Valletta travel guide
Valletta, which is the capital of Malta, has the charm of an Italian city with its many Baroque palaces set on narrow steep streets that form a grid pattern. The city was carefully planned by its founder, Grand Master Fra Jean de la Vallette and the Knights of the Order of St John. The city was 'built by gentlemen for gentlemen' with the first stone being ceremonially laid in 1566 after Ottoman forces withdrew their siege of the Maltese Islands and the Knights of St John took over. The purpose of the city, built in a short span of 15 years on a plateau between two harbours on Malta's northeast coast, was primarily to fortify the island and secondly to provide palaces, Auberges (lodgings) for the eight Knight's groupings, churches for worship, and gardens for recreation. These grand remnants of the Knight's occupation still adorn Valletta in the form of some splendid Baroque buildings and fortifications, but the majestic architecture manages not to overwhelm the island's carefree personality. Valletta balances its sombre grandeur and religious tone with colour and jollity, and the city has a fun if not raucous nightlife and some great restaurants as well as magnificent sightseeing opportunities. It is a very safe and friendly city, welcoming of tourists and well-equipped to host them.
St Johns Co-Cathedral
Valletta's magnificent medieval cathedral is famous for the
painting by Caravaggio, which hangs in its oratory, and the 369
inlaid mosaic marble tombstones that cover its floor. Each
tombstone depicts the lives of the Grand Masters of the Order of St
John, who are buried beneath. The façade is rather severe and
militaristic, but inside the cathedral is lavishly splendid in the
grandest tradition of high Baroque, with every inch of wall covered
by carving, while the vaulted ceiling sports paintings depicting
the life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights. The
cathedral benefitted greatly over the centuries from many donations
from the Knights and their Grand Masters, and some of the most
impressive works of art in the church were gifts from the
It is still an active place of worship with frequent services, and is also used as a beautiful venue for cultural events. Travellers should be sure to check the website for visiting hours to avoid disappointment. The stunningly ornate cathedral is an amazing sight and a must for tourists in Malta; the experience is greatly enriched by taking a guided tour or renting an audio guide.
Palace of the Grandmaster
The Grandmaster's Palace, built around 1571, today serves as the office of the President and seat of the Maltese Parliament. When parliament is not in session the palace and its State Rooms are open to the public. The palace is a treasure house of art, from the unique collection of Gobelin Tapestries to frescoes depicting the Great Siege of 1565 by Perez d'Aleccio that cover the walls of the Halls of St Michael and St George. The Knights decorated the palace richly and elaborately, conscious of showing off their wealth and influence, and exploring splendid chambers like the Hall of the Supreme Council of the Knights is thrilling. Visitors can also view the Armoury and state apartments, which are adorned with friezes depicting the history of the Order of the Knights of St John. The Armoury is perhaps the greatest attraction of the palace and it boasts one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. Malta has a tumultuous history and the Armoury holds the assorted weaponry of centuries of invasions, sieges and battles, making it a paradise for military history buffs. Guided tours of the palace are available and there is a wonderful audio guide which gives comprehensive information.
National Museum of Archaeology
The archaeological museum on Republic Street, Valletta, is housed in one of the inns of the Knights of St John, the Auberge de Provence. The museum's focus on Malta's prehistory includes displays such as the reconstruction of prehistoric remains found at Hypogeum. Items such as pottery, sculptures, statuettes, stone implements and jewellery from the prehistoric, megalithic and temple-building periods are featured, as well as some Punic and Roman tomb furniture. All the exhibits were found on excavations across the Maltese islands and the age of some of the artefacts is staggering. It is fascinating to see the various items recovered from the ancient temple complexes in Malta, and a visit to the museum nicely contextualises these ancient attractions. It is a small but impressive museum, although its wonders will only be fully appreciated by those interested in archaeology; those who are easily bored by ancient artefacts, like young children, can probably give it a skip. The collection is well-maintained and labelled and the exhibition is in chronological order.
Lascaris War Rooms
Valletta suffered a great deal of damage in bombing raids during
World War II and the island has always had a strategic military
importance far out of proportion to its size. The Lascaris War
Rooms are housed in a 17th-century underground complex of tunnels
and chambers that once housed the secret War Headquarters from
where the defence of Malta was conducted during the war. Some of
the most famous battles fought in the Mediterranean during the war
were coordinated and planned from this headquarters.
