City Guide

The local guide to Malta

Valletta

Valletta is the capital of Malta, colloquially known as Il-Belt in Maltese. It is found in the Central-Eastern part of Malta, on a strip of land forming a peninsula with Marsamxett Harbour on its Eastern coast and the Grand Harbour on the Western coast. The name 'Valletta' is traditionally reserved for the historic walled citadel that serves as Malta's principal administrative district. However, Valletta, like many historical city centres, forms part of a larger continuous urban agglomeration; this is often referred to as 'Greater Valletta.'

Valletta was built by Grand Master La Vallette after emerging victorious from the Great Siege of 1565. La Vallette wanted to secure the Knights' place in Malta and thus built this fortified city. La Vallette laid the foundation stone on the 28th of March 1566. Valletta became Malta's capital (which was previously Mdina) in 1571 when the Grandmaster moved from Fort St. Angelo in Birgu to the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta.

Valletta contains buildings from the 16th century onwards, built during the rule of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as Knights Hospitaller. The city is essentially Baroque in character, with elements of Mannerist, Neo-Classical and Modern architecture in selected areas, though World War II left major scars on the city. The City of Valletta was officially recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Valletta was chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2018.

St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta was built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578 as their Conventual church. The Knights and Grand Masters contributed to the decoration and adornment of the church by offering several artefacts. In fact, the cathedral is one of Malta's finest examples of Baroque art and architecture. One of its most famous paintings is The Beheading of Saint John by Caravaggio. Possibly the most impressive element of this building is the stone vault, painted by no other than Mattia Preti. It took Preti six years to complete this elaborate piece, which includes scenes from the life of St. John. The floor is just as breathtaking as the ceiling- made up of marble tombs under which lie Knights from the Order. On each tombstone you will see the coat of arms and name of the Knight above which it rests. For more information click here.

Casa Rocca Piccola has housed Maltese Nobile families for over 400 years. Today it is still a family home, owned by Marquis De Piro, however most of it is open to the public for viewing. This house is a piece of historical evidence of the ways in which Maltese nobility lived. You will have the chance to view its collection of furniture, silver and paintings. Furthermore, it houses World War II air raid shelters, which give it an interesting twist. For more information click here.

The Lascaris War Rooms were Malta's war headquarters during World War II. This secret complex contained operations rooms for each of the fighting services from where not only the air defence of Malta was coordinated, but also some of the greatest battles fought in the Mediterranean during the war. Lascaris was the advance Allied HQ from where General Eisenhower and his Supreme Commanders Admiral Cunningham, Field Marshal Montgomery and Air Marshal Tedder directed Operation Husky – the Invasion of Sicily in 1943… In 2009, Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna - the Malta Heritage Trust - undertook the challenging task of restoring this historic complex.  As a result of this work visitors can explore and enjoy one of Malta's best kept wartime secrets. For more information click here.

St. James Cavalier is a centre for culture and art. It resides in a beautiful 16th Century fort. Housing a theatre, cinema, music room and several galleries- there is something to see all year round. Its theatre hosts a variety of productions from dramas to gigs by modern musicians. Every few months there are different art exhibitions showing a huge variety of local talent. Its cinema shows some of the most interesting films of the season. For more information click here.

The National Museum of Archaeology displays a collection of artefacts dating back to prehistoric times. The museum exhibits various stone sculptures and tools created and used as far back as 5000BC. The ‘Sleeping Lady' and the ‘Venus of Malta' are amongst the most popular sculptures from this period and have been brought to the museum from the hypogeum of Hal Salflieni and Hagar Qim temples respectively. The museum shows objects from this time up to 400BC during the Phoenician period in Malta. For more information click here.

The Manoel Theatre opened in 1732 in the heart of Valletta is the third oldest working theatre in Europe. It is found in Old Theatre Street, which was named after it. The theatre shows a myriad of plays- comedy, drama, etc along with several other shows from four piece orchestras to opera. For more information click here.

The National Museum of Fine Arts exhibits paintings by both local and international artists, statues in marble, bronze and wood, silverware and furniture. Artwork ranges from the Early Renaissance to the High Baroque. One of the most fascinating things about this museum is the collection of works by the Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti, who once resided in Malta. For more visit click here.

The Palace Armoury in the Grandmaster's Palace, houses a large collection of arms and armour. It is the original building in which they were held. These items were used by the Knights of Saint John in their crusade against the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege of 1565, which they won. The Knights of Saint John ruled Malta for 250 years. The palace armoury offers an understanding of how the knights lived and fought through difficult times. For more information click here.

Fort St.Elmo is a fortification found in Valletta, guarding the approach to the Grand and Marsamxett Harbours. It was used as a battleground for the Knights and the Ottoman Turks in 1565. Fortifications and towers can be found all around Malta and were useful pieces of military architecture during the vast amount of attacks on the island. In fact it has been called the Fortress Island. The fort is currently used as the Maltese police academy, however it is open to the public on several Sundays to display historical reenactments. For more information click here.

The Royal Opera House erected in 1866, under the design of architect Edward Middleton Barry, remains one of Valletta's gems. Since it was ruined by a fire just a few years after opening, and then destroyed by World War II bombings, the theatre seemed like a distant memory in the history of Malta. However in 2008, world-renowned architect Renzo Piano took on the renovation of this once glorious building, creating an open-air theatre. This theatre stands on Republic Street in Valletta and one can enjoy all kinds of performances throughout the year. The Kronos Quartet and the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre are just two of the word famous groups who performed on this stage. For more information click here.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens is a public garden in Valletta that offers a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour. Recently, a connecting lift was constructed between the harbour and the gardens allowing easier movement between the two. It takes about 25 seconds for the 58 metre lift to get from one site to the other- making it the quickest way into the city from Valletta Waterfront. Several monuments adorn the Upper Barrakka including one dedicated to Winston Churchill and another, Les Gavroches, sculptued by the famous Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino.

The Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck is one of Malta's oldest and most important churches. In the New Testament, St. Paul's Shipwreck in Malta is a key moment as it is the start of the Maltese Roman Catholic faith in the country. The church is a beautiful site to visit when in Valletta not only to understand its importance in Maltese culture, but also to have a look at the vast amount of artistic pieces it possesses, including paintings by Attilo Palombi and a wooden statue of St. Paul by Melchiorre Cafa. This statue is held in a procession through Valletta on the 10th of February, St. Paul's feast day.

Cottonera

The Three Cities can rightly claim to be the cradle of Maltese history, as Vittoriosa (Maltese name: Birgu), Senglea (Isla) and Cospicua (Bormla) have provided a home and fortress to almost every people who settled on the Islands. Their harbour inlets have been in use since Phoenician times: the docks always providing a living for local people, but also leaving them vulnerable when Malta's rulers were at war. As the first home to the Knights of St. John, the Cities' palaces, churches, forts and bastions are far older than Valletta's.

The Knights of St. John built the fortifications - the Cottonera Lines, around the three cities and Kalkara and these served to act as a barrier against invaders into these three main points in the Grand Harbour. Found in the East of Malta, the cities offer a breathtaking view of Malta's Capital - Valletta.

Senglea

The city of Senglea is also called Civitas Invicta, the invincible city, because it managed to resist the Ottoman invasion at the Great Siege of 1565. It was named Senglea after the grandmaster who built it - Claude De La Sengle. The Maltese often use its earlier name Isla, meaning island or peninsula.

The parish church, dedicated to the Nativity of the Madonna, was built in 1580 as a monument of the Christian Victory of the Knights during the Great Siege. It was destroyed during World War II and took 15 years to rebuild. Today it remains a centre for prayer and daily mass. The church also contains wonderful decorative pieces- from its alter to its frescoes. For more information click here.

The Gardjola gardens offer a superb view of Valletta. The word Gardjola comes from the Italian word guardare meaning to look at. It refers to the stone vedette on the bastion that was used as a look-out when protecting the entrance to the harbour. On top of its windows you will see a sculptured eye and ear - signs of Vigilance, as the person on guard had to be all eyes and ears.

The Senglea Promenade boasts some of the island’s most delicious seafood restaurants. Less touristic than Marsaxlokk with food that is just as tasty. Enjoy a peaceful stroll followed by an outdoor lunch overlooking the city of Vittoriosa across the water. The water taxi found at the Senglea waterfront, is a convenient means of getting from Senglea to Valletta. Ride in a traditional Maltese boat while enjoying a more scenic route. You can even take a cruise around the whole Grand Harbour. For more information click here.

Cospicua

The largest of the three cities, Cospicua was used for its maritime facilities as far back as 600BC, during the Phoenician rule over Malta. Today part of it is still used as a dockyard. Due to the strong bastions built around the city, Grand Master Zondadari gave the city the name Citta Cospicua. Following recent renovations, a small bridge over the water links an area in Cospicua known as Dock 1 to Senglea. Dock 1 is known for its warehouses dating back to the time of the Knights. After the renovations, it is now the perfect area for a stroll along the water, offering a peaceful picture with its greenery and fountains.

The Collegiate Church of the Immaculate Conception in Cospicua hosts some incredible works of art. The church’s bell towers were designed by the architect Lorenzo Gafa. It was given the status of a collegiate church in 1822.

Other landmarks are the Firenzuola Fortifications built in 1638 and the Margherita Lines. These acted as inland defences for the Three Cities. The Margherita Lines are the only part of Cospicua that were not destroyed during the Second World War.

Vittoriosa

Vittoriosa is interesting as it has Fort St. Angelo at its tip, thought to be the oldest fortification on the Maltese Islands. Many rulers from the Phoenicians to the British used this fortified city in their defense against attackers. To honour the many victories of this city, Grandmaster La Vallette renamed the city, (previously called Birgu), Civitas Vittoriosa - 'Victorious Town'. An interesting note: the residences/ auberges, palaces and churches used and frequented by the Knights in Vittoriosa are older than those in Valletta.

The Church of San Lawrenz was another piece of architecture designed by the renowned baroque architect, Lorenzo Gafa. It is also a collegiate church. When the Order of St. John first came to live in Malta, in the early 16th century, they stayed in Birgu and thus this church became their first conventual church in Malta. The Knights used this church for 41 years until they moved to Malta's new capital Valletta. One of the church's most famous works of art is that the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Mattia Preti. For more information click here.

Fort St. Angelo is a fortification that was built by the Order of St. John in the 16th Century. It was used by the British during their rule in Malta, and for military services after that. It is currently undergoing restoration.

The Inquisitor's Palace is one of the main centres for art and culture in the Three Cities. Throughout the centuries the palace was used by high-ranking officials who ensured it was taken care of. Because of this, it is one of the only palaces of its kind still standing and open to the public. Today you can see historical reconstructions of the palace chambers and several other rooms including a torture chamber! For more information click here.

The Maritime Museum displays a number of seafaring artefacts and objects from prehistory till today. It shows Malta's unique relationship with the sea. Interesting pieces include the largest known anchor in the world and the largest ship model from the Order of St. John. Today the museum has a collection of over 20,000 maritime artefacts. Housed in the Old Naval Bakery, this museum is definitely worth a visit. For more information click here.

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