What to see and do in Valletta and Mdina on a whistlestop 48-hour visit to Malta.
So we’d originally planned to have a whopping three full days in Malta, but a bug wiped us out for our first day on the island. We had to prioritise – which of Malta’s sights did we really want to see? We had to go to Valletta to wave a flag for our EUtour project, and we decided to spend our second day taking a leisurely trip to the former capital, Mdina.
Valletta is the European Union’s smallest capital city with just 6,500 inhabitants and was very different to any of the capitals we’d visited so far on our EUtour. We caught our first glimpse of its golden rooftops on the bus from the airport to our hotel in Sliema.
Sliema is right across the harbour from Valletta, and as we walked along the waterfront later on, we got a beautiful view of Valletta shining in the evening sun.
Although we didn’t love Sliema, it makes a great base for a trip to Malta – as well as a direct-ish bus from the airport, there are direct buses to Valletta, Mdina, St Julian, Cirkewwa (for the ferry to Gozo) and other parts of the island.
Day one: Valletta
On our first full (healthy) day in Malta we took the Sliema Ferry across to Valletta, passing Manoel Island with its star-shaped fort on the way. The fort isn’t open to the public at the moment apart from on rare open days but there’s a plan to restore it so more people can see inside.
The ferry lands in a tiny harbour and it’s a steep climb up to the new City Gate and Parliament building on Triq ir-Repubblika. Valletta is surprisingly hilly – streets rise up and drop down like something out of Inception.
The Valletta City Gate and Parliament area
The new City Gate is a good place to start your visit to Valletta. This gate is the fifth on the site and replaced one built in the 1960s, so don’t be too shocked by how modern it is! It was designed by Renzo Piano, who also designed the Maltese Parliament building next door, as well as the Shard in London.
Next door to the Parliament building is a reminder of how much Malta suffered in World War II. The Grand Opera House, which was once one of Valletta’s most iconic buildings, was almost completely destroyed by a German bomb in 1942. As part of the City Gate and Parliament project the ruins have been cleaned up and now hold an open-air theatre.
We walked around the side of the Opera House, past a beautiful church, and just like that, we were on the other side of Valletta to where we’d landed on the ferry – maybe 20 minutes’ walk. From this side of the city you can see the so-called Three Cities of Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea and Cospicua across the Grand Harbour. If we had more time in Malta we would definitely have visited these three fortified cities.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
Next we walked a few minutes back into the middle of Valletta to see one of it’s greatest sights – St John’s Co-Cathedral. The church dates back to the 16th century and was built by one of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John. It’s called a co-cathedral as it’s one of the two seats of the Bishop of Malta, along with the cathedral at Mdina.
The facade of St John’s Co-Cathedral is fairly simple but once you get inside, the opulence and level of detail is overwhelming. The interior was completely redecorated in a much grander style in the 1700s to rival churches in Rome and is stunningly beautiful. We hadn’t realised before our visit but in one of the chapels you can see one of the artist Caravaggio’s most famous works, the Beheading of St John the Baptist (although you’re not allowed to take pictures).
St George’s Square
After something to eat at Valletta’s branch of Marks & Spencer (don’t judge us, with delicate stomachs, we were craving something familiar!) we carried on through St George’s Square.
Valletta is so densely built, with high buildings and narrow streets, that it’s a surprise when you reach St George’s Square which is a large, paved area. It’s here that the George Cross was awarded to the people of Malta for their bravery during World War II. You can also watch the changing of the guard in front of the Palace of the Grand Master.
Around the corner we dipped through an archway and found a gorgeous hidden courtyard with flowers, trees, fountains and benches perfect for a rest in the shade.
Valletta’s old shop signs
While you’re walking through Valletta (and Sliema too) you can’t help but notice the old shop signs. In almost every street, even the smartest shopping streets, you’ll find shops that seem not to have replaced their signs for 50+ years. It’s a really quirky side to Valletta that I particularly enjoyed.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens
I really loved this little park on the south-east corner of Valletta. It’s got the best view of the Three Cities, and it’s wonderful to watch the boats going in, out and across the Grand Harbour. Inside the garden, there’s a neo-Classical temple commemorating one of the British Chief Commissioners of Malta, and a more modern terrace with plaques dedicated to more recent events, including the Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring and the 50th anniversary of the European Union.
Across the road from the gardens, you can see the Siege Bell Memorial, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Malta being awarded the George Cross.
Fort St Elmo
At the very tip of the Valletta peninsula you’ll find Fort St Elmo. Like the fort on Manoel Island, Fort St Elmo is a star-shaped fort dating back to the 16th century, and forms part of the Valletta fortifications. It’s now the National War Museum. It’s not really our scene and tickets cost 10 euro each so we didn’t go in, but people who have say it’s amazing.
We carried on past the huge walls of Fort St Elmo to the side of Valletta which faces Sliema. The streets on this side of the city aren’t as atmospheric as elsewhere in Valletta but there are some nice examples of the colourful enclosed balconies that you’ll see all over Malta.
After just a few minutes’ walk we were back at the ferry having walked the whole circumference of the city – there aren’t many capital cities where I can say I’ve done that!
Day two: Mdina
On day two, we went to Mdina. Mdina is a walled city, next to the town of Rabat in the north-west of Malta, about 9 miles from Valletta. It was the capital of Malta until the 1500s.
Getting to Mdina
Sliema proved itself again to be a really good base, as there was a bus every 30 minutes direct to Rabat. Since we were getting on at the start of the route, we were able to get seats as well which was very welcome.
Malta is very densely populated and the road network isn’t great – with so many people, narrow streets and not much parking, there’s lots of congestion. The journey to Rabat should have taken just over an hour but ended up taking an hour and a half; still, we were relieved that someone else was doing the driving!
I got my first glimpse of Mdina from the bus window. Across the countryside, something appeared on a hilltop and we looked at each other and said: “That’s Mdina”. It looks magical, like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, or like something out of Game of Thrones, so it’s no surprise that parts of GoT’s first season were filmed here.
When you arrive at the city gates, there’s a real feeling that you’re entering another world. There are hardly any cars, the streets are winding and narrow, and the whole city is lit by gas (style) lamps at night. There also seemed to be very few tourists, compared to the crowds in Valletta, so although Mdina didn’t quite live up to its nickname of the “Silent City”, it was very quiet. There are even signs asking visitors to please keep the noise down.
Game of Thrones locations
Once we’d seen the Cathedral and looked out over the thick city walls to the plains of central Malta, we went in search of some Game of Thrones locations. The main city gate was one, and we found Littlefinger’s brothel on Pjazza Mesquita.
Returning to Valletta
We wandered the city for a couple of hours, enjoying the quiet streets and photogenic corners. When we were ready to head back, our bus to Sliema was a little late and very full, so we took one to Valletta instead. We were glad we did, as on the way we got to see the 17th Century Wignacourt Aqueduct, which stretches alongside the road into Valletta.
We also got to pay another visit to Valletta, this time with emptier streets, making it even more magical. And we got a final trip on the Sliema Ferry, so the last thing we saw in Malta was the same thing we saw first; the gorgeous golden rooftops of Valletta.