The Three Cities: Exploring Malta’s Harbourside Towns
The Three Cities. Even the name is fascinating and full of mystery. The Maltese also call them Cottonera, a collective name for three medieval fortified cities in the North of Malta, founded by the Knights of the Order of Saint John in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Three Cities are Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea (Isla) and Bormla (Cospicua). Birgu is the oldest of the Three Cities and existed well before the arrival of the Knights. It also the most popular town among the Three Cities due to its historical and cultural wealth. You can find them to the East of capital city Valletta, right across Grand Harbour.
With over 11,000 inhabitants combined, the Three Cities are regaining their past popularity, attracting many investors who are buying property and turning it into state of the art homes. This revival has also attracted the tourism industry, with boutique hotels, restaurants and wine bars popping up along the narrow winding streets and alleys of the Three Cities.
The Birgu Waterfront project, which includes a magnificently restored fort, museums, a yacht marina and several places for entertainment and fine dining has proved to be a great success with the Maltese and visitors alike.
Map of the Three Cities
What makes the Three Cities worth visiting?
The Three Cities are special in many ways. Their history, tightly related to the order of the Knights, their location, overlooking the Grand Harbour and their contemporary revival to a new found glory make them so unique in what they offer.
All of the three are insanely rich in history, having been the first fortified cities built by the Knights of St John when they arrived in Malta in 1530. The Knights had been thrown out of Rhodes in 1522 and after seven years of wandering they were finally given Malta as their new home. They settled in Birgu, making it their capital, repurposing the ancient fortress known as Castrum Maris as Fort St. Angelo, also building new fortifications and countless new buildings including churches, auberges, warehouses and palaces.
The Grand Harbour was what made the Knights settle in that area. Trade and controlling the harbour were tremendously important and much can be learned by visiting the Malta Maritime Museum right on the Birgu Waterfront.
While walking around the Three Cities, you cannot help but admire the imposing bastions, restored to their former glory. They are quite a sight, especially at night.
Individually, each of the Three Cities has much to offer. Birgu is the most popular, and also the one boasting most attractions, such as the Maritime Museum, the Malta at War Museum the Inquisitor’s Palace and of course Fort St, Angelo.
Bormla, with its six kilometres of fortifications is home to an impressive parish church with an oratory full of works of art. Isla hosts two astounding churches (namely St Philips and Our Lady of Victories) and has a lovely garden at its tip overlooking Grand Harbour where you can find a great example of a Gardjola watch post.
Between the three, you’re in for some truly spectacular sights. Dive into the history of the Three Cities, take a stroll around the beautiful yacht marina or just relax in one of the many cafeterias, restaurants and wine bars.
How to get there – Bus, car and ferry
The Three Cities are well connected with regular buses and a water taxi service from Valletta and are easy to get to by car.
Buses to The Three Cities
By bus, the trip to the Three Cities takes about 15 minutes from Valletta. Route numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4 or 213.
Across the Grand Harbour by Water Taxi
Alternatively, a more scenic way to cross to the Three Cities is by water taxi across the Grand Harbour. This is a continuous service offered throughout the day (running from 06:45h till 19:15h in winter and from 06:45h till midnight in summer – full schedule (PDF) here) and it takes just 7 minutes from Valletta to reach Bormla. A ticket with return and use of the Upper Barrakka lift (Valletta) costs just €2.80 per person.
You can also take a 30-minute harbour tour for a little extra.
Visiting by car
It is very easy to reach the Three Cities by car. Parking is not a problem unless there are events in the area. If you decide to park on the Valletta side, you can then either get one of the buses to the Three Cities or take the Water Taxi from the Valletta waterfront. Use of the lift in Barrakka is included in the ferry ticket.
Touring the Three Cities in eco-friendly cars
An alternative way to visit Cottonera is using self drive silent electric cars, complete with pre-programmed GPS that not only take you on the perfect tour, but explain what you’re looking at too. This service is provided by Rolling Geeks, a company located on the Birgu waterfront. Using these cars, you can go as far as the Rinella Fort and the Malta Film Studios, just outside the Three Cities.
A trip by traditional dgħajsa boat from Birgu to Isla
Once you’re in Birgu, you can take a dgħajsa across the creek to Senglea. These traditional Maltese boats operate from near the Maritime Museum, costing €2 per person. The trip takes just a couple of minutes but saves you a 30 minute walk.
Sightseeing in the Three Cities
The biggest concentration of interesting sights to see within the Three Cities is found in Birgu. From the bastions to the Inquisitor’s Palace, from St. Lawrence Church to the Maritime Museum, the imposing Fort St. Angelo, the Malta at War Museum and War Shelter, or even for just a quiet ramble through the old city centre known as the collachio. Along the narrow streets and little squares you’ll encounter various cafes and band clubs where to stop for a little snack. You’ll find more details in my Birgu article here.
