Founded in the 16th century after a nasty battle with Turkish invaders, Valletta is a city designed for war.

While some countries have nuclear missiles pointed at the sky, Valletta is protected by a series of staggering ramparts, ditches and fortifications.

Valletta Upper Barrakka Gardens

At Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens, you can fully appreciate the walls and ramparts that enclose this city. The cannons are an extra layer of protection.

Today war is the last thing you think about in Malta’s laidback capital. The invaders have left and the city feels relatively undiscovered, especially after the day trippers return to their cruise ships.

Grab a light jacket (those island winds can be strong) and get ready to explore.

Morning At Sea

Start the day with a ride in a dghajsa, a traditional Maltese water taxi. A tour of Valletta’s harbor is the best way to get the lay of the land and a full appreciation for the towering limestone walls that protect the city. As you coast around the harbor, you’ll pass massive cruise ships, luxury yachts, and local fisherman out to catch their dinner.

Valletta dghajsa harbor tour

We’re on a boat! Greg and I hit the harbor in a dghajsa, Malta’s answer to the gondola.

Back on land, take the elevator across the street to the Upper Barrakka Gardens for more spectacular views of the city and sea.

After you get your fill, wander the back streets down to St John’s Co-Cathedral, the most impressive church in the country. In the Oratory, Caravaggio’s brutally realistic Beheading of St John the Baptist takes up nearly an entire wall. The artist’s St Jerome hangs nearby.

Upper Barrakka Gardens VallettaValletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens is a peaceful place to take in the view or relax with a book.

Funky Lunch and Home Tour

Refuel with lunch at Gugar, a tiny cafe with a big personality. School desks and overturned barrels serve as tables, and signs encourage diners to mingle.

After a pizza and a chat with the couple at the next table, hop over to Casa Rocca Piccola, the only privately owned palace in Valletta open to the public.

Gugar VallettaI loved this sign outside of Gugar, a funky cafe in Valletta.

In Casa Rocca Piccola, you’ll wander through room after room of aristocratic treasures, including the sunny summer dining room. Here a marble statue of the goddess Diana overlooks an elaborate table set with silver, china and Maltese lace.

Try to score a guided tour with one of the family members who live in the palace for an extra intimate experience of this beautiful home.

Casa Rocca Piccola Valetta

The exquisite summer dining room in the Casa Rocca Piccola, the only privately owned Valletta palace open to the public.

Continue your Maltese education at the nearby National Museum of Archaeology, home to tools, jewelry and stone figurines from as far back as 5200 BC.

Malta is home to some of the oldest freestanding buildings in the world. At the National Museum of Archaeology you can learn how early citizens built their temples in the days before bulldozers, cranes and power drills.

By the time you’re done, the cruise ships and their daytripping passengers have left. Aside from the locals out for their evening promenade and the teens gossiping on the steps of the Royal Opera House, it feels like you have Valletta all to yourself.

Valletta never felt touristy to us. It was especially peaceful in the evenings.

Dinner and Drinks

Grab dinner at La Mere, where Arabic and Indian dishes share menu space with traditional Maltese cuisine. Then drink a pint or two with the British expats and visitors gathered at The Pub.

The Pub Valletta

A portrait of the queen hangs on a gratified wall at The Pub. The British ruled Malta until 1964.

If you’re still thirsty at closing time head over to Strait Street, once a popular destination for World War 2 soldiers seeking entertainment and a little, ahem, companionship. Today the small alley is lined with sidewalk bars that serve drinks and snacks well into the night.

A version of this story appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. We partnered with Visit Malta for parts of this trip. All opinions expressed here are our own.

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