Europe’s Next Great Cultural Destination: Valletta, Malta

Steeped in history, the age-old city and 2018 European Capital of Culture is undergoing a modern revival.

Renzo Piano's angular, monumental Parliament building.

From the sea, the capital of the tiny island republic of Malta looks archaic and surreal. A small city of gridded streets, built on a peninsula that rises like a crooked finger between two ancient harbors, Valletta’s baroque townhouses and M.C. Escher–esque fortification walls carved from a single piece of golden-hued limestone rise like ageless relics. The first thought I had when I managed to take in the whole of the place from a small ferry crossing the Grand Harbor was, “What aesthetically inclined society built this monumental city?” The second thing that came to mind was that it resembled an epic set straight out of Game of Thrones. (That’s not so far from the truth; several scenes from the first season of the show were filmed on Malta.

With such a deep history, the Maltese have been justifiably resistant to change. But Valletta’s designation, five years ago, as the European Capital of Culture for 2018, is perhaps the most significant development driving the city’s metamorphosis. Now, a new generation of locals, international designers, and investors are turning Valletta into an under-the-radar cultural destination with both historic and modern appeal. Over several recent visits, I found the ancient port to be a pulsing, vibrant place where abandoned townhouses are being converted into stylish boutique hotels and small independent art galleries.

In Valletta, even when you are searching for its future, it’s impossible to avoid its past. From the late Middle Ages to the turn of the 19th century, Malta was ruled by the legendary Order of Saint John, who was awarded the archipelago in 1530 by Emperor Charles V, with approval from the Pope, in exchange for an annual payment of one highly prized Maltese falcon. The Roman Catholic command, now usually referred to as the Knights of Malta, built Valletta in the 16th century as both a grand statement of power and a strategic military stronghold. Even today, many locals still boast about the Great Siege of Malta, when, in 1565, against all odds, the Knights and just 400 locals fought invading Ottomans and won.

See the 2018 European Capital of Culture through designer Francis Sultana’s eyes. 

A view down one of Valletta's many narrow side streets.

Despite my intent to discover Valletta’s contemporary cultural scene, one of the first places I visited was St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a 16th-century church in the center of the city that was built by the Knights of Malta and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. (According to lore, he was shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D. on his way to Rome and spent much of his free time converting the Maltese, which makes the country one of the world’s oldest continually active Christian communities.) Although the fortlike stone building appears modest from the outside, the interiors, which were renovated by the Calabrian artist and knight Mattia Preti in the 1660s, are dizzying in their baroque extravagance—every surface is carved or painted or gilded or all three; the marble floors are a checkerboard of elaborately decorated tombs; and its oratory is home to two Caravaggios, including his masterpiece “The Beheading of St John the Baptist. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the contemporary designers and artists who have to compete with the grand draftsmen of such landmarks.

Later that day I met with two local architects, David Drago and Konrad Buhagiar, of Architecture Project, who have managed to create modern structures that complement Valletta’s historic landscape while forging a path for its future. The team is responsible for designing the 20-story Barrakka Lift, a corrugated-aluminum-and-glass elevator that shoots up the side of one of the city’s impenetrable fortification walls to a small park of palm trees and stone arches overlooking the harbor. We sat at a table outside Café Society, a new bar with seating along the ancient stone steps that lead down to the water. It was a scene steeped in history, but the vibe was bohemian: an attractive crowd spilled out the door and lounged on pillows, taking in the sunset to an electro-jazz beat.

The Barraka Lift 5
The Barraka Lift
The Barraka Lift

A dizzying view down the Barrakka Lift's open-air staircase.

The Barraka Lift

Corrugated aluminum, glass and concrete comprise the main elements of Drago and Buhagiar's design.

The Barraka Lift

Sunlight filters through the Lift's corrugated aluminum exterior.

The Barraka Lift

A narrow walkway connects the Barrakka Lift's sleek modern form with the pockmarked stone of Valletta's past.

