Valletta – Exploring Malta

Standing on a peninsula between the Marsamxett Harbour and Grand Harbour is the capital of Malta, Valletta. The city is the second southernmost capital in Europe and the smallest capital city within the European Union. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a history stretching back to 1566 and its founder Jean de Parisot Valette. The old fortifications of the city have survived and Valletta today tells the stories of the Knights Hospitaller, The British, and the German invasion attempts during the Second World War. The Maltese capital is indeed a very interesting place, both for history buffs and people who enjoy city life.

Our blog posts about Valletta:

The History of Valletta

A watchtower was built on the peninsula already in the late 15th century. The watchtower was named after Saint Elmo. In the mid 16th century the much larger Fort Saint Elmo replaced the original watchtower. Even though the fort fell to the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, the Order of Saint John remained in control of Malta and it later reconquered the peninsula.

Grand Master Jean de Parisot Valette laid the first stone of the foundation of Valletta was laid in 1566. The new city replaced Birgu as the capital in 1571. At the time, Birgu had only been the capital for three decades after replacing Mdina as the capital in 1530.

The street layout of Valletta was already from the beginning all about the defense of the city. There are straight streets towards Fort Saint Elmo and steep slopes down towards the walls. It is still today possible to see how many of the stairs in these slopes have been adjusted to ease the run for the heavily armored knights of the past.

The Order of Saint John controlled Valletta and the island of Malta until 1798 when the French occupied the island. The British replaced the French already in 1800, marking the start of the long colonization of Malta. British rule saw the modernization of Valletta and many of the old structures were modified and rebuilt. The main fortifications from the time of the Order of Saint John did, however, survive.

Valletta had, however, not seen its last conflict. During the Second World War, Valletta and Malta saw an over two-year-long siege by German and Italian forces. The siege became known as the Siege of Malta and the island saw severe bombings from the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica. Malta was eventually one of the most bombed places during the whole war. The number of booms is estimated to have been more than 14.000 and around 30.000 buildings were destroyed. The scars of the war are still visible in Valletta today.

Malta gained its independence in 1964, making Valletta the capital of a sovereign state. The city of Valletta, in its entirety, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

Sights in Valletta

The historical sights in Valletta are plenty and even though this is the smallest capital within the European Union it will take quite some time to explore them all. Remember that once you have scanned the sights above ground the exploration of the underground will commence.

Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of the local Roman Catholic churches in Valletta. Well, it is probably the most famous of the churches and the large structure is visible from the western waterfront and neighboring Sliema. This is the 42-meter high oval dome that is one of the most prominent futures when viewing Valletta from afar. The original church here was built in the 1570s and it survived until the Second World War. The rebuilding of the church was completed in 1981.

Fort Saint Elmo – National War Museum

The history of Valletta is closely linked with Fort Saint Elmo. The star fort has its origins in the 1550s and during the time of the Order of Saint John. The fort played a major role in the Great Siege of 1565 and in the defense of Malta in the centuries thereafter. Its last battles took place during the Second World War when the fort was severely damaged.

Fort Saint Elmo still has scars from World War II. It is, however, today home to the National War Museum and tells the story of both World War I and II. In addition, this is also the location for the national police academy.

Grandmaster’s Palace

Grandmaster’s Palace was for centuries the palace of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John. It later became the Governor’s Palace during the time as a British colony and it does today house the Office of the President of Malta.

Heritage Malta has parts of the building as a museum. The museum includes the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armory.

Hastings Garden

On top of two bastions of Valletta’s fortifications is the Hastings Garden. It is a green hideout with an impressive view on offer. From Saint John’s Bastion and Saint Michael’s Bastion, the view includes a big portion of Marsamxett Harbour and the nearby towns of Floriana, Msida, and Sliema. It also includes Manoel Island, formerly home to a quarantine hospital.

Lower Barrakka Gardens

With a small temple, the Lower Barrakka Gardens is another green refuge in the otherwise stony Valletta. From the gardens, visitors can admire the views over the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities on the other side of the bay. In regards to the small temple, it is actually the Monument to Sir Alexander Ball. It was built in 1810 in memory of the British admiral and the first Civil Commissioner of Malta.

