Valletta is the capital city of Malta and is located in the central-eastern part of main island Malta. Valletta is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its rich historical value and links to the Knights of Malta, who built the city in the second half of the 16th century. With 320 recognised monuments situated within an area of just 0.55 km2, Malta’s capital city is one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. The city is named after its founder, Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Pirot de la Valette and is also known as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.
Valletta is also the smallest capital city in the EU, and is Malta’s foremost commercial and financial centre, which is visited by scores of tourists who are curious to see the city’s rich history and abundance in sites of interest. The peninsula on which Valletta is built has two natural harbours on each site, of which the most important to Valletta is the Grand Harbour.
History of Valletta
Under Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette (of the Order of St. John, aka. the Knights of Malta) the first foundation stone of Valletta was laid on 28 March 1566. Valletta was built on what used to be Mount Sceberras which is a tongue of land that lies between the island’s two natural harbours. All that existed on these bare rocks was a small watch tower called St. Elmo (later to be extended and renamed Fort St. Elmo). The location was chosen to help fortify the Order’s position in Malta and provide the Knights with a stronger foothold on the island. The Siege of Malta had just taken place a year earlier and victorious Grand Master de le Valette was set on improving the island’s defences, in order for the Order of St. John to maintain its hold on the island.
The design of Valletta moved away completely from earlier medieval Maltese city planning, which had mostly consisted of irregular winding streets and alleys that were easier to defend in the event of a siege by foreign powers. Francesco Laparelli designed Valletta based on rectangular grids of streets that were wide and straight. The grid starts at the City Gate to end on the other side of Valletta at Fort St. Elmo, which overlooks both sea ports near Valletta: The Grand Harbour on the East side and Marsamxett on the West side. To fortify the city against attacks from outside, the city was surrounded by bastions, some of which were built up to 153 feet or 47 meters tall.
Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer, provided his services on request of Pope Pius V, who, together with King Philip II of Spain, supported the project with financial aid as well. Both had vested interests in maintaining a Roman-Catholic rule over strategically placed Malta and were obviously supportive of efforts to defend the Maltese islands against attacks from the Ottoman empire (a Muslim rule from present day Turkey).
Some of the street planning in Valletta is truly unique, which was planned with the city’s defence in mind. Some of its streets fall steeply as you get closer towards the back of the city, making it difficult for enemy troops to manoeuvre. These streets have stairs that were built in such a way that knights in heavy armour would be able to climb the steps.
At the turn of the 17th century, Valletta had grown into a sizeable city for the standards of those days. The city was a popular place to settle among the local population, considering its safe fortification, while former capital Mdina had lost much of its allure after the Great Siege.
During World War II, Valletta was heavily bombarded by Nazi fighter planes and many historical buildings were damaged or destroyed. The most well-known example of this is the Royal Opera House, of which the ruins are still visible as you enter Valletta through the City Gate. The site has been at the centre of political debate in Malta ever since, with Maltese MPs unfortunately unable to decide how the site should be developed.
After the war, parts of Valletta fell into disrepair and lost its popularity as a locality for new families to settle. Many of its former citizens also moved out to more modern housing in other localities in Malta. Over the past years interest in living in Valletta has increased, however, now that more people seem to appreciate the old architecture and are willing to invest in old properties.
Getting to Valletta
Getting to Valletta is easiest by public transport. All bus routes start and end in the capital city, but be sure to ask the bus driver whether he’s heading on his way back to the capital city or whether you need to cross the road to catch the right bus. Valletta’s bus terminus lies right in front of the City Gate, which you simply can’t miss.
If you’ve hired a car, you’ll be able to find the capital quite easily since many road signs point in the direction of Valletta. Please note that you’re not allowed to drive onto the bus terminus roundabout itself, which you can recognize by the fountain located in the centre. Parking within Valletta (which you can access from side entrances to the city) is restricted by a congestion charge system on weekdays from 0800 – 1800h and Saturdays from 0800 – 1300h. Parking is free outside of those hours, as well as on a few locations just outside Valletta. Going around the streets within Valletta by car is difficult, because some streets are pedestrian zones while others are one way streets. Right in front of the bus terminus a large parking garage is located, which is the easy option if you don’t mind paying a fee for parking.
You can also enter Valletta by boat, with a small ferry that leaves at the seafront of Sliema to take you across Marsamxett harbour and past Manoel Island for a small fee. Another option is to travel to Vittoriosa, which lies on the Grand Harbour (Eastern) side of Valletta and is one of the Three Cities, and getting on a Maltese type of gondola (or Dghajsa in Maltese) which takes you across Grand Harbour and drops you off at Victoria Gate, through which you can enter Valletta.
Like other older villages such as Mdina and the Three Cities, you get this really authentic feeling when you walk through the streets of Valletta. There’s so much history there that you can almost visualize scenes of days gone by, just looking at the various historical buildings. The famous Auberges, most of which underwent restoration works in recent years, date back to the 16th century and their architecture is truly amazing.
Nightlife in Valletta
For one of Europe’s capital cities, Valletta offers relatively few options for going out. The most popular nighttime venues are wine bars, which offer a very relaxed atmosphere, a wide variety of wines but also regular drinks.
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