In the shadow of Valletta and just across the magnificent Grand Harbour, you’ll find the Three Cities of Malta. This area consists of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua or, as initially named, respectively Birgu, Isla, and Bormla. Together, they offer visitors an overload of authenticity. The enchanting houses with their Maltese balconies that line the picturesque streets are a sight to behold. But these underrated cities are home to many more landmarks of Malta as well as some intriguing museums.
Find out the best things to do in the Three Cities of Malta. Plus, discover our best travel tips to make your visit to Malta’s well-kept secret a success.
Where are the Three Cities of Malta
The Three Cities of Malta and the capital of Valletta are opposite the Grand Harbour. Vittoriosa and Senglea are peninsulas and Cospicua connects both at the base. When you look closely, you’ll see that the two parallel peninsulas are connected by a pedestrian bridge.
Historic importance of the Three Cities
Throughout history, Malta’s strategic location in the Mediterranean has been highly sought-after. The Grand Harbour was the economic heart of the island but, at the same time, also left it vulnerable to attacks.
After the Great Siege in 1565, when the Ottoman Empire attempted to conquer the island, protecting the Grand Harbour from foreign invasions became a top priority. In order to do so a large defense system was put in place.
The Santa Margherita Lines, also known as the Firenzuola Lines, were the first attempt to protect the land south of the Grand Harbour. Constructions of this collection of bastions and curtain walls started in the early 17th century on Santa Margherita Hill. Due to a lack of funding, the project remained half-finished for several decades and was only completed in 1736.
Soon after, the Knights of St John decided that a new fortification was needed to defend the inner harbour area, on higher ground and further outwards. Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner came up with an improved version of the defense system. The massive line of fortifications, known as the Cottonera Lines, with new bastions and triumphal gateways, was spread out over the land of the Three Cities.
The Three Cities were heavily bombed during World War II. While many buildings were destroyed, lots of others stood their ground and are part of the historical heritage that you can still visit today.
3 Cities, 6 names
In the introduction of this article, we already mentioned that each of the Three Cities is known by their current as well as their original name. We have the Knights of Malta to thank for this, who renamed the Fortified Cities to reflect their bravery during the Grand Siege in the 16th century:
- Birgu was named Vittoriosa, the Victorious City.
- Isla was named Invicta, the Invincible City but also Senglea, after Grand Master Claude de la Senglea by whom the city was fortified.
- Bormla was named Cospicua, the Conspicuously brave City.
These names are still used interchangeably, an aspect to take into account when planning your Malta sightseeing adventure.
Highlights of each of the Three Cities
The Three Cities are mostly referred to under their collective name but in fact, each has its own identity and attractions. Let’s zoom in on the places to see and things to do in each of the Three Cities.
Birgu (Vittoriosa), our favorite of the Three Cities
Birgu is the oldest of the Three Cities and, in our opinion, the most beautiful city in Malta. It was actually the capital city of Malta, and the home base of the Order of Saint John before Valletta took over. The impressive Fort St Angelo is one of the most distinctive landmarks, located right next to Birgu’s classy marina, overlooked by the St Lawrence Church.
But Birgu has plenty of other attractions, more than the other two cities. Before it became the seat of the Inquisitors, the Inquisitor’s Palace was a courthouse. You can still see the carvings left by prisoners in the palace’s prison cells. The Malta Maritime Museum displays the country’s long maritime history and its influence on the Maltese culture.
This city definitely tops our list of best places to visit in Malta and it was the highlight of our Malta sightseeing trip. For one, there’s not as much traffic here, since some streets are even too narrow for cars. The narrow streets of Birgu (Vittoriosa) have been beautifully restored and are some of the prettiest we’ve walked. Secondly, the atmosphere is still genuine. You’ll notice this in the various bars and small eateries. And last but not least, we just can’t get enough of the striking Harbour views.
Isla is the smallest of Malta’s Three Cities. It’s home to two forts, one on either side of the peninsula: Fort St. Michael and Fort St. Angelo. The Parish Church of Our Lady of Victories is also worth a visit.
We found the highlight at the very tip of the city: Gardjola Gardens, a small park offering the most gorgeous views over the Grand Harbour.