National Library of Malta

The National Library of Malta was founded in 1776. Its collections include historical records dating back to the Order of Saint John as well as that of several other historical eras of the islands. The building is at Republic Square and is one of the area’s most prominent buildings. For most tourists like us, the library will be viewed from the outside.

National Museum Of Archaeology

At the Auberge de Provence is the National Museum of Archaeology. The museum displays local artifacts from the Neolithic up to the Phoenician period.

Parliament House

The Parliament of Malta is housed in the more modern Parliament House. The Building was completed in 2015 and has seen a mixed reception. No matter if you love or hate this addition to the constructions in Valletta, it is already an important landmark.

Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House was the center of the performing arts in Valletta. It was first opened in 1866 and survived until 1942. Its fate was sealed by the German Luftwaffe when they bombarded the building. Because of the severe damages, the building had to be completely demolished. It eventually reopened as an open-air theatre in 2013, still as a gaping scar and a symbol of the bombardments during the Second World War.

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is a Roman Catholic co-cathedral. The Order of Saint John built it in the 1570s and is a co-cathedral to the Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. It is one of the more prominent buildings in the capital and was only slightly damaged during the Second World War.

Siege Bell Memorial

Siege Bell Memorial is today a monument of the heroism of the Maltese people during the Siege of Malta when the island was severely bombarded by the German and Italian airforces. The bell was completed in 1992.

Tritons’ Fountain

Most people arriving in Valletta by bus will be greeted by these three large Tritons. The Tritons’ Fountain was built in the 1950s and is located directly outside the city walls. Many consider it to be one of the most important landmarks in Valletta. Even though the fountain was completed in 1959, the formal inauguration did not take place until 59 years later in 2018 when the most recent restorations were completed.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

On top of the 16th-century Saint Peter and Saint Paul Bastions are the Upper Barrakka Gardens. They are famous for their panoramic view of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities. The most prominent feature is usually the Fort Saint Angelo in Birgu. That is, of course, depending on which ship is currently in the harbor. The gardens are connected with the waterfront and the Grand Harbour via the Barrakka Lift. This is a common accessway to Valletta for many arriving in the harbor or with the ferry from the Three Cities. Below the gardens is the Saluting Battery. The battery’s canons are regularly used for ceremonial gun salutes.

Valletta City Gate

The City Gate of Valletta is for many the main entrance of the capital. The current gate is actually the fifth in the order. The first one was built already in the 16th century. The current gate is not of the traditional kinds of the past. Instead, it looks more like a hole in the old city wall.

Valletta Activities

There are plenty of activities all around Valletta and it is not hard to spend a day or two exploring the many sights and engaging in activities around the bay. In addition, there are plenty of day trips to take at sea.

Beaches in Valletta

Yes, this is a peninsula. Yes, there is water within just a few hundred meters no whether where you are. But, no, there are no proper beaches or locations for swimming. There are a few locations where locals do swim, but there are also a few places swimming is recommended. The high city walls prevent swimming in many places and the harbors in others. However, there are a few cliffs from where locals sometimes go for a swim. For visitors, there are a lot better places around Malta for swimming than in the capital.

Hiking to and from Valletta

There are several hiking possibilities from Valletta. Do, however, keep in mind that there will be several kilometers of urban areas to pass through before reaching the more rural paths. One way to shorten the hike through the urban areas is by taking the ferry from Valletta to either Sliema or the Three Cities and starting from there.

To the East

To the east are the Three Cities and the long coast. One option is to walk around the Grand Harbour and once you reach the town of Senglea you can either head back with the ferry or continue along the coast. The hike can eventually take you all the way to Marsaskala and beyond.

To the West

To the west is an even larger urban area along the coast of the Marsamxett Harbour. A walk around the harbor will eventually take you to Sliema and later to Saint Julian’s. It is first after Saint Julian’s that a more rural landscape takes over.

Shopping in Valletta

Shopping possibilities in Valletta are mostly made up of souvenir shops. There are, however, also some famous international brands that have shops in the capital. Most of these shops are along Republic Street and Merchants Street.

Excursions from Valletta

Valletta is the hub of public transport and most of the island is reachable by bus from here. The bus might not be the most time-efficient means of transportation, but is a safe option to have in case other options are hard to arrange. There are also ferries across the bays to Sliema and the Three Cities. Especially Sliema is an option if you want to reach the boat tours that head out on the Mediterranean Sea.

