Valletta – The capital city of Malta
The city of Valletta is found on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Valletta is commonly linked to the Order of St. John. The moment you enter the city, it is as though you have stepped into a museum. Every step you take, everywhere you look, you find buildings and monuments which take you back in time.
All photography in this article belongs to Alex Turnbull.
Valletta is a fortified city found on a peninsula, surrounded by two harbours. One harbour, the Grand Harbour, faces The Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua), the second harbour faces the Manoel Island and Sliema. In 1565, The Knights of St. John brought together respected European military engineers of the time, to create a city with a uniform grid within the fortified and bastioned city walls. Since then, the city has lived through many rebuilding projects. The city was created as ideal creation of the late Renaissance, including urban planning which was inspired by the Neoplatonic principles.
The city took on severe damage during World War 2, yet, most of the original monuments are currently intact or have been restored to their original state. Valletta contains monuments of civil, artistic, religious and military nature. The whole city also has an entire underground system of tunnels which it is set on. These tunnels were used as shelters during wartime. Today, there are specially scheduled tours that one can sign up for to experience what lies beneath the capital.
Valletta main entrance
In the past few years, more and more attention has been placed on the capital city in every aspect. In terms of architecture, you will notice several constructions of modern architecture blended with the original structures. There has also been immense work done in taking care of the historical buildings as well as the restoration of the inner roads. Valletta today is an administrative and commercial epicenter of Malta.
One thing you will notice is the presence of the traditional Maltese balconies on the older buildings. Across the island, you can notice the brightly coloured balconies which face the roads. Unfortunately, there are few buildings with these balconies, however, in Valletta, you are pretty much surrounded by them. It is in Valletta where these balconies first manifested, in the late 17th century and the style was influenced by the Baroque movement.
For years, these balconies reflected the social class of the house owner. There are two main types of balconies; the open type in either stone of wrought iron, with the rare exception found in wood, and the second type being a closed balcony traditionally made from wood. The open style is considered to be the oldest.
Maltese traditional balconies
There is life during the day and night. During the day is it more business and commercial, and at night you can enjoy the city which is well lit with many restaurants, lounges, cafes, and bars which are open for business. Many establishments have live music and performances as well as having tables brought outside, should you wish to sit outside and enjoy the City of Valletta at night.
Layout of Valletta
Getting to Valletta, there are two options; on the road; by bus or car, or on the water by boat. Depending on which means of transport you choose, you get the see the city from a different viewpoint. Cars and buses are the most popular, however, my favourite way is by boat. There are ferries from Sliema to Valletta and from The Three Cities to Valletta every 15 minutes, which are both fast and are a truly beautiful means of transport. You get to enjoy viewing Valletta from one of the harbours, as well as seeing Manoel Island (if you are on the Sliema ferry), which is a rare sight unless you are standing on the bastions of Valletta. Finally, you get to enjoy to the beautiful deep shades of the Mediterranean Sea with a fresh sea breeze.
Valletta is mainly a city that needs to be explored on foot. There are many roads, some wide, others narrow. The main layout of the city, in terms of roads, is by 5 roads. Republic Street is the main road which you face when entering the city from the main entrance. To the right, is Merchant street, followed by St. Paul’s street. To the left of Republic street, is Strait Street, followed by Old Bakery Street.
All these five roads lead towards the peak of the peninsula. Merchant street and St. Paul’s street face towards The Three cities and the Grand Harbour, whilst Strait Street and Old Bakery Street face Manoel Island and Sliema. One thing you will notice when standing on the streets is that these roads are on a slope. Republic street is on a flat surface, but the more you move towards the parallel roads going outwards from the centre of the city, the roads become more and more at an angle. The furthest from the centre you are, the heavier is the slopes of the streets.
Sites to visit in Floriana
Portes des Bombes “Cannons Gate”
An ornamental gate in Floriana, leading to the entrance to Valletta. It was originally built in 1721 by the design of the French architect Charles Francois de Mondion. There were bullet marks on the arch when the Maltese insurgents opened fire after the French had captured the gate during the French invasion in 1798. It was later enlarged by the British government, with the second arch in 1868. The gate’s architecture is in Baroque style and is made of limestone.
