So, you’ve decided you’d like to hit the built-up east coast of Malta. But will it be Valletta or Sliema? These are the two main places where visitors will go in this corner of the island nation and, truth be told, they are basically a part of the same urban conglomeration, which runs from the wide waters of The Grand Harbour to the promenades of St Julian’s in the north.
Both spots have their own unique vibe and draws, though. First, there’s Valletta. It’s the UNESCO-tagged capital of the country, with soaring castles and glorious churches rising high overhead. Then there’s Sliema, which is not as well known to international visitors, but has long been a stomping ground for jet setters, shoppers, and foodie travelers.
This guide will help you pick the place that suits you and your travel crew the best. It’s got all the info you need to decide where offers the best nightlife, which has the most enticing array of hotels, where offers the most enthralling sights and history, and where is better if you’re on a tight travel budget. Let’s begin…
Valletta or Sliema for ease of travel?
This one’s easy: There’s really nothing in it when it comes to getting to either Valletta or Sliema. They’re really close to each other, separated by just one bend in the Maltese coast on the eastern half of the main island. That means you’ll be looking to fly straight into the Malta International Airport and then hop in a transfer, which takes about 20 minutes to the downtown core of both our focus destinations.
On top of that, once you’ve arrived, you can rely on your own two trusty feet to navigate around. Valletta is a joy to get lost in, with an old city that’s surrounded by hulking medieval walls on its own peninsula. Sliema is a bit more modern, with traffic-clogged boulevards leading to hilly backstreets, but it’s still eminently walkable, not to mention conveniently linked up by a single salt-washed promenade by the Med. Easy peasy.
Winner: Draw. Both these destinations are just as easy to get to and get around.
Valletta or Sliema for sightseeing?
There’s arguably no more striking a city in Europe than Valletta. Looking like something out of Game of Thrones as it rises above the sparkling harbor waters below, it was built over the course of the 16th century to be the main fortress bastion of the Order of Saint John. That means historical wonders are around just about every corner. Do not miss:
- Grand Masters Palace – Dating from the 1570s, this was once the political hub for the knights who occupied Malta.
- St Johns Co-Cathedral – The single most famous cultural sight in Malta, this glorious church might just be the most impressive in Europe. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio adorns the main altar wall and it’s considered the artist’s magnum opus.
- Lower Barrakka Gardens – Fantastic views of the Grand Harbor and a reconstruction of Greek temple make these leafy gardens a fine place to explore when you’re after some R&R.
- Fort St Elmo – One of the oldest parts of the city, built in the 1550s, Fort St Elmo was important in fending off the Ottoman Empire during the so-called Great Siege.
Sliema is much more of a lived-in part of the urban sprawl of the Maltese east coast. It’s less about sights and more about bakeries, bars, and shopping. But there are a few things you should be certain to have on the itinerary:
- The Sliema Promenade – The cooling breezes of the Mediterranean caress the palm-speckled walks here, and you get great views of Valletta city to the south.
- Fort Tigne – A much later fortress raised by the Order of Saint John that dates from the 1700s crowning the top of Marsamxett Harbour.
- Victorian era baths/Roman baths – Despite a common misconception, the so-called Roman baths of Sliema are actually a much later construction. They offer a cooling place to swim but also an intriguing people watching spot.
Winner: Valletta – it’s arguably the most impressive capital in Europe!
Valletta or Sliema for nightlife?
Sliema actually marks the start of the liveliest area in all of Malta. It begins on the sea-facing proms north of Gzira and runs all the way up to the party mecca of St Julian’s. Sliema’s right there in the middle of it all, so you won’t be short on places to clink wine glasses and dance the evenings away.
Spinola Bay is the place to start and end a night. It’s about 20 minutes’ walking from the main center of the town but rewards those who make the trek with chic cocktail bars overlooking the Med, rollicking Irish pubs, and proximity to St George’s Road – the closest thing to a strip that there is here!
Most people in Valletta will actually head to Sliema-St Julian’s when it’s time to party. However, you don’t have to. The old city does have some places of its own, from the earthy Legligin Wine Bar with its traditional Maltese fare and wine labels to The Rootz Bar, a place for live music in a tight-knit alleyway near the old city gates. Thing is, it’s all a bit more stayed and chilled in these parts. It’s not for all-nighters and sunrise finishes, that’s for sure.