The Barraka Lift

The Lift provides a quick means of scaling one of Malta's many ancient fortified walls.

According to Drago and Buhagiar, Valletta’s revival started in 1989, with the decision to hire Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a masterplan for a more modern Parliament building and main entrance to the city. At the time, Valletta was to be avoided; after withstanding intensive bombing during World War II, streets and edifices had been destroyed, and many of its citizens had abandoned their townhouses for the surrounding countryside. Very few came into the city after dark. “That was the turning point,” Drago said. “People started thinking about what Valletta could be.” Piano’s City Gate, a narrow entrance reached by a metal bridge that breaches the walls of the city, was finally completed in 2014. Wide stairs lead down the side of the new Parliament, a monumental structure that appears like a group of floating limestone blocks. Because both the bridge and the government building were carved from the same material as the rest of the city, they fit seamlessly into the urban landscape. Though Piano’s buildings generated much criticism from locals at first, even some of its original detractors now consider the project an important symbol of the new Valletta. “There is less nostalgia now,” Buhagiar said. “Maltese are traveling more. There is more awareness of contemporary architecture.”

Buhagiar says that the European Capital of Culture announcement confirmed the city’s promise and potential; suddenly, everyone wanted to buy a townhouse or start a business here. Since then, European Union money has been invested into a slew of exciting projects, including MUZA, a new home for the national museum that will open next year in the historic Auberge d’Italie. An extension to the St John’s Co-Cathedral, dedicated to the church’s spectacular collection of 29 Flemish tapestries, is also underway. (It’s another enterprise being overseen by Architecture Project.) “Being chosen as Capital of Culture has created a lot of good energy here,” Buhagiar said. So has financial backing, both from Malta itself and from abroad.

Cafe Society is a standout in Valletta's burgeoning bar scene.

There is hope that these new cultural spaces will encourage and foster a growing community of contemporary artists and designers. A small group of young Maltese artists, including the sculptor Kane Cali, have returned to Valletta after studying abroad and are injecting some fresh blood into the city. I met Cali, trim and well-dressed, in his immaculate, all-white studio one evening, a model of his latest cast-glass-and-concrete sculpture perched on his desk and some experiments with a 3-D printer on another neatly organized surface. He studied ceramics and glassmaking at the Royal College of Art in London, and while he uses cutting-edge technology to create his works, much of his inspiration comes from nature and from Malta’s cultural identity. 

A piece in his studio that stood out to me was a bust laser-carved from a stack of paper; from a distance, it looked like a traditional marble sculpture, but up close it was far more delicate. Appropriately, his own ancestor Giuseppe Cali was a renowned painter in Malta in the 19th century. “A lot of my generation is coming back and setting up shop,” he said, mentioning fashion designer Carla Grima, who is designing eye-catching modern kaftans and bathing suits from natural fabrics in Malta.

Kane Cali exhibits his modern take on Maltese art's long history.

Cali later introduced me to Alexandra Pace, another talented young artist. In 2013 she founded Blitz, a nonprofit contemporary art organization located in her family’s elegant four-story, 400-year-old townhouse. She turned the first and second floors into a café and exhibition spaces, the third level has become a living space for visiting artists, and she makes the top floor her home. “My energy is better spent here than in London,” Pace said. “This is not a museum or a gallery, but here I have the freedom, along with my partner, Nicole Bearman, to offer a platform to both local and international artists.” Over the next two years she will be organizing off-site residencies; multisite exhibitions; and other events as part of “Transformer,” a large-scale project in collaboration with London’s Central Saint Martins art school.

