A visit to the island’s majestic capital city, Valletta, is an essential part of any holiday in Malta.
Designed and built by the Knights of the Order of St John, with a vsion led by Grand Master Jean de Valette, this historic fortified city has a past that can be felt in every corner of its gridded streets and in every piece of magnificent Baroque architecture.
And now, with world-renowned architect Renzo Piano’s stunning vision for the new city entrance, Parliament building and legendary Opera House, as well as the newly-restored Triton Fountain and surrounding piazza, there’s even more to see in Valletta.
Here’s five sites in Valletta that you simply must not miss during your Malta holiday.
1. St John’s Co-Cathedral
Don’t be fooled by the simple exterior of St John’s Co-Cathedral, which stands in the city centre. With just a few steps through the door, you will see why visitors from all over the world come to experience this 16th century Baroque marvel.
Built by the Knights of St John, the breath-taking interior of the Co-Cathedral is luxuriously decorated, with world-famous ceiling paintings by artist Mattia Preti depicting the life of St John the Baptist, and with a floor covered with around 400 marble tombstones. Also unmissable is Caravaggio’s masterpiece named ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’, which is displayed in the church and is the only painting ever to be signed by Caravaggio himself.
2. Grandmaster’s Palace
Perhaps Valletta’s most well-known and impressive building, the Grandmaster’s Palace, stands overlooking the vast Palace Square in the heart of the city. Once a 16th century palace that was the residence of the Knights of St John, today the building is used as the House of Parliament, the office of the President of Malta, and as a public museum.
A tour of the lavishly-decorated Palace shows beautiful hallways featuring 18th century Baroque-era ceiling paintings, leading into the enormous, gilded State Rooms packed with tapestries and elaborate works of art, including portraits of the Grand Masters themselves such as Valletta’s founder, Jean de Valette. The Palace is also home to the Palace Armory, which displays original armour and weapons as worn by the Knights of St John.
3. Upper Barrakka Gardens and Grand Harbour
Built on the highest point of Valletta’s old fortifications, the beautiful Upper Barracca Gardens are a peaceful oasis brimming with lush fountains, flower beds and stoned archways, which also boast a breath-taking panoramic view of Malta’s legendary Grand Harbour.
Visitors can imagine the rich military history that has taken place upon the harbour, from the Great Siege of 1565 to World War Two, as they soak up the view across the water to towns such as Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Kalkara. There is also a daily cannon-blast from the former bastions below the gardens, in a traditional ceremony performed by members of the Malta Heritage Society.
4. Manoel Theatre
Commissioned in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of St John, the Teatru Manoel ranks as one of the oldest and most beautiful theatres in Europe. Still a fully-functioning venue with a packed annual cultural events programme, audiences can watch a show inside the lavishly-decorated auditorium, is brimming with magnificent Baroque-era artworks and architecture.
There are also guided backstage tours available on most mornings, for those wishing to learn more about the theatre’s colourful past, while visitors may instead take a self-guided tour with an audio guide.
5. Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum
One of Valletta’s most historic fortifications is Fort St Elmo, which overlooks the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour. Named after the patron saint of mariners, the fort was built by the Knights of St John to guard the harbours against oncoming attacks. It took the full force of the Ottoman attacks during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and was pivotal to Malta’s survival during World War Two.
Paying homage to the country’s long military history, Fort St Elmo is now also home to the National War Museum, which highlights Malta’s important role in World War Two. As well as military memorabilia and fascinating audio-visual displays, visitors to the museum can also see the original ‘George Cross’ that was presented by King George VI to the islands for their heroism during the war and is featured on the national flag.