We spent our first day in Malta exploring Valletta and the Three Cities, or at least one of them in depth – namely Birgu (Vittoriosa). Wandering round gave us a good taste for the place and we took a ridiculous amount of photos. Overall, we weren’t in love with it, but see more on that in our conclusion at the end of this post…
Valletta – a honey-coloured fortress city full of Baroque architecture – is the capital of Malta. The Three Cities is an area of, unsurprisingly, three cities built in very close proximity to each other around the Grand Harbour. The Three Cities is just over the water from Valletta so it’s ideal to see both in a day – we only saw Birgu properly, but you could easily do the other two as well.
When we were there, Malta didn’t just do April showers, but also April gale-force-winds that wreck your hair and freeze you half to death. But we still managed to cover a lot of ground. It’s small and perfectly walkable.
Getting to Valletta
We were staying in Sliema, a touristy area separated from Valletta by a stretch of open sea. We’d wanted to stay in Valletta itself but Easter was obviously a very popular time and everything affordable was full when we booked it in February. Sliema wasn’t our cup of tea at all but it did have a great view of Valletta across the water. Never has anywhere looked more inviting. A cluster of golden buildings, crowned by a huge dome and spiked with towers and turrets.
Getting to Valletta from Sliema was easy and wonderfully cheap – 1.50€ on the ferry. It only took about 10 minutes. Due to the aforementioned aggressive wind, we didn’t stand outside, but on a calm day it would have been a nice journey.
The crowds of Republic Street
Arriving in Valletta, we wandered straight up (and up – it’s hilly) to the centre. Although the sun is out in all the photos we’ve included, that’s artistic license and gives a false impression of the day. The sun popped in and out but it was mostly quite chilly. Despite the weather, it was very busy.
Republic Street, the main drag, was absolutely heaving with people. We knew it would be busy, as a capital city, but were quite surprised it was so chocka in April. Valletta is really small – the smallest European capital, apparently – and Malta is the most densely populated EU country. Add tourists into the mix and it makes for a very crowded centre. We tend to put the camera away if somewhere has too many people in it, but we found a photo of Republic Street on Landlopers’ blog. That that reflects the crowds we saw, if you’re interested.
The square outside St. John’s Co-Cathedral (a big attraction but one we didn’t fancy queuing for that day) was slightly quieter. You can see the hordes ahead in the photo below.
Luckily, it was quite easy to get away from the crowds. Turning down a side street, we found ourselves completely alone. It was quite weird – SO many people in one place but hardly any in many of the smaller roads only seconds away.
The beauty of Valletta is in its colours. The golden buildings are perfect as a backdrop for brightly coloured balconies, some in coordinated colours with their neighbours and some a miss-mash of jewel tones.
Pops of floral colour
Not going to lie, Valletta wasn’t very floral when we were there. It probably gets better as the weather warms up. But there were still a few bursts of colour here and there.
Streets of stairs
My main man Lord Byron, who I became obsessed with at uni, also had a brief visit to Malta. He wasn’t too happy about getting quarantined there on his way home from Greece. Because he had a limp, the endless steps in Valletta wouldn’t have been his idea of fun. He wrote a whole poem about his unfortunate time in Malta, saying: ‘Adieu, ye cursed street of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears’.
The steps and hills didn’t bother us, being used to the equally undulating Madeira.
Views from above Victoria’s Gate
All roads lead to the sea, or we’re always drawn to it (ironic as neither of us can swim). So we naturally gravitated on our explorations away from the centre. To get to the edge of the city, we crossed over the famous Victoria’s Gate, named after Queen Victoria, not Posh Spice.
This was a particularly Instagram-worthy spot. Flag-lined streets and bright red balconies above the aptly named Bridge Bar. There was also a red phone box on the bridge, a leftover from British rule. Not a novelty for us but it seemed to be pleasing other tourists. And it added to the general red theme in the area. Colour coordination should always be applauded.
Lower Barrakka Gardens
Look at any travel blog or guidebook about Valletta and it’ll tell you to see the Upper Barrakka Gardens. There may be a passing mention of the Lower Barrakka Gardens. But if you take one look at the Upper and clock that it’s too full of people, try the Lower. Although busy, it was quiet enough to walk round without dodging too many others.
Like everything in Valletta, it’s on a tiny scale. Calling it a ‘gardens’ is pushing it. It’s more just a singular ‘garden’ and takes a minute to get from one side to the other. Greek-style arches overlook the water and a fort. If it hadn’t been sub-Arctic temperatures, it would have been a nice place for a sit and a drink.
Vegetarian lunch at the Grassy Hopper
We walked pretty much all over Valletta throughout the morning. And by morning, I mean about 11 to 1 because who gets up early on holiday? Then it was time for lunch.
On the corner of a busy street, we found lovely vegetarian food in the incredibly popular Grassy Hopper. Actually, it might have been vegan but not 100% sure. The Grassy Hopper only has a few tables in it so we had to queue for a bit. But the food was really, really good.
Getting to the Three Cities: Birgu
After lunch, we headed to the Three Cities, just over the water from Valletta. They all have two names, a new and an old: Cospicua (Bormla), Senglea (L-Isla) and Vittoriosa (Il-Birgu). We found that the old names were still used more.
Birgu is the oldest and seemingly easiest to get to, so that’s where we headed first. It took about 20 minutes on the bus, for another bargain 1.50€.