Wignacourt Water Tower
The Wignacourt Water Tower is part of the aqueduct which transported water from above and under the ground from Floriana to Mdina at the time of the knights. It has recently been restored after having suffered damage over time, pollution and traffic.
Robert Samut Hall
This is definitely a building that is very distinct and if you know where it is located, you will instantly notice how it stands out to its surrounding. It was built in 1883 and has a Neo-Gothic style of architecture. It used to serve as a Protestant church and was designed by Thomas Mullet Ellis. The building was the first, in its time, to use the incandescent light bulb. The structure also has an underground hall which, during World War 2 accommodated British servicemen. It received its name after the Maltese government was in power in 1975 and it was named after the Maltese composer of the national anthem, Robert Samut. It has recently been restored and is being used for social functions.
Sites to visit in Valletta
As you approach the entrance to Valletta, you are greeted with the Independence monument of Malta from the British rule on 21st August 1964. It stands on the far end of the Mall Garden, also known as Maglio Gardens, on the end facing the entrance to Valletta.
Before you enter the city, it is hard not to stop and appreciate the Triton Fountain (Il-Funtana tat-Tritoni). It is set directly opposite the main entrance to Valletta and consists of three bronze Tritons, all holding a basin with one hand. The base was constructed using concrete and travertine slabs. It was first constructed between 1952 and 1959 by sculptor Chevalier Vincent Apap and draughtsman Victor Anastasi. Over many years, the fountain needed a total restoration, which was completed this January and reflects the modernism movement. Today it is one of the most stunning structures to view in the capital during both day and night.
Triton Fountain at dusk
Valletta City Gate
The City Gate (Bieb il-Belt, translated from Maltese to “Door to the City”), is the main entrance to Valletta. The present gate is the fifth gate that stands and was built between 2011-2014 by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The first gate, Porta San Giorgio, was built in 1569 by designs of either Francesco Laparelli or Girolamo Cassar. The gate was renamed Porta Reale in 1586. It was then rebuilt in 1633, by probable designs by Tommaso Dingli and renamed Porta Nationale during the French occupation in 1798. The name of the gate then was changed back to Porta Reale once Malta fell under British rule in 1800. The gate was once again rebuilt in 1853 and was named Kingsgate.
All three gates were fortified gates and formed part of Valletta’s city walls. In 1964, the fortified gate was demolished and was replaced by a Futuristically styled gate, designed by Alziro Bergonzo. This gate was then demolished in 2011 and replaced with the current City Gate.
Parliament House in Valletta
Once you walk through the Valletta City Gate, you find yourself in an open space, after which there is Republic street. On the right, you are greeted with a Modern styled building by Renzo Piano. This is the newly built (2011 – 2015) Parliament House. Prior to this building, the former armory of the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta was converted into the parliament (in 1976). Between 1921 – 1976, the meeting of Parliament took place in the Tapestry Chamber of the Grandmaster’s Palace.
Pjazza Teatru Rjal
Next door to the Parliament House is the Pjazza Teatru Rjal (Royal Opera House). This theatre was first built in 1866 by an English architect Edward Middleton Barry. Unfortunately, the structure received a direct hit from an aerial bombing in 1942 during World war 2 and was destroyed. For many years, the remains of the theatre were left abandoned, until Italian architect Renzo Piano redesigned the structure which now stands. It was opened in 2013 and today, serves as an open-air theatre. Due to weather conditions, it does not function throughout the whole year and due to the nature of the open-air structure, not all performances may be allowed to use this theatre. The capacity of the theatre is 900 seated and around 1500 standing.
Another theatre that is found in Valletta is the Manoel Theatre. The theatre was originally named Teatro Pubblico and was renamed Teatro Reale (Theatre Royal) in 1812. In 1866, it was once again renamed with the current name, Manoel Theatre. It was given its name after the Grandmaster of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, Fra Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, who ordered its construction in 1731. The theatre is considered to be Europe’s third-oldest working theatre and the oldest theatre in operation in the Commonwealth of Nations.
Manoel Theatre is found on Old Theatre Street and is Malta’s national theatre and the home of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.
