Malta’s charming capital city of Valletta is as beautiful as it is imposing. Built from the water up by the Knight’s of St. John in the mid 1500’s, Valletta now stands as a cultural gem in the Mediterranean. The capital city of the most densely populated country in Europe, Valletta is packed with things to do and historical sites to see. Recently named European Capital of Culture for 2018 Valletta has something for everyone. Read on as we look at what makes Valletta stand out from the rest and why it’s worth adding to your travel bucket list.
Get your bearings
Knowing who constructed much of Valletta as we see it today, it should be no surprise then that it is built on an elevated peninsula overlooking Grand Harbor and Marsamxett Harbor. The southernmost capital in Europe, and sitting in the Mediterranean, Valletta is one of the few places in Europe that has mild and warm weather all year round. Valletta is neatly organized in a grid-like layout and is easy to navigate. A great place to start is the main road thru town, Republic Street. Here you will find a wide pedestrian avenue lined with shops, cafes and some of the best attractions in town such as St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Valletta proper is one of the smallest capitals in all of Europe at ½ square miles but that doesn't mean there isn’t much to see. Nor does it necessarily mean it doesn’t take a little work getting where you want to go. Be ready to walk up and down a few hills and get in your stairs for the day. But on the bright side, think of all the guilt free dining you’ll get to do later on.
While one can drive into Valletta, we wouldn’t recommend it, parking is notoriously hard to find. You could park outside the city limits and take public transportation however we parked in nearby Silema and took a short ferry ride thru Marsamxett Harbor into town. Arriving via ferry affords some spectacular city views of Valletta as you approach. The skyline is dotted with domed cathedrals which sit is contrast to the heavily fortified walls and nearby forts.
When we laid our eyes on Valletta for the first time, I had the distinct feeling of traveling back in time. Or at least onto the set of a movie. Valletta, as we’ve mentioned, is a heavily fortified port on the north coast of Malta. But reading this and seeing the imposing walls of the city invoke two different emotions. One could have quite the mental debate about whether it is more impressive that the Knight’s of St. John were able to build such a defense or the fact that someone was ever able to overcome them and take the city.
The first fortification to be built was Fort Saint Elmo in 1552, however the fortifications for the city proper didn’t begin until in 1566 when the city was founded by Grand Master Jean de Valette. Modifications were made throughout the following centuries, with the last major addition being Fort Lascaris which was completed in 1856. Today, many of the fortifications are still standing as the once were centuries ago.
The best way to appreciate the fortifications is to arrive to Valletta via water taxi from Silema. In doing so, you get a wide, sweeping view of the waterfront with a series of protective walls almost lifting the city from the water. The walls, dotted with watchtowers and storage depots, are quite beautiful to look at particularly as they were made from the golden present throughout much of Maltese architecture. To get a better look at the various Harbors and inlets, consider a ferry tour of Valletta. These tours will take you along great harbor, up to several of the main fortifications and provide a great history lesson throughout your experience. We opted to walk along the great walls, taking in their immense size and being in awe of the time and labor it surely took to create.
Be sure to visit Fort Saint Elmo while in Valletta as it also affords the opportunity to see the National War Museum. Fort Saint Elmo played a pivotal role in the 1565 Great Siege of Malta when the Knights of St. John successfully prevented the Ottomans from overtaking the capital. Following renovations to the deteriorating fort, Fort Saint Elmo can be toured daily. Walking around this massive complex takes you back in time. Currently Fort Saint Elmo houses the Malta National War Museum and there are numerous exhibits which feature many artifacts including weapons, uniforms and even planes and vehicles from Malta’s past.
