Mdina and Rabat travel guide and insider tips
Mdina and Rabat are two popular localities in Malta (South West), and each admired for very different reasons. Mdina is one of the most popularly visited places by travellers because there’s no place like it anywhere. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking large parts of Malta, it’s a small town, rich in history and surrounded by tall bastion fortifications. It’s filled with centuries-old buildings that have been well maintained throughout the ages.
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Today Mdina is a major tourist attraction recognised internationally as an important UNESCO World Heritage Site (currently on its tentative list).
Rabat, the village that neighbours Mdina, on the other hand, is known for its quiet, more rural character and natural beauty. Apart from offering a few key museums and points of interest, Rabat is also known for one of the few forested areas the country knows, at Buskett, the entrance to which can be found on the outskirts of the village.
Neither of the villages are popular places to actually stay, although a few boutique hotels can be found. If exploring the country is your priority, it’s definitely a lovely location to consider staying in.
If you decide to stay elsewhere, it’s an area to visit multiple times, for sightseeing but also to enjoy a beautiful part of Malta in the evening.
- Mdina is (tentatively) listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- The region was first inhabited in 700 BCE
- Built at a strategic military location with clear sight of surrounding areas
- Rabat is known for its quiet character, the forested area of Buskett and attractions such as the Roman Domus and St. Paul’s Catacombs
- Mdina was Malta’s capital city until the Knights of Malta arrived in 1530
- Its main entrance features in the popular TV series Game of Thrones, scenes of which were filmed in different parts of Malta and Gozo.
The beauty of the “silent city” of Mdina
Mdina, also called the Silent City, is surrounded by fortified walls and sits on top of one of the highest hills of Malta. Built in Medieval times, much of its original architecture has been preserved and its narrow alleys tell tales of centuries of history and the various rulers that governed Malta.
It may be on most postcards and is a must in all the painters’ portfolio, yet the sight of Mdina as you are driving up to Rabat is a view that does not fail to amaze every time. Standing proudly on one of Malta’s highest promontories, the it looks like a medieval walled city straight out of a fairy tale. It is an inspiring view; a city that hundreds of years after it was built still commands respect, awe, and curiosity about its tales. And what tales, innumerable and long-winding given the city’s long history.
There’s a distinct feel you get when walking through these alleys and the views over large parts of the island from on top of the bastion walls are breathtaking and indicative of the area’s strategic importance to its various occupants.
Once past the deep moat, nowadays a public garden, and inside the city’s walls, cobbled streets are lined with immaculately preserved noble houses, private chapels, palazzi, and cathedrals. The streets are narrow and winding, and walking along them feels like trying to find your way out of a maze; a feeling which adds to the element of surprise at finding large squares. Silence pervades, and is the perfect complement to a walk on the bastions, as well as taking in the panoramic view of most of Malta and the surrounding sea.
How to get to there
Mdina and Rabat are located in a quieter part of the island, and once you leave the busier parts like Valletta, Sliema, and St. Julian’s it’s fairly easy to get there. The closest central localities to these villages are Attard, Zebbug, and Mosta, although major road signs in the central part of Malta will include Mdina.
Where to park around Mdina and Rabat
Parking spots are limited in the area, although on weekdays it’s not too bad. These are a few options to try (which are all within walking distance of Mdina):
- Right outside the entrance to Mdina, next to a playground, public parking is available, although it’s rare to find a spot here on busier days. A parking attendant is usually present and their income is based on gratuities (although paying them for parking there is not required as such).
- There’s a large paid parking area near the Roman Villa (museum in Rabat – more on that below) for starters.
- You can also drive through a narrow tunnel into the moat of Mdina from that location, with more public parking spots. You’ll often find a parking attendant here as well.
- Finally, there’s a road in the same place that leads down to what used to be one of the few train stations around in Malta (and is currently in use as a restaurant). On busy days, that road is my best bet to find a parking spots.
By public transport
The following direct bus routes stop at Mdina and Rabat:
- From Valletta: Route 53 (destination Rabat – 30 mins). Also, but less efficiently: Routes 50 (destination Rabat – 45 mins), 51 (destination Mtarfa – 45 mins), 52 and 56 (destination Dingli – 45-60 mins)
- From Bugibba/Qawra (Bus Terminus) and St. Paul’s Bay (the main road – Triq il-Mosta): Route 186 (45 mins)
- From Sliema and St. Julian’s: Route 202 (45-60 mins)
If you’re staying elsewhere, the journey planner from Public Transport Malta will be of help to plan the best route for you.
