Three Cities in Malta are some of the island’s historic towns. They’re right across from Valletta. There are three of them: Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. Surrounded by fortress walls, these fortified cities are full of culture, history, and architecture. The Three Cities of Malta have something for everyone. Explore museums and galleries, wander around or relax. This insider’s guide will teach you everything you need to know about the Three Cities of Malta.
Here’s a table of contents so you can jump around.
- Three Cities in Malta: Are They Worth Visiting?
- How Long Should You Spend in Malta’s Three Cities?
- Is it Possible to Walk between Sengea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua?
- How to Get to the Three Cities in Malta?
- What are the Names of these Three Cities in Malta?
- What is the History of the Three Cities in Malta?
- Map of the Three Cities in Malta
- Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Senglea (Isla)
- Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Cospicua (Bormla)
- Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Vittoriosa (Birgu)
Three Cities in Malta: Are They Worth Visiting?
Yes, absolutely! A trip to the Three Cities of Malta is worth it. They’re picturesque and full of history. It’s a fascinating place to learn Maltese history and culture. In contrast to other touristy areas in Malta, the Three Cities keep their authentic feel. The “old days” spirit is still there, untouched by modern life.
There are many things to do in the Three Cities of Malta. You can get lost in the narrow streets, take a ferry across the Grand Harbour, tour the fortifications, and visit museums and galleries. And, of course, try the local food and wine. So make sure you check out the Three Cities and experience traditional Malta.
Get a glimpse of the Three Cities’ harbour views in the video below.
Ready for an unforgettable adventure? Click here to book a Three Cities boat tour.
How Long Should You Spend in Malta’s Three Cities?
You should take a whole day exploring the 3 Cities. But how much time you spend will depend on what you want to do. You can see the main sights in a few hours. If you’re going to explore each city in depth, give yourself an entire day.
In all three cities, it’s fantastic to get lost and explore small streets. You can also take in the views of the Valletta Grand Harbour, boats and the sea by walking around the city on the water’s edge. To do so, you will need a full day. So take your time and enjoy the whole experience. You can take in all that the Malta Three Cities offer, from the history to the culture and all the stunning views.
Is it Possible to Walk between Sengea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua?
Yes, you can easily walk between the Three Cities of Malta. Vittoriosa and Senglea are 1.2 km apart, and Senglea and Cospicua are 1.7 km apart. Walking between the cities is enjoyable, and you get a great view of the Grand Harbour.
Authentic Places to Stay in the Three Cities
How to Get to the Three Cities in Malta?
You can take the bus from Valletta to the Three Cities. It takes about 25 minutes and costs 2 euros.
My favourite option is a ferry from Valletta to The Three Cities (Senglea Port). The Valletta 3 Cities ferry leaves from this location in Valletta and you can find the Three Cities ferry timetable here. Travelling by Valletta ferry is amazing – you’ll avoid traffic and get a great view of the harbour. A return ferry ticket costs 2.80 euros and the ride takes about 15 minutes. A water taxi is another option. They also run between Valletta and Senglea.
What are the Names of these Three Cities in Malta?
There’s at least one other name for every one of the Three Cities.
- Vittoriosa or il Birgu
- Cospicua or Bormla
- Senglea, Isla or Cita Invicta
Each city got an additional name from the Knights of St. John. Today, people call them by several names. Keep that in mind because it may be confusing.
The name Birgu comes from Borgo. Birgu is next to the Fort of St Angelo, with Birgu being the Borgo of the Castello. After the Maltese won the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights of St John renamed Birgu ‘Cittá Vittoriosa’. It means ‘the victorious city’. These days it’s shortened to ‘Vittoriosa’.
Bormla is the biggest of the Three Cities. People called this town Bormla before the 18th century. The Order of Saint John built fortification walls to protect the town and its neighbours. Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari declared Bormla a city in 1722. Because of the strong bastions surrounding the area, he called it ‘Citta Cospicua’, a walled city.
Senglea City has three names. The Maltese name for it is Isla, which means island. Its second name, ‘Città Invicta’, means ‘the invincible city’. It got its name because it resisted the Ottoman invasion in 1565. Nowadays, ‘Città Invicta’ is rarely used. Finally, the city is called Senglea because Claude de la Sengle built it and gave it part of his name.
