Valletta, Malta’s golden capital city, is a maze of narrow streets rolling up and down hills, past churches and pavement cafés, with every corner decorated with statues and colourful balconies. The city’s concentration of historic architecture means the whole of Valletta has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its unique cultural mix has seen it christened 2018’s European Capital of Culture. Valletta’s beauty and its position on cruise ship routes around the Mediterranean mean the streets can be packed with visitors on a sunny day, but there’s always a hidden away spot which you can escape to – and one of them is The Saint John, one of Valletta’s newest and smartest boutique hotels.
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The Saint John
Right in the heart of Valletta’s historic core, The Saint John is a luxurious oasis tucked away in among the busy city streets. It’s part of a small hotel group called AX Hotels which runs seven four- and five-star properties around Malta. The Saint John opened in 2017 on Valletta’s Merchants Street, but the building has a much longer history, starting life as a 17th-century merchant’s residence and shop before eventually being transformed into a 21-bedroom boutique hotel.
Despite an extensive renovation, the building has still kept a lot of its original character. It still has that distinctive Maltese style, with a golden limestone frontage and neatly painted blue balconies and shutters. But although the building looks traditional from the outside, once you walk through the door the interiors are a lot more contemporary.
Like a lot of Valletta’s historic houses, the rooms are built around a light-filled central courtyard. At The Saint John it’s been whitewashed with blue shutters on the windows. The entrance hall has been painted in soft grey tones, with marble floors and splashes of bright red from the chairs. You get an immediate feeling of calm as you come in through the front door, with homemade lime and lemon water by the door which you can help yourself to cool off on a hot day. The hotel’s friendly staff are there to welcome you too and can give advice about what to see, where to eat and how to get around Valletta and the rest of Malta.
Rooms at The Saint John are set over five floors and are split into three categories – comfort, deluxe and superior. The top-category superior rooms come with extra space and a traditional Maltese balcony looking out over the city. There are two lifts to shuttle guests up to the different sections of the hotel. But there are also two original golden stone stairways, with the treads worn down by footsteps over the centuries. They’re decorated with leafy plants, vintage photos, quirky light fittings and some beautiful tilework.
Our twin comfort room was set on the hotel’s third floor, with windows looking inwards towards the courtyard. Like the rest of the hotel, it’s a real mix of old meets new. There’s an industrial, almost steampunk-style edge to the decor, with leather headboards and chairs, black and white photographs on the wall, brushed steel lights and neutral blue and brown colours. There’s an old-fashioned elegance to the interiors but there are plenty of mod cons too. The TV acts as an information hub, there’s free wifi throughout the hotel, and USB charging points along with control panels for the room’s lighting next to the beds.
The en-suite bathroom is set behind an opaque glass wall at one side of the room, decorated with designs of old pipework. Inside it’s decorated in pale grey marble with a bath with a shower over it, big sink and separate toilet – so you don’t feel too exposed despite the glass wall. The bathroom comes equipped with dressing gowns and slippers, fluffy towels and the hotel group’s own toiletries, as well as lots of helpful amenity kits, from spare combs to toothbrushes and sewing kits. Like the rest of the hotel, it has that calm, cool feel that makes you forget you’re right in the centre of the city.
The Saint John also runs the informal gastropub Cheeky Monkeys next door to the hotel, and has just opened a new creperie on the other side. Breakfast is normally included in the room rate and is served until 10am each morning in Cheeky Monkeys. It comes with the usual continental breakfast staples – breads, ham, cheese, fruit, yogurt and juices – as well as a cooked breakfast selection of eggs, sausages and bacon. There’s a couple of special Maltese touches too like pastizzi, mini flaky pastries which come filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. Cheeky Monkeys is also open for food and drinks during the day and evenings, with a mix of casual pub food dishes from around the Med, as well as craft beers and tasty cocktails.
What to see in Valletta (and beyond)
Valletta is only tiny by capital city standards – 600 metres wide by 1km long – so the city sights are all easily accessible from The Saint John. Just a few minutes walk away you’ll find St John’s Co-Cathedral, a baroque-style cathedral with interiors that are dripping with gold. There’s also the Grandmasters’ Palace which is the Maltese president’s official residence and has some of its historic staterooms open to the public. For some of the best views in the city, head to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a shady garden filled with flowers that has a perfect panorama over the harbour. Or catch one of the public ferries over to Sliema or the Three Cities for a view of the city from the water – especially good at sunset.
Malta’s a fairly small island so it’s easy to base yourself at The Saint John and get out and explore the island on day trips. There’s a hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus running several routes around the island, or public buses run from just outside the city walls and connect Valletta to all Malta’s main destinations. Don’t miss the hilltop walled city of Mdina, the ancient burial chambers or Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk and boat trips out to the neighbouring islands of Gozo and Comino.
Lucy is editor and designer from Cheltenham on the edge of the Cotswolds who’s been sharing stories, tips and photos from the UK, Europe and beyond on her travel blog On the Luce for the last six years.