Valletta, the city of palaces and balconies
The stunning city of Valletta
Valletta is the capital of Malta, the island country in the Mediterranean Sea.
Mostly it is known as The City of the Knights, because of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem and its leader, Jean De La Vallette.
Valletta is a real museum under the open sky. On every corner of the city, you can see stunning historical and architectural traces.
Actually, the whole city is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980. The city is perfect to get lost between its narrow streets with beige-yellow-stone palaces, ornate churches, various statues, small shops, and interesting cafes and restaurants.
How to get to Valletta
Valletta is located on the northeast coast of the island of Malta.
It can be reached by plane and by sea. Malta International Airport is located 5 km southwest of Valletta. There are four express bus lines (X1, X2, X3 and X4), which operate from the airport to various places in Malta.
Valletta is surrounded by the sea on three sides. There are two harbours in the natural bay: Grand Harbour to the east, and Marshamxett Harbour to the west, which makes it today a popular cruise destination, as well.
Depending on where you stay, you can easily come to Valletta by bus, rent a car or take a taxi.
What to see in Valletta
Valletta is the European Union’s smallest capital city with an area of about 61 ha. But it is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. And owing to the recent renovation, it was the European Capital of Culture in 2018.
The best way to see and explore Valletta is on foot. There are so many different sights to see: baroque buildings, old palaces, museums, churches, cathedrals, fortified walls and towers. Also, you can take the Malta Pass, a card that offers you free entry to over 35 of the most popular attractions around Malta.
Valletta is a very busy city during the day because it is the main commercial and administrative centre of the country. When you get tired of looking and wandering the narrow streets, take a break in many interesting cafes and restaurants. And when the night comes, it is more peaceful. The city crowd is moving to St. Julian and Sliema, two main tourist spots across Valletta.
A few words about the history of Valletta
Valletta and Maltese islands have a long and reach history because of their specific position in the Mediterranean Sea. Malta was under the rule of Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans, and it was a part of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Later, Malta was ruled by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was a British colony.
Finally, Malta became independent in September 1964.
The Knights of Malta
But now, let’s go back to the time of medieval knights.
In 1530, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor gave Malta to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in perpetual lease.
They came from Rhodos Island because they were expelled by the Ottomans under the command of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Usually known as the Knights of Malta, they ruled Maltese islands between 1530 and 1798. Many hospitals, architectural, cultural, and infrastructure projects were made during that period.
One of the most known Grand Masters was Jean Parisot de Valette, a French nobleman and military leader. He is known for the famous Great Siege of Malta, the battle in which the knights, together with the Maltese people, defeated the Ottomans in 1565. After the siege which lasted nearly four months, the knights decided to build fortifications around the harbour area. Also, a new city was built and named Valletta, in honour of the great leader. Even today, you can see the fortifications, ramparts, watchtowers, churches, and cathedrals. As a matter of fact, the knight traces are everywhere, all around the country.
The city of Valletta
Valletta was built along with a grid plan. It means that streets are lined at right angles to each other. In fact, many cities don’t have this structure even today!
The first buildings in Valletta were the Auberges. There were the headquarters of the different ethnic groups of knights. So, every Auberge has a residence with a chapel, refectories and other rooms in the courtyard. Today only five Auberges have left in Valletta. The largest and most beautiful is the Auberge de Castille, built in 1574. First, it was built as Auberge of Castile, Leon and Portugal. Then it is replaced with a building in the 1740s, erected by the famous Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca. The building is located in Republic street, and today is the Prime Minister’s Office.
Officially, Valletta became the capital city of Malta and the seat of the Order in March 1571.
The Maltese Cross
I am sure that you know what the Maltese Cross looks like. It is a symbol of the Order of the Knights of Saint John.
But do you know what is it really means?
The history of this unusual cross is dating back to 1126 when was officially adopted by the Order of Knights Hospitallers of St. John.
So, the Maltese Cross has 8 points. Each of them represents eight heavenly virtues: truth, faith, repentance, humility, justice, mercy, purity, and endurance of persecution.