Auberge de Castille
Located between Merchant street and St. Paul’s street and close to the entrance to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, stands the Auberge de Castille. Originally built in Mannerist style (late Renaissance) in 1573-1574 for the knights of the Order of St. John, by the designs of architect Girolamo Cassar. Its name was derived from the language of Castile, Leon, and Portugal. The building was later dismantled and rebuilt into the building that stands today, in Spanish Baroque style between 1741 – 1744, using the designs of Andrea Belli. A few alternations, such as the enlargement of the main door were made in 1791. It stands at the highest point of Valletta and overlooks Floriana and the Grand Harbour.
Central Bank of Malta Currency Museum
Closely located to the Auberge de Castille is the Central Bank of Malta Currency Museum. The Museum showcases coins and banknotes which were used in Malta. The range is from Punic times to the Order of St. John, the British period, the Maltese Lira, and finally today’s Euro.
One of the many public gardens found in Valletta is the Hastings Gardens. It is located close to the Central Bank of Malta Currency Museum, on the top of St. John’s Bastion and St. Michael’s Bastion. It is named after Lord Hastings, who was a governor of Malta. A monument dedicated to Francis, Marquis of Hastings was placed by the family. He died in 1826 and was buried in this garden. From the garden, you can enjoy panoramic views of Floriana, Msida, Sliema, and Manoel Island.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
One of the most known public gardens is the Upper Barrakka Gardens. The garden is found on the upper tier of St. Peter and St. Paul Bastion and was built in 1560. It can also be accessed from just outside the Valletta Waterfront, located under the city walls, by means of a modern lift. These gardens used to be used for recreation by the knights of the Italian division of the Order of St. John, but in 1800, following the French occupation of Malta, they were opened to the public. The gardens also have several monuments and memorials.
Saluting Battery at Upper Barrakka Gardens overlooking The Three Cities
The Saluting Battery is located on the lower tier. It is found on the highest point of the city walls and you also have a beautiful panoramic view of the Grand Harbour. There are arches, which were built by the Italian knight Fra Flaminio Balbiani in 1661. These were originally roofed; however, the ceiling was removed in 1775 following the Rising of the Priests.
Modern lift that takes you to the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Lower Barrakka Gardens
The Lower Barrakka Gardens also offer a stunning view of the Grand Harbour as well as the view of the breakwater. You can also find a neoclassical temple located in the centre of the garden together with the monument to Sir Alexander Ball and several commemorative plaques. From the garden, you can also look across and see the Siege Bell War memorial. It was designed by Michael Sandle and assembled by the George Cross Inland Association to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the awarding of the George Cross to Malta.
Across the Great Siege Bell at Lower Barrakka Gardens
Valletta Waterfront, The Grand Harbour & The Three Cities
Today’s Valletta waterfront is a newly rebuilt promenade that used to be called the Valletta Marina in 1752. There are currently three prominent buildings, a church, the Pinto Wharf, and the Forni Shopping Complex. In addition, there are several bars, restaurants, and lounges. Originally, the buildings, in Baroque style, were stores and warehouses that were designed by Andrea Belli.
The waterfront is located on the Grand Harbour side of the capital and faces the Three cities. The harbour is cut off from the open water with the Valletta breakwater. Malta’s Grand Harbour is also known as the Port of Valletta. It is a natural harbour that has been modified over the years with the addition of docks, wharves and fortifications.
The Three Cities consist of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, each being a fortified city built much like the capital, on a peninsula. The oldest of the three is Birgu, which has been around since the Middle Ages. Senglea and Cospicua were founded by the Order of St. John in the 16th and 17th centuries. For more information about The Three Cities, make sure to check out the Historic Sites article.
Lascaris War Rooms
A complex of underground tunnels is found in Valletta, which was the War Headquarters during World War 2. The British built secret underground tunnels which were completed in 1943. Lascaris War Rooms got their name after Grandmaster Giovanni Paolo Lascaris. The rooms contained operations rooms, where both defenses of the island, as well as other operations in the Mediterranean, were conducted. These rooms were also used by NATO at a later time. The tunnels were then open to the public and can be visited.
The Victoria Gate was built in 1885 by the British and was named after Queen Victoria. The gate is in the Grand Harbour area and it used to be the main entrance to the capital, which made it a busy and popular place. The Victoria Gate is the only standing fortification of Valletta, as the rest have been demolished between the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mediterranean Conference Centre & The Knights Hospitallers
A building definitely to be seen when in Valletta. The Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC), is a 16th-century building located close to the Siege Bell and has a view of the Grand Harbour. It is also the place to learn about the Knights in Malta and their role as a Hospitaller Order of Chivalry during the Medieval times in Malta.
