The port city of Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa) is packed with charm. Situated on Malta’s Grand Harbour, Birgu has a lot to offer the curious traveller: stunning views, an authentic ambiance and beautiful buildings that are steeped in history.
Birgu is a great place to visit if you want to avoid crowded attractions. This old fortified city is often overlooked by tourists as it is surpassed in popularity by Mdina, Valletta and other historic sites in Malta.
If you want to delve deeper into Malta’s colourful past, while exploring quiet alleys lined with gorgeous houses, make sure to spend a day in Birgu.
Here are my top suggestions for things to do in Birgu.
1. Wander around Fort St. Angelo
Fort St. Angelo is Birgu’s star attraction. Located at the heart of the Grand Harbour, this bastioned fort was originally a medieval castle. It was rebuilt by the Order of Saint John during the 1500s.
Fort St. Angelo played a key role during the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, and later during the Second World War, when the Grand Harbour was the most heavily bombed place in Malta.
Today, Fort St. Angelo offers visitors an immersive experience through Maltese history, highlighting the strategic importance of the fort and Grand Harbour throughout the centuries. The fort also offers beautiful views of the Grand Harbour.
2. Venture into the Inquisitor’s Palace
Another must-see in Birgu is the Inquisitor’s Palace. This imposing building was originally built to serve as the Civil Law Courts of the Order of St John.
When the Roman Inquisition was established in Malta in 1574, the palace was turned into a prison complex and the private residence of the inquisitor. During the British rule in Malta, the palace served as a military hospital.
Due to its dark past, The Inquisitor’s Palace is believed to be one of the most haunted places in Malta.
Nowadays, the Inquisitor’s Palace walks visitors through the history of the Roman Inquisition in Malta. Besides admiring the beautiful architectural features of the palace, you can also see the room that once served as the inquisitor’s private chambers, as well as the inquisitor’s private chapel and the tribunal chamber.
If you’re feeling brave, check out the torture chambers and step inside the small prison cells, where the walls are covered in etchings made by prisoners.
The Inquisitor’s Palace also houses the Museum of Ethnography.
3. See the old gates
Being a fortified city, Birgu is surrounded by large defensive walls and a rock-hewn ditch, which has recently been turned into a garden. Originally, Birgu had four gates, three of which survive. Each gate was built in the Baroque style during the 18th century.
The Couvre Porte Gate, the Advanced Gate and the Gate of Provence are made of limestone and feature interesting engravings and Latin inscriptions.
4. Visit the Malta Maritime Museum
Housed in the former Royal Navy Bakery, the Malta Maritime Museum traces the island’s naval history from prehistoric times to the present day (that’s 7000 years of history!).
The museum has a collection of over 20,000 artifacts, making it the largest museum on the island. Some of the most interesting artifacts at the museum include a 1950s marine steam engine, the figurehead of the Napoleonic gun ship HMS Hibernia, and the largest known Roman anchor in the world.
5. Explore Birgu’s quaint alleys
The heart of Birgu is made up of a maze of alleys with traditional Maltese houses. If you’re an avid photographer, you’ll definitely come across several photo opportunities while exploring the streets of Birgu – colourful balconies, windows and walls lined with flower pots, and the occasional stray cat.
During the rule of the Knights of St.John in Malta, several auberges were built in Birgu, each representing a langue, or linguistic division, of the Order. Some of these auberges, which were Baroque palaces that served as headquarters, have survived.
While wandering through the streets of Birgu, you are bound to come across the Auberge de France, which now serves as the town hall, and Auberge d’Angleterre, which houses the local health centre.
6. Pop into the Sicolo-Norman House
The beautiful Sicolo-Norman House is my favourite site in Birgu. Nestled within the winding streets of Birgu, this fascinating building dates back to the 12th century and features a variety of architectural styles, including Romanesque and Gothic elements. It is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Birgu.
This old house has been restored with love and patience by its current owner, after it had spent years lying in ruins. The owner is still working on other parts of this complex, but the door is quite often left open for passers-by to pop in and see the house.
7. Walk along the sea front
One of the best things to do in Birgu is to go for a walk along the city’s waterfront.
If you walk along the entire perimeter, you get to see two very different sides – the world-class marina with large, luxury yachts, and the more authentic part of the city, with traditional boats and local fishermen sitting along the shore.
Start your walk from the Birgu Waterfront. As you approach Fort St. Angelo, you’ll come across a wee alley on your right that leads to the other side of Birgu. The area on this side of the harbour is known as il-Mandragg, and from here get some lovely views of the neighbouring town of Kalkara.
8. Visit the churches
Like many other places in Malta, Birgu is home to several churches, each having its own story and charm.
The church of St. Lawrence is one of the largest and oldest churches in Malta. Known for its outstanding Baroque architecture, the church was built in the late 1600s and features several paintings from different eras. The church also has a museum.
Two other churches are situated right next to St. Lawrence – the Oratory of St. Joseph and the Oratory of the Holy Cross. Other churches in the area include the Church of St Anne, St. Philip Church and Annunciation Church.
9. Check out the views from the ramparts
While walking around Birgu, make sure to head down to the ramparts on Triq Emanuel Attard Bezzina (right above il-Mandragg), for stunning views over the Grand Harbour.
If you need a wee rest, head to the Birgu Belvedere, a nice and quiet viewpoint with benches.
10. Enjoy a coffee at the square
Victory Square is the social hub of Birgu. This is where locals meet up for a drink, and throughout the year the square hosts various events.
A 18th century monument stands in the middle of the square and commemorates the Great Siege of 1656. For those with a morbid fascination, on one side of the square you’ll find an old crucifix in a small niche, which marks the place where prisoners were publicly executed during the rule of the Order of St. John.
Victory Square is surrounded by various cafes where you can enjoy a light lunch and a nice drink.
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