Bormla is the largest of the Three Cities. Admire the fortifications and take a look inside the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, one of the few buildings in the city that survived the World War II bombings.
We had the privilege of visiting the – top secret 🙂 – clubhouse of the Conspicua (Bormla) rowing team to admire the regatta boats. Traditional regatta races are held twice yearly in Malta’s Grand Harbour: On 31st March (Freedom Day) and on 8th September (Victory Day). Rowing crews participate in 10 races under 2 different categories in typical traditional Maltese boats.
It just happens that this same Conspicua crew won the March race that same year, just a few weeks after our visit, for the 17th time in history. Karma!
Another highlight is the Bir Mula Heritage Museum, where you can learn all about the history of the picturesque houses of the Three Cities.
Check out more exciting things to do in Cospicua.
How to get to Three Cities in Malta
We went to the Three Cities by taxi and that was a big mistake. Malta is a small island with many inhabitants which makes for terrible traffic. Another thing is that old cars, the kind that wouldn’t be allowed to drive anymore in most European countries, have somehow ended up in Malta. Add the warm climate to the mix and you get a cocktail of exhaust fumes from which there’s no escape. A taxi ride under these circumstances is anything but pleasant and always takes longer than planned. The same goes for public transport. This is not how you want to spend your Malta sightseeing trip.
So, go for fresh air by taking a 5-minute water taxi ride from Valletta across the Grand Harbour to Cospicua (Bormla). This will also give you the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular views of St Angelo Fort, sitting on the tip of Birgu (Vittoriosa), and Gardjola Gardens, on the tip of Senglea (Isla), as you come closer to Three Cities Malta.
Tip: Before you take the ferry, take in the supreme view of the trio of cities from Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens.
How to get around the Three Cities of Malta
Since part of the Three Cities is a pedestrian zone, visiting the Three Cities by car is not an option. The alternatives are also much more fun.
Visit the Three Cities by Rolling Geek
I must admit that I had never heard of the Three Cities until I read about it in Air Malta’s onboard magazine. It was mentioned in an ad for the coolest little electric cars ever – Rolling Geeks – and that’s why it stuck with me. I was determined to test out this electric buggy with pre-programmed GPS with the girls.
The tour takes about 2.5 hours. That rate includes a minion on standby to help you out via the intercom should you get lost and the buggy is equipped with a selfie-cam. Car boosters are available for your minions – uh – kids. These Rolling Geeks are pretty neat! There’s no better way to do a Three Cities tour to learn all about Malta’s 3 little gems in just one day. We had a blast!
Another way to enjoy gorgeous views over Valletta and the Three Cities is by taking a cruise in the Grand Harbour. It has been used as a harbour since the Phoenician times and throughout history, it was the scene of many battles and the country’s economic heart.
Where to stay in Three Cities?
Not many hotels have found their way to Three Cities yet. That might just be a good thing since it gives the area a certain exclusivity. But don’t worry, we’ve found you this little gem: The Cugó Gran Macina Grand Harbour. It’s a 5* hotel in Senglea (Isla) that offers the most stunning views (especially from the rooftop pool). Other amazing boutique hotels are the Senglea Suites and the IBB Hotel Palazzo Bettina Malta.
Should you prefer to stay in Valletta then you might find your next hotel in our article on 5-star hotels in Malta.
When will you visit the Three Cities in Malta?
Do you see yourself cruising around Three Cities in your little electric cart? We bet you do! Take it all in: the picture-perfect narrow streets, the gorgeous views over the Grand Harbour from Gardjola Gardens in Senglea (Isla), and the glamour of the posh marina in Birgu (Vittoriosa).
Along the way, you can enjoy lunch with locals in a hole-in-the-wall cafe or have a picnic on the soft sand of tiny Rinella Bay, which is about the only beach you’ll find in this area.
Looking for more beaches on the Maltese islands? Then check out our article on the best beaches in Malta.
Have you been to Three Cities and fell in love with Birgu, like we did? Or will you travel to Malta anytime soon and are the Three Cities on your Malta sightseeing list? Let us know in the comments.