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This small Mediterranean capital is the perfect winter city break

Valletta, Malta’s small but mighty capital, still feels like one of the Med’s undiscovered gems. But it won’t stay that way for long. The Local’s commercial editor, Sophie Miskiw, explored 2018's Capital of Culture and can’t wait to go back.

This small Mediterranean capital is the perfect winter city break
Photo: Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta.

I hadn’t known what to expect from Valletta, Malta’s recently-rejuvenated capital city.

I wondered, would it resemble the Italian towns with their blend of Renaissance facades and Neoclassical architecture? After all, Malta is anchored in the Mediterranean just a stone’s throw from Sicily.

Or would it reflect its more recent British history? The country did spend over 150 years as a British Crown Colony, gaining independence around half a century ago.

What I discovered was neither. Or rather both. And so much more.

Start planning your trip to Valletta

‘A city made of sunlight’

Flanked between two harbours, Malta’s gleaming capital is a fortified peninsula packed with over 300 monuments.

Photo: Triton Fountain greets visitors outside Valletta's city walls.

Even outside the city walls there's plenty to admire, from the newly-restored Triton Fountain to the swanky Phoenicia Hotel. But what stunned me most was how pristine everything looked. In every direction sun beat off unblemished limestone; the effect was a city seemingly made of sunlight.

The same can be said once you’re inside the city gates. Even the newer buildings have been carefully designed in the same sandy-coloured stone, harmoniously blending old and new.

While some could argue that a string of occupations have robbed Valletta of its character, instead they seem to have forged it. Each of Malta’s historic rulers have left their distinctive mark on the country and nowhere is it more evident than in Valletta. The city is a wonderful melting pot of different architectural influences and the effect is a fascinating journey through five hundred years of history.

Photo: Architectural mishmash in Valletta

None of Malta’s rulers have had such a prominent effect as the Order of St. John, an international military order that ruled the Maltese islands between 1530 and 1798. Commanded by a series of Grand Masters hailing from countries across medieval Christendom, it was under the Order that Valletta was first established in 1566.

Over five hundred years later, the characterful little city can only be described as a charming mishmash of architectural styles; here a Baroque church, there a Mannerist theatre, punctuated with the occasional Victorian kiosk or iconic red telephone box. Even the long, straight streets are a snap-happy Instagrammer’s dream with their picturesque clutter of colourful wooden balconies.

Photo: Colourful balconies in Valletta

Photo: A red telephone box in Valletta

It’s lively, too. No longer a sleepy pensioners’ retreat, Valletta is fast becoming one of Europe’s most happening cities. Once the city’s debaucherous red light district, Strait Street is now a buzzing social hub packed with bars, restaurants, and live music venues.

Thanks to a packed calendar of events there’s no shortage of things to do, with everything from visual arts performances to renowned film and literature festivals.

And one thing’s for certain: you won’t go hungry during your stay.

Much like the city itself, Valletta’s culinary scene is a wonderful combination of intercultural cuisine. Watch the world go by in the piazza at Caffe Cordina, a 175-year-old restaurant and tea shop serving local dishes and pastries, sample Sicilian specialties at cosy Trattoria da Pippo, or sip on locally-made wine in Trabuxu Wine Bar, an underground restaurant in a 400-year-old stone vaulted cellar.

Malta’s crown jewel

If Malta could be described as the the Order of St. John’s playground, an entire country where it could display its wealth and cultivation, then Valletta was its crowning glory.

And, to this day, the largest gem in that crown is St. John’s Co-cathedral.

Photo: St. John's Co-cathedral

A pristine and perfectly preserved example of Baroque architecture, its austere facade was designed to intentionally conceal the treasures within.

Commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere and designed by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, the ornate walls were carved by local craftsmen and decorated with gold leaf. Every inch of the cathedral, from its polychrome marble floor upwards, is truly jaw-dropping. It’s unquestionably one of the Mediterranean's most noteworthy masterpieces.

The cathedral is also home to not one but two Caravaggio paintings. The story goes that the disgraced artist fled to Malta after committing murder in Rome, producing the ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ to thank the Order for its hospitality in hosting him. Before long, Caravaggio was involved in another brawl and this time fled to nearby Sicily.

Upper Barrakka Gardens. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Just a short walk from the cathedral is Upper Barrakka Gardens, a peaceful respite with a sensational view of the Grand Harbour.

