What to do in Malta’s Three Cities


Birgu, Bormla and L-Isla are commonly known as The Three Cities. The area is also referred to as Cottonera after the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, Nicolas Cottoner. Birgu is the oldest of them and predates Valletta. After the Great Siege of 1565, the Knights of St. John named the cities Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea respectively.

The Three Cities are located on the other side of the Grand Harbour (opposite Valletta). The area has been an important part of the Island from when Malta was a Phoenician port (600BC).

Birgu has recently seen a lot of restoration and investment. Particularly in Birgu, there are a lot of things to visit and therefore I suggest you plan your visit here in the morning. In the afternoon, the place turns very quiet and most places are closed. Be aware that if you plan to visit the area by car on a Tuesday, it might be difficult to find parking due to a large market, which is held weekly. The area is also easy accessible by public transport.

One of the prominent places to visit in Birgu is the Inquisitor’s Palace. It was built as a courthouse by the Knights of Malta and later served as the residence of the Inquisitor. Today, the palace houses the National Museum of Ethnography.

The Malta at War Museum in Birgu gives you a clear picture of what the Island of Malta went through during WWII. The highlight of this museum is the underground shelter which offered protection to a lot of people during the air raids.

St. Lawrence Church in Birgu is one of the oldest churches on the Island. It was used as the Knight’s first Conventual Church in Malta. The church includes various works of arts, among them Mattia Preti’s main altar piece depicting the martyrdom of St. Lawrence.

St. Lawrence Church. Photo credit: Never House (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Due to Malta’s strategic geographical position it was historically an important port. You can learn about the island’s maritime history at the Malta Maritime Museum also in Birgu. There are various artefacts covering different eras of Malta’s seafaring history, ranging from prehistory to present day. The museum itself is housed in the Old Naval Bakery along the Birgu Waterfront.

The building on the foreground is the Old Naval Bakery, today home to the Malta Maritime Museum. Photo credit: James Stringer (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If you keep walking along the Waterfront till the very end, you will end up next to Fort St. Angelo. This magnificent fortification stands right in the middle of the Grand Harbour. It was the seat of the Grandmaster, and later a base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The upper part of the fort, including the Chapel and the Grandmaster’s palace, was passed on to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, today’s incarnation of the order of knights who once built the fort. The fort has recently been undergoing a lot of restoration works and is currently closed to the public.

Walking along the narrow and winding roads of Birgu will bring you closer to the way the Maltese people live. The old houses and old small shops give character to the place, while the village square, the band clubs and the little cafe add colour to village life.

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Traditional Maltese Dghajsa at Birgu waterfront

In contrast with Birgu, Bormla has very little to see. It was heavily bombed during WWII. Malta’s port district was at the center of the island’s economic and social life for much of its history, and Bormla, the location of the island’s docks was at the center of it all. The dockyard, built by the Knights of Malta and extensively used by the Royal Navy, is still partially used for commercial purposes. Dock No. 1 has been recently restored and is a pleasant area to walk along.

Dock No.1. Photo credit: R.I. Pienaar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

L-Isla is another fortified city like its sister cities. During WWII, most of its buildings were destroyed. The Basilica dedicated to the Nativity of Virgin Mary was then rebuilt, and it is best known for the miraculous statue of Christ the Redeemer (ir-Redentur tal-Isla), which is close to the heart of many Maltese people. The city of Isla enjoys superb views of the Grand Harbour, especially from Gnien il-Gardjola, at the very tip of the promontorio. The Gardjola is a lookout post, part of the Grand Harbour fortifications, and it depicts a sculptured eye and an ear, which are symbols of vigilance. One of the most famous activities here is the Regatta with traditional Maltese boats, held twice a year on 31st March and 08th September. If you are up to a late lunch/early dinner, you can head to the seafront on the Birgu side, where you will find various restaurants offering fresh fish and traditional Maltese food.

Il-Gardjola. Photo credit: albir (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This post is one in a series of posts about visiting my home country, Malta. To view my other posts, please click here.


Note: Cover photo – The view of the Three Cities from Valletta, having Birgu on the left, Bormla at the back and L-Isla on the right. Photo credit: keppet (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



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