Also, they represent eight Langues (nationalities) of the original Knights. They were: Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille and Portugal, Italy, Germany, and the British Isles. Even today it is the symbol of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
The Maltese cross was found on a copper coin dated 1567, during the rule by Grand Master Jean de la Valette. And today, the Maltese coins of 1 and 2 euros also carry the Maltese Cross. Interesting isn’t it 😊
The fortifications in Valletta
All around the city, you can see various fortifications and walls.
In the beginning, knights were located in Three cities (today Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa). After the Great Siege in 1565, they rebuilt a small fort making a new Fort St Elmo, one of the most important defensive spots in centuries. Originally, it was a star-shaped, characteristic style for medieval fortresses. Fort looks to entrances to Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour as well. Inside Fort St. Elmo, there is the National War Museum.
Fort Manoel was built in the 18th century. It is located on Manoel Island in Marsamxett Harbour.
Across Valletta, there is Fort St. Angelo, the former seat of the Grand Master of the Order.
So, by the end of the 18th century, there were fortifications with towers all around both harbours.
St. Barbara Bastion is overlooking the Grand Harbour. The view of the ramparts and walls built in the 16th century is fascinating. Just try to imagine what it looked like in medieval times.
Close to this bastion, there is Victoria Gate, known as Porta del Monte. It was built by the British in 1885, to replace the old city gate from the sea, erected at the end of the 16th century. The British named this gate after Queen Victoria. It was fully renovated in 2010. Besides a new City Gate only this gate exists, because other gates were destroyed between the 19th and 20th centuries.
The ports of Valletta
Valletta is nestled in the Sciberras peninsula, in a natural bay, which actually divides the Grand Harbour from Marshamxett Harbour.
Grand Harbour (Il-Port il-Kbir in Maltese) lies between Valletta and the Three Cities. It was used as the main port for centuries. On the north, there are St. Elmo Point breakwater, and Ricasoli breakwater, which makes the port very safe during the whole year.
The Port of Valletta is one of the deepest natural European harbours, extending about 3.6 km. It is a multipurpose port that offers many maritime services for boats, cruises, ferries, cargo boats, ship repairing, building yards, and various reception facilities.
In Vittoriosa Yacht Marina you can find also superyachts. During our visit (in August 2012), the famous Maltese Falcon yacht was anchored there. It is one of the world’s largest and most expensive private sailing vessels. In a word, it was a tourist attraction, both for visitors and locals, as well. And it was looking so good in Grand Harbour 😀
Marsamxett Harbour is located on the other side of Valletta. In the middle of the harbour, there is Manoel Island with Fort Manoel. This harbour is overlooking Sliema and St Julians.
Valletta Waterfront is also a very interesting place to see. Cafes and restaurants are located in the former warehouses, built during the rule of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.
Wandering the city of Valletta
If you are looking at the map of Valletta, every corner is something to tell you.
You can start a walk from the Triton fountain, located just outside the City Gate of Valletta. The fountain consists of three bronze Tritons. Since 1959 when it was complete, it became a landmark and was used for various events, leading to its damage over the years. Also, the main bus station was there and the buses were going around it. The restoration started in 2017 and was finally finished on 12 January 2018, just one week before Valletta taking became the European Capital of Culture 2018.
And a new entrance to Valletta was built between 2011 and 2014 on a former City Gate, to designs of the Italian architect Renzo Piano.
As part of the City Gate Project, the new Parlament building was constructed between 2011 and 2015 as well. So today all area around Triton Square and City Gate has completed a new look.
Close to the Triton fountain, in the Floriana district, there is the famous Hotel Phoenicia, a favourite hotel of Queen Elizabeth II. It was built by the British in the 1930s in Art Deco style and hosted many politicians, famous actors and persons. The 5*star hotel was renovated and reopened in May 2017.
When you pass through the new City Gate, you enter Republic street.
This is the main street in Valletta and leads towards Fort St. Elmo. It is about 1 kilometre long and it divides the city into two parts. The street is a pedestrian zone and very crowded with tourists and locals. There you can find many interesting buildings, museums, churches, shops, etc.
For example, close to the entrance to the city, there is a beautiful Palazzo Ferreria from the late 19th century, with wooden and green coloured balconies. Actually, it is the second biggest palace in the city after the Grandmaster’s Palace.
