Things to Do in Valletta
Behind the misleadingly plain baroque facade of St. John's Co-Cathedral (Kon-Katidral ta' San Gwann) hides one of Europe's most spectacular churches, built by the Knights of St. John following their defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Today, this important religious site is one of Malta’s most visited attractions.
These romantic, landscaped gardens have recently been revamped and sit prettily on the edge of Valletta’s ramparts. They offer wonderful birds-eye views east to the entrance to the Grand Harbor and south to Fort St Angelo and the Three Cities of Vittorioso, Senglea and Cospicua and their more famous counterparts, the Upper Barrakka Gardens, are a few minutes’ stroll away on the south-west point of the ramparts. Among the flowers, splashing fountains and palm trees providing solace and shade in the gardens is a Neo-classical monument to Sir Alexander Ball, the first British Governor of Malta, who was appointed in 1813. A number of commemorative plaques mark the walkways, celebrating – among others – the 50th anniversary of the European Union in 2007 and the Prague Spring of 1968.
Accessible from Barriera Wharf along the seafront, the limestone colonnades of the Siege Bell Memorial stand just below Lower Barrakka Gardens. The 10-ton bronze bell commemorates the 7,000 people who died in the two-year Siege of Malta, which ended in 1942, and it was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 to mark the 50th anniversary of the siege. Her father King George V awarded the entire Maltese nation the George Cross – the UK’s highest military accolade – in honor of their bravery during the war.
Tarxien Temples (It-Tempji ta' Hal Tarxien) are 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 spherical stones found in abundance at the site appear to suggest that the cornerstones of the temples were moved here on primitive rollers.
This grouping of three historic cities—Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua—look out to Valletta across the Grand Harbour. Originally enclosed by a line of fortification constructed by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, the dockside neighborhoods were the knights’ base from 1530 until the Valletta’s founding in 1570. Today, the cities provide a scenic backdrop to the Grand Harbour.
An experience unlike any other, Malta 5D in Valletta is a fully immersive audio and visual show that takes the audience on a journey through the history and culture of Malta. Over the course of 20 minutes, you are taken back in time to witness the events that shaped the history of the island archipelago, from the formation of prehistoric temples to the victory of the Knights of Malta at the Great Siege of 1565 to Malta’s heroic efforts during World War II. These stories are experienced through special effects including moving seats, air blasts, water sprays, leg ticklers and 3D imagery. 3D glasses are provided upon arrival and automated multilingual devices in 17 languages are provided for multilingual shows. Temporary exhibitions about Malta are often on display in the lobby of the theater.
Situated on an abandoned WW2 airfield, Ta’ Qali Crafts Village occupies a series of seemingly ramshackle Nissan huts – plans to spruce up Ta’ Qali 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.
Two standout stores are the glassworks, Phoenician Glassblowers and Mdina Glass; both produce highly colored quality glassware. Another of Malta’s best buys is gold and silver work, and the making of intricate filigree jewelry is a national specialty. All Maltese silver and gold products should be certified and hallmarked. A design found across the island is the delicate interlaced Maltese cross, symbol of the Knights of St John who occupied Malta between 1530 and 1792.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world, used between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, is remarkably well preserved. Located in the Maltese town of Paola, it’s the most impressive of the archipelago’s many Neolithic remains and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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. The legend of the miracle of Mosta Dome was thus born and a replica of the unexploded bomb can be found in the sacristy.
The most famous of Malta’s cave complexes, the Blue Grotto is a series of nine caves whose rocky sides glow green, purple, and orange according to their mineral content. Surrounding the caves are some of the clearest, brightest cobalt-blue waters imaginable. The natural wonder got its name from British soldiers stationed in Malta in the 1950s who thought the caves were reminiscent of the Blue Grotto off the Italian island of Capri.
San Anton Gardens are the most beautiful of the few public parks in Malta. They surround an ornate palazzo built by Grand Master of the Knights of St John, Antoine de Paule, as his summer residence in 1636 – it’s now the official residence of the Maltese President – and were bequeathed to the public in 1882.
