Birgu (Vittoriosa) travel guide and tips guide
Birgu is the oldest of an area in Malta referred to as The Three Cities (which also consist of Senglea and Cospicua) – three fortified cities built in very close proximity to each other around the Grand Harbour. It’s located right across the water from Valletta, facing Malta capital city’s Southern side.
After the Great Siege of 1565, an important milestone in Malta’s history, Birgu was awarded the title Città Vittoriosa after withstanding the brutal attacks of the Ottoman invaders. Birgu was also the headquarters of the Knights of St John, to whom we owe the city’s alternative name of Vittoriosa.
It served as the capital city of Malta between 1530 and 1571 until Valletta was built. The Knights wisely built Fort St Angelo at the very tip of Birgu due to its significant position overlooking the Grand Harbour. Apart from being their living quarters, this fort also housed the arsenal of the Order. The fort protected the harbour, guaranteeing safe anchorage, which in turn promoted mercantile and military activities.
Modern day Birgu is home to a population of almost 3,000 citizens. Birgu is slowly developing into a high profile historical showcase of Maltese tradition that carries Medieval nostalgia across its narrow winding streets, alleyways, and converted townhouses. Wine bars, tiny elegant restaurants, and the Birgu waterfront have brought new life to the small city.
Apart from being a nice place to visit for an evening out, there’s a lot to see and explore, and it’s well worth planning a day trip for.
How to get there
Getting to Birgu by bus is easy – it only takes 15 minutes from Valletta via bus route numbers 2 or 4. There are no direct lines from other popular localities, however, so if you’re not staying in Valletta you’ll need to catch a bus heading there first.
Alternatively, a more scenic and stylish way to cross to Birgu is across the Grand Harbour, either by ferry or by a water taxi (gondola style!).
The crossing takes 7 minutes and starts from the Valletta waterfront. You can also take the 30-minute harbour tour for a little extra. The trip back is equally pleasing, providing a beautiful approach to Valletta.
Hotels and self-catering apartments in Birgu
Although there are no large hotels in Birgu, there are still a couple of options for those seeking accommodation in this quiet little city.
- Apartment St. Angelo Mansions is located between the waterfront and Fort St. Angelo. Number 20 is a similar option to consider, as is Studios 23.
- D-House is a townhouse in the centre of Birgu. Although it’s not super modern, it has all the facilities most people need and has air conditioning (a big plus in summer). San Anton Holiday Home is a similar option to consider.
- Another townhouse option is Holiday Home 62 Antik Tal Gvernatur, which gets good ratings and is also located in the centre of Birgu.
There are a few boutique hotels that offer quality accommodation in Birgu. Even though they’d obviously be pricier, they are nevertheless good options to consider if you’re not on a budget.
- Indulgence Divine – a 16th-century townhouse restored to the highest standards, located in the old Collacchio quarter of Birgu, 5 minutes away from the marina.
- Locanda La Gelsomina – a beautiful, peaceful old townhouse in the heart of Birgu, full of character and superbly renovated with every comfort and convenience.
Within its tiny 0.5 square kilometres triangular area Birgu has a surprising amount of places of interest. The following is a list of the most important locations:
The Malta Maritime Museum
The Malta Maritime Museum is located just off Freedom Square at the beginning of the marina, this place is worth a visit for those interested in the maritime history of Malta. The building of the museum is in itself pretty interesting, having served as an arsenal for galleys of the Knights as well as a bakery for the Royal Navy during the British rule. Inside, one can find a selection of exhibits that span a period of over 2,000 years, from the Roman era to modern times.
The Inquisitor’s Palace
A magnificent piece of architecture, the Inquisitor’s Palace was built by the Knights in the 1530s. Afterwards, it served as home to the Inquisitors of the Roman Catholic Church, complete with prison cells, tribunal room, chapel and myriad dark legends of torture and punishment.
The Vittoriosa Parish Museum
Residing within St Joseph’s Oratory, the Vittoriosa Parish Museum offers a rich collection of exhibits, among which there’s Grandmaster Jean de la Vallette’s hat and everyday sword, the same one he used during the Great Siege. Admission is free however the opening hours are limited from 9.30am to 12.00 am on weekdays only.
Malta at War Museum
Located at Couvre Porte, the Malta at War museum provides an insight of life in an air-raid shelter during a Second World War blitz. Walking through the shelter visitors can see how inhabitants ate, slept and carried out everyday activities in those troubled times. Open for visiting all week from 10.00am till 5.00pm.
