Three Cities Malta, the highlight of any Malta sightseeing trip

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 originally named, respectively Birgu, Isla and Bormla. Together, they offer visitors an overload of authenticity and plenty of charming gems that are not yet found in any travel guide. The Three Cities in Malta are still a well-kept secret and turned out to be the highlight of our Malta sightseeing trip.

Grand Harbour views over Three Cities Malta

Historic importance of the Three Cities

Throughout history, Malta’s strategic location in the Mediterranean was highly sought-after. In order to protect the Grand Harbour from foreign invasions, a large defence system had to be put in place. The Santa Margarita Lines were a first attempt but remained half-finished. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Knights of St John came up with an improved version, the Cottonera Lines, funded by and named after Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner. This massive line of fortifications, with bastions and triumphal gateways, was spread out over the land of the Three Cities.

Gateway in the remains of the Cottonera Lines, used to defend the Three Cities of Malta from enemies
Again because of the enviable location of Malta and the economic importance of the Grand Harbour, the Three Cities were heavily bombed during World War II. While many buildings were destroyed, lots of others stood their ground.

Three Cities Malta Map


When you look closely, you’ll see that the two parallel peninsulas of Birgu (Vittoriosa) and Senglea (Isla) are connected by a pedestrian bridge.

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. This is not how you want to spend your Malta sightseeing trip.

Little girl on a water taxi from Three Cities to VallettaSo, 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 the 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.

3 Cities, 6 names

After the attacks of the Ottomans during the Grand Siege, the Knights of Malta renamed the Cities to reflect their bravery:

  • 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 Conspiciously brave City.
    These names are still used interchangeably, an aspect to take into account when planning your Malta sightseeing adventure.

3 Cities, 3 identities

  • 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 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.

Birgu marina in Three Cities with the St Lawrence ChurchBut 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. Malta’s Maritime Museum displays the country’s long maritime history and its influence on the Maltese culture.

Luxury yachts anchored in the marina of Birgu - Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities MaltaThis 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.

The pretty streets of Birgu - Vittoriosa, one of Three Cities
The gorgeous streets of Birgu - Vittoriosa, one of Three Cities Malta

  • Isla (Senlgea)

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.

Gardjola Gardens in Isla - Senglea, one of the Three Cities in Malta, one of the highlights of Malta sightseeing

  • Bormla (Cospicua)

Bormla is the largest of the Three Cities. Admire the fortifications and take a look inside the The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, one of the few buildings in the city that survived the World War II bombings. Soon, a new marina will arise on the grounds of the old dockyards.

Looking out over the Grand Harbour in the area of the Three Cities in Malta, one of the highlights of Malta sightseeingWe 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!

The club house of the Bormla regatta race crew, with the blue and white striped boars awaiting the next race

How to explore the Three Cities of Malta

  • Harbour Cruise

One 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.

  • Organized Three Cities tour of Malta

There are several excursions in Three Cities Malta, some offering a combination of cruising and walking. Here are some options:

  • 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 Rolling Geeks office is located at the Birgu Marina in Three Cities MaltaThere’s even 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 in Malta. We had a blast!

No better way to explore Three Cities than by Rolling Geek, one of the highlights of our Malta sightseeing trip

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’s part of Marriott’s Design Hotels collection and it offers the most stunning views (especially from the rooftop pool). Click here to check out the TripAdvisor reviews.

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 or 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.

Rinella Bay, a great stop for a picnic when exploring the Three Cities in Malta, one of the highlights of Malta sightseeing


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.


Pinning one of these images would be much appreciated!

 


All pictures are ours, except for the gorgeous featured image which is a courtesy of a photographer on Pixabay.
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20 Comments

  1. As it turns out, Malta just went on my travel list one day ago! I was so excited to see your blog post. Yes, I will try out those cute golf carts (how brilliant!) and I’ll skip the taxis and opt for the water taxi instead!

    1. Sarah

      Great to hear that this article has given your Malta travel plan a boost. You’ll have a blast, especially on the golf carts! Enjoy those water taxi sunsets over the Grand Harbour.

  2. Consider me inspired Sarah! Beautiful photos of a special place. I love everything about the Mediterranean and this is a pocket I hadnt heard of until now. Counting the days until I can take a water taxi to the three cities! Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

    1. Sarah

      We feel the same about Gozo, which was a day trip for us. I realize that there’s so much we didn’t get to see, especially now that I’ve found the Gozo articles on your blog. Ha! The Ciutadella and Red Sand Beach are our favourites so far. What a contrast with the main island, which can be so busy at times. That’s why we like the Three Cities so much, it’s a pleasant escape from the traffic and crowds.

  3. Kat

    I don’t know much about Malta but have read somewhere that it might turn out to be Europe’s No. 1 destination for 2018. I would love to visit Malta – it looks so pretty – hope to make it there soon before it is swarmed by tourists! 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    1. Sarah

      Malta is getting increasingly popular, indeed. I certainly hope you’ll get the chance to wander the narrow streets of picture-perfect Vittoriosa this year or the next, Kat!

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