Together, all Three Cities are also known as Cottonera. It’s because of the Cottonera Lines and fortifications surrounding the towns.
What is the History of the Three Cities in Malta?
Vittoriosa (Birgu) is the oldest of the Three Cities. It has been inhabited since the Phoenicians.
When the Order arrived in 1530, they chose Birgu as Malta’s capital instead of Mdina. The Knights built Senglea on L’Isola and Cospicua after the Ottoman Empire attacked Gozo in 1551.
Following the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights of St John decided to build a new city. To prepare for future attacks, they fortified it heavily. In 1571, Valletta became the capital instead of Vittoriosa.
The Knights of St John built Cottonera fortifications in 1670. Grandmaster Nicolas Cotoner wanted to create fortifications encompassing all the surrounding towns. Unfortunately, it never got finished. Those defences aimed to keep the Ottomans from attacking Marsaxlokk and the harbour.
World War II bombers damaged the Three Cities. After the war, many educated and professional people left Cottonera. The cities were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s and repopulated by workers. For decades, this area had a higher rate of illiteracy and unemployment.
Over the last few decades, the Three Cities have gained popularity again. It attracted investors to buy properties and turn them into luxury homes. Also, the Three Cities become a tourist hot spot as boutique hotels, restaurants and wine bars.
Map of the Three Cities in Malta
Here is an interactive Malta Three Cities map which can be useful for your walking tour. Just a quick glance shows all the highlights. To navigate, click on the pins or links in the text and you’ll be taken to Google Maps.
If you prefer a guided Malta Three Cities tour, click here to book one.
Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Senglea (Isla)
Just under 3,000 people live in Senglea, the smallest city in Malta. You can easily walk all over the city since it’s about 1 square kilometre. It has narrow streets, steep staircases, and fortifications, among other things to see.
Malta Three Cities Attractions: Fortifications of Senglea
After you get off the ferry, walk right. Fortifications were built to protect the Senglea peninsula from land attacks. Fort Saint Michael was the first fortification built in 1552. Over the next decade, Claude de la Sengle completed most of the fortifications.
Unfortunately, the fortifications did not survive the wars of the last centuries. Today, all that’s left of Senglea’s fortifications are the seaward bastions and the defensive walls at the city’s entrance.
Senglea Parish Church
It was built in the 16th century but destroyed during WWII. A few years later, it was rebuilt. This basilica’s main attraction is a wooden 17th-century statue of Mary known as Il-Bambina. The artist is unknown.
From there, go along Triq Il-Vitorja or any parallel street towards the point of Senglea.
I like to walk along Senglea’s left side to see the docks. I like this because there’s a wall on the edge and you can walk on it. Also, Valletta and the harbour are visible from here.
The Gardjola Gardens are at the point of Senglea. They offer a great view of Valletta, Fort Saint Angelo in Birgu, and other areas around the Grand Harbour. The gardens were built in 1551 with a guard tower at the end. The guard tower is called Il-gardjola, hence the name of the garden.
Senglea Streets and Marina
As soon as you leave the garden, turn left. There are some pretty streets and buildings there. Senglea’s residential streets give you a taste of life away from the tourist scene. It has a lot of charming Maltese balconies, which are the country’s most iconic architectural features. It’s a quiet and friendly area, so you’ll hear lots of Maltese and see people’s daily life.
You can also go down the stairs to the Senglea Marina. You can grab a drink or lunch and enjoy the views of Birgu.
Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Cospicua (Bormla)
You can get to Cospicua (also known as Bormla) via a bridge from Seglea. The bridge is at Cospicua’s Dock, which got refurbished recently. There’s also a pleasant walk along the water.
From the docks, you can see the church towers. Every Maltese town has churches and chapels, and Cospicua is no different. In the city, you’ll find the Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception. There are also the chapels of St Paul and St Margaret.
It’s easy to spend hours wandering the streets of Cospicua. Cospicua is on the top of five slight hills. So, you’ll have pretty views of Birgu and Senglea, along with the marina nearby.
The streets there are lined with old houses, untouched by development. You can also see the fortification surrounding the city – the Cottonera Lines. The Cottonera Lines consist of walls, gates and bastions. Lines need to be in better shape. Yet, they give a clear picture of what this area was like in the past.
