When the Order of St John first settled on Malta in 1530 they chose Birgu, subsequently renamed Vittoriosa, to the south of the Grand Harbour. However, following the attacks by Ottoman Turks in 1565, Grand Master La Valette decided it was time to build an even more substantial base for his forces, this was named Valletta after him, although it is known locally as Il Belt.
Valletta was built on the tip of the Sciberras peninsular between the two natural harbours of the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. Work began in 1566 to designs drawn by Francesco Laparelli, who was architect to the Medici family and the Vatican. Although he promised the building would be finished in three months, it was still far from it in two years when Gerolamo Cassar, a Maltese local, took over the work.
Defensively the town is surrounded by massive bastions, with two emplacements known as the Cavaliers of St James and St John, where troops were barracked at either side of the City Gate on the landward approaches overlooking a dry moat. At the tip of the peninsular the fortress of St Elmo was constructed, replacing a small watchtower that had been constructed earlier. The streets of the town within the city walls were laid out in a grid pattern, with palaces, churches, and auberges, where each langue of Knights would live. The original Baroque City Gate has twice been replaced, both times with ones of much less artistic value.
The City Gate opens on to the Triq Ir Repubblika, the central road leading to Fort St Elmo. On the right stood the Royal Opera House, the classic columns of which still remain, that was bombed in WWII, which instead of rebuilding was converted to an open air concert venue.
Valletta became the capital city in 1571 when the Grand Master moved from Fort St Angelo at Vittoriosa to the Grand Masterís Palace at Valletta. The church dedicated to St John was built by the Knights, and is now a Co Cathedral with the one at the islandís former capital Mdina. Its plain fort like exterior belies the elaborately decorated Baroque interior, with eight separate chapels off the main nave, each for the use of the different Langues of the Knights. The crypt contains the tombs of the Grand Masters and in the oratory is hung its most famous possession, a painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist.
In Republic Square stands a statue of Queen Victoria, behind which stands the 18th century National Library, originally built to house the many books owned by the Order, many of which remain in the collection. Alongside the library stands the bulky building of the Grand Masters Palace, built around Neptuneís Courtyard, with archway entrances and balconied faÁade. Today the Palace is used by the Presidentís office and the Maltese Parliament. In front of the Palace is St Georgeís Square with the main bank and passport office.
On the southern side of Valletta, overlooking the Grand Harbour, are the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens the only bits of greenery within the walls, and once private gardens for the Knights, which are built on the St Peter and St Paul Bastions. Below these, built at the waters edge outside the walls, are the Old Customs House and the Fish Market.
Although bombing was devastating during WWII Valletta still boasts a lot of old buildings, mainly of Italian origin, Baroque, Mannerist, and Neo Classical. It is said that the many balconies in the city are so that females could watch what was happening in the street, does that mean they were not allowed outside?
The Knights were not always popular with the islanders, and during the 18th century a revolt by slaves tried to kill Grand Master Pinto, and later the Revolt of the Priests occurred, but both were suppressed. When the Knights were replaced, first by the French then the English, neither of these were totally popular either, although both left their marks on the island, including the now defunct Malta Railways constructed by the British. When the Knights of St John departed in the 18th century, their buildings were taken over for both military and civilian use.
Two of the more modern churches built in Valletta are St Paulís Anglican Cathedral, and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount. The cathedral was built in 1839 on the site of the old German Auberge, financed by King William IV of Englandís wife Queen Adelaide. The catholic basilica, built in the mid 20th century replaced an earlier church that had been given to Carmelite Nuns in the 17th century. Its very large dome is designed to overshadow the spire of the Anglican Cathedral alongside it.
St George's Square
Library and Queen Victoria Statue
The Shell of Royal Opera House
The Upper Barrakka Gardens
St Paul's Anglican Cathedral
Original Maypole Base
In St George's Square
Used for Carnival Games