Also, the National Archeological Museum is located in the former seat of Auberge de Provence.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
One of the highlights in Valletta is the famous St John’s Co-Cathedral, on St. John Square.
The Cathedral was built as the conventual church for the Knights of St John and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. After the Great Siege in 1565 and the building of a new city, the Grand Masters and several knights made donations for this amazing place.
The construction started in 1572 and was completed in 1577. It was designed by the Maltese military architect Gerolamo Cassar in Baroque style. All around there are so many stunning details everywhere you look at. The walls are carved and gilded, and everything is shining: the high altar, frescoes, a huge organ.
The side chapels are dedicated to Grand Masters, belonging to each particular “Langues” of the Order. Some of them were buried in the Crypt. The most important sarcophagi belong to Jean de La Vallette, and Jean de la Cassiere, who built the Cathedral. The floor is unique, consisting of marble tombstones of about 400 Knights. In a word, it is an amazing and a little bit scary view.
In the beautiful ornate Oratory, there is a famous painting “The Beheading of St John Baptist” by Caravaggio from 1608. The dimensions of the painting are 3 by 5 meters and it is Caravaggio’s greatest masterpiece, with his signature.
The entrance fee is €15 for adults and €7.50 for students or senior citizens. The children under the age of 12 are free of charge, accompanied by an adult. The fee includes the provision of audio guides, available in a few languages.
Take care of the dress code and forget about the heels. They can damage the marble floor and you can’t enter the cathedral.
This square was originally called Piazza Tesoreria because the treasury of the Order of Saint John was located there. In the 19th century, a white marble statue of Queen Victoria was installed in the square and it became also known as Queen’s Square.
Behind the statue, there is the National Library of Malta, known as the Bibliotheca. It was built in 1796 and served as the Order’s library. There are a few cafes and restaurants around the square, and the most popular is Café Cordina. So, take a break and enjoy Maltese delicacies, gourmet products and sweets, made traditionally. Actually, the café has a long history since the Cordina family started from a small shop in Bormla in 1837 and later moved to Valletta.
On the square, there is one of the favourite tourist selfie spots: a British red telephone booth and a red post box. Today there are a few booths left in Malta’s cities, usually on main squares.
Saint George square
Next to Republic Square, there is a popular Saint George Square. On one side there is a marvellous Grandmaster’s Palace, and on the opposite is the Main Guard Building, originally built as a guardhouse in 1603 by the Order of St. John. Also, there are two identical fountains, on both sides of this building.
In front of the entrance of Grandmaster’s Palace, there is a modern floor-level fountain.
Well, it is a perfect refreshing on hot summer days and irresistible fun, both for kids and adults, like us 😀
Grand Master’s Palace
There are many palaces in Valletta. But Grandmaster’s Palace is the best known and the largest in the city.
This building, simply known as the Palace, has two floors and occupies an entire block. It was built between the 16th and 18th centuries as the palace of the Grand Master of the Order of St John. The original Palace was designed by Gelormo Cassar, but it was developed and renovated by various Grandmasters. Today the Palace houses the office of the President of Malta. Part of the building, consisting of the Palace rooms and Armory is open to visitors as a museum.
First, you enter the Neptune Courtyard, where you can see the bronze statue of the god Neptune.
The other, smaller courtyard is the Prince Alfred courtyard, named after one of Queen Victoria’s sons. But it is known for an interesting tower with Pinto’s clock, ordered by Grandmaster Manoel Pinto de Fonseca. So, the clock shows four dials: time, the day, months and phases of the moon.
The Palace rooms
Walking around the palace corridors, it seems that you are back in medieval times. The Palace looks amazing with many knight armouries, portraits of Grandmasters on the walls and various coats.
The ceiling is decorated with stunning frescoes by Niccolo Nasoni, an Italian architect, also known for his influence on Porto’s cathedrals and palaces.
Besides the armoury, there are several interesting rooms. First, the Throne Room, originally known as the Supreme Council Hall, used by Grandmasters to host ambassadors and visiting important persons. The walls are covered with twelve frescoes representing the siege of 1565 and 1576-1581 by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, a former student of Michelangelo.
