Valletta, Malta

Europe’s smallest capital city is surrounded by 16th century fortified walls built by the Knights of St. John. Despite centuries of wars, Valletta has maintained its historic buildings. In 1980, it was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is delightful to explore.

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1 Origin of the City of Valletta, Malta

In 1566, the Knights of Saint John decided to build a city along the Sceberras Peninsula. It was designed by Francesco Laparelli and named after Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette, the hero of the Great Siege of Malta. He personally laid the first stone of the city named after him. The Knights Hospitallers first task was to build enormous defensive walls, some of which reached 330 feet high above the Grand Harbour where this photo was taken. The arches on the left are part of the Lower Barrakka Garden. The dome-shaped monument with ten columns is the Siege Bell Memorial, a tribute to local residents killed during WWII. Between them is Church of St. Nicholas’ dome.

Xatt Il-Barriera, Valletta, Malta
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2 Siege Bell War Memorial in Valletta, Malta

During World War II, Axis forces wanted Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean so the Germans and Italians relentlessly bombed the island for almost two-and-a-half years. Approximately 7,000 Maltese lost their lives during the Siege of Malta. As a tribute to those victims, this monument by Michael Sandle was erected overlooking the Grand Harbour. It was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992.

Xatt Il-Barriera, Valletta, Malta
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3 Valletta Cityscape Along Waterfront in Valletta, Malta

Malta is a small island of just 122 square miles in the middle of the Mediterranean. When you approach the country’s capital from along the waterfront, you are struck by its multiple layers of stacked buildings. You also notice their uniform golden hue. That is Maltese limestone, the bedrock of the archipelago. There are two types. The most common is called Globerigina while the harder version, which is typically reserved for important construction, is named Coralline. Those arched doorways along the waterfront are part of the Barriera Wharf.

Liesse Valletta, Malta
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4 Sentry Box on Saint James Cavalier in Valletta, Malta

Valletta is surrounded by high bastions. Protecting the west end are two cavaliers, a term originally used to define a knight who once stood on these platforms to protect the city. This sentry box is part of the St. James Cavalier. This massive limestone wall was built in the mid-16th century within a couple years of when Valletta was founded. In 2000, part of this structure was transformed into the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. They host a variety of cultural activities ranging from the visual arts, theater and music.

Triq L-Assedju L-Kbir & Triq Vincenzo Dimech, Floriana, Malta
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5 St. John Bastion and Cavalier in Valletta, Malta

St. John Bastion and the adjacent cavalier were built in the mid 1560’s to protect the main gate of what would become the capital city of Valletta. They overlook the neighboring town of Floriana. This photo demonstrates the massive size of these limestone walls. All of the 16th century fortifications were financed by Pope Pius V and designed by an architect named Francesco Laparelli da Cortona. Amazingly, the cavalier still houses the successor of the Knights of St. John. The embassy is called the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Ponte La Valletta Valletta, Malta
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6 Couple Walking on Republic Street in Valletta, Malta

After passing through Valletta’s main gate you arrive on Trig Ir-Repubblika. A stroll down Republic Street will take you through the center of town. It won’t be long before you understand why this Maltese capital was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980. And with an average daily temperature of 73° and about 3,000 hours of sunshine time a year, it has one of the best climates in Europe.

SMSMondial 311 Republic St, Valletta VLT1110, Malta
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7 St Catherine of Italy in Valletta, Malta

The Knights of Saint John established their Catholic church in 1576 and dedicated it to St Catherine of Alexandria. Inside is an impressive cupola and vault designed by painter Mattia Preti in 1659 and beautifully restored in 2011. This Baroque structure is now a parish church for the local Italian community. Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Italia defines part of Jean De Valette Square across from Our Lady of Victory Chapel. It was founded ten years earlier after the knights’ victory over the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege of Malta.

