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The first thing you’ll probably notice when you arrive in Valletta is the city gate. It’s hard not to – it’s the main entrance to the Maltese capital, and the way you’re most likely to enter this tiny European city.
Once inside the gate, you’ll find yourself thrown right into the action on Republic Street. This 900m-long street stretches all the way through Valletta, dividing the city in half. Lined with British high street shops and the occasional red phone box or post box, it’s one of the only streets in Valletta that still holds clues to Malta’s colonial past.
My advice? Get off the main street as quickly as possible. Not only is it busy, but it has much less to offer than the narrow, hilly streets that stem off of it.
The streets of Valletta
Valletta’s streets are laid out in a grid but have the peculiar feel of a maze. The occasional bend and the tiny alleyways that snake off of the cobbled streets make Valletta an easy place to get lost. And that’s fine, because it’s exactly what you’ll want to do while you’re there.
The Maltese capital is the kind of place where you can see a lot by just walking around. Head off, see where your feet take you and enjoy the feeling of being immersed by local life.
A morning city
Away from the main street, Valletta is a surprisingly quiet city – silent at times. After sunset, there’s very little noise at all.
It’s also a morning city. If you want to experience Valletta at its best, wake up early before the other tourists do. It’s at this time you’ll see the streets bustling with locals going about their daily lives: shopping, cleaning and getting ready for the day ahead. Later on, they’ll head inside as the tourists begin to emerge. But get up before sunrise and you’ll be treated to a very local experience.
Always look up
Local activity isn’t the only reason to look up while you’re walking around the streets of Valletta. One thing you simply won’t be able to miss is the city’s most iconic feature: the Maltese balcony.
Maltese balconies line the streets of Valletta. Bulging out from their sandy-bricked buildings, they add a splash of primary coloured art all over the city.
When you walk around Valletta, you’ll spend most of your time staring up at the architectural ornaments above you. And, if you stay in Valletta, you may even be lucky enough to find a Maltese balcony in your hotel room! (I did!)
Above and below: The new parliament building in Valletta, Malta
Old meets new
Valletta is an architectural feast for the eyes. You might come for the Maltese balconies – and those iconic photos showing how they tower over the city streets – but you’ll find so much more.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the Maltese capital has all of the history and protected architecture you would expect. But there’s a surprising amount of modern design woven in along side its older bricks.
Take the new parliament building, for example. Its Lego-like wall greets you as you enter the main gate, but it might take a few passes before you notice it. Once you do, though, it’s unmissable – a modern stamp on a city that feels more like a page from a history book than a modern, working capital.
A city by the sea
There aren’t many European capitals that boast both heritage and sea. Valletta offers both in abundance.
One of the most unique things about Malta’s capital is that you can soak in the city’s heritage while enjoying views down on to the water. That’s because Valletta is bordered by the sea on three of its four sides. With its centre raised up on a hill, that means you’re never far from a road that slopes down to the water – and the view that comes with it.
For what it lacks in sand stretches, Valletta makes up for in rugged coastline and makeshift rock beaches. Similar to those found on some of the Greek Islands, the rocky sun spots are much more suited to the city’s resilient character.
A mix of cultures?
With influences from British colonial rule and Arab invasion many centuries before, Malta is a uniquely placed island state in the Mediterranean. Rather than echoing its former influences explicitly, Malta has used its history to evolve a very unique culture of its own.
Arabic still lingers in the language, with many modern Maltese words resembling those of modern Arabic dialects.
Along the island’s roads, it won’t be hard to spot a number of old British cars.
But there’s no mistaking where you are because everything feels very distinctly Maltese: warm, hospitable and good-humoured when you allow it.
When you first arrive, Valletta may seem like a tourist-y city you can see in one day – perhaps less. But give it a chance. The longer you spend in Valletta, the more you’ll find.
Although it’s the smallest capital city in the EU, Valletta is a place that takes time to get to know. From the food to the local customs, give yourself at least a few days there if you can. Get out, explore and observe. You’ll uncover something new every day and, the longer you stay, the longer you’ll feel you need.
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