Valletta night skyline

Introduction to Valletta's Attractions

After the Great Siege of 1565 Grandmaster de Valette realised that it was essential to defend the Sciberras peninsula against a second Turkish attack. The Great Siege of 1565 was fought by the Knights of the Order of St John and the Maltese against the powerful Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. After a long siege lasting four months the Turks were forced to give up after enormous loss of life on both sides.

Since Malta was key to the defence of Christian Europe, the Pope Pius V sent his personal architect Francesco Laparelli to design Valletta the new capital city on the Sciberras peninsula. Valletta was designed on a grid pattern to make it easier to transport canons from one side to another. The main gates of Valletta are recent, as the original ones were too small to take the traffic.

As one walks down Republic Street (formerly known as Kingsway) one sees the new Parliament House and remains of what was once the Royal Opera House, designed by the English architect Barry and bombarded during the Second World War. This site has now been converted to an open-air performance space designed by Renzo Piano who also designed the parliament.

Just opposite what once was the Opera House is a beautiful palace known as Palazzo Ferreria. Behind the Opera House are the Upper Barrakka Gardens from where one can admire a breath-taking view of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, one of the finest natural harbours in Europe. These gardens were once the private gardens of an Italian Knight. Outside the gardens stands the Auberge de Castille, designed by the architect Andrea Belli. Over the main door is a bust of the Portuguese Grandmaster Manuel Pinto de Fonseca surrounded by symbols of his glory. The largest and most beautiful of the Auberges, it houses the office of Prime Minister.

On the corner of Castille Square one can admire the very first church to be built in Valletta dedicated to Our Lady of Victory. For a time the Grand Master who built Valletta - La Valette - was buried here as the Convent Church, St John's Co Cathedral was not yet built. Opposite Our Lady of Victories church is a lovely small church dedicated to St Catherine. This chapel forms part of the Auberge d’Italie, a few metres down Merchants’ Street.  All the Auberges had their own chapel, but not inside the Auberge, usually a short distance from the Auberge itself.

Opposite the Auberge is Palazzo Parisio, which today houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If one looks up to the right of the Palazzo, one can see a marble plaque in recording the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte stayed there for seven days in June 1798.

Further down Merchants Street on the right is another beautiful palace known as La Castellania. This building served as the Law Courts during the time of the Knights; its elegant façade is decorated by two statues signifying Truth and Justice while its basement houses jail-cells. On the corner of the street a high stone platform combining a stool and wrist-irons acted as a pillory where criminals were tied for all to see, not a method of torture but more of humiliation.

On the left stands St John’s Co-Cathedral, an austere building befitting a military Order, while its interior is a dazzling feast of high Baroque.

Continuing right into Republic Street one finds a monument representing the Great Siege of 1565. The three statues next to each other signify Courage, Freedom and Religion sculpted by Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino. Opposite this monument are the Law Courts, is an impressive building erected on the site of the Auberge d’Auvergne which was destroyed in the Second World War.  

At the National Museum and Museum of Archeology on Republic Street one can admire many prehistoric remains, such as urns, vases, jewellery and early sculpture. This used to house the Auberge de Provence meaning the palace or house for all the French Knights coming from that part of France.

In the middle of Pjazza Regina a statue of Queen Victoria, the work of the Italian sculptor Valenti, marks her golden jubilee. At the back of the square is the Bibliotheca or National Library, This was the last major building of the Knights of the Order of St John, designed by the architect Stefano Ittar and houses archives of the Knights of the Order of St John dating back to the 11th century.  

The Grand Masters Palace houses the offices of the President, the Ambassadorial Rooms, the State Rooms and the Tapestry Chamber, where one can admire a set of Flemish tapestries, which were a gift from Grandmaster Perellos. These tapestries designed by Rubens show exotic plants and animals and are considered amongst the best tapestries in the world. The Armoury at the Palace which enough armaments for 25,000 men during the reign of Grandmaster Pinto. Today in the Armory there are 6000 pieces of armour, all of which have played part of history. The Palace is the work of the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar.

The marble plaques on the wall of the Palace commemorate milestones in Malta’s history including King George VI’s award of the George Cross to Malta. The highest award of merit which can be given by a British sovereign to as nation, the George Cross was awarded to the Maltese for their courage and bravery during the Second World War.

Beyond the palace once can visit Casa Rocca Piccola, the residence of the Marquis de Piro, a stately home where visitors can get a fascinating insight into Maltese life, furniture and art over the past centuries, as well as visiting its underground war shelter.

At the bottom of Republic Street is Fort St Elmo which resisted the Turkish Siege of 1565 so heroically and has recently been converted into a museum. This star-shaped Fort built in 1552 was the setting for the film Midnight Express. To the right is the Sacra Infermeria, the hospital of the Knights, which was turned into the Mediterranean Conference Centre.

Further along the fortifications one finds the Siege Bell Memorial, inaugurated in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Siege of Malta during 1940 - 1943. It is rung daily at midday. There are fine views from here across to Malta's Grand Harbour to the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua.

The Grand Harbour’s deep, sheltered creeks surrounded by high stone bastions have played a major part in Malta's history. Although now quiet and peaceful, it has been the location of fierce battles over the years and was the site of ferocious bombings and huge destruction in World War II.

The nearby Lower Barrakka Gardens house a grand monument to Sir Alexander Ball, the first de facto Governor of Malta at that time also known as Civil Commissioner, who was so respected by the Maltese that they built this monument in his honour out of their own pockets. Sir Alexander Ball is buried in Fort St Elmo.

Other notable buildings in Valletta include the Baroque St Paul's Shipwreck Church in St Paul's Street which celebrates its feast on February 10 with great pomp.

Admiralty House in South Street today houses Malta’s Museum of Fine Arts. Built by Andrea Belli in 1765, in 1808 Louis Charles, Viscount of Beaujolais and his brother Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans were accommodated in this palace and Viscount Beaujolais died here. The museum houses a fine collection of paintings and sculptures dating back to the Order of St John. Another interesting museum is the Fortifications Resource Centre in St Mark’s Street, close to the Marsamxett ferry to Sliema.

Also worthy of mention is St Paul's Anglican Cathedral built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne between 1839 and 1842 and financed by Queen Adelaide, the wife of King William IV. At the time, the financing of the cathedral cost 2000 pounds. Its Neo-Gothic spire or steeple is a landmark in a country of Baroque domes. In fact, quite closely there is the Carmelite Church also known as The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church with its massive dome that dominates Valletta's skyline along the neo-gothic spire of the Anglican Cathedral.

The Manoel Theatre built by Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena, is a beautiful gem of a theatre, one of the oldest theatres in Europe that is still functioning, and certainly worth a visit.

Leaving Valletta via the bus terminus one can admire the Triton Fountain designed by Maltese sculptor Vincent Apap over 50 years ago.