Things to Do in Valletta
Behind the misleadingly plain Baroque façade of St John's Co-Cathedral hides one of Europe's most spectacular churches, built in thanks by the Knights of St John following their successful routing of the Ottoman Turks in 1565’s Great Siege of Malta. Completed in 1577, most of the design is by Gerolamo Cassar, the Maltese architect who also built the Grand Master's Palace. The entire floor in the nave of Valletta's premier cathedral is composed of around 400 marble tombstones dedicated to prominent Knights of St John. These multicolored and highly decorative memorials pay tribute to the bravery of the order, featuring coats of arms, angels and skulls.
The heavily ornamental cathedral ceiling is covered in scenes from the life of John the Baptist, patron saint of the knights, as well as other Biblical scenes executed chiefly by Calabrian artist Mattia Preti under the patronage of the order’s early 17th-century grandmaster Raphael Cotoner.
These beautifully landscaped gardens complete with follies, a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, a café and benches under shady trees, were created in 1775 on a bastion at the highest point on Valletta’s fortifications. Originally the private property of the Italian members of the Knight of St John, they are twinned with Lower Barrakka Gardens (currently under renovation but with views over the Siege Memorial) on Barriera Wharf. From their position on the south side of the city walls, the gardens provide the perfect vantage point for views over the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, including views across the Grand Harbour.
Take an afternoon stroll around the walls of Valletta before catching the new elevator, which ascends in seconds to the gardens, to watch the sunset before returning to waterfront with choices of quality bars and restaurants.
The carefully restored Valletta Waterfront sits on the Grand Harbour, below the fortified city and opposite the Three Cities of Vittorioso, Senglea, and Cospicua. Once a series of 19 Baroque bonding warehouses, it is now a leisure complex for locals, tourists, and an annual influx of half a million cruise passengers. The original buildings were commissioned by Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, the Portuguese Grand Master of the Knights of St John between 1741–73 who was also responsible for the Auberge de Castille, one of the most impressive buildings in Valletta and the present offices of the Prime Minister.
Whether you are looking for gourmet restaurants, high-end stores, local events, or simply a breathtaking walk along the promenade, the Valletta Waterfront has it all. Shopping at the Forni Shopping Complex is duty-free at stores selling Maltese glassware and local filigree jewelry and with a choice of 12 restaurants, bars, and clubs, the Waterfront is always jumping at night.
After their eventual triumph in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights of St John, the quasi-military force who repelled the Turkish invaders, became the toast of a grateful Europe. The fortress of the magnificent Grand Master's Palace in Valletta reflects their heroic standing and celebrates the wealth lavished upon them. It was to become the home of the supreme head of the Knights of St John and was constructed by Gerolamo Cassar, the Maltese architect who worked on the grid-like construction of the city of Valletta (so-called in honor of Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Vallette) in 1571 to 1575, as well as the ornate ceilings of St John's Co-Cathedral.
Today the palace shares its space with the President's Palace and parliamentary offices, as well as the Grand Armoury in the lower floors of the building which houses one of the world’s finest collections of 16th- and 17th-century armor made for Knights of St John.
By the mid-16th century, Malta was the headquarters of the Knights of St John, a quasi-military order that became the scourge of the Turkish Ottoman Empire as formidable seafarers. The otherwise unremarkable star-shaped Fort St Elmo at the tip of Valletta's old town, guarding both Marsamxett and Grand Harbour, took its place in history during the 31-day Great Siege of Malta in 1565, which saw the deaths of 1,500 Knights of St John at the hands of the Turkish invaders, with 8,000 Ottoman warriors killed in the process. Although this battle was lost, the heroic stand of the knights enabled them to win in the end.
Although it is always possible to walk around the exterior and admire the sturdy bastions and defensive walls, guided tours focusing on key points of the siege are also sometimes available. In the interior, Fort St Elmo houses Valletta's National War Museum, where travelers can take a look at a special collection of 20th-century World War memorabilia.
Designed by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar in the mid-16th century and later extensively remodeled under Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca – who also commissioned the original warehouses that now form Valletta Waterfront – the Auberge de Castille has pride of place at Valletta’s highest spot and owns one of the most strikingly ornate Baroque façades in the city. It was built for the powerful Spanish and Portuguese members of the Knights of St John when they were constructing the fortified city of Valletta; it was customary to have separate lodging for each nationality within the order.
Facing Valletta on the southeast side of the Grand Harbour are three historic cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, which were originally enclosed by a giant line of fortification constructed by the Knights of St John in the 16th century. These dockside neighborhoods are where the knights were based in their auberges from 1530 until 1570. These were lodgings for the knights, organized by nationality, each with accommodation, with chapels and dining rooms all set around a courtyard. In 1570 the Knights moved across the Grand Harbour to the newly constructed city of Valletta. Although Senglea and Cospicua today have photogenic waterfronts to explore, and a marina full of expensive yachts at Senglea, Vittoriosa is the architectural masterpiece of the three cities.
This walk-through, multi-media exhibition with plenty of sound effects and flashing lights focuses on the epic events of the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, in which the Turks were defeated by the Knights of St John. It also looks back on the history of the Knights, from their formation in the 12th century and their original role in tending to the pilgrims en route to the Holy Land to their reinvention as the quasi-military force who repelled the Turkish invaders. The story of Malta’s great victory is told in a series of period dioramas through the words of Francesco Balbi, a Spanish poet who was eyewitness to the breaking of the Great Siege.
The exhibition provides a great introduction to the events that marked so much of Malta’s tumultuous history and there are plenty of gory recreations of battle scenes from the 1565 siege, which kids will particularly appreciate.
