Join me on a journey back in time to explore the history and culture behind two of the prettiest cities in Malta, Valletta and Mdina!
There’s a good reason why everyone loves Malta! Sandy beaches tucked away in amongst rocky coves, bright turquoise seas and fantastic weather to boot – this country has the perfect mix for any holidaymaker looking to have a relaxing time away. But for me there’s one more thing that makes Malta stands out: it’s rich and diverse history. From the ancient Romans and the crusading knights of the Order of Malta, different periods of history have all left their mark. And today I’d like to take a closer look at what I believe to be the prettiest cities in Malta, Mdina and Valletta!
Join me on a little journey back in time and discover what fantastic sights, awesome experiences and wonderful architecture await you here!
Small but mighty – this is probably the best way to describe Malta’s compact but vibrant capital! Perched on the cliffs of the Mount Sceberras on a peninsula flanked by harbours, the entire city has been enjoying its status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. The city was named after its founder Joean Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta. Construction began in 1566, and in a short space of time true feats of architecture were created – the fortresses, cathedrals, palaces and many other impressive buildings have now gone on to become some of the city’s defining features. The sturdy stone walls and bastions that almost circle the city entirely were built primarily as a first line of defence, and they’re another fantastic example of how well preserved a lot of Malta’s landmarks are. You could almost view Valletta as one giant open-air museum!
Popular sights in Valletta
You’re best starting your sightseeing tour at the impressive city gates by the Triton Fountain. Most tourists busses will stop here as a starting point for day trips, and many holidaymakers who are making their own way around the island will often park their rental cars here too. The city gates and fountain are a popular photo opportunity, so don’t forget your camera whatever you do! From here you’ll be able to easily explore the rest of the city by foot, which is where the city’s compact size can actually be a massive advantage.
Your next stop should be St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a former convent of the Order of Malta located right in the heart of the city. While the outside may look somewhat conservative, inside you’ll find one of the most breathtaking cathedral interiors you’ll ever see. The curved vaulted ceilings and sturdy pillars are covered in enormous frescoes and intricately gilded gold panels, whilst the floor is covered in tombstones. It’s enough to leave you speechless, and it’s considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of Baroque architecture. In the surrounding neighbourhood you can stop off for a little coffee break, with lots of fantastic street cafés tucked away in the historic streets.
Another great place to stop off after the co-cathedral is the Grand Master’s Palace, whose splendid rooms are often used for state functions. It’s also open to the public thanks to its priceless works of art. As well as the large conference room and council hall there’s also an impressive armoury with over 6,000 examples of uniforms and weapons used by the Order of Malta during various points in its history. But of course this isn’t the only place in Valletta where you can get your history fix – Fort St. Elmo is a 16th Century bastion that was converted into a shelter during the Second World War. Now it’s a great place to watch the ships come into the harbour, and with sprawling grounds and a National War Museum tucked away inside you’ll be able to spend a lot of time here.
Still got of lot of time left in the day? Then I’ve put together a list of other fantastic sights that you should definitely take the time to see, otherwise I’d be writing all day! ;)
Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – its famous dome is seen on a lot of Malta postcards
Church of Stain Paul’s Shipwreck – easy to miss thanks to its inconspicuous exterior, but is home to a small but lavish interior
St. Francis of Assisi – ornate church located at the busy street of Triq il-Repubblika
Lascaris War Rooms – where the island’s defence strategies were coordinated during WWII
Casa Rocca Piccola – a 16th Century manor house open to the public that’s still owned by a Maltese noble family
National Museum of Archaeology – excellent collections on Neolithic history
Museum of Fine Arts – a compact but very good selection of Maltese works
National Library of Malta – Neoclassical building with documents and works dating back to the Order of Malta
As well as exploring as many sights as you can, you should definitely take the time to wander the streets of the Old Town and taking a careful look at all of the individual townhouses too. That way you’ll really be able to get a sense of Valletta’s charm, since the city has stayed true to its original structure – narrow streets, Baroque façades, statues of various saints and small fountains. Budding photographers will have plenty of opportunity to capture beautiful street scenes such as a colourful wooden balcony or multi-coloured window frames. Just take a look behind the scenes of this marvellous city and enjoy that Maltese flair to the fullest!
After a long day of sightseeing there’s also plenty of parks where you can put your feet up for a little bit. The Upper and Lower Barraca Gardens or Hastings Garden are popular places to go. Upper Barraca Garden also has the advantage of offering a fantastic panoramic view of the natural harbour and fashionable yachts docked at the marinas. And if you want to do a spot of shopping, then be sure to head to Triq il-Repubblika, Valletta’s main shopping street. Finally when all is seen and done, you can bring the day to a quiet, relaxed end at one of the city’s many fantastic restaurants.
Mdina – the Silent City
Just 25 minutes away by car in the centre of the island is the city of Mdina. The former capital of Malta is home to all sorts of fascinating history and culture – in fact the city’s history goes back almost 4,000 years! It’s often considered to be one of Europe’s prettiest walled cities, so don’t miss out if you’re coming to Malta on holiday. Busses go from Valletta to Mdina, which will drop you off at the city walls. Inside the city centre, no cars are allowed at all, so enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and allow yourselves to take a little step back in time. Any arrival to Mdina will be greeted by the imposing Baroque city gate, meaning that you’ll be falling for the city’s charm and beauty immediately.
Impressive Cathedrals and Palaces
The most famous cathedral in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral, a wonderful building with its distinctive two spires. As soon as you step through the door, you’ll realise just how beautiful it is – intricate Baroque ornamentation, marble tombstones and an impressive chapel leave many visitors speechless. The frescoes on the wall depict moments in the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul. The cathedral museum is also directly attached to the building, so if you’d like to learn more it’s definitely worth hanging around a little longer to look through the exhibitions. The Carmelite Priory is also just a stone’s throw away, and it’s here where you’ll find some fantastic artwork.
A little further on is the Palazzo Falson, one of Mdina’s oldest buildings. Since the last owner of the 13th Century palace was an avid art collector, you’ll be able to feast your eyes on more than 3,000 exhibition pieces as well as explore pretty courtyards. Another must-see landmark is the Palazzo Vilhena at St. Publius Square, a 17th Century Baroque palace that houses a natural history museum with fossils and animals. But personally I find what lies directly beneath it a lot more exciting – the so-called Mdina Dungeons are a system of underground chambers and tunnels that document gruesome events from various points in Maltese history. It’s not for the faint of heart!
As you’ll walk around Mdina you’ll come across all sorts of hidden courtyards and idyllic parks as well as the colourful windows and wooden balconies that are typical of Malta. And this is exactly what I love about this country so much – the history adds so much depth and variety to this sunny Mediterranean island that you’ll keep on discovering new things to keep you hooked. I’m often on the lookout for deals to Malta, so just keep your eyes peeled and be sure to keep checking back. :)
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