It is said that one should always save the best for the last and this is exactly what we’ve done in Malta. We began our journey by exploring the main island, which we thought is simply stunning, than we continued with Gozo, an island that surprised us with its beautiful landscapes, surpassing in my view Malta Island and last but not least, we got to Valletta, the smallest capital city of the European Union and one of the most charming.
History of Valletta
The so-called “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen” owes its existence to the Knights of St. John. The Knights were noblemen from the most important families of Europe and their most important mission was to protect Europe and the Catholic faith from the Ottomans.
After The Great Siege, the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Vallette, realized the importance of building a fortified city in a strategic place, if the Order wanted to defend its hold of Malta. The construction began in 1566 and only 15 years later on Mount Sceberras Peninsula, between Marsamxett and Grand Harbour, impressive bastions, forts and cathedrals rose to form what we know today as the city of Valletta. Since the history of the city is closely related to the deeds of bravery made by the Knights, their traces are visible on each building and wall of Valletta.
Malta’s capital city is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is considered one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world and has some magnificent landmarks that you should not miss.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
St John’s Co-Cathedral is a unique monument, which was built by the Knights of St John, as the crown of their newly constructed capital city.
The simple exterior of the cathedral, illustrating the Knights’ sober mood, is contrasting with the opulent interior, which reflects the wealth and sophistication of the Order. The interior is divided into a wide nave and nine side chapels, one dedicated to Our Lady of Philermos and the rest assigned to the patron saints of each of the Order’s eight official langues.
Starting with the vault, where episodes from the life of St John the Baptist are depicted, continuing with the walls and ceiling adorned with gold decorations, sculptures and paintings and finishing with the marble floors where the tombs of Knights and Officers of the Order are placed, each centimeter of the cathedral is a celebration of Baroque Art.
The Cathedral also hosts a painting of the famous Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, one of the painter’s masterpieces and the only painting signed by him.
Maybe the Knights made the Cathedral to entirely reflect their Order. At first sight, the Order seems sober, almost uninteresting, I dare to say, but once you begin to learn a little about it and its history, you can’t help being fascinated and wanting to know more. This is exactly the case with the cathedral. We, for example, were less than impressed by the façade of the cathedral and honestly, if I hadn’t seen pictures on other travel blogs from the interior, I think we wouldn’t have visited it. And what a loss it would have been! Once we stepped inside it, we couldn’t stop being amazed by its grandeur and embellishments and wanted to tour it multiple times to make sure we haven’t missed any of its details.
The entrance to the Cathedral costs €10/pers. and it is opened from Monday to Friday from 9:30 to 16:30 and on Saturday from 9:30 to 12:30. You can find more information about this fascinating landmark here.
Grand Master’s Palace
After contemplating St John’s Co-Cathedral, it was time for a walk through the city. We strolled the main street of Valletta and stopped shortly to admire the Grand Master’s Palace, which hosted the Knights, than, under the British Empire, served as the Governor’s Palace and today is home to the House of Representatives of Malta and the office of the President of the Republic of Malta.
We only admired the exterior of the Palace and its yards, one of which displays a statue of Neptune, as due to the 2017 Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Palace State Rooms were closed. Another place you can visit is the Palace Armoury, but as we didn’t find it that interesting, we decided to skip it.
Malta is famous for its colorful and decorative balconies and you will find the prettiest ones in Valletta. They appeared in the 17th century, during the spread of the Baroque style and were an indicator of the owner’s social status, but nowadays their only role is to enrich the aspect of Valletta’s streets, as the buildings are made from pale Maltese limestone. They are all over the town, so be sure to look up from time to time, as you wouldn’t want to miss the most beautiful ones.
Fort St Elmo
The star fort St Elmo was constructed on the tip of the Peninsula more than 500 years ago, in order to properly defend the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour.
If you are a museum lover, you should check out the War Museum from inside the fort (more information here), but if you only want to have a wonderful view of the harbors and their surroundings, keep in mind that you can take a walk around the fort. We did exactly that and the stroll was one of the highlights of our day. We begin the walk near the fort and despite having sometimes the feeling that the alley will end ahead, we were able to surround it. Although we had to climb some cliffs and stairs, the walk was easy and very safe, so I totally recommend this place for amazing sights of Fort Ricasoli, Sliema and also Valletta.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens and the Saluting Battery
By far, my favorite spot in Valletta is the Upper Barakka Gardens. This place was meant to be a retreat from the busy life of the city and is the perfect location to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. The Gardens have, beside benches and trees, where you can hide from the heat, a balcony with the best views in Malta, the entire Grand Harbor and the three cities being on display.
Below the Gardens, you will find the Saluting Battery, an artillery battery used in the past both for defensive and ceremonial purposes. Nowadays, the battery is open to the public for a history lesson and offers twice a day gun-fire ceremonies (at noon and 4 p.m.).
The best place to see this traditional saluting spectacle is the balcony of the Gardens.
Beside Upper Barakka Gardens, you can visit also Lower Barakka Gardens, which offers a different angle panorama of the Grand Harbor, but if you do not have enough time to visit both gardens, I recommend you to go to the first ones, as the sights offered are more spectacular.
The charm of Valletta consists of more than just these major tourist attractions and to really appreciate it, you have to take your time, stroll its narrow streets, observe the locals and enjoy the city’s atmosphere.