Jean De Valette Square, Valletta, Malta
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8 Auberge de Castille in Valletta, Malta

The Auberge de Castille was built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1574 but the current Baroque façade was added about 170 years later. In the center of this former inn is a bust of Grandmaster Manuel Pinto di Fonseca who commissioned the renovation. Towards the top are three coat-of-arms for Portugal, León and Castile. These represent the geographical regions that were part of the Knights of Malta order. Later it was the administrative offices of the French and then the British during their respective controls of the island. Since 1972 it has been the office of Malta’s Prime Minister.

Merchants St & In-Nofsinhar St, Valletta, Malta
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9 Malta Stock Exchange in Valletta, Malta

The British Garrison Chapel was built in the mid-19th century as a multi-denominational church for the soldiers who manned the fortified Saints Peter and Paul Bastion. The front of the neo-classical structure faces Castille Square. This back view is from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. In 1990, The Republic of Malta passed its first stock exchange act. Two years later the Borża ta’ Malta or Malta Stock Exchanged opened its doors here to investors.

Garrison Chapel, Castille Place, Il-Belt Valletta VLT 1063, Malta
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10 Upper Barrakka Gardens Arch in Valletta, Malta

When the Upper Barrakka Gardens were built in 1661, this was one of several arches that supported a roof over the terrace. Today, II-Barrakka ta’ Fuq is a popular venue among tourists and locals. They appreciate the respite from the summer sun while enjoying the tranquility of the public garden and its many statues including one honoring Winston Churchill. From here you can take an elevator 262 feet down to the waterfront along the Grand Harbour.

Upper Barrakka Gardens, Triq Sant' Orsla, Valletta, Malta
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11 Painter on Upper Barrakka Gardens Terrace in Valletta, Malta

The terrace at the Upper Barrakka Gardens is the highest point along the bastions of Valletta so it is easy to understand why it inspires a painter. This location offers spectacular views of the capital city. You can also admire the distant fortified towns of Senglea, Cospicua and Birgu across the Grand Harbour. They are known as the Three Cities.

Upper Barrakka Gardens, Triq Sant' Orsla, Valletta, Malta
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12 Saluting Battery in Valletta, Malta

This Saluting Battery points towards the Grand Harbour. It was called the Porto delle Galere when the Knights Hospitaller ruled Malta starting in 1565. The year before the Ottomans located cannons here so they could bombard Fort St. Angelo in the center. That fortress was a castle called Castrum Maris during medieval times. When the Turks were defeated in 1566, the Saints Peter and Paul’s Bastion was built. This vantage point from the Upper Barrakka Gardens gives you the best view of the guns when they are fired at noon and 4:00 every day. From here you can also see Fort Ricasoli on the distant left.

Upper Barrakka Gardens Triq Sant' Orsla, Valletta, Malta
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13 Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta, Malta

According to the New Testament, when the Apostle Saint Paul was shipwrecked in 60 AD, the island was called Melita. This event was celebrated with a cathedral which was first built during the 13th century in nearby Mdina. Shortly after construction started on the new city of Valletta, the Collegiate Parish Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck was finished in 1582. This Baroque façade was added in 1885. Inside the Roman Catholic church is the saint’s wrist bone plus part of a wood column where the apostle was bound when he was beheaded in 67 AD.

74 St Paul St, Valletta VLT 1212, Malta
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14 Couple Eating on St. Lucia Street in Valletta, Malta

Many of Malta’s towns have narrow and winding streets flanked by connected buildings. This layout was important for defense but also provides a breeze and a shadowed respite from the summer heat. However, when Valletta was planned in the 16th century, it followed a rectangular grid with wider roads. You can still find narrow terraced streets like St. Lucia that offer a romantic spot to take a break. One word of caution when navigating the city’s steps: the risers are taller than normal because they were designed to accommodate knights in heavy armor. In the background is St. Lucy, a Roman Catholic church built in 1570.

