Located in the southern Mediterranean, Valletta is the capital of the island nation of Malta – one of the world’s smallest countries.
Fortified by massive walls and deep moats, Valletta’s history dates back to the Great Siege of 1565 when the star-shaped Fort St. Elmo was conquered and destroyed by the invading Ottomans.
After the war was eventually won with the help of Sicilian reinforcements, the Grand Master, Jean de Valette, made it his mission to build a new fortified city on the Sciberras Peninsula.
With the passage of time, further extensions and fortifications were added to the city by the Knights of St. John, and even today, the imposing fort and its strategic location on the headland of the peninsula does not cease to captivate the imaginations of visitors.
A section of the fortress is dedicated to the War Museum, which extensively covers the history of Malta with its fascinating exhibits, ranging from the 16th century to the 20th century.
Valletta was one of the first cities in Europe that was officially conceptualized on a drawing board. With generous funds made available by the Vatican, as well as by both Spain and France, no expenses were spared in its construction.
Ravaged by fierce wars and brutal invasions, Malta’s best option to ensure order and peace for its inhabitants was to become part of the mighty British Empire.
In 1814, a few years after the occupation of the island by Napoleon’s all-conquering army, Malta officially became a colony of the crown.
The Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens are perfect examples of the colonial influence on this tiny island nation and its capital.
Despite the considerable damage suffered during the Second World War, when the city was heavily pounded by Nazi bombs, the townscape of Valletta is still a fascinating sight to behold.
Here are some of the top attractions of this small, yet fascinating, southern Mediterranean capital.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere, and designed by the Maltese military architect Girolamo (Glormu) Cassar, St. John’s Co-Cathedral was built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578.
A fine specimen of Baroque architecture in Europe, St. John’s is one of the world’s great cathedrals.
The somewhat strange title of co-cathedral stems from the fact that the church was designated a cathedral on the orders of Popious VII in 1816 and given the same privileges as the Bishop seat in Mdina.
Funded by the profits made from attacks on Muslim trading ships, the cathedral’s grand interior was largely designed by Mattia Preti, a Calabrian artist, and Knight.
The eight chapels built along the side of the cathedral relate to the various “langues” (regions) of the Knights of Malta who belonged to different European countries.
The flooring throughout the cathedral is intricately inlaid with some 400 marble tombstones in a variety of colors.
Grand Master’s Palace
Another work of genius by the great architect Girolamo (Glormu) Cassar, the Grand Master’s Palace has served as the administrative heart of Malta for nearly three and a half centuries.
Built in 1571, the palace was the official seat of the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers of St John and also served as the Governor’s palace during the British colonial era.
Today, the Grand Master’s Palace is the official seat of the President of the Maltese Republic and home to the country’s House of Representatives.
One of the main attractions of the palace is the Council Chamber with its resplendent wooden ceiling and extraordinary Gobelin tapestries, gifted by the Spanish Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Rocaful.
The Supreme Council Hall frescoes by Mattia Perez d’Aleccio, highlighting the country’s Great Siege, is another must-see within this extraordinary palace.
The palace also boasts a historic collection of weaponry and armor – indicators to the island’s military past and its famous religious order of the Knights of St. John.
National Museum of Archaeology
The Auberge de Provence, which houses the National Museum of Archaeology, is one of the first and most important buildings to be erected in the Maltese capital.
The building was inaugurated as the National Museum in 1958 by the then Minister of Education, Agatha Barbara, originally housing the archaeological collection on the ground floor and fine arts on the first floor.
However, in 1974, the fine arts collection was moved to the newly established National Museum of Fine Arts in the Admiralty House building, while the National Museum was renamed the National Museum of Archaeology and dedicated exclusively to archaeological exhibits.
In 1998, the museum was refurbished and modernized and the exhibits were placed in climate-controlled displays, at par with the current conservation standards.
Some of the not-to-be-missed exhibits of the museum include:
- The exquisite 5000-year-old statuette of the ‘Sleeping Lady’.
- The mysterious ‘Fat Statues’ unearthed from the Neolithic temples.
- The ‘embracing couple’, the sole Neolithic figure so far discovered that depicts human emotion.
- The roofed temple miniature, a stone model representing the former state of the Neolithic temples.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Situated next to the Castille Palace, the magnificent Upper Barrakka Gardens is a space of peace and shade in the heart of the Maltese capital, offering amazing views of the Grand Harbour below, the cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara as well as the Breakwater.
Built atop a bastion – the highest point in Valletta – the gardens date back to the 17th century when it served as a private space for the Knights.
Today, the place is a major tourist attraction, with its myriad flowers and trees; statues and monuments and, of course, the breathtaking panoramas the place affords.
Financed by the Bailiff Fra Flaminio Balbiano, the gardens originally served as an exercise ground for the Knights of the Langue of Italy.
The gardens are connected to the Grand Harbour below by the 38-meter-high Barrakka Lift.
A number of smaller creeks, branching out of the harbor, boast numerous marinas with enough docks for thousands of yachts.
Located all along the harbor’s horseshoe edge are the densely populated little towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea, Marsa, and Paola.
The first three of these towns (Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea) are popularly known as the “Three Cities” because of their historical significance. They were the original settlements of the knights, with numerous monuments from the time – including auberges of the knights, grand Baroque churches, and strategic military forts – bearing silent testimony to their glorious history.
Valletta’s Grand Harbor, also known as the Port of Valletta, is essentially a natural harbor, the importance of which can be determined from the city’s fortified surroundings, as well as its commercial activity.
In times gone by, the strategic location of this huge harbor was of great military significance for the Knights of St. John.
With the harbor protected by massive fortifications on three sides, the Order of St. John could concentrate its entire might in defending the sea entrance to the harbor, made easy by the fact that it afforded ample space for Maltese battleships to dock.
Today, the harbor is essentially a hub of commercial activity with large merchant vessels, ocean liners, and cruise ships constantly moving in and out.
A number of smaller creeks branching out of the harbor boast a number of marinas with enough docks for thousands of yachts.
Located all along the harbour’s horseshoe edge are the densely populated little towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea, Marsa and Paola, with the first three known as the “Three Cities” because of their historical significance; in that they were the original settlements of the knights, with numerous monuments from the time, including auberges of the knights, grand Baroque churches, and strategic military forts, standing as a fitting testament.