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Above: For some 2,000 years, Valletta’s Grand Harbor was the most coveted port in the Mediterranean. Valletta, Malta: Star of the Mediterranean With a deep harbor that’s the envy of Europe, a stunning collection of baroque buildings, and a history rich with knights and chivalrous tales, Valletta is the jewel of Mediterranean itineraries. The Scene Situated at the base of the Maltese archipelago, Valletta is a fortified peninsula jutting into the inlet that forms the Grand Harbour. Built by the Knights of St. John after they defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1565, the city retains much of its baroque character and air of intrigue. For some 2,000 years it was the most coveted port in the Mediterranean; it was often considered the linchpin of the British Empire. City Gem Built in 1661 for the enjoyment of Italian knights, the Barrakka Gardens weren’t opened to the public until 1824. The commanding views of the Grand Harbour and Valletta’s three sister cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa, and Cospicua are unbeatable. The garden paths are lined with monuments commemorating the island’s tumultuous history, from a tribute to Winston Churchill to a touching trio of street urchins cast in bronze by Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino. A cannon is fired at noon and sunset as a salute to British rule on the island. Insider’s Tip “Must-visits include the Manoel Theatre, one of the oldest still functioning baroque theaters in the world, and St. John’s Co-Cathedral, which is also the home of Caravaggio’s masterpiece ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist,’” says Maltese-born tenor Joseph Calleja. Local Flavor Seafood figures prominently on the menus in Valletta—lampuki (dorado), octopus, and snails are big here. The national meal is fenkata, a rabbit feast whose origins date to the days of the knights when rabbit hunting was restricted. Locals get their fenkata fix at Ta’ Soldi in Mgarr, well worth the 30-minute drive inland. Nightlife The resort areas of Paceville and St. Julian are disco-party central. The mellower crowd heads to the open-air BJ’s Live Music Club for jazz and rock and the seaside Bedouin Bar, a whitewashed version of a traditional nomadic camp, for its casual scene. By Sea Ship out on a Turkish gulet for a day cruise along the northeast coast of Malta. The best stops include a snorkeling expedition off the island of Gozo—which many believe inspired the mythical Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus captive in Homer’s Odyssey—and in the Blue Lagoon, part of Comino island’s nature reserve. Ship Shape 311 cruise calls in 2011, including Regents Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Silversea. —Margaret Loftus Read "Ports of Call" in the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.