes us through the back streets, bars and battlements that make the Maltese capital such a refreshing destination

Valletta is one of Europe’s most diminutive cities. Bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, ravaged by extremes of weather and world war, Malta’s small jewel of a capital is also the furthest south – a historical comeback kid that continues to punch above its weight, as it has done for centuries.

Despite all the grand titles it has clocked over the years – the most recent being European Capital of Culture 2018 – one thing is clear: Valletta today is thriving and alive with cosmopolitan voices even more than when it was a major port.

But there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as old palaces and neglected streets are repurposed for 21st-century living. Valletta’s relatively small but vital population of 400,000 is fighting the fast pace of change it is facing and taking on corporate developers critics claim are laying “siege” to the city.

For visitors, my advice is to hit the back streets once you’ve seen Valletta’s glittering facades. Away from the shoppers and sightseers, you’ll begin to decipher this isolated but worldly-wise city that’s dead set on reinventing itself for the next 450 years, titles or not.

A tale of two streets

Valletta’s narrow back streets may be getting a chic facelift for its European Capital of Culture status but they still echo the voices of its past. Leave the main pedestrian thoroughfare Republic Street to the throng – head off instead for an hour or two on a quieter but captivating walk of two side streets full of clues about the lives of the servicemen, sailors, traders and patricians who gave Valletta its character, and at times its notoriety.

Baroque and roll: the old city’s centuries-old charms remain a tourist draw (Great British Chefs)

Discover the bohemian sights of Strait Street

Start off down Strait Street (Triq il-Dejqa or Strada Stretta), known with a knowing wink as “The Gut” to ex-servicemen and merchant sailors of old.

Play “I spy” as you walk, looking out for faded music hall signs and other hints of the city’s past notorious nightlife. You’ll be rewarded with signs for old nightspots like The Old Vic and The Cambridge Dance Hall. The Egyptian Queen is now a Karen Millen boutique and Carmen Bar and The Silver Horse are long shut, but Strait Street still has a Bohemian feel. Here even the public toilets have been renovated in the style of a bijou theatre.

Make a pit stop at former burlesque bar Tico Tico for a coffee or aperitif lounging outside on plush red and pink velvet sofas. Peer in to admire the bar interior’s burlesque-era memorabilia complete with mini stage and risqué photos of its wilder past.

Meet a marquis at Casa Rocca Piccola

Leave Strait Street at the crossroads with St Dominic Street (Triq San Duminku) and take time to stop at Casa Rocca Piccola, the unusual private home museum of the Marquis de Piro, whose family has lived in this palazzo for more than three centuries.

The museum tells a personal story of Valletta but beyond the lockets of hair and Papal Bulls it houses another curiosity – Valletta’s first private war shelters dug deep below the house in 1935. The current marquis’ grandfather had a premonition Malta would be bombed.

The marquis himself and his family are your guides and if you’re a small group, you can book in advance for a wine or prosecco-tasting and traditional Maltese platter in the garden or library.

Steeped in colour: balconies are standout features of the city (Elena Petrova Fotolia)

Visit the hidden St Paul’s Shipwreck Church

Continue your tour at the bottom of St Paul’s Street to discover Valletta’s industriousness and religiosity. En route you’ll pass traditional shops, grand merchants’ houses and old churches; one with bizarre relics.

St Paul’s Street lies just up from the quays of Grand Harbour and would have seen trade in the latest fashions from Paris, silks and spices from the Levant and grain from Sicily. The old shop signs hint at trades which were once the lifeblood of Valletta. A hole-in-the-wall spice shop and a religious artefacts shop are still busy with locals but the family firms of Maltese clock-makers, gilders, frame makers and upholsterers, while still here, are fewer in number these days.

Worship architecture: St Paul’s Shipwreck church is crying for visitors (Shutterstock)

Check the opening times of St Paul’s Shipwreck Church so you don’t miss this often deserted masterpiece of a 16th-century church. Its lavish decoration is overshadowed by a golden reliquary housing a wrist bone of St Paul and a portion of the column on which the saint is said to have been beheaded.

Eat among bands, bastions and Britishness

Malta’s eclectic fare owes much to its multi-cultural history as a port and former colony, so expect to find a rich mix of Maltese, Sicilian and British items on the menus. Here are some unusual venues to dine in that throw in a slice of city history too.

