Malta has seen human settlement since prehistoric times, boasting cultural and historical influences from a countless array of civilisations over the centuries. Few places have seen as much vibrant settlement as Birgu, the Victorious City.
Known also as Città Vittoriosa (Italian for Victorious City), Birgu has been a shining beacon of strength and survival in Malta for centuries. From the capital city of Malta to a bastion of defence against the Ottoman Empire, Birgu is equally as rich and vibrant as the history it boasts.
While its population has decreased since the start of the 20th Century (going from over 6000 people to now around about 2,600), the city still has been the hometown for a slew of notable people.
These include former Prime Minister Paul Boffa (who was also Malta’s first Labour Prime Minister), Architect Lorenzo Gafà who worked on several churches in Malta such as St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina and also countless historical buildings in Birgu’s Waterfront area.
Not to mention, it has also been the home to Sr Beniamina Portelli, the founder and director of the St. Monica Choir and the Cassar family of architects (Girolamo, his brother Andrew and son Vittorio) who worked on numerous buildings in Valletta, including Saint John’s Co-Cathedral
1. A rich and vibrant history
Birgu is the oldest of the Three Cities (which include Senglea and Cospicua) and whilst it is best known for its history following the arrival of the Knights of Malta, it is a far older locality than most would expect.
Evidence of prehistorical settlement (especially around the area of Fort St Angelo) has been found around Birgu, making it one of the oldest areas of settlement in Malta. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans are just a small fraction of the influences that have made Birgu (and Malta) their home over the centuries.
Once the Knights of the Order of Saint John arrived on the islands in 1530, they decided to fortify and strengthen the medieval town to make Birgu the capital of Malta over Mdina. This was due to Mdina not meeting the Knight’s naval requirements.
Combined with the nearby Fort St Angelo, Birgu becomes the thriving, military hub of Malta, a formidable bastion of defence for the Maltese isles.
The defences would be tested greatly during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, where the city became the focal point of numerous great battles throughout the grizzly three-month siege. The city was relentlessly bombarded and attacked throughout, nearly being captured in August 1565 before the defenders quickly pushed back the Ottoman advance on the city.
In September of 1565, the Great Siege of Malta was lifted with a Maltese victory and Birgu was given the title Città Vittoriosa as a reminder of Malta’s victory over the Ottomans.
Though losing its status as Malta’s capital city once the Knights built and moved to Valletta, Birgu saw a rise in prominence once more when Malta became a British protectorate in 1800. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet established its base in Birgu and British forces remained in the city until 1979.
Like the rest of Malta, Birgu experienced heavy bombardment during the Second World War, mostly due to its proximity to the Malta Dockyard and key British military targets.
Throughout the bombardment, numerous historical buildings including most notably the Auberge d’Allemagne and the Birgu Clock Tower, which has seen much debate over the decades on whether it should be rebuilt.
2. Many reasons to celebrate year-round
When it comes to festas, Birgu celebrates two Saints: St Dominic and St Lawrence. Both feasts are celebrated in August, with St Dominic’s feast being on the last Sunday of August and St Lawrence’s feast on 10th August.
St Lawrence in particular has a beloved celebration dedicated to the Saint (St Lawrence of Rome). Celebrations start on 31st July and run until 10th August, the Patron Saint’s actual feast day.
St Lawrence’s Church is also a key site to visit whilst in Birgu, which once was the primary conventual church in Malta for the Order of St John prior to their relocation to Valletta.
Within the church, one can find numerous pieces of art including works by Stefano Erardi like Christ the Saviour and The Dead Christ or even the main altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of St Lawrence that was designed by Mattia Preti.
If one were to look for other key events in the locality, Birgu offers two of note: Freedom Day and Birgufest.
Celebrated annually on 31st March, Freedom Day (or Jum il- Ħelsien) takes a particular spin in Birgu. The day’s events feature a military parade next to the Freedom Day monument in the main square and the traditional regatta race, in which specially designed rowing boats compete in a race within the Grand Harbour area.
On the other hand, Birgufest, or Birgu by Candlelight, is an event that continues to grow in popularity. This festival of light event sees the dazzling, quaint main streets of Birgu lit by thousands of candles – highlighting the historical and architectural beauty of the city.