Mdina’s main attractions and points of interest
The Silent City itself
It’s not just a good location to visit individual museums or points of interest, the city itself is something to behold and experience. A myriad of streets and alleys paved with stone slabs, surrounded by a blend of architecture styles introduced over the centuries all together make for an impressive place to admire.
The National Museum of Natural History
The museum is located right near the main entrance to the city and is popularly visited. To be fair, the museum could do with a little work and part of the interest is in the building itself: Vilhena Palace. It’s a commanding building, with its beautiful baroque facade and impressive entrance courtyard.
Palazzo Falson (The Norman House)
Palazzo Falson, generally known as the Norman House, is the best-preserved medieval building in Mdina. Built in 1495, it was occupied by the first Grand Master in Malta, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. when the Knights of Malta arrived here in 1530.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Easily recognisable in the skyline of Mdina, St. Paul’s Cathedral with its baroque cathedral, bastions, and palaces, is an imposing landmark visible throughout central Malta, The Cathedral is the architectural heart of this elegant, walled city, and ties on the site of a much earlier Norman church destroyed by a violent earthquake in 1693.
St. Paul’s Cathedral Museum
Originally a seminary, the museum today is one of the most outstanding religious museums in Europe. A small chapel is found on the second floor exhibiting church vestments. It also exhibits an impressive cross-section of sacred art, famous paintings, a coin collection, Roman antiquities, and original documents from the time of the Inquisition.
The silent city has always been the seat of the Bishop of Malta. The Archbishop’s Palace, which was built in 1722, serves as the residence of the Archbishop of Malta.
Church of St. Roque
What looks like a quaint little church from the outside hides a beautiful interior that is worth admiring. No longer used for liturgical services but opened to the public during the day, the church of St. Roque is definitely worth a quick visit, whether you’re religious or not.
After Grand Master Vilhena confiscated the original Ministerial Palace for his own use, the Universita (local government) found its new seat in this building. It sits at the edge of the square in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral During the revolt against the French, a national assembly came together here.
You can get an excellent view towards the East of Malta from the bastion at Triq is-Sur, at the back of Mdina. Good for a quick peek or for a quiet spot to enjoy the silence and view on a summer’s night.
This house was the seat of the old noble family Testaferrata. Historians believe that in Roman times, on the site of this building there was a temple dedicated to Apollo.
Palazzo Gatto Murina
Palazzo Gatto Murina, one of the earliest ‘Siculo-Norman’ structures (i.e. built between 1100 and 1530), was erected during the latter part of the 14th century. An audiovisual show “Tales of the Silent City” is housed inside the Palazzo.
This is the palace of the oldest noble family of Malta and was originally built in 1370. The house contains numerous paintings and valuable documents.
Points of interest in Rabat
Howard Gardens are one of the biggest public gardens in Malta and can be found right outside Mdina. These gardens form a natural border between Rabat and neighbouring Mdina. There are a few kiosks around with tables and chairs and it’s pretty peaceful and quiet there. Great for a lazy Sunday morning coffee and snack.
St. Paul’s and St. Agatha’s Catacombs
The Maltese islands are rich in late Roman and Byzantine burial sites. St. Paul’s Catacombs are a typical complex of interconnected, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 4th century AD. St Paul’s Catacombs represent the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.
Domus Romana (Roman Villa)
The mosaic pavements in the ‘Roman house’ at Rabat rank among the finest and oldest mosaic compositions from the western Mediterranean, alongside those of Pompeii and Sicily. They were discovered in 1881 just outside Mdina in the remains of a rich and sumptuously decorated town house of the Roman period.
Once home to one of the Chaplains of the Order of St. John, the Wignacourt Muesum is a well-preserved representation of what life was like for the Chaplains of the day. Named after Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, the museum is well worth a visit, for its magnificent setting and beautiful baroque architecture alone.
At the museum of Casa Bernard you can catch a glimpse of how Maltese nobility lived in this well-kept and beautifully restored 16th Century Palazzo. Passed on through generations, descendants from its original owners actually still live there. Guided tours are offered and it makes for a very unique place to visit.
Mdina - The Silent City itself
The National Museum of Natural History
Palazzo Falson (The Norman House)
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral Museum
Palazzo Gatto Murina
St. Paul’s Catacombs
St Agatha's Catacombs
The Roman Domus
Restaurant and food recommendations
Fontanella is a cafe located inside of Mdina that is known for its delicious selection of cakes. Offering a beautiful view from atop the edge of the bastions, it’s a nice stop for a coffee and snack and is a popular establishment locally.
- Crystal Palace (aka is-Serkin) is a small everyday bar across the street from the Roman Villa, known as selling some of the best pastizzi (a staple of Maltese food) on the island.