 

A post shared by Sophie Miskiw (@the.sophist) on May 1, 2018 at 2:14am PDT

None of the original buildings in Valletta had gardens, so a communal space was built for the knights to relax and generally enjoy being important. It’s a tranquil spot to enjoy a pastizz, a flaky Maltese pastry filled with ricotta cheese that’s eaten for breakfast or as a mid-afternoon snack.

Photo: Maltese pastizz

It’s just one of many wonderful people-watching perches where you can sit and soak in the vibrancy of Valletta.

Too much for one trip

If I learned one thing from my trip to Valletta, it’s that it’s a city that deserves several days of exploring. Every building tells a story, every corner has a history. Two, or even three days, in the city are simply not enough.

Valletta has gained popularity since it was named Capital of Culture 2018 but there’s still time to discover it before the rest of the world does. Start planning your trip to Valletta now.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Malta Tourism.

TRAVEL

Explore Austria: Mauer, a charming wine-hiking spot on Vienna’s outskirts

Catch the very tail-end of the wine season and autumn foliage in one of the lesser-explored corners of the Austrian capital: Mauer.

Explore Austria: Mauer, a charming wine-hiking spot on Vienna’s outskirts
Beautiful views and cosy taverns await you on the edge of Vienna. Photo: Catherine Edwards

Wine-hiking is an autumn must-do in Austria, and although the official Wine Hiking Day (Weinwandertag) that usually draws crowds has been cancelled two years in a row during the pandemic, it’s possible to follow the routes through beautiful scenery and wine taverns on your own.

Mauer in the southwest of Vienna is one of the routes that is mostly frequented by locals.


The footpath takes you through scenic vineyards. Photo: Catherine Edwards

You can reach this part of the 23rd district using Vienna’s public transport, and you have a few options. From the Hietzing station on the U4 line, you can take the tramline 60 or bus 56A. The former will take you either to Mauer’s central square or you can get off earlier at Franz-Asenbauer-Gasse to start the hike. If it’s too early in the day for wine just yet, you could start your day at the small and charming Designo cafe (Geßlgasse 6).

Otherwise, the residential area itself doesn’t have much to see, but keep an eye out as you wander between the taverns later — there are some beautiful buildings.

To start the hike, head west along Franz-Asenbauer Gasse, which will take you up into the vineyards, growing some red wine and Vienna’s specialty Gemischter Satz or ‘field blend’, which as the name suggests is a mixture of different types of grapes.

Photo: Catherine Edwards

The paved road takes a left turn, but the hiking route follows a smaller path further upwards. Here you’ll have magnificent views over the whole of Vienna.

If you stick to the official hiking route (see a map from Weinwandern here) you can keep the whole route under 5 kilometres. But more adventurous types don’t need to feel limited.

You can also follow the Stadtwanderweg 6 route (see a map here) either in full, which will add on a hefty 13 kilometres, or just in part, and venture further into the Mauerwald. If you do this, one spot to aim for is the Schießstätte, a former hunting lodge offering hearty Austrian meals.

EXPLORE AUSTRIA

In any case, you should definitely take a small detour to see the Wotrubakirche, an example of brutalist architecture from the mid-1970s built on a site that was used as a barracks during the Second World War.

Not far from the church is the Pappelteich, a small pond that is not only an important habitat for local flora and fauna, but a popular picnic spot for hikers. Its only water supply is from the rain, and due to climate change the pond has almost dried out in recent years, prompting the city to take action to boost its water supply by adding a permanent pipe.


The church is made up of over 150 concrete blocks. Photo: Catherine Edwards

What you really come to Mauer for, though, are the Heuriger or Viennese wine taverns. 

The most well-known is Edlmoser (Maurer Lange Gasse 123) which has previously been named as the best in Vienna. Note that it’s not open all year so check the website, but in 2021 it should be open between November 5th and 21st, and is also serving the goose that is a popular feature on Viennese menus this time of year.

Tip for translating Heuriger opening times: look for the word ausg’steckt, which is used by those taverns which aren’t open year round. They will also often show that they’re open by attaching a bunch of green twigs to the sign or front door.


Buschenschank Grausenburger. Photo: Catherine Edwards

Also worth visiting are cosy Buschenschank Grausenburger (Maurer Lange Gasse 101a), Heuriger Wiltschko (Wittgensteinstrasse 143 — located near the start of the hiking route, this is a good place to begin your tour) and Heuriger Fuchs-Steinklammer (Jesuitensteig 28).

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