The celebration sees numerous activities, including re-enactments, art exhibitions, concerts, popular games and even discounted admission fees to museums. Typically, Birgufest is held in October, offering a perfect atmospheric option to enjoy the Halloween season.
3. A treasure trove of things to see
An entire, separate article could be spent on exploring and going in-depth about the sites one can see in Birgu. It truly is a treasure trove of sites that has a little something for everyone to enjoy.
For those who love a good museum experience, the Maritime Museum or Malta at War Museum are both amazing options.
The former boasts Malta’s largest museum with over 20,000 artefacts, dating Malta’s maritime history from the prehistory period to the present day – offering a look at both a Mediterranean and global context. Meanwhile, Malta at War documents Malta’s role in World War II and even offers a look at rock-hewn air-raid shelters that were used during the war.
If instead, you are the type to enjoy strolling through the streets and exploring what the city has to offer, Birgu itself is a marvel of architectural splendour. In particular, though, the streets of Birgu are world-renowned as being some of the most beautiful.
As you walk through the city, make sure not to miss out on the Freedom Day Monument which commemorates the day that Malta was, for the first time, no longer a military base of foreign powers – yet rather an independent country.
Plus, if you happen to be in Birgu on a Sunday between 6am and 12pm, check out the Birgu Flea Market for a unique experience in finding all sorts of odds and ends, even potentially a portrait of Dom Mintoff!
Make sure not to miss out on enjoying the picturesque Birgu Waterfront, which boasts the site of dazzling yachts, delicious restaurants and in general just a peaceful seaside walk to enjoy a relaxing afternoon.
Finally, for those who like to bask in true history (more so than just walking through Birgu itself), the stunning vistas of Fort St Angelo are a huge must-see, combined with the in-depth historical tours you can partake within the iconic fortress, this alone is takes few hours of exploration.
Alternatively, you can visit The Inquisitor’s Palace. Once the seat of The Inquisition in Malta, it is one of the few palaces of its kind left in the world – and the only one that is open to the public. The museum offers a unique look into how the justice system was during the period of the Inquisition.
4. Wine bars and restaurants galore
After a day of exploring the city, you have quite a feast of choices for places to enjoy a meal or even just a glass of wine. Over the past few years, Birgu has further been developing itself into a stunning profile of Medieval nostalgia, with wine bars and elegant restaurants dotting the streets and dominating the waterfront.
In particular, Del Borgo is a restaurant and wine bar that offers over 300 wines on its list. The beautiful restaurant consists of a classic wine-bar aesthetic among the vaulted stone arches and soft dim lighting offering a romantic setting for any date.
Food-wise, Del Borgo offers a modern twist to traditional Maltese food, although it is very important to note that this is an indoor setting – with no tables outside available.
For those who want to enjoy a fully traditional Maltese meal, Tal-Petut is a perfect choice. All food is prepared freshly through locally sourced produce – offering additional options for wines to be matched with your food.
Finally, Don Berto at the Birgu Waterfront is a popular restaurant that specialises in Mediterranean food from carpaccio to fagottini.
Offering a balcony view across the Birgu Waterfront, you can enjoy a picturesque view of the harbour as you enjoy a cocktail or a plate of Cozze.
5. Where to stay in peace and comfort
Birgu also offers a beautiful, peaceful place to stay whilst you are visiting Malta. Boasting numerous guest houses and apartments for rent alongside a few boutique hotels.
Of note, for those who’d prefer renting an apartment, St Angelo Mansions are a particularly good option – located between the Waterfront and Fort St Angelo. Offering beautiful views of the harbour to wake up to and an easily walkable distance throughout the city.
50th Boutique Hotel is renowned for its beautifully decorated interiors and offers all the luxury you’d expect from an establishment like this.
Locanda La Gelsomina meanwhile offers the chance for living in a quaint, old townhouse at the heart of the city. With the renovations it has undergone, the hotel offers all the comforts and convenience that you could want.
Truly, Birgu is a showcase of vibrant and rich history, architecture and culture. Its beautiful, winding streets and dozens of sites make Birgu a perfect example of the truly great majesty that Malta boasts.
For centuries, it has been the pinnacle of Malta’s importance and a true symbol of Maltese resilience in the face of adversity – surviving through two brutal sieges and coming out victorious.
What is your favourite place in Birgu? Let us know in the comments