Bir Mula Heritage Museum
Bir Mula Heritage Museum is the most recommended museum in Cospicua. On the outside, it looks like your typical Bormla house. But, it contains a wealth of prehistoric history and mystery. There’s a lot to its history, from Punic cults to secret meetings held during the Knights of St John era. Bir Mula Heritage is open from 10 am to noon Saturday and Sunday.
Three Cities in Malta: What to See and Do in Vittoriosa (Birgu)
Walk down from Cospicua and head towards the Birgu Waterfront. On the way, you’ll pass St Lawrence’s Church.
St Lawrence’s Church
St Lawrence’s Church in Birgu is another beautiful church in the Three Cities. A 17th-century building sits right on Birgu’s waterfront.
Malta Three Cities Attractions: Malta’s Maritime Museum
Just a minute later, you will see the Malta Maritime Museum. This museum, housed in the old Royal Naval Bakery, tells the story of Malta’s maritime past. There’s a whole ground floor dedicated to the mechanics and engineering of naval ships. You’ll also find details about the British Navy in Malta. You can learn about liberating Malta from the French during the Napoleonic Wars and the British Navy’s role in World War I and II. Unfortunately, the museum has been closed for renovations.
Keep walking along Birgu’s waterfront. Marina is in the heart of Three Cities. The Knights of St John built heavy fortifications to protect the marina. Admiring yachts along the waterfront is a must. There are also many places to eat, drink, and hang out.
Fort St Angelo
Fort St Angelo is an immense fortress on Birgu’s Point. This site has had forts and strongholds since at least 1241. In fact, Birgu’s name comes from il Borgo del Castello or the city outside the castle. Once the Knights of St. John arrived on the island in 1530, they converted the medieval castle into a fort. More changes happened in the 17th century and after World War II.
A visit to Fort St Angelo includes walking along its high fortress walls and rooftops. You can enjoy spectacular views across the Three Cities, Valletta, and the Grand Harbour. Inside the Fort, several exhibits cover the Fort’s history and the history of the Mediterranean.
After you see the Fort, walk to Victory Square. It’s Birgu’s main square. It has many cafes and restaurants so you can take a break here.
Inquisitors’ Palace is 3 minutes away from Victory Square. From 1574 to 1798, the Inquisitor’s Palace served as the seat of the Inquisition. The building was constructed as a courthouse in the early 16th century. But, little remains of the original building.
The Inquisition was abolished during the French occupation of Malta in 1798. After that, the Palace was home to a military hospital, a mass hall, and a religious house. Since 1966, it’s been a museum. Museum visitors can see the tribunal room, prison complex and kitchen. There is also an exhibit about the Inquisition in Maltese society.
Malta at War Museum
Malta at War Museum is also worth a visit if you’re a history buff. It’s about Malta’s WWII role.
The museum is in the Couvre Porte, a 17th-century counterguard forming part of Birgu’s fortifications. The counterguard was built with space between the walls, which later became barracks. During World War II, the barracks served as a police HQ and civil defence centre. In addition, under the counterguard were air raid shelters dug for Birgu’s residents. The barracks and shelters are now part of the museum.
Also, there’s an exhibit of uniforms, weapons, documents, medals, and other memorabilia at Malta at War Museum.
Birgu Ditch Gardens
Birgu Ditch Gardens is just off the museum. It’s a cute little garden within Birgu’s fortifications. There is a walkway with olive trees and some plants. You can walk or sit on the bench in the shade of the trees and look at the fortifications. On a hot summer day, it’s perfect.
I recommend walking around Birgu if you still have time. Get into one of the narrow streets and make your way towards the water. Here is where you can start walking on top of the walls. You’ll get an incredible view of Kalkara Marina and Valletta.
A trip to the Three Cities of Malta is impressive, with their lovely streets and tons of history. Take a step back in time and discover authentic Maltese culture. Whether you’re into history or discovering new places, the Three Cities of Malta won’t disappoint you. Check out my blogs about Malta’s Top Historical Sites, Valletta, Xemxija Heritage Walk and the Unesco Sites in Malta if you want to learn more about Malta’s past! If you like gardens with views, check out my guide to Malta’s best gardens.