The Knights Hospitallers provided the best medical services during their time and sick and injured people were brought to Malta to be healed by them. Disinfecting, to avoid the spreading of infection at the time was vital. It was at this hospital, that the Knights Hospitallers used vinegar and citrus to flush bathrooms, which they had built within the hospital, to maintain a sterile environment. They also used silver dishes and cutlery, as silver is known to help avoid the spreading of infection when sterilized. Finally, there was a strict rotation of the sick and healing. Every patient moved from one section of the hospital to the next depending on their recovery stage, and those that were ill and those that were recovering were never mixed in one location. This also helped maintain infection and not allowing it to spread within the hospital. During their time, the Knights Hospitallers developed surgical procedures and their work has become a foundation for today’s healthcare. The MCC is one of the largest European conference centres within a historic setting.
The Malta Experience
Opposite the Mediterranean Conference Centre, is the Malta Experience. It is an audio-visual show which covers 7000-years of the history of Malta and the Maltese islands. If you enjoy entertainment and history, this will definitely interest you.
Fort St. Elmo
Fort St. Elmo is located close to the Mediterranean Conference Centre and on the peak of the peninsula and forms part of Valletta’s fortifications. From the angle of the Mediterranean Sea, the fort divides the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour. Many know of Fort St. Elmo from the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
In 1417 the local militia had a permanent watch post on the peninsula. The Aragonese built a watchtower in 1488. The Order of St. John, in 1533, strategically reinforced the tower, due to its location. In 1552, after the Ottoman raid of 1551 when the Turkish fleet sailed unopposed, into Marsamxett Harbour, it was decided that Fort St. Elmo needed extensive expansions and therefore was demolished and rebuilt. The fort was designed by four Italian architects and the new fort included a cavalier, a tenaille and a covert way. A ravelin was also constructed months before the 1565 siege.
During the Great Siege in 1565 with the Ottomans, Fort St. Elmo was a war zone, but it withstood the bombing from the Turks for 28 days before falling to the Turks on 23rd June 1565. After the Great Siege, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette, in 1566, started building the city and the Pope sent Francesco Laparelli to redesign the fort. It was modified several times in the 17th century as well as in the 19th century by the British. The fort has taken a lot of blows over the years and the World Monuments Fund, in 2008, has placed Fort St. Elmo on the Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world due to deterioration. From 2009 up to 2014, most of the Fort’s restoration had been completed. During restoration, there were several archaeological excavations there were made. Today, the Fort is used for certain functions and shows.
National War Museum
The National War Museum is found on the side of Fort St. Elmo. In 1614, Vendome Bastion was constructed which linked the French Curtain to Fort St. Elmo. The bastion was later turned into an armoury and is now part of the National War Museum.
In the year 1903, when Malta was under British rule, the stone foundation for the Breakwater Bridge was led, order of King Edward VII. Prior to the bridge, the Grand Harbour was protected by a heavy chain that went across Fort St. Elmo to Fort Ricasoli. At the end of the bridge, there is a lighthouse. The construction of the bridge was finalized in 1910.
The Breakwater Bridge
St. John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum
A roman catholic co-cathedral found in the centre of Valletta, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It was built in 1577 by the Order of St. John, commissioned by Grandmaster Jean de la Cassiere by the designs of Girolamo Cassar. In the 17th century, the interior was redecorated in Baroque style and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Europe. The exterior is in Mannerist style and the façade looks pretty plain in comparison to the interior. The cathedral has 9 chapels and notable artworks, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1571-1610) being the most famous piece. This piece has the largest canvas, the only painting that is signed by him, and is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces.
Courts of Justice and the Great Siege monument
Built in Neoclassical style between 1965 – 1971, where once stood Auberge d’Auvergne, which was destroyed during World War 2. This 16th-century building housed the Knights of the Order of St. John from the langue of Auvergne, which was converted into a courthouse in the 19th century. After the severe damage due to the bombing during World War 2, the courthouse moved outside the city and later returned in 1971.
Opposite the entrance to the Courts of Justice, is the Great Siege monument which was sculpted by Antonio Sciortino in 1926. The sculpture consists of three bronze figures symbolizing Faith, Fortitude, and Civilization. It is a monument to commemorate the Great Siege in Malta.
Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta
The Grandmaster’s Palace, also known as The Palace was built between the 16th and 18th centuries when the Grandmasters of the Order of St. John ruled the island. This palace is the largest palace in the city and occupies a city block, along Republic Street. In 1566, when the Order of St. John established the city of Valletta, the palace for the Grandmaster was initially meant to be built on high ground. In 1571, Grandmaster Pierre del Monte had moved the Order’s headquarters into the city and was living in the house of Eustachio del Monte, his nephew. The house was purchased and works of enlarging the building and turning it into a palace began. Del Monte had died and the following Grandmaster, Jean de la Cassiere had moved in.
The Grandmaster’s Palace was built in Mannerist design by Glormo Cassar with Baroque character with the modifications and enrichment added with every Grandmaster. Antonio Manoel de Vilhena in 1724, had Nicolau Nasoni decorate the ceilings of the main corridors with frescoes. Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, in the 1740s, made alternations to the building, giving it present configurations, including the embellished façade, an opening to the second main entrance, and the clock tower in one of the courtyards.
Corner of the Grandmaster’s Palace
During the French occupation, the palace was named the Palais National (National Palace), followed by British rule, when the palace became the residence of the Governor of Malta. During the British rule, the kitchen which served the Grandmaster was turned into an Anglican chapel, as well as a semaphore station being placed on the palace’s belvedere. Parts of the palace did suffer from the bombings in World War 2, but these were repaired. Between 1921 to 2015, the Grandmaster’s Palace was the seat of Parliament of Malta. The Parliament would gather in the Tapestry Hall during 1921-1976 and later moved to the former armoury. The palace is partially open to the public such as; the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury.
Is-Suq Tal-Belt is the City Market, also known as the Covered Market. It is a 19th-century market found in Valletta. Originally the building was constructed mainly out of iron and suffered significant damage after World War 2. There were several attempts in bringing the market back and using it as a shopping arcade, however until recently all have been unsuccessful.
In 2016, renovation of the building had begun, and the building was complete in 2017. It is now a building dedicated to food. When you enter, you will notice that the building has kept its feel and layout of an indoor market. The renovations were inspired by the market in Madrid, the Market of San Miguel, and the La Boqueria, in Barcelona. The City Market is currently being used as an entire food court, with a wide variety of cuisines to suit anyone’s liking.
Casa Rocca Piccola
A 16th-century palace in Valletta, the home of the noble De Piro family. In the palace, there is also the La Giara Restaurant. There are quite a few things to see and admire in this home, as well as guided tours.
Palazzo De La Salle
Palazzo de la Salle, located on Republic Street, is currently the venue of the Malta Society of Arts which was acquired by Grandmaster Raymond Perellos Roccafull in 1713. The Malta Society of Arts offers exhibits and music halls for public cultural events, which can be attended.
National Museum of Fine Arts
The National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta was inaugurated on 7th May 1974 and showcases the arts of both foreign and local artists, with the majority being European artistic styles. The building is an 18th-century palace that was the home of the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. It was closed in October 2016, to be reopened in 2018, and rename as MUZA, an acronym from Maltese Muzew tal-Arti.
National Library of Malta
The National Library of Malta is a reference library found in a square next door to the Grandmaster’s Palace. The library’s building is a late 18th-century Neoclassical style building. It was founded in 1776 by Grandmaster Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc out of the collections of the knight Louis Guerin de Tencin. Since 1925, it has been a legal deposit library and has the largest collection of Melitensia, together with the University of Malta. The library also has archives from the Order of St. John, University of Mdina, and the University of Valletta.
National Museum of Archaeology
The National Museum of Archaeology in Malta is managed by Heritage Malta and is in Valletta. In 1958 the National Museum was opened by, then the Minister of Education, Agatha Barbara. Originally the Museum had archaeological artifacts and fine arts. The fine arts collection was then moved to the National Museum of Fine Arts. In 1998, the Museum was refurbished and upgraded, with artifacts being placed into climate-controlled displays, meeting all the conservation standards. You can find collections from the Early Neolithic period (5200-3800 BC), Temple period (3800-2500 BC), and temporary exhibits in the Grand Salon.