Chunky fish: Valletta is a go-to place for seafood (Shutterstock)

Get a taste for Maltese cuisine at The King’s Own

Civic, parochial and political pride meet in Malta’s brass band clubs which come into their own at parish feasts. Few are as revered as Valletta’s King’s Own which was founded in 1874, and the restaurant in the club building at the top of Republic Street is known for its unfussy, hearty dishes that blur Maltese, Italian and British cuisine. You’ll find swordfish and tuna when in season, timpana (a type of lasagne but topped with pastry), traditional Maltese rabbit stew, octopus, braised lamb shanks, steaks and other cuts. The restaurant is in the vast, lofty ground hall, where you dine surveyed by fading photos of great bandsmen honoured for eternity.Sna

Snack: pastizzi is a famous street food you can find in bars too (Great British Chefs)

Experience Malta’s Sicilian heritage at the Civil Service Sports Club

Just off Republic Street, near the Grandmaster’s Palace is the former Civil Service Sports Club, now an elegant, airy restaurant run by acclaimed father-and-son chef team Michael and Daniel Cauchi. The building dates to the time of the Knights but had a revival last century as a club for public servants of rank.

The restaurant serves a Mediterranean menu focusing on fish with a contemporary twist. Chef Michael is introducing traditional Maltese recipes from the 1800s, but brought bang up to date for modern tastes. The antipasti misti are a treat and there’s a wide choice of fish of the day. Leave room for dessert as Michael’s serves tempting Sicilian sweets.

Enjoy a picnic along Valletta’s battlements

Lower Barrakka Gardens perched on the bastions (the city’s famous fortifications) is less busy with tourists than its counterpart at the top of town. It offers the footweary a welcome, shady retreat before the ascent back up the peninsula.

Plan ahead before you rest with a detour to discover Submarine, a small Italian-run sandwich bar that’s making its mark. Submarine offers made-to-order breads of choice stuffed full with a create-your-own combo. Try their Emilia-Romagna speciality called Piadigella, which makes an excellent wrap, then find your bench in Lower Barrakka for a perfect picnic under the olives, ficus and pines with a bird’s-eye view of the tip of Grand Harbour.

Take your tipple

With drinks and refreshments from granita and Famous Grouse whisky to Aperol and prosecco, Valletta is the perfect place to find a seat, sip and savour the world as it goes by. As always in Malta, the venues and choice of drinks are a cultural mix drawn from the tastes of the city’s cosmopolitan residents, past and present.

Sip cocktails surrounded by Valletta’s historical past

Escape the hustle and bustle of Republic Street at Charles Grech, purveyor of fine spirits and tobacco since the 19th century and now a classy bar. Founded in 1881, the company originally sold fine tobacco and Dunhill pipes and housed an exclusive sampling bar whose patrons were senior armed forces officers and local gentry. The premises reopened its doors as a bar and cocktail lounge a few years ago and is once again a top-of-the-town venue. Professional waiters and a refined interior make for a haven of calm away from it all.

Timeless: Cafe Prego harks back to the 1960s (Charles Grech)

Experience espresso from the experts

Café Prego, tucked down South Street, is a good place to start the day with a coffee and snack. Opened in 1947 and handed down from father to sons Georgio and Sunny, assisted by a long-serving barista, Prego lives in a time warp. Step inside and back to the 1960s replete with Rexene-covered chairs and original ceiling lamps that collectors of mid-century modern would covet.

Prego has a steady flow of regulars, from public servants to lawyers and the occasional shopper. The cafe is wonderfully reliable in serving up a decent espresso and cappuccino, along with its eponymous egg mayo sandwiches and fresh Maltese pastizzi (savoury pea- or ricotta-filled pasties). Stop by late afternoon for a glass of house red.

Chill out with a drink at HMS Maori

Only metres from the water HMS Maori is complete with hammocks, mismatched furniture, books, art, a guitar and cats. Named after a destroyer bombed by the Germans in 1942 and whose wreck, a popular dive site, lies just offshore, this bar’s building is covered in giant murals.

The eccentricity of HMS Maori is its very allure; the shack is often used for poetry readings and yoga sessions and is the haunt of a more alternative crowd. It has spectacular views out to sea and of Fort St Elmo but it takes a little finding. Head out of the old Sally Port tunnel in the bastions at the very tip of the Valletta peninsula and bear right to the water’s edge.

For cool cats: HMS Maori (Megan Townsend)

Still have time to spare?

Free and refreshingly cool inside, the Fortifications Interpretation Centre is worth popping into for a break from the streets on summer days. The centre, itself within a part of the bastions and underground tunnels of Valletta, gives you a sense of the gargantuan works undertaken to hew out and then build the city’s fortifications in just 15 years.

If sightseeing up and down the steep Valletta peninsula on two feet sounds tiring, then try two wheels instead. Malta Segway Tours offers tours that last from 90 minutes to three hours. This easy-to-ride, two-wheeled electric vehicle is a great and convenient way to make the most of your visit and experience everything the city has to offer.

Discover the critical role the Maltese Islands played in the Second World War with a visit to the Lascaris War Rooms, the Allies’ operations headquarters in the Mediterranean. From here, famous generals planned the invasion of Sicily in 1943. The underground rooms are much as they were the day the war ended, complete with maps and bomber schedules intact.