A sweet-smelling citrus orchard lies at the heart of the walled gardens, a tranquil haven in the middle of busy Attard. They are landscaped in a formal Italianate fashion, dotted with elaborate follies, sculptures and fountains, dissected by shady paved walkways giving shelter from the mid-summer sun. Some of the trees here are more than 300 years old and the twisted trunks of ancient jacarandas, cypresses and Norfolk pines line the paths, palm trees soar upwards and flowerbeds blaze with color all year around.
A small aviary and a petting farm enchant children, while bubbling ponds are full of flashing koi and turtles; ducks, geese and peacocks wander the grounds at will and lizards dart through the undergrowth. The gardens are a summer venue for open-air theater, including a Shakespeare season every July, and host Malta’s biggest horticultural show in May.
More Things to Do in Valletta
The former capital of Malta, this historic hilltop settlement—known as the Silent City—features honey-hued palazzos and centuries-old buildings. The town center, a knot of shady and quiet streets, is shielded from the hubbub and traffic of the outside world by thick walls that date back to between the 16th and 18th centuries.
This gem of a theater has been open on and off since 1732, and was built by a wealthy Grand Master of the Knights of St John during a period of great political stability and wealth in Malta to provide entertainment for the troops. Mannerist on the outside and all gold and gilt opulence on the inside, the main auditorium has a delicately patterned blue and gold trompe l'oeil ceiling and seats just totaling 623. The first performance here was of the Italian tragedy Merope by Scipione Maffei, in which all the parts were played by members of the Knights of St John. Over the centuries, the theater has expanded and gobbled up other buildings. The neighboring Casa Bonici has been incorporated into the complex, adding a white marble staircase to the theater foyer and providing a pretty courtyard bar.
The theater plays a major part in the Maltese arts scene. The repertoire includes opera, ballet, classical concerts, and jazz and rock concerts as well as the occasional Maltese folk concert. International stars who have performed here include violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin, soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; visiting companies have included Berlin State Ballet and the Comédie-Française.
The small museum showcases costumes, wigs and scenery from three centuries of theatrical tradition on Malta, plus a display on the Royal Opera House, which was destroyed by bombing in World War II.
Buried deep underneath the Upper Barracca Gardens in the heart of Valletta’s atmospheric old town, the Lascaris War Rooms are secreted away in a warren of subterranean manmade tunnels and were the nerve center from which Allied commanders directed air and sea forces in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. From here General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery coordinated the Invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the defence of Malta was organized during the Nazi blitz bombing of the island in 1940–43. After the war the tunnels became HQ of the British Navy’s Mediterranean fleet and, during the Cold War of the 1960s, a NATO strategic communication center.
Today this once-secret two-story complex of tunnels, secret offices, radar systems, encryption machines, telephone exchanges and sleeping quarters are open for all to explore. Carefully restored in 2009 and now staffed by waxwork models instead of great generals, this war-era time capsule has as its heart the operations rooms where all military maneuvers were monitored. All tours (guided or self-guided) begin with a Pathé newsreel broadcast showing the journey of a supply convoy from Britain to Malta and highlighting the plight of the island during World War II. It’s best to get there early or buy a ticket ahead of time to jump the lines; history buffs often combine the War Rooms with a visit to Valletta’s National War Museum.
Situated on the outskirts of Siggiewi, the Malta Falconry Centre is the only place of its kind in the country. The center breeds native species of birds of prey with the goal of re-introducing them—and the ancient art of falconry—to the island nation.
Set at the tip of Valletta’s old town, where it guards Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour, the star-shaped Fort St. Elmo earned its place in history during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Knights of St. John repelled Ottoman invaders. It withstood further attacks, notably during World War II, and now holds the National War Museum.
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.
Following the enforced departure of the Knights of St John from Malta in 1798, the Auberge became headquarters to occupying French forces and then British troops. Symmetrical and well proportioned, the elegant façade was badly damaged during the bombing raids of WWII but has been beautifully restored; it now houses the offices of the Maltese Prime Minster, Joseph Muscat, and is beautifully floodlit at night.
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.
The cave itself was hollowed out by water over millions of years and stretches more than 490 ft (150 m) underground; they also contain some spectacular stalagmite and stalactite formations. The first 263 ft (80 m) are open for viewing and there’s also a small museum on site, which relates the geological history of the caves and displays some of the bones, teeth and skeletons found on-site. There’s also a small botanical garden planted with indigenous Maltese shrubs and trees.
The spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at the Hypogeum, Tarxien, Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim on Malta, plus Ġgantija on Gozo, have a somewhat obscure inception. Experts believe they were built between 5,000 AD and 2,500 BC to honor a goddess of fertility and despite historical importance, the sites themselves are not well interpreted. Before embarking on exploring them, call in at the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta, in Valletta, for an introduction to the prehistory of the Maltese archipelago.
The museum displays an astounding selection of well-documented and labeled artifacts removed from the ancient sites for preservation, including Phoenician sarcophagi, Bronze Age daggers and squat statues from the Hypogeum and Ħaġar Qim that are thought to represent a fertility goddess. Embracing figures, pendants, altar stones and prehistoric tools are all housed in a building of almost equal historic importance; the Baroque Auberge du Provence was once home to French members of the legendary Knights of St John, who defended Malta against Ottoman invasion in 1565. The overly ornate ceiling of the first-floor Grand Salon, currently housing the museum’s Phoenician collection, depicts the luxury in which the Knights lived.
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. Also on the itinerary are the cramped bomb shelters carved out of the old cisterns during the heavy bombardment of Malta in World War II.
Stretching along Grand Harbour, below the fortified city and opposite the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua, the beautifully restored Valletta Waterfront (Pinto Wharf) is the grand frontage of Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right next to the cruise port, it’s the gateway to Valletta and the rest of Malta.
The Knights of St. John became the toast of a grateful Europe after their triumph in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, in which they repelled Ottoman invaders. Valletta’s magnificent Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta reflects the knights’ heroic standing and the wealth lavished upon them. Construction began in 1571 on the palace to house the supreme head of the Knights of St. John.
Malta’s prettiest fishing village sits around a bay on the south coast of the island and has starred in thousands of postcards and many a film. Marsaxlokk’s (pronounced marsa-schlock) chief attractions are twofold: the buzzing daily market and the fishing boats. The latter comprises a large fleet ofluzzus (pronounced ‘lut-sues’) bobbing in the bay. These traditional, cheerily painted and wooden Phoenician-style fishing boats have become symbolic of the island – most of them are red, yellow and sky-blue, with eyes painted on their prows to ward off evil. With fishing the staple livelihood of this photogenic little town, there is small wonder that it is one of the best – and cheapest – places on Malta to eat the very freshest of fish. Chose from any of the outdoors restaurants for a fine seafood feast.
Marsaxlokk’s fresh produce market runs daily and sprawls along the quayside under brightly striped awnings; get there at 8am to avoid the crowds an admire the piles of seasonal fruit, vegetables and freshly caught fish. Proceedings reach a crescendo on Sundays, when visitors pour in from all over the island to snap up anything from exquisite locally hand-made lace, linen tablecloths and delicate filigree jewelry to gourmet relishes and Maltese honey – but you’ll have to delve among piles of tatty souvenirs and cheap household goods. Be prepared to barter but expect handcrafted lace to be expensive; if it is not, then it simply is not handmade.
Originally designed in 1733 by António Manoel de Vilhena, a Portuguese Grand Master of the Knights of St John, this enchanting palazzo changed hands in the 19th century and was given a decorative facelift by its aristocratic new Maltese owners – who still live there today. Today the estate is open daily for tours of the lavish public rooms and the glorious formal walled gardens, landscaped in Italianate style with box hedges and fountains. In summer the Orangery is awash with the soft smell of citrus from the orange and lemons planted there.
The interior of the palazzo is amazingly ornate with gilded ceilings and walls covered in paintings, huge dripping chandeliers, marble, stucco work, and elegant period furniture; a tour includes the stately ballroom, the Scicluna family’s private chapel, bedrooms with four-poster beds, and the vast banqueting hall.
Palazzo Parisio has a series of dining options, including an upmarket café and cocktail bar plus a sophisticated gourmet restaurant open in the evening.
Perched on eastern Valletta’s harbor walls, Upper Barrakka Gardens is one of the city’s top attractions. Created in 1661, the shaded gardens center on a fountain, statues, and colonnaded terraces that command views over Malta’s Grand Harbour.
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