The complex has been restored and now acts as a museum, with displays including charts, models and dioramas; a paradise for anybody interested in military history. It is fascinating to see all the old wartime paraphernalia and explore the once Top Secret military operating rooms. The guides are enthusiastic and well-informed volunteers who greatly enrich the experience. Tours are conducted in English and include a short film. The tour takes about 75 minutes and visitors are usually allowed to wander around the complex at their leisure afterwards.
A dramatic presentation that illustrates the history of Malta, from Neolithic to modern times, can be enjoyed at the Mediterranean Conference Centre at St Elmo's bastion in Valletta. The building itself has been impressively restored, having been built by the Knights in the 1500s as a hospital. The wards, which are great sweeping halls with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, now serve as exhibition areas. A modern theatre has been added where the Malta Experience audio-visual show is offered in 17 different languages. The show is a sweeping expose of 7,000 years of history covering the original stone-age inhabitants, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Knights of St John and the nation's modern history. It is as entertaining as it is educational. In fact, the Malta Experience is a great way to begin a holiday in Malta as it provides an overview of the archipelagos' dramatic history which greatly enriches the sightseeing to come, particularly as not all of the impressive ancient sites on the islands are provided with detailed information for tourists. The documentary also offers great insight into the Maltese culture and people. The show is immensely popular and more than four million visitors have seen it since its opening; it is about 45 minutes long.
Malta's main maritime towns have merged into a fortified
conglomerate known as the Three Cities, resting on the promontories
opposite Valletta. Vittoriosa is the oldest town in Malta after
Mdina. It features plenty of historical architecture, including
several of the Inns of the Knights of St John, as well as a
hospital built by the Order in 1672, which is still a Benedictine
convent inhabited by devout nuns. Fort St Angelo, the oldest
fortified part of Vittoriosa, dating from 1274, stands at the tip
of the promontory, and the Museum of Maritime History is also well
worth a visit. The youngest of the Three Cities, Cospicua, dates
from 1717 and features some interesting churches, while Senglea,
designed by Grandmaster De La Sengle in 1551, is an important place
of pilgrimage. Senglea's parish church contains a statue of Christ
the Redeemer that is said to have miraculous powers.
There are many great restaurants and bars in the Three Cities and the marina area is becoming increasingly popular. The best way to explore the area is on a walking tour, following which it is wonderful to just wander around the older areas seeking out unexpected treasures. Apart from the rich history, the Three Cities are famed for their residents' enthusiastic celebration of holy days and festas, the most exciting of which is the Easter procession, when statues of Jesus Christ are carried at a run through crowded streets.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Hypogeum, just southwest of the Three Cities in the suburb
of Paolo, is a labyrinthine complex of man-made chambers hewn out
of limestone, extending about 36ft (11m) below the surface. Experts
believe it was used as a burial site and temple by Neolithic man,
who used antlers and stone picks to carve out the labyrinth in
semi-darkness more than 5,000 years ago. It is comprised of several
interconnecting chambers on three distinct levels and was used over
a span of many centuries, with the oldest remains at the site
dating back to about 4000 BC. The site has been declared a UNESCO
World Heritage site.
Archaeologists have recovered numerous statues, amulets, figurines and vases, many of which are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. The remarkable site has been open to the public since 1908 and the droves of visitors have unfortunately had a negative impact on the ancient environment, so that now only eight tours a day are conducted and only 10 people are permitted in each tour. Tours are often booked up weeks in advance so tickets should be booked well in advance to avoid disappointment. The tours are about an hour long and audio guides are provided.
The prehistoric temple complex discovered in 1839 at Hagar Qim, in western Malta, dates from about 3,800 BC, and boasts some of the oldest known human structures in the world. The Hagar Qim and nearby Mnajdra ruins are close to the village of Qrendi, about nine miles (15km) southwest of Valletta. The megalithic temple complex carved from giant limestone slabs is adorned with carved animals and idols, sacrificial altars and oracular chambers, all fashioned with flint and obsidian tools. The largest megalith is 23ft (7m) high and weighs about 20 tons. The complex was built during the late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago. It should be noted that although the ancient ruins of Malta are generally called 'temples', very little is actually known about the purpose of these buildings. Many of the relics recovered from the Hagar Qim site, including the famous 'fat lady' statues, are on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. Unlike some of the other temples on Malta, Hagar Qim has an impressive Visitor's Centre that offers plenty of background information through interesting interactive displays. There are shelters over the complex to provide protection from the elements, but this hardly detracts from the otherworldly experience of exploring the ruins.