Beautiful streets and doors of Birgu
Normally, we rave about almost everywhere we go. But you can probably tell if you read our blogs regularly, that we’d really not been taken with Valletta that morning. Birgu was instantly much more likeable.
Warrens of picture-perfect streets, with flowers cascading down from balconies overhead and rows of brightly coloured doors. Basically, Instagram heaven. It felt much less touristy. Somewhere real people lived yet eerily quiet. Also, the little winding streets sheltered us from the wind. Bonus.
First cat of the trip
What could make us warm to somewhere more than meeting our first fluffy of the holiday? This little chap improved the photograph of this gorgeous scene tenfold by sitting down to wash his bum in the middle of the street. Classic cat behaviour.
Coming out of the cute streets, we walked along the windswept harbour.
The maritime museum and St Lawrence Church are some of the main attractions here. There were also plenty of (closed) restaurants and cafés. Thanks for that, Easter.
The harbour was full of yachts and boats of all shapes and sizes being blown about. Including one flying an Isle of Man flag (Chris’s motherland)! We forced ourselves to have a brief sit before admitting windchill defeat.
The other two of the Three Cities
After that, we wandered around Senglea (L-Isla) but ran out of time to see anything of Cospicua (Bormla).
Senglea was again, oddly quiet, apart from an insane amount of cars. Malta is very car-y overall, despite having a decent and cheap bus service.
Walking a lap of the whole city, we found an amazing floral house before it started getting a bit late and cold, telling us it was time to go back to Valletta.
Back to Valletta via water taxi
Like the buses, the water taxi was really cheap back to Valletta from Birgu. Chris, being disgustingly stoical and having hair that would stay put in a hurricane, went onto the deck to get some photos.
Arriving back in Valletta, the water taxi dropped us off near some colourful double doors (possibly the most whimsical garages ever).
Shabby chic dining at Taproom, Valletta
Having stupidly not booked anywhere, it worked out well when we found Taproom. We’d marked it as a potential during our TripAdvisor researching and after walking past a lot of generic tourist places, it was a relief to see it and get that reassuring feeling that it was going to be good. This sounds daft, but after all our travelling (and eating) over the years, it’s got to the point where we can usually tell just by looking in if somewhere is going to be good or not.
The interior was gorgeous – metro tiles, shabby chic picture frames and lots of rustic and copper features. It was really busy though so we couldn’t get a picture of it all without looking like weirdos. Oh and it had an open kitchen: always a good sign.
We had red wine, two lovely starters and mains, then shared a cheesecake for dessert. It was all perfect and we would highly, highly recommend it.
Valletta at night: bizarrely quiet
As darkness fell on Valletta, the city looked even prettier all lit up. And the crowds vanished.
We’d read about the general lack of nightlife in Valletta before we went. But we weren’t prepared for how utterly closed and dead it was as soon as you walked away from the main tourist streets. There was just nobody about. Maybe the fact it was cold and Easter played a part.
We’re too old for wild nightlife but we usually go for a few drinks after we eat. Normally, we manage to find a little stretch of independent bars – usually craft ale type places like you’d find in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Liverpool’s Bold Street, or Gothenburg’s Haga. You know the kind of thing. But the craft ale places we’d researched online closed at 5pm. What’s that all about?!
We had a mooch round as the streets emptied rapidly.
In the end, we ended up heading back to Sliema for a drink near our apartment. That was quite a challenge too because most places were tacky tourist bars but we managed to find Good Thaimes a bit further along the waterfront in Il-Gzira. It was a lively bar with actual locals in it rather than just tourists, spilling out onto the streets. It had a bit of an Italian atmosphere and a good selection of beer.
In conclusion… mixed feelings
This is probably coming across as one of our more negative blog posts (shout out to that time our blog about Reykjavik went viral because we didn’t love it) but we had mixed feelings about Valletta and Malta overall.
Just looking at this day in Valletta and the Three Cities, we simply didn’t attach to it like we usually do with most places we go to. It was all a bit soulless – we didn’t like the unfortunate traces of British rule and heavily commercial tourism. It was difficult to get a sense of the real place – where do the locals go? We knew it would be quiet at night in Valletta, but we weren’t expecting just how deserted it was after about 9pm on every night we went (not just this one).
However, the food was a real saving grace – not just in Valletta but in Malta overall. We didn’t have one bad meal, even in random places we’d not researched beforehand. Food was fresh and excellent quality – and it wasn’t hard to find vegetarian options anywhere. Also, the architecture was unlike anywhere else we’ve been. The mixture of European and Arabic influence was unique. The sea views were a real highlight, and we saw more of these on our various day trips to Mdina, Golden Bay, Dhingli Cliffs, and Gozo (blogs on them to follow!) – all of which we enjoyed more overall.
Valletta and the Three Cities, Malta: useful information
How to get there (and away)
Flying from Manchester Airport to Luqa took about three hours. To get to the Three Cities, we got a number 2 bus from Valletta that took about 20 minutes and only cost 1.50€.
Where to stay
We stayed in Sliema, but wouldn’t go back there. If you could stay in Valletta, you’re near the bus station for day trips.
How to get around
Everything is very walkable but if you do need public transport, buses and water taxis are nice and cheap.
When to go
We went in April, when it was unseasonably cold, but apparently isn’t as busy as the summer months. Avoid it in high season, though.
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