Valletta's star shines again, writes Brett Atkinson.

Valletta at night has more dimly-lit, honey-coloured stone and long shadows than the opening stanzas of a Dan Brown novel. Laneways cobbled with limestone steps worn shiny and smooth from centuries of use lead down to the moonlit waters of the Med, as wider avenues linked by grandiose squares bisect at right angles in a perfect grid system. Palaces and churches are close neighbours to vintage shopfronts unchanged since the early 20th century, and framing the precision of this improbable cityscape is an imposing outer wall of forts, cannon batteries and historic barracks.

The shadowy Knights Templar were at the heart of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, but their partners in crusading, the Order of the Knights of St John, were responsible for building the ultimate fortress city to repel further Turkish attacks following 1565's withering Great Siege.

Now almost 500 years later the perfectly proportioned city, measuring just 1km by 600m, is a European Capital of Culture for 2018, and a cosmopolitan and stylish sheen is being overlaid on to Valletta's centuries of fascinating history.

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The makeover including boutique hotels and a new after-dark energy is a relatively recent phenomenon, and just a decade ago its streets and laneways were relatively deserted after dark. Politicians, lawyers and business people adjourned to the oceanfront glam of more modern Spinola Bay, locals hunkered down in their fading 400-year old villas made of Malta's ubiquitous limestone, and the light play created by the waters of Valletta's Grand Harbour was the only regular source of movement. Now Europe's emerging chefs are opening venues, and there's a definite buzz around town to complement the launch of new galleries and the revitalisation of existing museums.

At the heart of Valletta's eating and drinking reawakening is Strait St, once the destination for on-leave British sailors before the Royal Navy's official departure from Malta in 1979. Barely reaching 4m in width for its entire 660m length, "Strada Stretta" had its heyday from the late 19th century to the 1950s. Raucous bars, music venues and bordellos attracted an international crew of oceangoing types to this tiny island adrift in the Mediterranean. Decay and disrepair encroached in subsequent decades, but as part of Valletta's fling as a 2018 European Capital of Culture, Strait St is again in the limelight.

Yard 32 is a very cool gin and tapas bar with more than 180 botanical-infused spirits from around the world, while Tico Tico channels Strait St's raffish heritage with 1950s retro decor and strong cocktails. A quick left then right of barely 60m leads to 67 Kapitali on Old Bakery St, where beers include homegrown Maltese brews from local craft breweries including Lord Chambray, Huskie and Stretta.

Valletta's food scene has also matured across recent years. In early 2018, the city's traditional fresh produce market was reopened as Is-Suq tal-Belt (City Market), an upscale food hall in the spirit of similar establishments in Paris, London and Barcelona. The first wrought-iron building to be built in Malta, the 19th-century structure now includes top places to try traditional Maltese cuisine blending the influences of Sicily, the Middle East, and Malta's history as a British colony from 1813 to 1964. Gululu serves tapas-style shared plates including octopus salad and peppered sheep cheese from Malta's smaller second island of Gozo, while nearby Ta' Kelinu bakes fresh pastizzi throughout the day. Try Malta's traditional baked pastries crammed with ricotta or a spicy blend of mushy peas.

"Cheese or peas?", customers are routinely asked, and there's really no wrong answer when the pastries are flaky and fresh.

Another heritage Valletta building completing a makeover for 2018 is the Auberge d'Italie, a grand 16th-century edifice built to house Italian members of the Order of the Knights of St John. It's scheduled to soon open as Muza, Malta's new National Museum of Community Arts, and it's already been named as one of the Europe's best new museums.

Combine a few days exploring the jaw-dropping Baroque excesses of Valletta's St
John's Co-Cathedral, learning about poignant World War II history where 1942's Battle for Malta was a decisive turning point in the conflict, and 2018's European Capital of Culture is a surprising and often-overlooked destination for this year and beyond.

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Malta is easily reached on direct flights from major European hubs including London and Frankfurt.

STAYING THERE
Valletta Vintage has three stylish rooms and a retro design aesthetic.

EATING THERE
Book ahead at Noni, the hottest table in town for modern Mediterranean cuisine.
noni.com.mt
DETAILS
For details of Valletta's year-long programme of music, art and culture, see
valletta2018.org