Visiting in 1830, a young Benjamin Disraeli - future prime minister of Great Britain - declared Valletta "a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen". The Maltese capital, he said, "equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe".
Like Mr Disraeli - who came to Malta on a recommendation from his late friend, the poet Lord Byron - I'm instantly won over by Valletta.
The city crowns a rocky peninsula jutting into the bluey-green Mediterranean Sea, and its flurry of baroque domes and spires poke above an imposing loop of fortified walls and watchtowers, which, like many of the buildings on the Maltese archipelago, are formed from the local, honey-toned limestone.
Many travellers enjoy their first, unforgettable glimpse of Valletta from a cruise ship, with large ocean-going liners docking at the Grand Harbour, the naturally deep port to the city's east, which has attracted seafarers since Phoenician and Roman times.
I'm on the little public ferry that regularly buzzes back and forth across Marsamxett Harbour, which connects the western flank of Valletta with Sliema, a seaside town where oodles of holidaymakers, myself included, base themselves for a Maltese adventure.
Bewitching from a distance, Valletta is a corker up close. Unlike many UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites, it's not a sedate open-air museum, and offers an enchanting blend of historic signposted sights and intriguing backstreets, where Maltese go about their everyday business (think: market traders hawking fruit and veg and soccer shirts, old ladies sweeping pavements and men puffing cigars and nattering in Maltese - a language that sounds like a cross between Arabic and Italian).
Small enough to explore on foot, Valletta is a surprisingly hilly city, with an undulating grid of streets, linked by slopes and stairways, and, in one particularly steep section, an elevator. The Barrakka lift whisks pedestrians between the Grand Harbour and central Valletta. Ascending this 58m-high column will take 25 seconds and costs about a £1. It's money well spent, especially as the lift exits into the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a delightful spot with palm trees and bright floral displays, and a breezy arcaded balcony that grants sweeping views of the Grand Harbour, its ship-packed port and Valletta's alluringly photogenic neighbours Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea.
Hugging the Grand Harbour's eastern side, this walled trio, dubbed the Three Cities, was fortified by the Knights of the Order of St John, a pan-European Christian crusader organisation which settled on Malta in 1530 after being driven from another Mediterranean island, Rhodes, by the rampaging armies of the Ottoman Empire. In 1565, the knights, allied with hundreds of Maltese, repelled the Ottoman invasion of Malta in a bloody four-month battle that became known as the Great Siege. To mark this victory against the odds, the knights founded Valletta, naming it after their heroic Grand Master and commander French nobleman Jean de La Valette.
The grandiose Grand Master's Palace, sits at the heart of Valletta. Its rooms, displaying antique weaponry and suits of armour, are open to the public, though you'll find more crowds at the nearby St John's Co-Cathedral, which is blessed with an incredibly ornate baroque interior, plus two works from the legendary Italian artist Caravaggio (one being the famous Beheading of St John the Baptist). Valletta has plenty of other aristocratic palaces and pretty churches to savour, plus hundreds of eye-achingly colourful enclosed wooden balconies which decorate the facades of 18th century townhouses.
The Maltese islands are peppered with Neolithic temples and exhibits found at these sites - including The Fat Ladies (figurines of voluptuous females, thought to represent ancient fertility goddesses) - are on show at Valletta's intriguing archaeology museum.
Some of the city's most popular cultural draws have a distinctly 21st century feel to them - notably the 3-D audiovisual shows that cram Malta's 7000-year history into less than an hour's viewing. Two notable spots are the Malta Experience, housed in an auditorium near the bastions of St Elmo on Valletta's northern tip, and Malta 5D, a few blocks from the cathedral.
One of the most thrilling episodes is the second Great Siege of Malta. During World War II, nazi and Italian air forces unleashed a string of bombing raids on what was at the time a key naval outpost of the British Empire, which had driven Napoleon out of Malta in 1800 (the French emperor had himself expelled the knights a few years earlier). Maltese resistance to the Axis assault helped swing the war's outcome in the Allies' favour, and their efforts were recognised by King George VI, who awarded Malta the George Cross.
An independent nation since 1964, and a republic since 1974, Malta is very much a melting pot of cultures. At times, strolling the streets of Valletta, it almost feels like I'm in Italy, such is the array of pizzerias, trattorias and espresso cafes (Sicily, incidentally, is just 90km north).
The British influence remains strong. Alongside Maltese, English is the official language, and I spot traces of the former coloniser - red telephone boxes, shops selling "today's London newspapers" and homely watering holes such as The Pub (at 136 Triq l-Arcisqof). This was where the actor Oliver Reed had his last-ever drink. On a break from filming scenes for Gladiator (one of many movies filmed on Malta), Reed was taken ill and died on his way to hospital.
Valletta is packed with traditional, family-run Maltese establishments, from jewellers and shoe shops to hole-in-the-wall bakeries selling pastizzi (small parcels of flaky pastry stuffed with goat's cheese or peas) and charming bistros and wine bars serving enticing seafood platters alongside Maltese favourites such as fenek (rabbit, either stewed or grilled and drenched in local wine and garlic).
It's possible to see the best of Valletta in a day or two but you could easily spend a fortnight hopping around the Maltese islands and only scratch the surface. Other highlights on the main Malta island include Mdina, an ancient walled hilltop city that was the capital before Valletta, and neighbouring Rabat, which is home to a network of catacombs said to have sheltered that pioneering spreader of Christianity, St Paul, who was shipwrecked on Malta in AD60.
Cruises from Valletta and Sliema will take you to Comino, a tiny island nudged by the spellbindingly turquoise Blue Lagoon, and Gozo, a rustic island of vineyards, olive groves and picturesque little towns and villages, framed by rocky coastline and red sandy beaches.
Mesmerising Malta may look like just a tiny speck on the map but in terms of its history, culture and sightseeing potential, it packs a hefty punch.
Author: Steve McKenna.
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