Winner: Sliema for the proximity to Malta’s nightlife hub in Paceville and St Julian’s.
Valletta or Sliema for romance?
There’s something on offer for romantic couples in both these places. Where Valletta wins out is on the looks front. There’s just something undeniably alluring about the big capital, where you’ll wander stone-topped lanes beneath honey-hued castles; where you can soak up the sun in the exquisite Barrakka Gardens and watch sunrises over one of the most famous marinas in the Med. It’s the option if you’re eager to be immersed somewhere truly stunning together, or if you’re a couple that loves history.
Then you get the jet-setter vibes of Sliema. There’s an area of this town that’s considered the number one option for folks in search of no-holes-barred luxury – you can look for that at stays like the 1926 Hotel & SPA ($$$) or the AX The Palace ($$$), which both come with pools and unrivaled views of the sea. Backing up the top-of-the-range hotel scene is an array of fantastic gastronomy that offers European fine dining with sommelier-matched wine lists, along with the chichi bar scene of nearby St Julian’s just to the north.
Winner: Sliema. It’s considered the upscale part of Valletta.
Valletta or Sliema for the vibe?
One of the main differences between these two areas is how they feel. For Sliema’s part, it’s a bit of a bustling, lived-in corner of the city but also somewhere a touch more peaceful than its nearby neighbors, mainly because it doesn’t get the same booming tourist crowds as the historic center or the party groups of St Julian’s. That’s great if you’re after somewhere that’s close to the UNESCO sites and bars but also authentic and relaxed. It’s also great if you want to get a feel for what it’s like living like a local here.
Valletta is the tourist honeypot of Malta. Yes, the beaches of the north coast hoover up their own share of the crowds, but almost everyone hitting the island, especially first-time visitors, will want to make a pitstop here. They come to see the mighty 16th-century citadel and the great cathedral with its priceless works by Caravaggio – who can blame them? But that does mean that Valletta feels indelibly developed and visitor orientated.
Winner: Sliema. It’s quieter and less touristy than Valletta.
Valletta or Sliema for beaches?
We’ll get straight to the point: Valletta is NOT the place to go if you’re on the hunt for beaches. But neither is Sliema. These are the towns of Malta, set on the rugged shores of the east coast. There are much better options if all you’re after is sun, sand, and clear seas – check out Bugibba and Manikata, or even the more remote island of Gozo.
Of the two, it’s Valletta that has the biggest lack of beaches or swimming spots. That’s largely down to the fact that the whole town is ringed by colossal fortification walls that were built over the centuries starting in the 1500s. There’s just no room to work in sandy beaches and whatnot when you’re desperately trying to keep the Ottomans at bay, right?
Not so in Sliema. Although the coast here is built up, it still occasionally opens onto a sandy dash or a rocky place where you can dive in the Mediterranean. The most famous option is probably the so-called Roman baths, which aren’t Roman at all. They are square-cut pools that sit on the north side of the town. Bring reef shoes if you want to cool off in them because getting in can be a chore. You can also head a little further up to Spinola Bay or St George’s Bay, which have some great urban swimming on more traditional beaches.
Winner: Sliema. There are beaches to the north and some rocky swimming spots right in the town itself.
Valletta or Sliema for price?
The cost of a trip to either Valetta or Sliema is likely to be pretty similar. Of course, you’ll pay exactly the same for a flight and a transfer to get there in the first place, since these two towns are virtually equidistance from the airport and sit in the same corner of the island.
Food is perhaps a touch cheaper in Valletta’s center because the gastronomy in Sliema tends to be a touch more upscale. However, that’s balanced out by the hotels, which you often pay more for in Valetta because of proximity to the great castles and sights.
Overall, you’re looking at an estimated budget of between $110-130 per day for an average traveler in both Sliema and Valletta. We would say that there’s some extra potential to really splurge in Sliema, though, because there are fancier hotels in those parts, and you’ll find more budget youth hostels with dorm beds in the heart of the capital.
Valletta or Sliema – a conclusion
To be honest, there’s not all that much in it when it comes down to Valletta or Sliema. The first of these is the most famous spot, the most touristy area, and the most sight-rich of the two. In fact, Valletta has some of the most striking urban landmarks and art in all of Europe. However, Sliema is great if you want to dodge the crowds, spend some time on the beaches, and hit the nightlife, not least of all because it’s got good access to the bays and party strips of nearby St Julian’s.