Malta’s Emerging Capital by the Sea


People love to invade Malta. The Mediterranean island nation, situated between Sicily and Tunisia, counts among its unwelcome guests the Romans, the Ottomans, Napoleon and, in the early 20th century, hundreds of Russian aristocrats fleeing the fall of the czarist autocracy. For the most part, the Maltese were having none of this. Napoleon was forced out after just two years, and the Knights of Malta — effectively, and against all odds — defeated the Ottoman Empire’s much larger forces. In Valletta, Malta’s capital, people still bring up the Great Siege with enormous pride, boasting about it as if they had actually been there.

For all of Valletta’s interest in the past — the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the 16th-century Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in the center of town has been magnificently preserved — it has become in recent years a vibrant cultural destination, with an appeal that is both historic and modern. The area’s Baroque architecture now houses boutique hotels instead of knights in armor, while none other than Renzo Piano has refurbished the parliament and historic city gate. Art is increasingly moving indoors as well, with several ambitious galleries on the horizon, and MUZA, a new National Museum of Fine Arts.

Valletta, like the rest of Malta, is a pastiche of historical influences. Its language has undertones ranging from Arabic to Italian, among a variety of other dialects. The same is true of the food, a unique mix of Mediterranean and North African influences — which, as it turns out, is one of the more positive results of all those invasions.

STAY

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From left: 17th-century Baroque pillars at Saint John’s Co-Cathedral; the hotel Casa Ellul.

Credit
Luis Díaz Díaz

Casa Ellul

By next summer, a spate of hotels are scheduled to open; until then, the most elegant option is Casa Ellul, an eight-suite, neo-Classical townhouse that mixes the building’s original grandeur (stone windows, a marble-floored staircase) with modern amenities (king-size beds, glass-walled bathrooms). Rooms on the top floor, with private terraces overlooking the city, are worth paying extra for.

10 Strait Street

This minimalist alternative, a 17th-century palazzo, has six grand apartments with hardwood floors, marble walls and sleek interiors. It’s located on the carless end of its namesake street near several of the city’s best bars. The owner and manager, Fiona Hili, is often on hand to help out with recommendations and bookings.

EAT

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From left: The restaurant Legligin; asparagus at Rubino.

Credit
Luis Díaz Díaz

Legligin

This cozy restaurant (the name means “people who like to drink”) has a dozen tables scattered over two small rooms, and a well-edited wine list featuring some excellent Maltese offerings. Bottles are paired with a fixed-price menu that includes small plates such as arjoli (a dip made from sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives and anchovies) followed by heartier dishes like pork served with honey and rosemary. 356-2122-1699

Rubino

Located in a former confectionery, Rubino is the kind of place you wish you could eat at weekly. The sky-blue walls are covered with old photographs and maps, and the kitchen cooks up simple but delicious seasonal dishes made from local ingredients including rabbit, prawns and lampuki (dorado that are caught from September to November).

Cafe Society

Perched on a narrow alley of limestone steps that seem to hover over the harbor like an M.C. Escher drawing, this recently opened bar serves up bohemian charm and excellent cocktails. Take a table outside, or just sit on one of the big patterned pillows scattered on the ground. 356-9905-4358

SEE

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Clockwise from top left: Matthew Attard and Deborah Rossetto, owners of No.Me; the 16th-century Casa Rocca Piccola museum; steps leading up to the City Gate, completed in 2015 by Renzo Piano; Teatru Manoel.

Credit
Luis Díaz Díaz

Casa Rocca Piccola

Each room at Rocca Piccola — Valletta’s only palazzo that is still lived in and yet open to the public — is filled with treasures: ancestral portraits, relics from several popes, antique clocks and a massive archive of family letters. The best time to go is on Friday evenings for a weekly tour given by the current owners.

Blitz

The photographer and filmmaker Alexandra Pace started this nonprofit contemporary art organization three years ago, in her family’s former townhouse. This month, she is co-curating a show of works by the American pre-Pop artist Corita Kent.

Teatru Manoel

One of Europe’s oldest working theaters, the Manoel opened in 1732, in part to keep rambunctious young knights out of trouble. Today, the stunning Baroque building, with an ornate trompe l’oeil ceiling, continues to host a variety of stage and dance performances (including a production of Mozart’s comic opera “Le Nozzi de Figaro,” set to open early next year).

No.Me

Last year, a trio of artist friends opened one of Valletta’s most exciting design shops to showcase the clothing and collectibles they make from existing, discarded objects. Not much bigger than a walk-in closet, No.Me’s shelves are stocked with poured concrete vases, clocks made from driftwood and simple denim bags. 356-9940-7652

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