The next one is the Ambassador’s Room, known as the Red Room because of the red hanging damask. Then, there is the Waiting Room or Yellow Room, known as the yellow damask which covers the wall. And the well preserved French Gobelins tapestries “Les Teintures des Indes” with tropical scenes from the 18th century could be seen in Tapestry Hall.
At this moment, because of the actual Covid-19 situation, the Palace is temporarily closed.
So, after the death of a knight, his armoury becomes the property of the Order.
The museum contains an armoury collection from the 16th to the 18th centuries. So, after the death of a Knight, his armoury becomes the property of the Order. There you can see various helmets, shields, swords, spears, halberds, pikes (pole weapons), many armours of knights, several cannons, and carriages as well.
The collection contains very rare and unique armoury pieces of French, Italian, German, Italian and Spanish origin, and some Ottoman weapons as well. Of course, the most famous examples are the armour of famous Grand Master Jean de la Valette and Alof de Wignacourt.
The Casa Rocca Piccola
Going down Republic street, you will find the Casa Rocca Piccola.
In a word, the privately owned palace is from the 16th century. Actually, nine generations of the Marquis de Piro family have lived there.
So, the owner decides to open one part of the palace to the public, to show the customs, history and traditions of the Maltese Noble family. Only guided tours are possible in several languages and last about one hour.
The admission fee is 9€ for adults, and it is possible to book a private tour with Marquis and Marchesa de Piro, as well. Unfortunately, we came a bit late (the last admission is at 4 pm), so book your visit in time and check the opening hours.
Upper and Lower Barracca Gardens
Close to Merchant Street, the second main street in Valletta, there are the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens.
Also, you can enter the Upper Gardens by Barrakka Lift from the Grand Harbour, if you arrive by cruise. The lift is re-opened in December 2012, at the same place where was the first lift from 1905. The ticket costs 1 EUR and the trip lasts approximately 23 seconds.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens were created in 1661. First, they were used as private gardens for the Italian knights.
Today, the gardens are public and a perfect place to escape for a while from the busy centre and crowd. Take a walk between the various statues, shrubs, flowers, and arches. Relax on the benches and enjoy the beautiful view across the Grand Harbour and Three cities.
From the Upper gardens, you can see and visit the Saluting Battery, consisting of eight lined-up cannons. Every day at 12:00 and 16:00, you can hear shots from the cannons. It is a reminder of many battles and sieges on the island, and the battery’s historic significance, as well.
The terraced area is very interesting with arches and benches to sit and enjoy the view of the blue sea and blue sky.
The Siege Bell War Memorial
Close to Barrakka Gardens, there is The Siege Bell War Memorial, built in 1992. This monument is made in memory of more than 7.000 people who were killed during the Second World War in Malta. Well, during the war, Malta was under the British protectorate.
At the foot of the Bell, there is a bronze figure, a monument of the Unknown Soldier, looking across the Grand Harbour.
In the Lower Barrakka Gardens, you can see a monument in the form of a Roman temple, erected in 1810. It is the monument to Sir Alexander Bell, one of the Maltese leaders against the French in the 1798 uprising. There is also a small fountain in the front of the monument.
The churches and cathedrals in Malta
Since Malta is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, there are many churches and cathedrals.
Besides St John’s Co-Cathedral, some of the most famous churches in Valletta are:
- Our Lady of Victories, the oldest church and the first building erected in Valletta.
- Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, a parish church, founded in 1570 is also one of the oldest churches in the city.
- Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, founded in 1570, is known for its oval-shaped dome at a height of 42 meters. You can see it in many photos of Valletta’s skyline.
- Augustine Church, the Church of St Catherine, the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
- St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral is the Anglican cathedral, built at the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne between 1839 and 1844, in the Neo-Classical style. The spire is rising to over 60 meters. It is one of Valletta’s landmarks, together with the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Valletta, an unforgettable city
As you can see, there are so many places to see and visit in Valletta, depending on your interests.
The city is a maze of narrow intertwined streets, which hide secrets and the glorious past of knights who had it built, renovated and heroically defended for centuries.
Just take a deep breath of the fresh sea air and enjoy the views of the colourful balconies and old palaces, which make Valletta so unique, marvellous and irresistible.
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