spotlight on: valletta
Valletta (or Il-Belt) is the tiny capital of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The walled city was established in the 1500s on a peninsula by the Knights of St. John, a Roman Catholic order. It’s known for museums, palaces and grand churches. Baroque landmarks include St. John’s Co-Cathedral, whose opulent interior is home to the Caravaggio masterpiece “The Beheading of Saint John.”
Footage: James Bianchi
To appreciate Malta’s capital city, one must first understand the incredibly rich and colourful history of the city of Valletta.
Featuring sieges, Knights Hospitallier and a Nazi blitzkrieg, the town has surely seen a great deal.
The first foundation stone was laid in 1565, following a siege which pitted the Knights of St. John against the Ottoman Empire. Mount Sceberras, upon which Valletta stands, was initially a tongue of land sitting between two harbours. Grandmaster Le Valette realised that if the Order was to maintain their control, they had to fortify the city.
Francesco Laparelli designed Valletta based on rectangular grids, which start at City Gate to the other end of the city, which overlook both sea ports: the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. The entire city was surrounded by bastions, some of which were over 150 feet fall.
By the 16th century, Valletta had grown into Malta’s largest city, and though it was beautiful, defence remained the key factor. The former capital, Mdina, had, at the time, lost much of its allure following the Great Siege.
In 1798, the French occupied the city briefly, following the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Maltese resisted with aid of the British and two years later, became a British protectorate.
Valletta remained of key strategic importance, proving its worth time and time again. Most famously in 1942, when Valletta took a beating from the German Luftwaffe, which destroyed the Royal Opera House.
The city held firm, earning an award for bravery in the process. During the years following the second World War, the island achieved self-rule, initially becoming a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and then eventually declaring itself as a republic.
Today, the UNESCO-listed is the smallest EU capital and Malta’s commercial and financial heart. At less than 1 square kilometre, you can walk across its widest point in less than half an hour.
That being said, it’s shaded alleyways link grand squares with glorious palazzi, which sit alongside countless shop facades.
It hosts the National Parliament, the Law Courts, several auberges that hosted the Knights in their time and several gardens. As the sun sets, cafes, wine bars, restarants, theatres and exhibitions come to life, which makes it a living city, all day long, at any time of the year.
some spots in valletta worth visiting
the grandmaster's palace
Dominating Palace Square is the Grandmaster’s Palace, which was built in 1571. The Palazzo has always hosted the government in Malta: the Knights, when under the British, it served as the Governor’s Palace, and it now hosts the President’s office, as well as the House of Representatives.
The palace and State Rooms are built around two courtyards. Inside is the famous Council Chamber, decorated with priceless Gobelins tapestries, woven in France for Grand Master Ramón Perellos y Roccaf.
The other rooms and passages are splendidly furnished with artefacts and armour, which you should definitely make time to see during your trip. The Palace is open from Monday to Friday (excluding Thursdays) between 10am-4pm and between 9am-5pm on Saturdays.
st john's co-cathedral
Built by the Knight’s Order between 1572 and 1577, St. John’s Co-Cathedral is considered to be the most culture and arts rich location in Valletta.
With its baroque frescos, relics, ornate marble floors, carved stone walls, statues and beautiful vaulted ceilings, decorated by Baroque artist Mattia Preti, the cathedral is a sight to behold. It hides a mysterious crypt, containing the tombs of Grandmasters and also holds The Beheading of Saint John the Baptise (1608), a Caravaggio masterpiece.
Having served as the conventual church for over 200 years, it is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe. The cathedral is open from Monday to Friday, between 9am-4:30pm and on Saturdays between 9:30am-12:30pm.
national museum of archeology
Housed in the impressive Auberge de Provence, you’ll find the National Museum of Archeology. Exhibits include delicate stone tools, dating back to 5200 BC. Wander at displays from the Għar Dalam phase (5200BC) running all the way up to the Tarxien phase (2500BC), as well as pieces from the Bronze Age, Phoenician, Punic, Roman and Byzantine, all under one roof in the beautiful Baroque building. The first room hosts pieces that trace men’s early settlement in Malta up to the temple-building periods.
The main hall is dedicated to the magnificent temple carvings, featuring representations of animals and extraordinary human figures, the most famous of which is the Sleeping Lady. The final room exhibits collectibles from the temple period, including pottery, tools, and beads. Open from Monday-Sunday between 8am-7pm.
One of the most well-known performing arts venue on the Island, the Manoel Theatre is one of Europe’s oldest working theatres.
Named after the Grandmaster Fra Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, it was constructed in 1731. It is a 623-seat venue, with an oval-shaped auditorium, three tiers of boxes made entirely of wood and decorated with gold leaf.
Having retained many of its original architectural features, despite multiple alterations over the years, it’s a stunning building. Today, the Manoel presents theatrical productions in both English and Maltese including opera, music recitals, dramatic readings and an annual Christmas pantomime.