Designed by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli—an assistant of the great Michelangelo—the Maltese capital was always destined to be a place of spectacular beauty. Drawing from a mosaic of aesthetic influences—Italy, Greece, the Magreb—Valletta architecture is nothing short of diverse. From Baroque palaces to that Renzo Piano parliament building, the city merges the historic and the contemporary in a harmonious blend of warm, honeyed limestone. Here are the finest examples of Valletta architecture not to miss.
Built at the request of Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena, the charismatic Manoel Theatre inspires equal measures of romance and wonder. Completed in 1731, the interior is all twinkling chandeliers and gilded tiered boxes, crowned with a spectacular duck egg blue trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Painstakingly restored to its Rococo glory, Manoel Theatre’s lavish décor is utterly captivating. Theatrical entertainment was traditionally the preserve of nobility, but António Manoel de Vilhena commissioned Manoel Theatre’s construction out of his own pocket with the desire for Malta’s masses to enjoy ‘honest entertainment.’ To this day, the inscription ‘ad honestam populi oblectationem’ remains above the theatre’s main entrance.
Designed by one of today’s greatest avant-garde architects, Renzo Piano, Valletta’s new City Gate and Parliament complex is simply magnificent. Its sharp angles and cubed structures juxtapose starkly with the smooth curves and ornate contours of Valletta’s surrounding Baroque buildings, but its limestone façade blends seamlessly with the city’s aesthetic. Completed in 2015, the entire project reinstated the original proportions of Valletta’s bridge, moat, and gate, harnessing the city’s rich origins as a fortified port. Malta’s City Gate and Parliament are at their most beautiful at sunset, when the complex glows a warm, dusky pink.
A living museum in the 16th-century palazzo of the Marquis de Piro, Casa Rocca Piccola is a grand, 50-room house containing immaculately preserved paintings, silverware and furniture from the last 400 years. Spend an afternoon gazing at the magnificent tapestries and imposing library. Originally built for Don Pietro La Rocca—an Admiral for the Order of the Knights of Saint John—Casa Rocca Piccola still remains in the hands of the de Piro family, and it remains where they live today.
Gold gleams from every surface inside St. John’s Co-Cathedral. From the gilded nave to shimmering vaulted ceiling, it’s little wonder the interior is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe. Designed and built by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, the exterior is in a classic Italian Mannerist style, while the exuberant interior is the work of Calabrian artist Mattia Preti. The ceilings and side altars feature exquisitely carved and painted scenes from the life of St. John. Incredibly, all the carvings in Maltese limestone were created on-site. St. John’s Co-Cathedral is home to two priceless Roman Catholic Caravaggio paintings, one being the beheading of St. John himself.
Completed in 1571, making it one of Valletta’s earliest grandiose buildings, the Grand Master’s Palace was the seat of Malta’s parliament and the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St John. Also built in a Mannerist style by Girolamo Cassar, its exterior is understated and austere, while inside is a sumptuous treasure trove of palatial suites. Staterooms adorned with paintings of naval battles interconnect with marble-floored corridors containing hordes of gleaming armour. Perhaps most striking of all is the palm-lined Neptune Courtyard, presided over by a sculpture of the maritime deity.