Birgu (also referred to as Vittoriosa) is the oldest of a part of Malta referred to as The Three Cities (which also consist of Senglea and Cospicua) – three fortified towns built in very close proximity to each other around the Grand Harbour.
It’s located right across the harbour from Valletta, facing Malta capital city’s south-facing 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 strategic 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.
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 (from a location referred to as Lascaris in Valletta, near the Gozo fast ferries) or by a water taxi (gondola style!).
The crossing by ferry 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.
Including transfers to and from your accommodation, another easy way to visit Birgu is on this guided half-day (morning) tour of the Three Cities. That way you can also get a taste of Cospicua and Senglea, which are also very interesting to visit. It’s mostly a walking tour, but you also get a harbour cruise on a traditional Maltese boat, which makes for a fun experience all around.
You can also take this full-day tour of the Three Cities that includes wine sampling of a variety of local wines or take a 2-hour vintage bus tour through the three towns.
You can also take the South Route of the Hop-on-hop-off bus routes to get to Birgu (indicated as Vittoriosa on their route map). Get your tickets in advance here!
If you decide to stay in Birgu, it’s easy to book an airport transfer for pickup at Malta International Airport. A private taxi transfer costs around €20 (one way).
Although there are no large hotels in Birgu, there are still a couple of options for those seeking accommodation in this quiet little city.
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.
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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 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 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.
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.
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 9.30 am to 12.00 am on weekdays only.
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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 10.00 am till 5.00 pm.
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, 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.
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.
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.
If you decide to stay in Birgu, there are a few great transport options to do additional sightseeing:
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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:
In Birgu there are 5 recurring events throughout the year. These include:
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