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral
One of the big draws to us in visiting Valletta was to make a stop at Saint John's Co-Cathedral. From the exterior, this Roman Catholic cathedral is rather austere, so much so it can appear more as another fortress than the beautiful cathedral it truly is. The magic of Saint John's Co-Cathedral lies in the ornately decorated interior which is a magnificent representation of Baroque design. From the moment you enter the grand naive, every arch, column and facade is covered with gold and brilliant frescoes. The barrel vault ceiling is painted with scenes from the life of the cathedrals namesake, St John the Baptist. With our eyes trained to the ceiling it took a few moments to notice that the entire floor is a series of tombs from over 400 Knights of St. John. The cathedral also houses 9 chapels which entomb numerous Grand Masters of Maltese history.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Saint John's Co-Cathedral is to see the spectacular painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by renowned Italian artist Caravaggio. This large 12x17 foot painting was commissioned by the Knights of Saint John to be the altarpiece of Saint John's Co-Cathedral and turned out to be the final altarpiece Caravaggio would ever paint. Often cited as one of the most influential paintings of Western Art, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist captures the scene just as the beheading is to take place with St. John pressed to the ground and the knife at his throat. Light and dark interplay well together in the painting. The first and only time Caravaggio’s signature was included in a painting can be found written in the blood that pours from the wound to St John’s head at the base of the painting.
Grand Master’s Palace
The Grand Master’s Palace, or simply The Palace as it’s also known, is located in St. George’s Square in Valletta. It was built between the 16th and 18th centuries as the palace of the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, who ruled Malta and is now the office for the President of Malta. The palace was also the seat of the Parliament of Malta from 1921 to 2015. Parts of the palace, including the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury, are open to the public as a museum run by Heritage Malta.
The palace itself sits on what was once the house of Eustachio del Monte. Over the years, the palace was expanded and decorated with ornate, baroque artwork. In the 1740s, Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca made extensive alterations to the building including the embellishment of the facade, the opening of a second main entrance and the construction of a clock tower in one of the courtyards. A visit to the palace today will look very similar to how it did during the rule of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.
The main facade of the palace is both simple and austere. There are two main entrances on the facade, and they each consist of an arched doorway surrounded by an ornate portal which supports an open balcony. Once inside, you’ll be in awe of the gilded decor, magnificent tapestries and vivid colors throughout. Be sure visit the great Throne Room which features a series of wall paintings decorating the upper part of the hall by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio which depict various episodes of the Great Siege of Malta. The armory includes many suits of armor, cannons, firearms, swords, and other weapons, including the personal armour of some Grand Masters.
In a city as densely constructed as Valletta, it’s good to know there are still several gardens and greenspaces to relax and rest your feet. Our favorites are the Barrakka gardens, both the upper and lower garden. The Barrakka gardens afford spectacular views of Great Harbor and many of the fortifications enclosing the city. The Upper Gardens are located on the upper tier of St. Peter & Paul Bastion, which was built in the 1560s. The garden's terraced arches were built in 1661 by the Italian knight Fra Flaminio Balbiani. They were originally roofed, but the ceiling was removed in 1775. In the park there are several monuments and memorials to a number of prominent people, including Gerald Strickland, Sir Thomas Maitland and Sir Winston Churchill. The gardens represent the highest point of the city walls, and thus its bordering terrace offers a clear view over the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. Our advice is to grab a quick snack and enjoy lunch looking out over this amazing city.
The lower Barrakka gardens are home to the monument to Sir Alexander Ball This neoclassical monument was built in 1810 as a memorial to Sir Alexander Ball, a British admiral who was the first Civil Commissioner of Malta. Surrounding by lush gardens and refreshing fountains, this a terrific place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing. From the lower gardens you’ll have a view of of Grand Harbour, the Valletta breakwater, Fort Ricasoli, Bighi Palace, Fort St. Angelo, and the creeks of Birgu and Kalkara. Be sure to visit the Memorial Siege Bell as well. This monument, was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Malta being awarded The George Cross by King George VI to appreciate heroism of its inhabitants and defenders during World War 2.
Valletta is such a beautiful and history city. Offering everything from stunning cathedrals, immense fortifications and history all around, this city has something for everyone. Be sure to check out our Know before you go article to learn more about Malta and Valletta as you plan your visit to this amazing city.