Fort St. Angelo
Fort St. Angelo was built by the Knights over the ruins of a castle dating back to Norman times. The fort provided safety to the harbour and also to the inhabitants of the area who used it as a refuge during frequent raids. It has undergone restoration works over the past years and is open to the public (as of October 2016) after years of having been inaccessible.
The Birgu waterfront
The Birgu waterfront, restored in recent years and boasting a yacht marina, offers a wide promenade that provides a picturesque area for dining al fresco and the possibility to enjoy a sublime walk along the marina afterwards.
Leading off the main square are the narrow winding streets of the Collachio, the medieval heart of the ancient city. Here the Knights of St John lived and built their Auberges. It provides an interesting walk through time as the tell-tales of different cultures unfold through intricate architecture stretching from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Baroque to post-World War Two.
The Auberge d’Angleterre
One of the eight auberges built in Birgu in the 16th century by the Knights, the Auberge d’Angleterre is still in use today as a public library.
The Church of Saint Lawrence
Built in Baroque style in the shape of a Latin cross, the Church of Saint Lawrence was used by the Knights for very important functions before St. John’s Cathedral was built in Valletta.
Map of Birgu
Wining and Dining in Birgu
A concentration of restaurants can be found on the Birgu waterfront where weather permitting, one can eat outdoors with views of the marina and the sea. Hidden in the narrow winding streets of the Collachio there are a number of places that although lacking the views of the harbour can offer a unique intimate dining / wining experience.
Although you’ll find the highest concentration of restaurants in Birgu at its waterfront lined with yachts, some of the better places actually lie tucked away in its narrow streets and alleys.
This is the selection of restaurants I would recommend trying:
- La Marina Trattoria – light meals at reasonable prices with an outdoor terrace.
- Tate – reasonably priced vegan and vegetarian cuisine, offering a great choice of dishes, lunchtime or evening.
- Don Berto – a busy restaurant offering a varied Mediterranean menu. It offers balcony seating with views of the harbour.
- Cargo – varied menu at reasonable prices.
- Tal-Petut – traditional as well as innovative Maltese cuisine. The owner, and chef, prepares original food and presents it personally to patrons.
- Osteria VE – lovely choice of Venetian cuisine presented in an intimate local townhouse.
Birgu wine bars
The concept of wine bars may not be familiar to all abroad but has seen an increased interest in Malta over the past decade or so. Birgu is known for having a few of the better choices to share a bottle of wine and platters with friends.
- Il-Forn – combining a wine bar with an art gallery in an expertly converted old bakery and offering a selection of platters and delicious pizza-like ftajjar (Maltese bread with different toppings). Their upstairs courtyard is a lovely place in summer for some open air wining and dining.
- Del Borgo – a wine cellar boasting a list of over 300 wines. It offers Maltese food with a modern touch in a classical wine bar setting of vaulted stone arches and dim soft lighting. A great option all year round, although without tables outside there are better options in summer.
- Lupanara is really and truly a restaurant, but also serves platters and offers a great location to have a drink all year round. Their inside space is housed inside an old air raid shelter, while outside they offer comfortable sofas by the water in summer. Actual dining gets mixed reviews, although I’ve always enjoyed their platters myself.
Special events in Birgu
In Birgu there are 5 recurring events throughout the year. These include:
- 2 Religious feasts – that of Saint Lawrence, celebrated every year on the 10th of August and that of Saint Dominic, held every last Sunday of August. Typical of Maltese tradition, festas are characterised by a religious procession around the city with the statue of the patron saint, street decorations, fireworks, brass bands playing music in the streets and great celebrations. Food stalls selling local sweets, ice-creams and fast foods are set up in the squares.
- Birgufest/Birgu by candlelight – an event that continues to gain popularity year after year. This event highlights Birgu’s historic and architectural beauty with numerous activities, including re-enactments, art exhibitions, concerts, popular games, discounted museum admission fees and access to venues of interest. Birgu by Candlelight, a part of Birgufest, is a festival of lights that lights up the streets in a gentle glow by thousands of candles.
- Jum il-Birgu (Birgu day) – celebrated annually on the 7th September. Activities include band parades held around the main streets of Birgu and several religious functions.
- Jum il-Ħelsien (Freedom Day) – celebrated annually on the 31st March. Celebrations include the traditional regatta race (in which specially designed rowing boats compete within the Grand Harbour) and a military parade next to the Freedom Day monument, on the centre square.