Over the centuries Malta has been invaded, occupied, and fought over by land, sea, and air; the evidence can be found all over the archipelago, from forts like Fort St. Elmo and Fort Ridella to fortified structures like the Red Tower. Some historic sites didn’t survive the action and the centuries that followed, and many, like the renowned Fort St. Angelo, are currently being restored. But for those looking for a glimpse into the country’s past right now, these are five of the best forts in Malta to explore during your visit.
For those looking to explore the most famous forts in Malta, it makes sense to start at Fort St Elmo – one of the major fortifications in the capital city of Valletta. The site has been a strategic military asset since around 1417, when a watchtower was first reported. It’s been attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries that followed, but since its recent renovation, it’s looking better than ever.
Today, you can visit the fort to walk in the footsteps of history and see the National War Museum, also on the site; its collection of historic artefacts is comprehensive to say the least, with items dating back to the Bronze Age.
And if you still can’t imagine what it would have been like when the fort was fully operational, pick up a ticket to the In Guardia Parade: taking place every Sunday, enthusiastic re-enactors don full costume for the weekly performance.
But Fort St. Elmo wasn’t the only line of defence for the coastal city of Valletta. While you’re in town, take a walk along the city’s colossal bastions, which loom over the ocean below, looking out over to the 18th century Fort Manoel on Manoel Island (originally built to protect the city from the west, Fort Manoel is currently undergoing intensive restoration and, when it reopens its doors, will surely be one of the best preserved forts in Malta). Valletta also has its own Saluting Battery, which has been around for about 500 years and still performs regular gun salutes.
You can admire Gozo’s fortified Citadel from outside its walls (and you should), but don’t miss the chance to venture inside its formidable walls. Like Fort St. Elmo, the Citadel’s a survivor of the Great Siege of 1565, but the hill on which it’s perched has been settled since at least Neolithic times; commanding 360° views of the surrounding countryside, it would have been an enviable military stronghold. Today, you can enjoy the views, explore the wonderfully preserved architecture, and visit numerous top-notch museums and cultural spots, like the Baroque Gozo Cathedral.
Those hoping to visit a fort that’s still in use should make their way over to Fort Madalena. Although it no longer functions as a military fortress, this 19th century structure is used as the headquarters of the St. John Rescue Corps (a civil defence organisation). Visit on Saturdays, or during the week if you make an appointment, to see the original pentagonal fort structure, which was built as part of the Victoria Line defences, as well as the original mountings for the coastal defence guns.
Fancy seeing what 19th century British engineers built to protect Malta from the Italians? Fort Rinella itself is impressive, but what set it apart from some of the other forts in Malta was its massive 100-ton gun positioned on the coastal battery – definitely enough to keep the Italian navy at bay. For a touch of historical flair, plan your visit to coincide with the regular volunteer tours where guides dress up like Victorian soldiers to show you round. Audience participation is not, thankfully, required.
It was its position on the crest of Marfa Ridge that gave the Red Tower site its strategic importance, which means that today’s visitors can enjoy some impressive vistas out across to Gozo and Comino Island (so don’t forget your camera). Important for the Knights of St John and used right up until the 20th century (it was manned in both World Wars), this squat, solid tower was restored in 2001 and can now be visited year-round thanks to its team of dedicated volunteers.
Are you an art lover or culture vulture holidaying in Malta? Well, you’ll be pleased to find that this Mediterranean island may be small, but it packs a punch when it comes to art and culture. Here are six recommended destinations to add to your itinerary to experience the best of Malta’s art scene.