Why go now?
The monumental entranceway and City Gate area of Malta's charming capital is being transformed by the architect Renzo Piano. The ugly 1960s gate and square that long blighted many first impressions of this delightful historic city are now gone.
In their place is rising the new City Gate (1) , as well as an ultra-modern parliament building. An open-air theatre has also just opened: the Pjazza Teatru Rjali (2) – the Royal Piazza Theatre – is constructed within the ruins of the iconic Royal Opera House. Information on performances is available from the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts (00 356 2123 2515; maltaculture.com).
From Luqa airport, 5km southeast of Valletta, bus X4, X5 or X7 will drop you outside the new gateway (1); €2.20. A taxi costs around €15.
For an interesting twin-centre holiday, you could also reach Malta by sea from Sicily with Virtu Ferries (020-8206 1332; virtuferries.com). Ships dock at the Valletta waterfront (3) just outside the city. From here a new lift takes passengers up the side of the fortifications to Valletta's Upper Barracca Gardens (4).
Get your bearings
Valletta was built by the Knights of St John – the Christian warrior knights who ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798. Built on a peninsula, the city is just one kilometre long and 600 metres wide. Its narrow streets, overhung with painted wooden balconies (galleriji), are easy to navigate. Much of the city is pedestrianised.
Valletta's backbone is Republic Street where you will find many of the main sights. It runs all the way from City Gate (1) to Fort St Elmo (5) on the tip of the peninsula. Parallel to it is Merchant Street. At the City Gate end, the Auberge d'Italie (6), once home to the Italian Knights, is now the main tourist office (00 356 2291 5440; visitmalta.com; daily).
Further along, is Valletta's daily market (7). On the south-east side of the city is the Grand Harbour, which played a crucial role in the Second World War as the Mediterranean home of the Allied Fleet and remained the Royal Navy's Mediterranean base until the 1970s; on the other side is Marsamxett Harbour and the ferry to Sliema (see Take a Ride).
Hotel Phoenicia (8) at The Mall, Floriana (00 356 2122 5241; phoeniciamalta.com) is perfectly located just outside City Gate (1). A comfortable hotel built in the 1930s, it has a garden and swimming pool overlooking Marsamxett Harbour. Doubles from around €180, room only.
The Castille Hotel (9) at Castille Square (00 356 2124 3677; hotelcastillemalta.com) is an atmospheric hotel in a traditional building with stone stairs and wood-panelled walls. It is also a near-neighbour to the Knights Auberge de Castille, now the prime minister's office, and the Upper Barracca Gardens (4). Some rooms are a little tired, but doubles are just€80, including breakfast.
Asti Guest House (10) at 18 St Ursula Street (00 356 2123 9506) is a popular budget option in a 350-year-old townhouse. Doubles from €40, including breakfast.
Take a view
The arcaded Upper Barracca Gardens (4) were built by the Knights. They were beloved of the British (who ruled here from 1800 to 1964 after helping the Maltese kick out Napoleon, who, in turn, had ousted the Knights). They offer a spectacular view over the Grand Harbour and Fort St Angelo – the oldest fort in Malta.
Take a hike
Start at City Gate (1) and walk the length of Republic Street to find the National Museum of Archaeology (00 356 2122 1623; heritagemalta.org; €5) housed in the Auberge de Provence (11).
Pass the Knights' main church, St John's Co-Cathedral (12), their columned law courts and library,concealed behind a statue of Queen Victoria, before you reach Valletta's heart, St George's Square. Down one side of the square is the Grand Master's Palace (13), home to the Knights' chosen leader. The state rooms are open 10am to 4pm daily except Thursday. The Knights Armoury (00 356 2124 9349; heritagemalta.org) is open daily 9am to 5pm. A combined ticket is €10.
Republic Street ends at Fort St Elmo (5), a star-shaped stone fortress that has guarded the entrance to the Grand Harbour since before Valletta was built. It is being renovated for opening to the public. For now, only one area is open, the National War Museum (00 356 2122 2430; heritagemalta.org; €6), which covers the two world wars from a Maltese perspective.
Lunch on the run
Backtrack to Nenu (14) at 143 St Dominic St (00 356 2258 1535; nenuthebaker.com) a new family friendly, modern restaurant built into a traditional bakery, serving large ftira (Maltese pizzas, €6.50 to €10.50), and other traditional dishes. Closed Sundays.
For lasting local products and souvenirs, including silver filigree and lace, try the Artisans Centre (15) at 284 Republic Street, open daily.
Strait Street, known as "The Gut" when it was the primary haunt of sailors on shore leave, lay largely deserted after the Royal Navy withdrew from Malta. It is now beginning to revive with new bars and restaurants opening up. Tico Tico (16) is the most colourful so far, with fancy pink chairs outside and photos of its insalubrious past within. Try a Kinnie aperitif (any alcohol mixed with Malta's very own cola-type drink).
Dining with the locals
Str.Eat (17) (00 356 2122 8347) is another new Strait Street opening. Tucked behind the new Whisky Bar, it offers excellent modern Mediterranean food at very good prices. The salmon cured in 10-year-old Talisker whisky (€9.25 with free starter) is particularly tasty.
For a historic experience, dine within the bastion walls of Valletta at Rampila (18) (00 356 2122 6625; rampila.com). Excellent Maltese cuisine is served in a sloping converted tunnel or on the atmospheric terrace tucked between the great defensive city walls. Mains are around €20.
Sunday morning: go to church
While the exterior of St John's Co-cathedral (12) is 16th-century austere, the interior is a visual symphony of Baroque excess in paint, marble and gold. At 9.15am on Sundays, the church is lit up for a full sung Latin Mass, a great way to experience it – and free. You can look around the chapels afterwards, although if you want to use the audioguide or visit the Oratory with its Caravaggio paintings, you will need to come back weekdays from 9.30am to 4.30pm or Saturday 9.30am to 12.30pm and pay €6.
Take a ride
Get a sailor's-eye view of Valletta's imposing fortifications on a Two Harbours Cruise with English commentary (00 356 2346 3333; captainmorgan.com.mt; €16) from Sliema Ferries, which is itself a 10-minute ride on the Sliema Ferry across Marsamxett Harbour from Valletta. Alternatively, tour the Grand Harbour in a private dghajsa, a traditional Maltese harbour boat, provided by A&S Water Taxis (00 356 2180 6921; maltesewatertaxis.com; €10 for 30 minutes).
Out to brunch
Sundays can be quiet, with many shops and restaurants closed, but the handsome old Caffe Cordina (19) at 244 Republic Street (00 356 2123 4385; www.caffecordina.com) opens 8.30am to 7pm. Sit outside under Queen Victoria's gaze with pastizzi – the most popular local snack, a mini pasty of cheese or peas. It is also a great place to buy such specialist Maltese foods as local capers, honey and anti-pasti (packed for travel).
Jump on a bus out of town to the remarkable Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples (00 356 214 231; heritagemalta.org), which are the best preserved of Malta's Neolithic stone temples. These remains, built between 3600 and 2500BC, are older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge. The excellent on-site exhibition will reveal all, before you wander around the temples with their monumental entranceways, tightly packed stone walls, semi-circular rooms and carved altars. Open daily; admission €9.
Icing on the cake
At the convivial little Legligin (20), a restaurant and wine bar at 117 Santa Lucia Street (00 356 2122 1699), Chris cooks all the food, chooses all the wine, and holds court. His Maltese mezze (€20) is a feast of nine mini (and not-so-mini) traditional dishes – including rabbit stew. Round the evening off with his homemade limoncello liqueur.