Valletta's attractions revolve mostly around its architecture, with a number of churches, cathedrals and other sacred sites taking centre stage. There are other interesting buildings, including historical residences, palaces, and forts, some of which lavishly display the wealth of art work donated by the Knights of St John. Must-see attractions include the Palace of the Grandmaster, St John's Co-Cathedral, the Lascaris War Rooms and, just outside of the city, the remarkable ancient sites of Hagar Qim and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Tourists should also be sure to explore the historic Three Cities. For first-time visitors who don't know much about the country, The Malta Experience is worth considering, as it provides a great overview of the country's history and culture in roughly half an hour. If you are travelling to Valletta with children there are some fun attractions and excursions to enjoy as a family, including Popeye Village and the Splash & Fun Water Park.
Perched on top of Mount Sceberras and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Valletta has many beautiful views. While there are no sandy beaches within the city itself, the docks and harbour fronts are pleasant areas to stroll along. Wonderful sandy coves can be found beyond the city. St George's Square puts on an evening show with jumping fountains and coloured lights, making a perfect ending to a day of sightseeing.
Mdina, known as the noble city, was the original capital of
Malta before the arrival of the Knights of St John in the middle
ages. It was originally a Phoenician town but spent periods under
Roman, Arabic and Norman occupation. The elegant walled city,
including the ancient suburb of Rabat, can trace its origins back
more than 4,000 years, although today all that remains is the
medieval town, which has been largely restored.
Mdina is situated on a rocky outcrop about nine miles (15km) west of Valletta. At the heart of Mdina is its landmark Baroque Cathedral of St Paul. Mdina has a conservative atmosphere, in keeping with its noble past. While the Knights reigned over Malta the city became the home of the Maltese nobility, who lived there under autonomous rule, not being deemed worthy to be invited to join the Order of St John. The descendants of some of these families live here still. Mdina and Rabat not only offer some fascinating and valuable sightseeing opportunities, but the old city is particularly inviting at night when it is lamp lit and visitors can enjoy the ambience of restaurants tucked away in its bastions and palace courtyards. Motor vehicles are strictly not allowed inside the city walls, and pedestrians have free reign to walk the streets and take in a glimpse of life in the middle ages.
St Marys Church
The centre of every Maltese town and village is occupied by a
beautiful church. One of the most impressive of these is St Mary's
in the central Maltese town of Mosta, also known as the Rotunda of
Mosta or the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which has a
glorious blue, gold and white dome. The unsupported dome is one of
the largest in the world and the design is visibly inspired by the
Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the church began in May 1833 and
it was completed in the 1860s.
St Mary's Church is regarded as having been the site of a World War II miracle: in 1942, while 300 people were praying in the church, a bomb penetrated the dome and landed on the mosaic floor, but did not explode. A replica of the bomb is today displayed in the church sacristy. This famous miracle draws many pilgrims and curious tourists to the church, but the stunningly ornate interior is reason enough for a visit. The church has a fine collection of religious art, including one of the largest collections of paintings by the famous Maltese artist Guzeppi Cali.
The church is still an active place of worship and visitors are welcome to attend services. Entry to the church is free but donations are welcome. The church is usually closed between 12pm and 3pm.
Also known as Sweethaven, Popeye Village is the actual set that
was used for the 1980s musical of Popeye that starred Robin
Williams and Shelly Duvall. Since then the set has grown into one
of Malta's major tourist attractions and it is a must for those
travelling with children in Malta. Kids can wander around the
authentic wooden buildings such as the bakery, post office and
school house. There are lots of fun activities for the whole family
to enjoy including meeting famous cartoon characters, boat rides,
water trampolines, sun bathing decks, and lots of educational and
creative games. The park also now boasts the Popeye Comic Museum,
which showcases more than a hundred original comics dating back to
1936. For adults there is a winery that offers free wine tastings
and the chance to learn something about filmmaking from the
animation crew that gives tours of the set. There are various
places to get food and drinks. There is also a small park with a
number of rides designed for young children. Popeye Village hosts
fun events for kids but also organises adult events like team
building exercises upon request.