What Valletta lacks, for the moment at least, in contemporary art spaces, it makes up for with its laid-back nightlife. Though the city’s gridlike streets make it easy to navigate, there is still something unexpected around almost every corner. Not far from Café Society is the Bridge Bar, a jazz venue in a townhouse with enclosed balconies (a traditional Maltese architectural element) and a tangle of violet bougainvillea climbing its facade. Nearby, many smaller bars are concentrated on Strait Street, historically the city’s red-light district and at one time a favorite dueling location for the Knights. Currently everyone is buzzing about architect Chris Briffa’s new project at the street’s lower end, where he is renovating a block of buildings that will become a mix of bars, restaurants, and cultural spaces. “I like to think of my architectural interventions as added chapters in the long story of this town,” he said. Briffa, who must be one of the busiest architects in Valletta, is also the designer behind the most stylish boutique hotel in town: the Casa Ellul, a four-story Neoclassical building whose rooms have been converted into eight luxury suites, some of which boast private terraces with jaw-dropping views over the rooftops of Valletta.

Old signage and sidewalk seating on Valletta's Merchant Street.

Almost everyone I spoke with joked about a fresh boutique hotel opening every month, but the most compelling newcomer is 43-room La Falconeria. The story goes that the Knights of Malta used to raise and train their famous Maltese falcons on this very street—hence the property’s name. Large windows frame warm interiors with patterned cement-tile floors, midcentury furniture, and flattering golden lighting. Coming across it one evening as I was wandering the streets after dinner, I was compelled to enter the intimate bar; a hallway led to leather banquettes in a lively restaurant called L’Artiglio, where the menu changes daily depending on the whims of chef Janine Camilleri, who is inspired by Maltese home cooking and seasonal produce. The vibe was relaxed and contemporary, and I wanted to move right in.

The hotel to watch is the much-anticipated Iniala Harbour House, an ambitious project on St. Barbara’s Bastion that, when completed next summer, will feature several separate townhouses, each offering a different design concept. Owned by British entrepreneur Mark Weingard, who opened the cultish Iniala Beach House hotel in Thailand about a decade ago, these reinvented buildings are expected to be the highest-end properties in all of Valletta. Of course, for those who prefer the grandeur and service of a more traditional hotel, the big news this year was the rebirth of the historic Phoenicia Malta, which underwent a year-and-a-half-long makeover by British designers Peter Young and Mary Fox Linton and whose opening was delayed because the builders kept digging up historic artifacts throughout the process. The draw is its outdoor space, rare in Valletta, which includes an expansive garden and a pool area bordered by the city’s fortification walls.

Valletta Vintage hotel offers warm interiors bathed in light.

And then there is the food. Just as the Maltese language is a pastiche of Italian, Arabic, and English, Malta’s cuisine is a rich mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African inflections. My first visit to Valletta was just to experience its culinary scene on the recommendation of a friend, the Berlin-based food blogger Meike Peters. “The first time I came to Malta and tasted the food, I was hooked,” she told me. “Maltese food tastes like adventure.”

Peters, who recently won a James Beard Award for her Malta-inspired cookbook Eat in My Kitchen, wasn’t the only one who was hooked. With her list of favorite bistros, I had an ideal eating itinerary set, but even when I went rogue I wasn’t disappointed. In Valletta, eating well is easy—there is at least one excellent family-run taverna on almost every street, from the cozy Legligin, a wine bar with a dozen small tables that serves an excellent chef’s menu for a mere 30 euros, to the elegant Rubino, with its simple but delicious seasonal dishes made with local ingredients such as lampuki, mahi-mahi that are caught from September to November. At the two-year-old Harbor Club, a former 18th-century warehouse given a sleek new look by Chris Briffa, the remarkable views and interiors outweigh the menu, but there are several other foodie-friendly newcomers to Valletta, like Taproom, a buzzing modern gastropub, and No. 43, a little lunch stop run by an Australian transplant that serves fresh salads and excellent coffee. And, this November, the whole country will celebrate the reopening of Valletta’s 19th-century wrought-iron covered market, the Is-Suq tal-Belt, which is nearing completion of a two-year renovation that was overseen in part by Marco Casamonti, the architect in charge of the San Lorenzo Market in Florence. It will include a mix of stalls selling fresh local produce and prepared foods, and at least one major restaurant. Like all of the city’s most successful recent developments, it stands as a testament to Valletta’s rich cultural past as well as a beacon for its promising future.

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