Valletta, the de facto capital of Malta (an island nation in the Mediterranean located approximately 57 miles south of Sicily), was founded in the 1560s by the Knights of St. John, who had come to Malta after their earlier base on Rhodes was captured by the Ottoman Empire. Valletta was established shortly after the Great Siege of Malta, so the city was designed to be easily defended.
Today, the city of Valletta proper covers an area of about 0.8 square miles and is home to little more than 6,000 people, making it the smallest capital city in Europe. However, it is the heart of a metropolitan area of over 350,000 people, as well as a thriving commercial and financial center. The city's small size, therefore, is greatly outweighed by its economic and cultural importance. Owing in part to the long occupation of the island by the British, the English language is widely spoken and understood in Valletta and elsewhere in Malta.
Valletta's rich history and many important cultural sites allow the city to boast of itself as "nothing short of an open-air museum." There is so much to see in Valletta and the surrounding area that short-term visitors cannot hope to see everything of importance during their stay. Some of the most important attractions, however, are described below. Because of Valletta's small size and the fact that its street grid is friendlier to pedestrians than automobiles, travelers should expect to make most of their visits on foot.
St John's Co-Cathedral should be on every visitor's itinerary, partially for its historical importance as the primary church used by the Knights of St. John and partially for the striking beauty of its interior. The cathedral's museum houses some important artistic works, including The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio, one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art.
The Palace of the Grand Masters was once the headquarters of the Knights and today serves as the country's capitol. It also contains an armory that holds weapons and armor once used by the Knights.
Fort St. Elmo is the spot near Valletta where the Knights made their desperate but ultimately victorious stand against the Ottomans during the Great Siege of 1565. Today it houses a war museum.
The National Museum of Fine Art is an important stop for anyone interested in art. It stores many works of art that were formerly owned by the Order of St. John, as well as other important pieces.
The Manoel Theatre is the third-oldest functioning theater in Europe. There is a museum attached to the theater where visitors can learn more about its history and the history of Maltese drama in general.
In addition to these sites, Valletta and its environs offer many opportunities to enjoy music, shopping, and other forms of sightseeing. There are also a number of festivals celebrated over the course of each year, most famously the Maltese Carnival, held in February before the onset of Lent.
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