More Things to Do in Valletta
This miniature stately home was built in the 1680s for a Knight of St John and has subsequently been occupied by many aristocratic Maltese families. Today it is open daily for guided tours that showcase both the architectural development of the mansion and the archive of fabulous wealth held by the current owner, the Marquis de Piro. In addition to the wonderful collection of 18th- and 19th-century costumes, the 50-room (around 12 are open to the public) palace contains priceless silverware, great paintings and antique furniture alongside private photos and other signs of family life.
The interior of the palace is surprisingly light and airy; a tour includes the Palladian family chapel, an Art Nouveau dining room laid out for a banquet with marble floors, bedrooms with carved four-poster beds and a series of themed rooms exhibiting porcelain and major artworks.
Sited in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has always had extreme commercial and political significance; a fact reflected in the island’s long and tumultuous history. Valletta’s Grand Harbour has also played a huge part in this history as the biggest and certainly the most dramatic natural harbor in the Med. In use since the Phoenician era and heavily fortified since medieval times, it’s the place where much of Malta’s seafaring tradition and military successes have been played out over the centuries. The Great Siege of 1565 and the relentless bombing during WWII both took their toll here; the former on the occupying Knights of St John and the latter on Allied troops and the people of Valletta ¬– the whole island was awarded the George Cross in 1942 for valor in the face of Nazi attack.
When in Malta, it is practically de rigueur to hop aboard a tour boat and explore the sea caves at Wied iz-Żurrieq on the island’s south-west coast. By far the most famous of the island’s cave complexes is the Blue Grotto, a series of nine caves whose rocky sides glow green, purple, and orange according to their mineral content. The sea around the caves is so clear that the apparent bright cobalt-blue of the water is actually a reflection of the sky reflected off the pristine white sand on the sea floor.
From the roadside near Wied iz-Żurrieq there are panoramic viewpoints across the cliffs out over the Mediterranean and there are plenty of quality fish restaurants around the harbor in which to enjoy lunch and the views of uninhabited Filfla just offshore from the Blue Grotto.
Malta’s oldest and least-known prehistoric site is close to Marsaxlokk on the south coast. Excavations at the massive limestone cave complex at Għar Dalam in the 20th century led to the discovery of fossils of long-extinct mammals and provide firm evidence of human occupation of the island 7,400 years ago in Neolithic times. Bones and fossils of animals extinct before the Ice Age, including giant mice, dwarf elephants and hippos, can be clearly seen in a layer of rock more than 500,000 years old. Above this bedrock is a layer of loose rock formed a mere 18,000 years ago, which contained remains of deer and other mammals, and this is topped by a rock strata evidencing fragments of human skeletons and shards of tools and pots. It is thought that the first human settlers on Malta came across a land bridge from mainland Europe and existed in these caves – in fact there were still people living here in 1911 when excavations started.
Tarxien is the largest of the major overground megalithic temple sites open to visitors on Malta, which combined, form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just south of Valletta, the four interconnecting temples were built between 3,600 BC and 2,500 BC in honor of a mother-goddess of fertility. Today they are oxymoronically surrounded by modern housing but remain of importance thanks to their iconic spiral decorations and the central temple which comprises six apses.
The ancient temples are covered with carvings of domestic animals and evidence of animal sacrifice has been found here, including blades and bones. Some of the altars are still intact but many of the artifacts remaining such as the pottery bowls and urns are replica, as is the curious 'Fat Lady' statue, appearing to consist of a skirt and two dumpy legs. The originals are now ensconced in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta for preservation.
The tiny walled, hilltop settlement of Mdina traces its history back 4,000 years and it was just outside the city that St Paul took refuge in a cave when he was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD. The town was once Malta’s capital and is crammed with glorious golden-stoned mansions built for the aristocracy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Chief among these is the grand Palazzo Falson, with a series of elegant rooms clustered around a central courtyard in typical medieval Spanish style and a charming little museum full of eccentric bygones.
Among its tangle of cobbled streets and splendid medieval architecture, Mdina’s pride and joy is massive St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa and completed in 1702 in an exuberant Baroque style similar to Valletta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral. The interior features a nave covered with marble tomb slabs of the rich and famous and the vaulted ceiling is covered with frescoes from St Paul’s life.
Situated on an abandoned WW2 airfield, Ta’Quali occupies a series of seemingly ramshackle Nissan huts – plans to spruce up Ta’Quali rear their heads from time to time, but so far no funding has been raised for the redevelopment. Don’t be put off by their tattiness as they hide the best selection of authentic Maltese crafts found on the island.
This is the place to find delicate filigree silverware, handmade lace, hand-blown glass, leather, linen and cheery painted ceramics, all created by local artisans. Expect to pay a little more for your purchases, but be happy in the knowledge that you are buying a genuine piece of Maltese treasure. Even if you don’t buy, there’s the chance to watch skilled craftsmen at work in their stores.
Malta is famous for the lavish scale of its many scores of churches (there are 25 in Valletta alone) but Mosta’s Neo-classical parish church of St Mary stands out even among all this grandeur. Its eponymous, self-supporting dome measures 121 ft (37 m) in diameter and is 220 ft (67 m) high – bigger than St Paul’s in London – with every inch of the interior covered in gilt, frescoes and marble flooring. The church was designed by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé in the style of the Pantheon in Rome but built by solely by local parishioners and volunteers between 1833 and 1860.
The interior houses Malta’s biggest, most flamboyant organ, with 2,000 pipes, but the church is better known for a miraculous escape the congregation had in 1942 during WW2. On Sunday, April 9 the church was packed with 300 worshippers when three Luftwaffe bombs hit the dome. Two bounced off but one crashed through into the nave; amazingly it failed to explode, saving scores of lives.
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