- The Medina is one of the few restaurants in the area to serve fine dining, within an old building inside the walls of Mdina. Food and service of a high standard with a lovely setting to boot.
- Trattoria AD 1530 at the Xara Palace is a restaurant that’s open for both lunch and dinner and serves high-quality food. It offers tables outside under a canopy (which is heated in winter), right around the corner from Mdina’s main gate. One of my personal favourites in the area.
- The Fork and Cork is a fairly recent addition to restaurants in the area but is already one of the best-rated establishment. It serves excellent food and offers a good choice of local and foreign wines.
Hotel and accommodation recommendations
There isn’t an awful lot of choice when it comes to hotels in Mdina and Rabat, although there are a few very good options to consider if you’re looking to stay in a part of Malta that is less common.
Hotels and guest houses
The Xara Palace is probably the most well-known boutique hotel in the area, situated in the heart of Mdina. It’s housed in a 17th-century palace and offers luxurious accommodation (with a price tag to match) with different levels of rooms (most with a great view as you can imagine).
On the outskirts of Rabat, Maple Farm Bed and Breakfast offers high-quality lodging in a very quiet area that’s within walking distance to Rabat and Mdina. It’s a family run business which gets great reviews and loyal guests.
You won’t find modern apartments (or buildings for that matter) within the walls of Mdina. Instead, you can find privately rented out houses of character: Authentic centuries-old residences that have been renovated and modernly decorated and furnished.
Things to do in Mdina and Rabat
- Take a quick tour of the area with a small train that drives around, starting from in front of the Roman Domus or explore the area around Mdina (the moat) and il-Buskett (forest area) on foot.
- Grab a newspaper, buy a few pastizzi (Maltese pastry snack) from Crystal Palace and sit on a bench to enjoy the peace and quiet at Howard Gardens, overlooking the bastion walls of Mdina
- Take a karozzin ride within the narrow streets and alleys of the silent city itself to admire the serenity and beautiful architecture.
- Rabat is one of the few villages in Malta where multiple village feasts (or festa) are celebrated, honouring different saints. Attend one of these festi in early April, early June and early July to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the fireworks displays and music.
- Take home a couple of traditional souvenirs in the form of Maltese lace and decorative items from Mdina Glass in the long central road Triq il-Villegaignon inside Mdina.
- Around in April? Attend Medieval Mdina and see the Silent City come to life with re-enactment and other activities in one of the most popular annual events in Malta.
- Love wine? Try one of the wine bars/restaurants on the hill approaching Mdina and Rabat (Telgha Tas-Saqqajja), like Tat-Tarag and The Fork and Cork. Both have tables and chairs set outside with a nice view. Great place for wine lovers to share a bottle and food together with good company.
History of Mdina and Rabat
Punic remains have been found in the area around Mdina and suggest that Phoenician settlers inhabited the region around 700 BCE. Historians believe that even they fortified the city they then called Maleth. The location was of strategic importance, situated on one of the island’s highest points and relatively far away from the sea.
The Romans also recognized Mdina’s strategic importance and developed the city further, also building the Roman Governor’s palace there. It was during the Norman conquest of Malta in 1091 AD when the city’s outline was shaped as we know it today. Its thick surrounding fortifications and wide moat were constructed by the Normans and much of the architecture dates from medieval times.
Mdina is one of the few great architectural treats in Malta that did not result from the activities of the Knights of Malta. The oldest city on the island, going back to prehistoric times, the word Mdina derives from the Arabic word ‘medina’ which means ‘city’. The Arab legacy continued even though the Arabs were officially expelled from Malta in 1250 when the Islands were under Christian rule. Thus, the name survived even though the city was referred to as ‘Civitas’ (city in Latin) or ‘Citta Notabile’.
The city was fortified in medieval times, but its protection in early times must have been its high location on a rocky crag. It is certain that either during the Byzantine or during the Arab occupation of Malta, the fortifications were retracted to the present proportions, perhaps for better defensibility.
A strong earthquake destroyed parts of Mdina in 1693, after which the Knights of Malta rebuilt the cathedral and erected buildings such as Palazzo Falzon and the Magisterial Palace in Baroque style.
The fortress city, once extended to the adjoining town of Rabat. Yet the fortified city was subsequently downsized in order to defend it more effectively. Mdina was Malta’s capital city until the Knights of Malta arrived in 1530, who built their headquarters in Birgu (Vittoriosa), which subsequently became the country’s capital.
Do you have any tips/reviews to share about Mdina? Leave a comment and let me know!