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A taste of Valletta

Malta’s capital has a food scene on fire right now so we just had to sample it on a whirlwind city break, enjoying the amazing architecture, culture and buzzy bars along the way.

WHAT? WHERE?

Valletta, Malta’s honey-hued capital, was built by the Knights of St John in the 16th Century and wandering around the fortifications feels a bit like being on a set of Game of Thrones (though with less sex and violence) – way more impressive than I’d expected stepping off a three-hour flight from London. 

Refreshingly clean and well-presented, the city’s best explored by foot and I discovered museums, squares and ancient churches at every turn with occasional glimpses of the sea down narrow side lanes off shop-lined thoroughfare Republic Street. Malta’s just 17 miles long and 9 miles wide, so you’re never actually more than 15 minutes from the Med. 

EAT & DRINK

The dining scene here is scorchio and the hottest ticket in town’s a seat on the terrace of ION-The Harbour, a sceney rooftop restaurant above luxurious Iniala boutique hotel. It was recently awarded a Michelin-star and it’s definitely deserved – the setting, service and sensational food deserve a Milky Way of awards.

I tried the seven-course tasting menu, the highlight of which were a delicate dish of marinated shrimp, caviar, ginger and creme cru and araguani chocolate, which came topped with caramel-dipped sourdough (who even knew that was a thing?). 

For modern Maltese food with a touch of French flair, like rabbit confit and octopus tagine, there’s Noni, which is hands down the local’s fave (literally every one I met asked if I’d been) and was also given a Michelin-star last year. Sadly it was fully booked when I visited, but that’s an excuse to go back, right?

Not keen on tiny plates of rich, fiddly food? I hear you, sometimes we all prefer a large plate of comfort food without a jus or foam in sight, in which case make a beeline for Gracy’s. I loved the stunning 17th Century palazzo setting here, not to mention my large moules marinière starter followed by an even larger bowl of tuna tagliatelle. The roof terrace wasn’t open when I visited, but if you can bag a seat up there because the city views are superb. 

I came across Trabuxu during an evening stroll around the super-safe streets and can’t recommend it enough. It’s Malta’s oldest wine bar and I felt like a local perched on a rickety stool by a barrel table tucking into Maltese cheeses and wine late into the night. 

Close to the harbour front lies enchanting Bridge Bar, which has live music on Friday nights and candle-lit tables and chairs cascading down outside steps like something from a film set. 

Be sure to order a coffee and pastizzi (traditional Maltese pastry) at Caffe Cordina as it’s illegal to leave the island without sitting outside this legendary people-watching spot (it’s not really, but you get the idea). 

And if you want to let your hair down head to Cafe Society for cocktails at the copper-topped bar – make like the locals and sit on the steps if the tables are full.

HOW TO SEE IT BEST

When I wasn’t eating (which was rare tbh), I ditched the guidebook and wandered – always the best way to discover some really interesting, quirky places, like Casa Rocca Piccola. This eccentric palazzo museum is owned by a Marquis (he still lives there and appeared out of the blue for a chat!) and packed to the rafters with art, books and Maltese memorabilia (photo of Meghan Markle in traditional Maltese dress, anyone?), plus there’s a pretty courtyard where you’ll find his pet parrot and a World War II bunker. 

Boat’s another brilliant way of getting around. I headed for the harbour front, via an outside lift at Upper Barrakka Gardens and hopped on a brightly-coloured traditional wooden Maltese gondola (dghajsa) for €3 to reach the Three Cities, camera phone at the ready capturing all the Valletta views along the way. Once ashore I sat on the terrace at Don Berto restaurant and ordered the seafood risotto (I know, eating AGAIN), then worked off the calories with a dip in one of the roped-off sea pools.

CULTURAL HIGHLIGHTS

St John’s Co-Cathedral is probably the most dazzlingly opulent place of worship I’ve ever visited; think vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling gold leaf-clad pillars, marble-inlaid tombstones and incredible art work, including two dramatic Caravaggio’s in the Oratory (the only ones he painted outside Italy). 

Venus statues unearthed in island temples dating back more than 5000 years can be found in the National Museum of Archaeology and I also took a wander around MUZA, the city’s cool carbon-neutral community art museum filled with beautifully curated pieces, from modern art through to traditional oil paintings capturing every day life on the island. 

Just before midday you’ve got to go full-on tourist, grab a coffee and gelato from the kiosk at Upper Barraka Gardens and catch the daily noon salute from the battery of cannons overlooking Grand Harbour. I thought they fired real cannon balls and was concerned about the passing boats *hangs head in shame*. They don’t, but it’s still loud and fun.

WHERE TO STAY

Restored 17th Century palazzo Domus Zamittello was my Baroque boutique hotel of dreams, with 21 pretty rooms filled with white-washed antique furniture and enormous beds, a spectacular glass-roofed atrium and hidden roof terrace – the perfect place for an Aperol Spritz at sunset. There might not be a pool, but it overlooks Valletta’s open-air concert theatre, Pjazza Teatru Rjal and if you’re lucky like I was, there might be a rehearsal or even a show on!

MUDDY INSIDER TIP

Buy a day pass to the iconic five-star Phoenicia Hotel, (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip used to dance there when he was a Naval Officer in Malta), which includes lunch and access to its beautiful infinity pool with fab-u-lous city views. Sightseeing while swimming, Muddy’s kinda of city break.

HOW TO GET THERE

Ryanair flies to Valletta from as little as £34 return throughout the winter. Rooms at Domus Zamittello start from €149pn.

Find more ideas here

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