During a holiday to Malta, many head straight for the spectacular capital city of Valletta and the old capital, the Silent City of Mdina. But if fortified former capitals are your thing, then you’d better add the gorgeous Three Cities to your Malta sightseeing list as well.
Rightly claiming to be the ‘cradle of Maltese history’, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua have traced the Grand Harbour since Phoenician times, and have been pivotal players throughout Malta’s rich history.
Here are some facts you may not know about this ancient trio of beautiful cities.
Each of the Three Cities has Two (or more) Names
Confusing as it may be, every one of the Three Cities also goes by at least one other name.
Following the Maltese triumph over the Turkish armada in 1565 during the Great Siege of Malta, the Knights of St John renamed the first capital city of Birgu to ‘Cittá Vittoriosa’, meaning ‘the victorious city’. These days this is shortened to ‘Vittoriosa’.
The largest of the Three Cities known as Bormla was awarded the name ‘Citta Cospicua’ or ‘The Conspicuous City’ in 1722 by Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari, in recognition of the city’s surrounding heavy fortifications that made it especially ‘conspicuous’ and eminent.
Lastly, Senglea can boast not one, not two, but three names! Starting out as Isla(meaning ‘island’), the city was renamed to Senglea after the man who fortified it before the Great Siege, Grand Master Claude de la Senglea. Thanks to his efforts the city escaped relatively unscathed, and so is also known as ‘Citta Invicta’, or ‘the invincible city’.
Vittoriosa/Birgu was Malta’s Very First Capital City
Yes, Mdina was in fact not Malta’s first capital – this honour falls to Birgu, which the Knights established as their capital city when they first settled on the island in 1530, and from which they held the legendary Great Siege of 1565.
Birgu’s treasures are therefore far older than Valletta’s and much of the Knight’s original architecture, churches, palaces, forts and bastions still remain intact to be explored today. If you book your visit to coincide with ‘Birgufest’, you can enjoy this beautiful architecture by candlelight.
They Expected the Inquisition…
… since Birgu is home to the Inquisitor’s Palace. Yes, when the infamous Inquisition stormed Europe and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries, they included Malta in their travels.
One of the last remaining structures from that period, the spectacular Inquisitor’s Palace was built in the 1530s to serve as law courts and a prison for anyone accused of heresy, and would be the seat of the Inquisitors for over 200 years.
They Were Targeted in WWII
The Great Siege of 1565 was not the only one to impact the history of the Three Cities. During what later became known as ‘the Siege of Malta’ during World War Two, they were heavily bombed due to their prime strategic positions on the harbour.
Although the damage was substantial, with many buildings being obliterated entirely, the Three Cities were restored to their former glory in the decades the followed.
Senglea Literally Watches over the Grand Harbour
A visit to Senglea would be incomplete without taking in the breathtaking views across the Grand Harbour towards Valletta.
The best place to appreciate these views is from the stunning ‘Il-Gardjola’ watchtower on the side of the bastions at Safe Haven Gardens. You may not know, however, that this watchtower is also watching the harbour with you – it has intricately decorated eyes carved into it, which are believed to keep misfortune or evil spirits at bay.
The Three Cities have the Ultimate Easter Celebrations
Easter is celebrated in Malta with great devotion, and nowhere more so than in the Three Cities.
Whilst Senglea in particular has a popular Good Friday procession that carries through the streets the statue of ‘Christ the Redeemer’, Easter Sunday processions held in all three cities include massive statues of the ‘Risen Christ’ which are carried at a run through the richly-decorated streets, whilst the crowds watching cheer the runners, the church bells toll and children shower paper confetti from the balconies above.
Want to do more sightseeing in the South of Malta? Check out our Highlights on the Hop On/Hop Off South Tour!