San Paolo Naufrago St. Lucia's Street, Valletta, Malta
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15 Auberge d’Italie Ornate Sculpture in Valletta, Malta

Auberge d’Italie was also called Berġa tal-Italja when it was built at the end of the 16th century. It was a hostel for the Italian langue of the Knights from the Order of Saint John who were responsible for guarding the Bastions of St. Peter and Paul. This ornate relief above the front door was installed during an enlargement in 1683. The design by La Fe’ included a coat of arms, the Trophy of the Arms and a statue of Grandmaster Gregorio Carafa which is now missing. Subsequently the building was the military headquarters for the French and later the British. It now houses the Ministry of Tourism and includes a tourist information office.

Tourist Information Center 229 Merchants St, Valletta, Malta
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16 History of The Main Guard Building in Valletta, Malta

When Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt of the Knights Hospitallers commissioned this building at the turn of the 17th century, it housed the Regimento di Guardia who safeguarded his palace across St. George’s Square. Shortly after the United Kingdom became the Protectorate of Malta, they added this neo-classical portico in 1814. It was then named The Main Guard and stationed sentinels for the British Governor. It currently is an annex for the Attorney General’s Office.

St George’s Square Republic St, Valletta, Malta
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17 Coat of Arms on Main Guard Portico in Valletta, Malta

During the Siege of Malta from 1798 to 1800, the Maltese reached out to Britain to help repel the French. From 1800 until 1813 they were technically part of the Kingdom of Sicily but protected by the English. Then after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Malta became a British Crown Colony. This Latin inscription on the portico of The Main Guard building is dated 1814. It declares the island’s love of Britain. A lion and a unicorn flank the British Royal Coat of Arms. It was not until 1964 that Malta became an independent state.

St George’s Square Republic St, Valletta, Malta
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18 Baby in Fountain in Front of The Main Guard in Valletta, Malta

A wonderful attribute about children is they have no inhibitions. A delightful example is this baby who crawled towards the fountain at Misraħ San Ġorġ or St. George’s Square and stuck her face into the shooting water. After a good laugh I was frankly jealous because it was over 90° that day. I wanted to do the same thing.

St George’s Square Republic St, Valletta, Malta
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19 St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta

This 196 foot bell tower of St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral is a visible landmark from the Marsamxett Harbour along the northern coast of Valetta. The neo-classical Anglican church was built in 1844 at the request of Queen Adelaide. She was the wife of King George III of the United Kingdom. It is called a pro-cathedral because although it has cathedral status, the main cathedral for the diocese is located in Gibraltar.

West Street, Il-Belt Valletta VLT 1535, Malta
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20 Battles at Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, Malta

Fort Saint Elmo has defended Malta twice since it was built in the mid-16th century. The first was during the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Empire launched about 200 ships with over 40,000 armed men. After the Turks captured the citadel, there were subsequent skirmishes at other Malta forts before the Ottomans eventually retreated. In World War II, the island was attacked by an estimated 3,000 air raids for over two years during the Siege of Malta. In 1943, the German and Italian offensive was repelled and the Allied forces were victorious.

St. Elmo Place 1, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta
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21 Fort Saint Elmo Entrance in Valletta, Malta

The original Fort Saint Elmo was built in a star formation surrounded by tall fortified walls like this one named St. John Abercrombie’s Bastion. It marks the tip of the peninsula. On the left is the citadel’s front entrance. After the fortress was rebuilt in 1566, it continued to evolve through the centuries. But after WWII it never saw military action again and the Royal Malta Artillery left in 1972. Today you can visit the fort and explore the Maritime and National War Museums inside.

St. Elmo Place 1, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta
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22 Fort Saint Elmo Origin in Valletta, Malta

Prior to 1417, the Sciberras Peninsula was nothing more than a rocky promontory surrounded by two natural bays on the island of Malta. In that year, a simple post was built pointing towards the Mediterranean. A larger one was constructed by the Aragonese in 1488. It was named after the patron saint of sailors: Saint Erasmus of Formia. After the Invasion of Gozo by the Ottoman Empire in 1551, Fort Saint Elmo was constructed within six months, one of the first buildings by the Knights of Saint John. Notice the people swimming in the Marsamxett Harbour while others are enjoying this view of the St. Gregory Bastion along the lower Fort St. Elmo.

St. Elmo Place 1, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta
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