Discover some interesting facts about the city of Valletta to grow your appreciation for Malta’s capital. These interesting facts will also enrich your visit by hinting where to go and what to look out for.
1. Valletta Was Not Always The Capital Of Malta
Valletta, Malta, is the capital city of the Maltese Islands. Previously, from antiquity to the medieval period, Mdina had been the capital of the island of Malta; the Citadel in Rabat (now Victoria) was the capital of Gozo. But when the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in 1530, the seafarers discovered that Mdina, which had developed from a Bronze Age settlement on a hill far inland, did not serve their needs. They required a city nearby their fleet, so they fortified Birgu and made it the administrative capital of Malta. Eventually, the Knights of St John founded the city of Valletta in 1566, right after the Great Siege of Malta. Valletta was officially proclaimed the capital city of Malta on 18 March 1571.
2. The Knights Of Malta Built Valletta
The Knights of Malta led by Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette needed a new fortified capital city. Building a city on the same peninsula as Fort St Elmo would ensure a better defence of the peninsula, the two harbours, the Three Cities of the Knights: Birgu, Bormla and Isla, and the whole island.
When the Turks took Mount Sceberras during the Great Siege, it became evident how crucial it was to keep it from the enemy’s hands. Fort St Elmo had successfully held off the first attacks for several weeks, winning the Knights valuable time. But when the Ottomans conquered it, they could find safety for their galleys within the Grand Harbour. Believing the Ottomans would return, the Knights set out to build the capital city immediately after their departure. Grand Master La Valette himself laid the first foundation stone of Valletta on 28 March 1566 and the city would bear his name.
3. Valletta Is ‘A City Built By Gentlemen For Gentlemen’
Grand Master La Valette envisioned the city as a hub of political, economic and cultural activity in 16th century Europe. It would be a place in which trade, handicrafts and the arts would flourish. And it would possess unique features that would make it stand out from other European cities. So he engaged prominent architects and engineers to design the city.
Indeed, Laparelli and Girolamo Cassar designed a 16th-century fortified city unlike any other. Its waste disposal and drainage system would prevent decay. Its unique grid design would counteract the stifling heat by allowing the sea-breeze to flow naturally through the city. And its high buildings and narrow streets would keep the city mostly shaded. The new city design also included insurmountable bastions and a large ditch that separated it from the mainland. Within Valletta city, the Knights planned the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Sacra Infermeria hospital, a number of palaces and several Auberges that would be their homes. Over 8,000 men worked for five years to create ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen.’
4. The Entire City Of Valletta Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Today, the Renaissance city, with its auberges, palaces and fortifications, bears testimony to a bygone time. Alongside contemporary life, the city verily showcases 450 years of history on every street. The entire city of Valletta, Malta, is classified a UNESCO World Heritage site.
‘The capital of Malta is inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem. Valletta’s 320 monuments, all within an area of 55 ha, make it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’ – UNESCO
Effectively an open-air museum, Valletta is brimming with ornate baroque architecture, various monuments and infinite curiosities; many date to its illustrious founders from the 16th century while several embellishments were added during the 18th century. The beauty, historic value and fascination that tie in with Valletta are invaluable and indescribable. The city is truly a unique gem of both the Maltese Islands and the world in general. Valletta certainly deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
5. Valletta Is The Smallest European Capital, But It’s Big On Attractions
Valletta is the smallest capital city in Europe with a surface area of just 0.55 km² and just over 7,000 inhabitants. Only the Vatican City is smaller at 0.44 km² with a population of 800 people. Despite its compact proportions, Valletta encapsulates an extraordinary wealth of civil, religious, artistic and military treasures. Although there are 320 specifically named monuments, there is literally something of interest in every nook and cranny.
From the baroque architecture and art to the curious sloping streets, your eyes will feast wherever they glance. Wander through the city streets and see ornate architecture, decorative Maltese balconies, niches with statues of saints and Valletta’s signature old shop signs. The shallow steps leading from the harbours to the city centre were designed for men in clunky suits of armour. A scattering of original 16th-century Auberges and palaces showcase the extraordinary beauty of the Renaissance city. And then there are the gardens spilling over magnificent fortifications with stunning harbour views.
6. A Caravaggio Painting Is Housed In St John’s Co-Cathedral
The Knights of St John did not hold back when it came to embellishing their churches, palaces and Auberges. They took Malta to new heights in the cultural scene by commissioning the most talented of artists. Among these was the world-renowned Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who found refuge in Malta while fleeing a death sentence in Rome for killing a man in a duel. Caravaggio set out to embellish the Knights’ own church dedicated to John the Baptist. His iconic painting on canvas, ‘The beheading of St John the Baptist,’ is the largest of his paintings and the only one he ever signed. Another Caravaggio painting displayed at St John’s Co-Cathedral is ‘St Jerome writing’.
Yet, this is only part of St John’s Co-Cathedral artistic wealth. The Knights had grandly decorated St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, but, evidently, they placed more emphasis on their new church. The extraordinary opulent display of art includes mosaic marble tombs that cover the floor, walls gilded in gold, exquisitely frescoed ceilings, lavish chandeliers and other decorations.
7. Auberges, Palaces, Forts And War Rooms Bear Testimony To Valletta’s History
St John’s Co-Cathedral is just one of the noteworthy monuments in Valletta. Wandering the streets of Valletta, you will come across Auberges, palaces, forts and war rooms that all bear testimony to Malta’s colourful history.
Malta’s opulent Auberges are palace-like, 16th-century buildings that housed the Knights from different parts of Europe. The exquisite Auberge de Castille is now the office of the Prime Minister; it is open to the public once a year during Valletta’s Notte Bianca event. Easier to visit, the Auberge de Provence houses the National Museum of Archaeology and the Auberge d’Italie houses the MUZA National Museum of Fine Arts. The Auberge de Baviere was a military hospital and a shelter for the homeless during World War II. Of all the Auberges, only the Auberge d’Aragon − the oldest − is still in its original state.