If you like open markets, you might want to go to Birgu on a Tuesday morning. The market there is well worth a visit with items on sale ranging from fresh produce, clothing and all sorts of random items.
Every Sunday morning there’s also a car boot sale where you can find all sorts of interesting stuff for sale including records, furniture and old WW2 memorabilia.
Although there isn’t much to explore in Bormla, The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is worth a visit. It is famed for its beautiful interiors and precious works of art including The Madonna and Child by the Italian painter Veneziano.
The main attractions in Isla are two. The first one is the Our Lady of Victories Parish Church built soon after the Great Siege, filled with works of art, including a stunning wooden statue of the Virgin Mary.
Then there’s the Gardiola, a sentry point overlooking the Grand Harbour and offering some beautiful views of Valletta. This is located at the end of Safe Haven Gardens at Senglea Point.
Best time of day to explore and rough route on foot
The best time for a stroll around the Three Cities depends mostly on the time of the year. If visiting in summer, it is advisable to avoid walking between 11am and 3pm since the heat would be a little too much to bear. At night, especially with a nice breeze, a stroll by the marina is lovely.
During spring, autumn and winter, a trip in the morning is mostly recommended. It is very easy to find your way around the Three Cities and then stop for lunch in one of the many eating places around the place.
Where to get some local food
The Three Cities are packed with good restaurants, especially in the Birgu Waterfront area. However, all along the streets of the ancient towns, one will find several snack bars, little cafeterias and band or political clubs that offer quick snacks at extremely favourable prices. Places such as the Old City Pub and Birgi, right across the marina in Birgu or Il Bacino, a cafe, pizza & grill just by the water’s edge are great places to stop for lunch. The clubs also cater for snacks and are a good place to absorb the true local atmosphere.
While in Birgu, go by the information Centre down by the marina. The people there are very helpful and you can get a small map of the three cities for free.
Public toilets are available on the Birgu side of the marina, just before the Malta Maritime Museum.
Festi celebrated and other events held during the year
Both the Good Friday procession and the Easter Sunday feast are popularly attended in Senglea. On Easter Sunday, the statue of the Risen Christ is carried at a run through streets crowded with viewers standing on the sidewalks.
If visiting in August, make sure you catch the annual Feast of St Lawrence on the 10th August, a night also very well known for the shooting star phenomenon which locals call Dmugħ ta’ San Lawrenz, or St. Lawrence’s Tears. And just two weeks after that, the feast of St. Dominic is celebrated on the last Sunday of August.
Senglea celebrates two feasts:
- Christ the Redeemer on the third Sunday of June
- The Nativity of Our Lady on the 8 September (which is also the day on which Maltese celebrate the victory of the Great Siege and is a public holiday).
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in Cospicua on the 8th of December and even that day is a public holiday.
History and background
Although the area has been inhabited since ancient times, the Three Cities as we know them owe their inception to the order of the Knights of St. John. They landed in Malta in 1530 and the first thing they did was to make Birgu the island’s capital city. They rebuilt it, erecting massive fortifications and forts to protect the Grand Harbour. In July 1551, Ottoman forces attempted to take over Fort St. Angelo–they couldn’t take it, so attacked Gozo instead and enslaved the whole population. After this attack, the Knights built the city of Senglea, building a new fort which they called St. Michael.
The Three Cities played a most important role all through the Great Siege of Malta of 1565. The invading Ottomans concentrated all their attacks on the cities, firing cannon balls day and night for months. Undefeated, Birgu was given the title of Città Vittoriosa while Senglea was called Città Invicta after the siege was over. In his book The Great Siege: Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford gives a very detailed account of the siege, a must-read for all history-buffs out there.
It was only six years after the Great Siege that Valletta was built, taking over the title of capital city from Birgu.
In 1670, during the reign of Grandmaster Nicolas Cotoner, the building of the Cottonera fortifications started–a project that was intended to create a new city encompassing all the surrounding towns but which was never completed as planned. The new city was going to be called Civitas Cotonera, a name that still sticks among the population.
In 1722, Grandmaster Marc’Antonio Zondadari gave the town of Bormla the title of Città Cospicua. Bormla’s ancient name of Burmula is thought to be Phoenician. ‘Burmula’ is made up of the words ‘Bur’ and ‘Mula’ where ‘Bur’ means ‘place’ and ‘Mula’ means ‘high’.
During World War II, the Three Cities suffered greatly when Italians and Germans bombed the Grand Harbour and the surrounding areas. Many inhabitants had to leave their birthplace and seek refuge in the countryside, returning after the war was over.
Today, thanks to massive investment, the Three Cities have become once more a sparkling jewel amongst Malta’s cultural treasures.