Valletta is crammed full with things to see, do, eat and buy. Most importantly, while its wealth of history, café culture and prime shopping opportunities make it a popular summer destination, the city remains a thriving focal point for visitors even when the temperature drops. Not that it drops too much – this is the Mediterranean, after all. We’ve selected six essential things to do in Valletta, some of which have a distinctly festive twist – so whether you want to catch a carol service by candlelight at St John’s Co-Cathedral, indulge in some culture at the Teatru Manoel, or simply admire the Christmas lights on Republic Street, Valletta has it covered.
The exhibition of the Christmas crib, or presepju, is an important Maltese tradition that can be traced back to the 17th century, when Dominican friars assembled their own modest nativity display. Walk around the city during Advent and you’re certain to see a Nativity scene, and some people even invite the public into their house to share their more elaborate designs. For an engaging walk-through of this most Maltese of customs – and a chance to view some wonderful examples – a visit to the Nativity Museum in the crypt of St Austin’s Church is a must.
While it’s true that Malta’s thriving clubs and bars are situated in the St Julian’s area of the island, the Charles Grech is doing its bit to up Valletta’s chic quota. The Bell-Époch-style café bar has an extensive wine and whiskey list, as well as a rotating menu of expertly made cocktails – look out for their seasonal specials! The largest importers of spirits on the island, they also serve superb coffee and occasionally host live jazz bands.
Commissioned in 1731 by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, the Teatru Manoel was charged with providing “honest entertainment” (the motto ad honestam populi oblectationem still hangs over the door) to the people of Malta. The theatre is actually reputed to be one of the oldest working theatres in Europe, and retains many of its original features. As one of the major cultural venues on the island, the performance programme is broad and inclusive, incorporating opera, dance, pantomime and productions by local talent. If you can, try and catch a performance by the Maltese Philharmonic, who have gone from strength to strength under the artistic direction of Brian Schembri.
Of all the chapters in Malta’s storied history, it is the 250-year rule under the Knights of St John that left the deepest impression. This Baroque cathedral, built between 1573 and 1578 for the Order, is one of the most monumental remnants of that era, and a must-see when it comes to things to do in Valletta. Considering Valletta’s role as a fortified city during this time, the building itself looks suitably militaristic – but once inside, its true gilded Baroque nature comes to the fore. It also houses Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. For those visiting Valletta during Christmastime, it also houses an additional treat –the Christmas concert. Featuring pieces by Handel, Bach and Rutter alongside traditional carols, this year the concert takes place on December 18th.
The Patches Fair is a regular event showcasing local artisans, craftspeople and designers that takes place at various venues around Valletta. The Christmas edition is held in the Magazino Hall on the Valletta Waterfront on November 30th, which also plays host to the Malta Comic Con a few days later. Expect a strong festive focus in the type of products on offer, so it’s something of a golden opportunity for those looking to source some original and crafty gifts. If you’re looking for more traditional wares, such as the filigree jewellery Malta is famous for, the Waterfront also has a number of more traditional shops catering to this market.
If you’re staying in Valletta throughout December, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to miss the Christmas illuminations – they’re everywhere. As with the Nativity cribs, the Maltese have a tendency to go big when it comes to festive decorations, and undoubtedly the best place to view them is Republic Street. Every year Valetta’s main shopping street becomes a veritable wonderland when night falls – and looks pretty festive during the daytime too.