The tiny capital of the tiny nation of Malta more than makes up for its size with a condensed history and cultural legacy that provides a splendid blend of Castilian, Arab, Italian, French and British influences. In particular the Knights of St John, who ruled from 1530 to 1798, gave Valletta its splendid architecture and the gobsmacking harbour fortifications that make this such a great port to approach by cruise ship – or view from the battlements.
The National Museum of Archaeology (heritagemalta.org) is small in size but presents 7000 years of Malta's history, with some excellent exhibits on the island's prehistoric sites. Sixteenth-century palace Casa Rocca Piccola (casaroccapiccola.com) is one of the last occupied aristocratic houses in the city, beautifully furnished; beneath lie bomb shelters used in WWII. Valletta's Manoel Theatre (teatrumanoel.com.mt) is one of the world's oldest, opened in 1732. It has a fabulous baroque interior and a lively program of opera and music.
Ta'Nenu Restaurant (nenuthebaker.com), hidden in a back-alley basement, serves hearty helpings of traditional, rustic Maltese food such as ftira (similar to pizza), pork and beef stew, and rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine. Its nearly all-local clientele makes a refreshing change from Valletta's tourist-frequented cafes. Giannini (gianninimalta.com) is more upmarket, with Maltese-Italian cuisine, good seafood and harbour views. Bistro Guze (guzevalletta.com) brings contemporary twists to Mediterranean menus that change by the month.
Get walking: Valletta is a city of plunging streets, shuttered buildings in gorgeous honey-coloured stone, saints statues at every corner, and mighty promenade-topped bastions from which to gaze across the historic harbour. Late afternoon in Upper Barrakka Gardens, after the firing of the 4pm cannon, is lovely. Then check out the baroque Auberge de Castile and controversial, ultra-modern Parliament designed by Renzo Piano, the latest layer in a city whose striking architecture spans centuries.
Don't be fooled by the austere exterior of St John's Co-Cathedral (stjohnscocathedral.com). Even if you've overdosed on European churches, the frescoed ceiling, marble inlaid floors and lashings of gold baroque ornamentation have a huge wow factor, and Caravaggio's masterpiece The Beheading of St John is magnificent. The nearby Palace of the Grand Masters (cityofvalletta.org) is swathed in tapestries, paintings and armour, and holds the council chamber of the Knights of St John.
The Phoenicia (phoeniciamalta.com), poised just outside the old city gates, is a member of Leading Hotels of the World and has been the grande dame of Valletta hotels for 80 years. It has an Art Deco, rather British appeal and pleasant gardens. Casa Ellul (casaellul.com) is the only luxury hotel inside the old town. It brings contemporary chic to a family-run courtyard palazzo, adroitly combining modern art with antiques. The penthouse (suite seven) has great views over Valletta.
From Valletta you can visit the whole island of Malta, with few destinations more than a half-hour away. Public buses (publictransport.com.mt) will carry you around from the efficient terminal just outside the city gate.
The writer travelled courtesy of Silversea and Malta Tourism Authority.