The most prominent Knights lived in their own palaces. For example, visit the Grand Master’s Palace − currently the Office of the President of Malta; it includes the Palace State Rooms and the Palace Armoury. Alternatively, visit Casa Rocca Piccola of Don Pietro La Rocca to admire extravagant furnishings, objets d’art and see underground war shelters.
The Sacra Infermeria was a state-of-the-art hospital during the time of the Knights and today houses the Mediterranean Conference Centre. The Manoel Theatre, built in 1731 by Grand Master Antonio Manoel De Vilhena, is the oldest theatre still operating in Europe.
Fort St Elmo now houses the National War Museum, which provides a fascinating historical account of wars waged in Malta. Beyond the many museums, you can visit the original War Rooms and War HQ Tunnel used to devise strategy during World War II.
8. Valletta Survived Heavy Bombardment During World War II
The Maltese Islands have seen some brutal wars, including the Great Siege of 1565 and World War II. While the former was the cause of Valletta’s conception, the latter was a means for its partial destruction. Warfare had changed with the times and air-raid bombing was a major threat on the Maltese Islands. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) flew 3,000 bombing air-raids in two years in an effort to destroy RAF defences and the ports.
Valletta was heavily bombarded during World War II due to its importance as a capital city and its location between two harbours. Several important historic monuments were lost during this time. For example, German bombs completely destroyed the Auberge d’Auvergne and the Auberge de France during the Second World War. The Royal Opera House erected in 1877, one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in Valletta, received a direct hit in an air-raid in 1942; it reopened as an open-air theatre only in 2013. Some parts of Valletta had to be completely rebuilt, which explains some of the newer buildings within the Renaissance city. Some of the stunning architectural renovations also include the main entrance to the city and the new parliament building by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano.
9. Valletta Is Perched Above The Grand Harbour And Marsamxett Harbour
Valletta’s location is strategic. The peninsula on which Valletta eventually rose separates two of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean sea. Fort St Elmo commands the entrance to the harbours. Behind it, the city of Valletta sprawls within the imposing bastions erected along the water’s edge of the entire peninsula. On the north side lies Marsamxett harbour. And on the south side is the magnificent Grand Harbour, with its several creeks where ships can shelter. Along these creeks, the Knights fortified the Three Cities of Birgu, Bormla and Isla. Later, they built Valletta, effectively surrounding the Grand Harbour with awesome 16th century fortifications. Marsamxett Harbour, on the other hand, includes Fort Manoel on Manoel Island, with the contrasting high-rises on the opposite side, in Sliema.
Wherever you are in Valletta, you are just minutes from the beautiful Mediterranean sea and the fresh salty air. Several gardens offering magnificent sea views embellish Valletta’s fortifications. The Upper Barrakka Gardens offer stunning panoramic views of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities across the water. Go at noon for an impressive cannon fire from the Saluting Battery below. The modern Barrakka Lift on the site of the original historic lift connects the Upper Barrakka Gardens to the harbour below. There, you can take a boat across to Birgu or cruise around the port to gain different perspectives close up.
10. Valletta Includes Some Of The World’s Most Exclusive Addresses
With its intriguing natural form and man-made defences, the Grand Harbour view from Valletta is perhaps one of the most impressive city views in Europe. The same view that attracts hundreds of visitors to the Upper Barrakka Gardens daily can be admired from the residences at St Barbara Bastions too. No wonder, then, that this is one of the most exclusive addresses in the world. Only a few well-to-do own a private residence on this pretty tree-lined street; most of the houses with Maltese balconies are offices or embassies. The Valletta Waterfront, on the other hand, is the ideal address for a catering business. Following World War II damage, an upmarket wining and dining area where cruise liners dock has emerged from Pinto Wharf’s restoration. This is an ideal location to enjoy views of the majestic Grand Harbour and Fort St Angelo while enjoying an al fresco dining experience.
11. Valletta Offers Some Of The Finest Wining & Dining Experiences
Wining and dining experiences in Valletta come in many forms. While a variety of quality catering establishments hug the Valletta Waterfront, Valletta city is also home to several restaurants, cafes, bars and wine bars. Restaurants serve anything from traditional Maltese food to fine dining within a great ambience or even al fresco. Cafes include tiny hole-in-the-wall establishments to open-air seating with parasols set in a large square. Bars range from well-known icons such as ‘Olly’s last pub’ – the last pub frequented by actor Oliver Reed before his passing – to band clubs attracting locals. Wine bars tend towards wine cellars transformed into characteristic venues where wine glasses spill onto Valletta’s cobbled streets. Wherever you choose to turn, you’ll be glad to add value and memories to your Valletta experience.
12. Valletta As European Capital Of Culture 2018
The Valletta experience has expanded considerably, particularly in 2018 where we see a rich V18 calendar of arts and culture events. With Valletta being European Capital of Culture 2018, a variety of arts and culture events in the open air and at historic venues are injecting life and colour into the business centre. The dream of Grand Master La Vallette, that his city for gentlemen would be a hub of political, economic and cultural activity, has never been more a reality than it is today.
Do you find an event at the Manoel Theatre or the Royal Opera House appealing? Would you like to explore history ranging from the National Museum of Archaeology to the National War Museum? Or do Valletta’s streets and squares with all the historic monuments they contain mesmerise you? Valletta’s story remains an integral part of it all. Know before you go so that you can fully appreciate the magnificence that is Valletta.
And if Valletta appeals to you, be sure to check out also these other amazing things to do in Malta.