Now that world-renowned architect Renzo Piano has outlined his vision for the entrance of Malta’s capital Valletta, it’s a good time for island residents to join this summer’s visitors in ambling around the city and contemplating its sights – those new and old; those everlasting and those soon to seen as ephemeral.
Most visitors gain a first impression of Valletta as they enter through city gate from the bus terminus. So it’s fitting that city gate – since the 1950s often seen as defacing the perfect symmetry of the bastions and the two magnificent cavalier (strongholds) either side – is to be redesigned.
With this change in mind, we focus on 10 historic, and more or less historically intact places to seek out if you’re planning to visit this World Heritage Site, or ‘Il-Belt’ (the city) as the locals refer to it.
1. St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Built by the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John between 1573 and 1577, this church was designed by Girolamo Cassar, a Maltese architect known for designing many of the outstanding buildings in Valletta. Austere from the outside but impressive internally, this magnificent building houses, among other highlights, Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’ – a monumental canvas and the only work the artist signed. For vistor info, see the cathedral’s website.
2. Manoel Theatre
If theatre is at all your thing, try to catch an event at this jewel-box of an 18th century theatre, which is Europe’s third-oldest and is still very much in working order. The theatre is Malta’s National Theatre and home to nearly all performances held by the National Orchestra. There are a good many plays in English. Or, take a back stage tour. They are run most mornings except Sundays. See Manoel Theatre’s website.
3. The Malta War Museum
Housed in Fort St Elmo, this museum goes through the long history of the island as a military station for the British. Obvious emphasis is placed on the Second World War, in which Malta was of strategic importance and therefore one of the main targets for the enemy. Among the highlights on display is the original ‘George Cross’, presented by King George VI to the islands and its people for their heroism. It is immortalised on the National flag.
4. Republic Street
The main street of Valletta, this long pedestrianised thoroughfare has everything required for a serious shopping spree. With clothing shops, bookshops, souvenir vendors, cafes aplenty and everything in between, it is a must for all tourists and locals alike. Its lined by some of Valletta’s key sights such as the Co-Cathedral, the National Museum of Archaeology, Palace Square, the Palace, and more.
5. The Upper Barrakka Gardens
First built as a private garden for the Italian Knights in the 17th Century, this public garden offers a superb panorama of the Grand Harbour. Kiosk cafe and toilet block conveniently sited in the gardens!
6. National Museum of Archeology
This museum, which is to be found at the Auberge de Provence, displays a considerable amount of relics from Malta’s prehistoric and Neolithic periods, starting from the first arrival of humans on the islands around 7000 years ago. It rare artefacts including the exquisite ‘Sleeping Lady’ from the Hypogeum underground site. Auberge de Provence is also significant as a palace; it was built in the late 16th century as the main quarters of the langue de Provence knights.
7. The Mediterranean Conference Centre
This very popular conference centre is one of the grandest buildings in Valletta. Formerly the “Sacra Infermeria” of the Knights and the “Station Hospital” for the British, it used to be one of the largest and best hospitals in Europe. Since 1978, its use has been changed to that of a conference centre.
8. Casa Rocca Piccola
This four centuries old palace on the lower stretch of Republic Street is still lived in by descendants of the Maltese noble family de Piro and is open to the public. It makes an interesting visit as it offers a glimpse into the life of a wealthy patrician family over the centuries. It is a gem of a private museum and has a fascinating costume collection as well.
9. St. James Cavalier
This is Malta’s main Centre for Creativity and Culture and is housed in the renovated stronghold next to city gate. The Order of St John has private rights to the other Cavalier. For more info, see our other post on St James.
10. City Gate, Freedom Square and the Royal Opera House site
This is the entrance to Valletta, soon to be redesigned if Piano’s plans go ahead (this time!). So ‘enjoy’ the post-war scene and relish the thought that it will be more 16th century meets 21st in a few years time. At present, it’s not the grandest view in the city, but worth a photo for posterity before it rises Phoenix-like into a new age.
Photo: Gege Gatt