Birżebbuġa

Birżebbuġa is not only the home of the large Malta Freeport, it is also the home of a few historical sites. Here you will find two interesting archaeological sites, Għar Dalam and Borġ in-Nadur. This is also a popular summer resort for the local Maltese.

From our visit:

Comino

Comino is the third-largest island of Malta and a popular summer destination for many of the boat trips from Sliema. The island is the home of the Blue Lagoon, located between the islands of Comino and Cominotto, but there is also a lot of hiking paths to explore.

Fgura

Fgura is a town directly outside the city walls of the Three Cities. Its main street has many small shops, usually more oriented towards the locals than to tourists. Fgura is just a short walk up through the city walls when arriving in the Three Cities with the ferry from Valletta.

Gozo

Gozo is the second-largest island in Malta and is reachable by several possible day trips from Sliema. The main city, Victoria, is located at the center of the island and is home to the impressive Cittadella.

From our visit:

Marsaskala

Marsaskala is another coastal resort town to the east. This former fishing village has grown into one of the larger towns in South-Eastern Malta.

From our visits:

Marsaxlokk

Marsaxlokk is an old fishing village and famous for its traditional colorful boats and the daily market. This is one of the main tourist attractions in the eastern part of Malta. The colorful fishing boats, known as Luzzu, are an addition to the Maltese culture dating back to the early 12th century.

From our visits:

Mdina

Mdina is the former capital of Malta and is today a small fortified town. It is one of the most impressive sights on the island and just a short bus ride away from Sliema. Mdina is also neighboring the town of Rabat, a town that is possible to combine in the same visit.

From our visits:

Saint Julian’s

Saint Julian’s is just a short distance away and can be considered as the main part of the largest tourist resort in Malta. This is where many of the hotels are and it is popular for its restaurants and shopping. It is also the home of Paceville, an area that is both loved and hated for its many bars and nightclubs.

Sliema

Sliema is within easy reach on the other side of Marsamxett Harbour. This is one of the busier towns in Malta and a modern commercial center. For anyone looking for shopping or other urban activities, then Sliema is usually among the options on the island. Together with Saint Julian’s, Sliema makes up one of the main tourist resorts in Malta.

From our visits:

And if you want to read more about Sliema with kids:

The Three Cities – Birgu, Cospicua, and Senglea

The Three Cities of Birgu, Cospicua, and Senglea are famous for their fortifications and marinas. This is where you will find Fort St Angelo and several places to view the marina, the Grand Harbor, and Valletta itself.

From our visits:

Żabbar

The town of Żabbar is, just like Figura, directly outside the walls of the Three Cities and even though it is not the most tourist-oriented town on the island it still has a lot to discover. With the many traditional Maltese balconies, the Gallarijas, lining the streets and with fewer tourists, it is also easier to just stroll around. In addition, the fortifications of the Three Cities are right at the outskirts of the town and so is the large Park ta’ San Klement, with a playground for the kids.

From our visit:

Valletta with a Kid

Valletta might not be the most kids-friendly town in Malta. The many steep slopes will cause most kids to complain and keeping track of your kids among the crowds of tourists can be really stressful. There are, however, a few things our 4-year-old has enjoyed when visiting the capital. For instance, she really enjoyed the view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. For some reason, the view of the sea seemed to have been exciting. Well, it could also have been the sight of the many large ships.

Playgrounds in Valletta

Playgrounds in Valletta are a rare sight and for many, it would probably be easier and more entertaining for the kids if going to the playgrounds in the nearby towns instead.

Read more about Malta with kids:

Manderaggio Playground

Close to the Sliema Ferry is one of the playgrounds that we have seen. It is in an area known as Manderaggio (Il-Mandraġġ in Maltese). The playground is inside an enclosure, but when we have when passed by, there have not been kids playing there. We do not know if it’s open to the public.

Siege Bell Memorial Playground

Close to the Siege Bell Memorial is a very small playground. It might entertain smaller kids for a few minutes, but older kids will most likely not consider it a playground at all.

There are more towns and villages to discover. Join us in Exploring Malta >>

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