A UNESCO guide to Valletta

One of the first places to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, the whole of the city of Valletta in Malta was decreed a World Heritage Site in 1980. Housing 320 monuments within 55 hectares, it’s described by UNESCO as ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’.

On a headland measuring only one kilometre by 600 metres, Valletta is the smallest capital in the EU and one of the most southern. This makes it easy to get around on foot to see all of the beautiful architecture.

A history of Valletta

Founded by Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette in 1566, who gave the city his name, Valletta was Malta’s tiny capital, built by the Knights of St John in the late Renaissance period.

One of the greatest military and moral forces of modern Europe, they maintained the city over the following two and a half centuries. Valletta was one of the first planned cities, with streets laid-out in grids to allow the sea breeze to blow down the straight roadways and cool them.

The city was also purposely built as a fort, with fortified bastion walls at its perimeter facing the two beautiful natural harbours – Grand Harbour and Marsamxett.

Noteworthy architecture

Valletta is rich in Baroque architecture, with many buildings dating back to the 16th century – including a whopping 25 churches. Here are some of the most striking buildings and structures in Valletta that contributed to its UNESCO ranking.

St John's Co-Cathedral

Built in the 1570s as the monastic church for the Knights of St John, as well as being a fine example of original architecture, St John’s Co-Cathedral displays baroque art donated over the centuries by Grand Masters and knights.

The interior was largely decorated by Mattia Preti, the Calabrian artist and knight, at the height of the baroque period during the 1660s. He used elaborate scenes from St John the Baptist’s life – who the cathedral is dedicated to.

Fort St Elmo

The star shaped Fort St Elmo sits proud at the head of Valletta’s peninsula and was initially constructed in the early 15th century.

It was the sight of fighting during the Great Siege of Malta, and it was when the Ottomans were eventually overpowered that Grand Master Valette started work on building the city around the fort. Major restoration work since 2009 has left the fort in the superb condition it’s now in.

The Palace of the Grand Master

The opulent Grand Master’s Palace is now the office of the President of the Republic of Malta and used for state functions.

When not in use you can explore the halls of the first floor, including seeing rare Gobelin tapestries in the Council Chamber. Other highlights are the Palace Armoury, with Grand Masters’ parade armour, and frescoes in the Supreme Council Hall depicting the 1565 Great Siege of Malta.

Upper Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery

On the Grand Harbour side of the city, the Upper Barrakka Gardens house a saluting battery high on the ramparts where you can watch – and hear – the cannons being fired each day at midday.

One of the oldest saluting batteries still in operation, you can also take historic guided tours of the area and nearby is an interesting underground World War II HQ.

Modern Valletta

In contrast to the mainly ancient architecture of Valletta, some of the most dramatic offerings are the modern works of architect Renzo Piano, whose buildings include the Parliament Building, City Gate and Opera House.

Built in 2014, the only similarity the Parliament Building has to other buildings in Valletta is the light-coloured stone, the large blocks of which seem to float as they’re suspended on stilts.

Also showing that Valletta isn’t all about history, it’s been named European Capital of Culture for 2018, joint with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.

The award was given due to Valletta’s investment in cultural heritage cultural heritage and the creative economy. It will see a widespread calendar of cultural events across Valletta and the whole of the Maltese islands throughout 2018.

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