It’s a source of national pride that Malta has had three properties inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1980. Here’s some thoughts on why they are must-sees for anyone visiting Malta, even for a short stay:
Valletta, straddling a steep peninsula separating two harbours – famed Grand Harbour, and Marsamxett – is perhaps Europe’s very first, purpose-built city and a true example of early town planning at its best. It owes its origins to Grand Master Jean de La Valette, who planned it immediately following the defeat of the Saracens at the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The new city, with its impressive and impenetrable defences was not to see real action until World War II though as the Saracen threat waned following the siege.
Taking over from Malta’s medieval capital Mdina, Valletta was to become one of the most modern cities of its day. The city was to see an influx of cash as a grateful Papacy and indulgent European nobles lavished it with riches enabling Valletta to house magnificent architecture and art works.
The capital today is still one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Constrained by the water and fortifications surrounding it, Valletta has not experienced urban sprawl – it had a suburb, Floriana, planned in the days of the Knights – and is therefore a gem of a city to explore. It is also easy to see on foot (though steep streets can take their toll in the heat!).
It’s impossible to list all the sites in Valletta and most visitors realise after one visit that they need to go back again. See our list of Valletta must-sees but don’t forget to make time for just strolling back streets and discovering old shop fronts, fountains, small churches, and hidden-away cafes.
Valletta is planned on a grid system, so places are easy to locate. For a taste of Valletta’s precipitous streets, walk St Ursula’s Street (Grand harbour side), which, while becoming somewhat ‘in’ for trendy young property buyers, has changed little for centuries. Another steep street (on the Marsamsett side) is Old Bakery Street from which you can glimpse the tip of the peninsula and the open sea.
For panoramas, go to both Upper and Lower Barakka Gardens; the former to view the grandeur of the harbour and across to the older ‘Three Cities’, and the latter to see out to sea. For a real treat, be there when the cruise liners leave port early evening (often Wednesdays at around 7pm, it seems).
But whatever you do, see Valletta’s most remarkable and impressive sight, St John’s Co-Cathedral. Plain and unassuming from the exterior, it is a magnificent baroque masterpiece inside with its ornate carved stone walls, a frescoed ceiling and an inlaid marble floor that’s the resting place and roll call of the leading Knights of St John. Extravagent tombs of Grand Masters adorn the side walkways. The cathedral has another claim to fame as it houses Caravaggio’s largest canvas, the ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ which was commissioned by the knights.
Of course, plans are also in place for Valletta’s next phase of metamorphosis: City Gate.
Malta’s megalithic temples are bunched together as a single World Heritage Site. It is often quoted that the temples are believed to to be the oldest free-standing, stones in the world arranged by man. Certainly they predate Britain’s Stonehenge and are around 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. But there is some technical and archaeological debate as to whether they were free-standing as they may have been banked by earth and roofed. Though, as with most theories on Malta’s prehistory, much is speculation and up for grabs.
What is incredible is that neolithic man, seemingly isolated on tiny Malta and with limited resources, embarked on several thousand years of ‘temple building’ in worship of some deity or cult. And that man on neighbouring Sicily, with whom these early Malta dwellers had contact, did not follow suit and build similar structures. Malta’s temples were built roughly from the 5th to the 2nd millennium BC (approx Neolithic to Early Bronze).
There are seven main megalithic temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo. The ones visitors tend to go to are of course the most intact and impressive – Hagar Qim and Mnjadra which are evocatively located on the south-western coastline, and Tarxien temples in the town of the same name to the south of the Malta. The aptly-named Ggantija on the island of Gozo is renowned for its gigantic Bronze Age structure. The Ta’Hagrat and Skorba are important too as they show the evolution of the temple-building expertise as it was passed down the millennia.
Earlier this year, both Hagar Qim and Mnajdra were tented over to protect the structures from the effects of wind and water erosion. People are gradually coming to terms with the hi-tech structures. And they’re a small price to pay for preserving the temples for future generations.
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Hypogeum, located in the urban, dockside town of Paola, is the jewel in Malta’s World Heritage crown. It is a unique, and vast underground structure, almost cave like, that was dug out of the limestone by man in c. 2500 B.C. It goes down three levels, so it is all the more an incredible feat since it would have been excavated in almost near darkness and with picks and tools made from antlers.
It is described as ‘architecture in the negative’ since it has a chamber that is a replica of what we believe the overground temple rooms may have looked like. The Hypogeum contained human remains and offered up exquisitely fine pottery, including a rare miniature form of a sleeping lady (now in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta). The Hypogeum’s use defies total explanation as it seems to have been both necropolis (burial site) and temple. The mystery surrounding it only adds to its attraction as a top visitor site.
If you intend to visit, you must book, and the earlier the better; the site only admits 80 people a day in small groups of no more than 10 because of the need to regulate the atmosphere inside this sensitive site. The visitor centre has a display and short film before you go on the guided tour below ground.
Photo: Jakov Cordina