The little village is gorgeously situated and quite charming. The opening times and activities vary according to the season so it is best to check the official website listed below for information before visiting to avoid disappointment.
Spring is carnival time in Malta. Carnival week, with its traditional boisterous revelry, is centred on the capital Valletta, but cities, towns and villages across Malta host their own carnival celebrations and sometimes the smaller local festivities are the most authentic and charming. Carnival includes extravagant, gaudy floats, fancy dress, lots of live music and marching bands, and some wild nightlife in the Paceville club area. The tradition is said to have started in 1560, when a massed Christian armada became harbour-bound in Malta and some jollification ashore ensued. Carnival is a wonderfully festive time to visit Malta and foreigners are welcomed into the revelry, especially if they embrace the spirit of the event and arrive in outrageous costumes. Children will also enjoy carnival and the parades and floats particularly delight the local kids, who dress up even more enthusiastically than the adult party animals. February and March happen to be a good time to visit Malta weather-wise as it is sunny but not yet swelteringly hot; if you are planning a springtime holiday in Malta, plan your itinerary around the carnival. Valletta can get crowded during the festival but not unpleasantly so.
Date:24 - 28 February 2017; Website: www.visitmalta.com/carnival
Malta International Fireworks Festival
The Malta Fireworks Festival is an exciting event held annually at the Grand Harbour in Valletta. The event is organised by the Ministry for Tourism and the Malta Tourism Authority and it commemorates Malta's inclusion in the European Union, which took place on 1 May 2004. The best of local talent from Malta's fireworks factories compete with foreign pyrotechnic companies to thrill audiences with a visual feast. The highlight of the festival is the 'History of Malta' laser show, which features an exceptional fireworks display accompanied by invigorating music. The fireworks light up the night sky to reveal stunning views of the nearby St Angelo, Ricasoli and St Elmo forts, and illuminate the city in a sparkling, magical way. The fireworks are visible from many vantage points but perhaps the best place to watch the display is from the Barriera Wharf in Valletta. The Malta Fireworks Festival is open to the public and completely free of charge. April is a good time of year to visit Malta, as the autumn weather is pleasant and sunny, and tourists holidaying in Malta over this period would be mad not to attend this wonderful festival.
Venue: Lascaris Wharf, Grand Harbour; Date:April 2017 TBC; Website: www.maltafireworksfestival.com
Malta Jazz Festival
Every year a number of world-renowned jazz musicians gather in Valletta to entertain enthusiasts with a classy selection of live performances. The Malta Jazz Festival has been running for about 25 years, enjoying great support from locals and foreigners and much critical acclaim. The event is held in the third weekend of July annually and the main venue is the open-air Ta'Liesse in Valletta. Every year the programme includes an array of the best contemporary jazz and the festival is fun for the uninitiated as well as aficionados; in fact, it is a wonderful way to learn a bit about the genre. Performances at the festival in the past have included some famous jazz musicians such as John Scofield, Al Di Meola and Dee Dee Bridgewater. In the days preceding and following the festival a number of fringe events, including open-air concerts, are held in venues all over the city. For more information check the official website listed below.
Venue: Grand Harbour, Valletta; Date:16 - 19 July 2016; Website: www.maltajazzfestival.org
The Mediterranean climate of Valletta ensures the weather is hot and dry during summer (June to September) and slightly cooler in winter (December to March). Summer temperatures often exceed 84ºF (30ºC), but the heat tends to be tempered by refreshing sea breezes. In spring and autumn, the hot Xlokk wind sometimes brings high temperatures and humidity but the weather is generally pleasant, hot and sunny. Winters are mild, with temperatures averaging between about 50°F (10°C) and 59°F (15°C). Valletta experiences little rainfall, and it generally occurs only in winter, between October and January. The city never gets any snow.
Valletta is a year-round holiday destination, as even the damp winter is mild enough to be pleasant for a sightseeing vacation. In fact, many tourists prefer to avoid the swelteringly hot summer in favour of the milder shoulder seasons, when it is also less crowded. The best time to visit Valletta is probably in March, April, May or September, but the peak tourist season is still the summer, between June and August. Winter is a good time to visit because it is slightly cheaper, less crowded and never really cold.
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