Step back in time and experience the history and culture of the Three Cities of Malta: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua
Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, known as the Three Cities of Malta, are pieces of living history kept alive by hundreds of years of preservation, and the occasional miracle. The fortified cities sit like a trio of villages in the heart of Malta’s historic centre, directly across the Grand Harbour from Valletta. Vittoriosa and Senglea take over two parallel peninsulas facing the capital, while the third, Cospicua, is located to their south. Visually striking and historically significant, they’re the ideal places to delve deep into Maltese culture. If you’re planning a trip to the archipelago, follow this insider’s guide to the Three Cities of Malta and let these ancient towns capture your imagination.
The fortified city of Vittoriosa is one of the oldest in Malta. Often referred to as ‘the cradle of Maltese History’, the fortified city is famed for being the first home of the Knights of the Order of St John, who settled on the island in 1530. As such, it contains some of the most historic palaces, churches and noble homes in Malta. The city, which sits on a narrow peninsular stretching across the Grand Harbour, was originally called Birgu, but was renamed Vittoriosa (meaning victorious) following the Great Siege of 1565, to commemorate the role it played in the defence of the island.
Instantly recognisable from sea and land, Fort St Angelo sits on the tip of Vittoriosa’s peninsular. An important part of Malta’s military heritage, the fort stands guard over the Grand Harbour, playing an essential role throughout history as protector of the island. While the building, which was once home to the Grand Master of the Order of St John, is currently closed, visitors can still take in the exterior of this imposing structure.
Another must-see site in Vittoriosa is the Inquisitor’s Palace. Originally built as a courthouse in the 1530s, it became the seat and home of the Inquisitors for over 200 years. History buffs can tour many beautifully restored rooms and original cells within the palace, some of which still contain carvings made by the prisoners. The building is also home to the Museum of Ethnography, which is dedicated to Maltese religion and culture.
On Vittoriosa’s waterfront is the island’s largest museum, the Malta Maritime Museum. Charting Malta’s 7,000-year seafaring history, the museum showcases a wealth of unique artefacts, such as a giant four-tonne Roman anchor belonging to the Knights and a number of ancient Maltese boats.
St Lawrence Church is one of Malta’s most historic surviving churches. Designed in the Roman-baroque style by architect Lorenzo Gafa in the late 1600s, it served as the church of the Order of St John until St John’s Co-Cathedral was opened in Valletta in 1577. Inside, visitors can discover a captivating interior filled with colourful paintings, beautiful statues and a giant Latin cross, and a small but intriguing museum. If visiting in August, make sure you catch the annual Feast of St Lawrence, one of Malta’s colourful religious festas.
Cospicua is the largest of the Three Cities of Malta. Originally known as Bormia, the city was awarded the name Cospicua (meaning conspicuous) by the Knights in honour of the brave people who inhabited it during the Great Siege. While much of the city was destroyed during numerous battles over the course of Malta’s tumultuous history, it has been proudly rebuilt and visitors can explore a series of charming, winding streets studded with historical and cultural sites. A more modern Cospicua can be found along the coastal part of the city, where the old dockyard is being redeveloped into a beautiful marina.
One of the highlights of Cospicua for most visitors is The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Many people consider the collegiate church a miraculous site after it survived WWII, a battle that flattened most of the city around it. Nowadays, it’s filled with exquisite works of art, including a stunning painting of The Madonna and Child by Italian painter Polidoro Veneziano, which rests above the high altar.
Another major landmark is the defence fortifications on the edge of the city. Visitors can discover two sets: the Firenzuola Fortifications, which were built around the Three Cities of Malta in 1638; and the more localised Cottonera Lines, which surround Cospicua and were introduced in 1670. It’s thanks to these walls that the cities didn’t endure further damage during Malta’s many battles, so they’re an integral part of the island’s history.
Senglea is a small, fortified city on a peninsular parallel to Vittoriosa. A pedestrian bridge connects it to its larger neighbour and two grand forts – Fort St Michael and Fort St Angelo – stand guard either side of the city. Unlike the other Three Cities of Malta, Senglea escaped from the Great Siege relatively unscathed, thanks to protection from the forts. The city was renamed from L’Isla (meaning ‘the island’) to Senglea, after the man who fortified it in 1551, Grand Master Claude de la Senglea. It’s also commonly known as Citta’ Invicta (the invincible city). However, Senglea’s luck unfortunately ran out during WWII, when a staggering 75% of its buildings were damaged. In the years since, many key sites (such as the Our Lady of Victories Parish Church) have been restored to their former glory.
When it comes to beautiful views of Valletta, there’s no better viewpoint than Safe Haven Gardens at Senglea Point. From the stone bastion lookout point (known as Il-Gardjola) at the head of the gardens, visitors can enjoy stunning panoramic vistas over the Grand Harbour, with the capital rising up out of the water.
Senglea is also home to the Our Lady of Victories Parish Church, not to be confused with the Our Lady of Victories Church in Valletta. The parish church, formerly known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, was built following the Great Siege and is dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It’s famed for its beautiful interiors and precious works of art, such as a treasured wooden statue of the Virgin Mary.