For many visitors to Malta, the nation’s capital of Valletta is the main Maltese city that they will explore. But by no means is it the only city on the islands and you need only look across The Grand Harbour for proof. If you’ve visited Valletta and been to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, then you’ve likely looked across to the Three Cities and their fortresses.
The Three Cities is the popular name given to the neighbourhoods of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua that sit across the Grand Harbour and surround the Vittoriosa Marina. Each is known by multiple names, Senglea or L’Isla, Cospicua or Bormla and Birgu or Vittoriosa. This is due to their long history and Malta’s history of changing hands repeatedly.
In fact, the fortified Birgu dates back before the founding of Valletta and both Senglea and Cospicua were built at the same time as the capital. Thus the Three Cities is an important historic urban area and one well taking the time to explore.
To be clear they aren’t the only three cities of Malta. It’s just the name for these close neighbourhoods, and there are far more than three on Malta. Relative to the likes of Sliema, St Julian’s and even Valletta, the Three Cities provide a far more authentic look at ordinary Maltese life.
Just because they’re residential neighbourhoods doesn’t mean they lack attractions however. If you’ve explored Valletta and wondering where to go next, the Three Cities are worth a look and here’s why.
1. Gardjola Gardens, Senglea
Situated right on the point of Senglea’s peninsula is the Gardjola Gardens. Like many gardens around this part of Malta, they sit atop historical coastal fortifications. While the garden side of things might leave something to be desired, the views more than make up for it. From Gardjola Gardens, you’re able to look back at Valletta, admiring the city from another angle. Also worth mentioning is the interesting and iconic turret that protrudes from the gardens.
2. Senglea Basilica, Senglea
The neighbourhood of Senglea may not have all that many landmarks, but the Senglea Basilica has to be one of them. This grand and beautiful church sits near the entrance to the neighbourhood and is a prime example of the style in which Maltese churches are built.
3. Streets of Senglea
One of the best things to do in Senglea is to simply walk along its residential streets and get a feel for life away from the tourist scene. Visiting the area provides a stark contrast to somewhere like Sliema. You’ll find plenty of the wonderful Maltese Balconies that are probably the definitive architectural element of the entire country. As a quiet and friendly residential area, you’re bound to hear a lot more Maltese being spoken and see the day-to-day moments of ordinary life going on. If you’re curious what life is like for people in Malta, the Three Cities is a solid choice to find out.
4. St. Michael Bastion, Senglea
Protecting the main entrance to Senglea somewhat imposingly is the St Michael Bastion. If you’re entering or leaving Senglea, it’s inevitable that you’ll pass through its St. Anne Gate. I’m sure the fortifications across Malta were necessary during the time of the Order of St John and later, given Malta’s recurring struggles for control. These days the fortifications simply speak to that history, lending a lot of character to the islands of Malta.
5. Vittoriosa Yacht Marina, Cospicua
It’s fair to say that the Vittoriosa Yacht Marina is the centre and heart of the Three Cities. It basically sits between all three of the neighbourhoods and its marina was likely a big reason for the heavy fortifications at the ends of Birgu and Senglea. The harbours and waters of Malta play a crucial part for life on the islands of Malta and the marina is no different. It’s hard to beat strolling along the waterfront and simply admiring the glamorous boats moored nearby.
6. Maritime Museum, Birgu
Appropriately lying by Birgu’s waterfront, is the Malta Maritime Museum. Housed in the former Royal Naval Bakery of all buildings, this museum describes the grand maritime history of Malta and its occupiers. The ground floor is dedicated to the mechanics and engineering components of naval ships, which will occupy aspiring and adult tech-heads and engineers.
The first floor however touches upon more accessible aspects of Malta’s maritime history. It focuses particularly on the British Navy’s presence on Malta, such as the liberating of Malta from the French during the Napoleonic Wars and the Maltese role in the First and Second World Wars. What I found personally fascinating was the sections on Maltese Corsairs, essentially legal pirates who for centuries had licence to terrorise ships on the Mediterranean Sea.
7. St. Lawrence’s Church, Birgu
Another beautiful church of the Three Cities is the St Lawrence’s Church in Birgu. This striking building sits by Birgu’s waterfront and dates back to the 17th century. Up behind the church is an oratory making up the beautiful architecture of the religious complex. When I was walking past, there were lots of people milling about before mass. I’m always impressed when historic, stunning buildings are still used for regular, everyday purposes.
8. Fort Saint Angelo, Birgu
The immense fortress that lies on the point of Birgu is Fort St Angelo. Today it sits upon a site that has been home to strongholds and forts since at least 1241. For quite some time, Fort St Angelo was the principal stronghold on the southern side of the Grand Harbour. It would come to host various artillery platforms and was continually repurposed for, at the time, modern purposes.
A visit to Fort St Angelo, includes walking along its high fortress walls and rooftops, allowing for spectacular vistas across the Three Cities, to Valletta and the mouth of the Grand Harbour. Inside the fort, there are a number of exhibits that cover both the fort’s history, but also how the history of the Mediterranean and its various empires came to influence the islands of Malta.
The Romans, Normans, Ottomans, French, English and plenty more have fought and ruled over the islands of Malta. You can also learn about the ghost, The Grey Lady, who is said to haunt the fort after being murdered to hide her affair with the resident commander.
9. Inquisitor’s Palace, Birgu
To tweak a popular saying, “Nobody expects the Maltese Inquisition!” While many are familiar with the Spanish Inquisition of heretics, I doubt many (including myself) knew of its Maltese counterpart. Not to be underestimated, the inquisitors of Malta had a fair modicum of power and even produced several Popes during their tenure. In the Catholic world, that’s influence! From the 16th to 18th centuries, the Maltese Inquisition was conducted from the Inquisitor Palace in central Birgu.
Today the palace serves as a museum to the complex religious institution that harshly punished perceived heretics. Originally the official residence of Malta’s first inquisitor, the palace would become their headquarters so-to-speak and even included a prison. A visit to the museum includes plenty of information and artefacts relating to the Inquisition on Malta, touching on punishments, torture and how people were identified as having transgressed.
If you find stories of love magic, curses, witchcraft and more of interest, it’s well worth your time. Also, as you explore the museum you can appreciate the palace’s architecture and the especially well-preserved murals and heralds painted on its walls.
10. Victory Square, Birgu
In the centre of Birgu you can find the neighbourhood’s main square, Victory Square. It’s here that you can find some of the most vibrant and ornate balconies I came across in the Three Cities as well as several statues. Around the square you’ll also find many of the neighbourhoods cafes and restaurants, making it a good place to stop as you explore the Three Cities.
11. Birgu Backstreets
Again, I highly recommend you take some time to head off and wander the streets, this time in Birgu. Coming off Victory Square are plenty of small backstreets that have a cosy, pedestrian vibe to them. This small maze of streets oozes charm and you can easily imagine them looking almost the same a few hundred years ago. Look for the small details like the balconies, doors and the occasional plaque and you’ll really come to appreciate this little corner of Malta.