They may be neighbours, but Mdina and Rabat offer their own unique charms. Perched on a hill, overlooking large parts of rural Malta, Mdina is a fortified medieval citadel rich with history. Upon entering its bastioned walls, visitors are spoiled for palaces, chapels, museums, dungeons and more, many of which have changed little over the centuries. Rabat, on the other hand, is a quaint town of Roman ruins, pastizzi shops, chic cafés, markets and characteristic Maltese town houses with their brightly painted doors and wooden balconies.
As they are only a short walk away from one another, you can easily tick both off on a single day trip. Get the most out of your Mdina and Rabat visit with these 12 amazing must-dos.
1. Soak Up Local Life In The Village Square
Rabat’s charming piazza is the perfect spot to soak up an older way of life that is fast vanishing in Malta. Here you’ll typically see women chitter-chattering outside St Paul’s church. While outside the adjacent arcade każini (traditional bars), men while away mornings reading the newspapers and arguing politics over a glass of tea. During the weekend, Rabat’s thriving market pops up here. Wander the stalls in search of fresh Maltese bread, traditional nougat as well as popular local biscuits such as ottijiet (eight-shaped sesame seed biscuits), qagħaq tal-għasel (honey rings) and kwareżimal (almond flaked biscuits with zest of orange and spices).
Top tip: Rabat’s village square really comes alive during religious feasts, including: the feast of St Joseph on the 19th March; L-Imnarja on the 29th of June; and the feast of St Paul in early July.
2. Explore Rabat Underground
There are no trains to catch in Rabat’s underground, but there are subterranean historical sites aplenty. St Paul’s and St Agatha’s Catacombs, which partly lie under the parish church, are some of the most prominent archaeology related to Malta’s early Christians. These ancient catacombs are a labyrinth of interconnected, rock-cut Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 7th-century. They were also used as air raid shelters during World War II. At the sound of a siren, villagers would converge underground seeking protection against enemy bombardments. These shelters can be accessed during a visit to the Wignacourt Museum built in 1749, which also houses a beautiful collection of antiquities and artworks by Maltese and European painters.
3. Veni, Vidi, Vici the Domus Romana
From Phoenicians and Normans to the French and English, Malta has had its fair share of overlords over the centuries. And each have left their mark. Experience some of Malta’s Roman heritage at the Domus Romana, more commonly known as the Roman Villa, which is situated on the outskirts of Mdina. The Maltese Islands fell under Roman rule at in the year 218 BC, and the Mdina area, along with large parts of Rabat, became their central home. The Domus Romana museum is built around the ruins of an aristocratic Roman town house, which was discovered quite by accident in 1881. Inside you’ll find intricate mosaics, terracotta ornaments and other archaeological antiquities dating back to the 1st-century BC.
Top tip: History buffs looking to tick off many of Malta’s top sites may wish to buy a Heritage Malta Multisite Pass, which gives access to 25 museums, including Domus Romana and other locations mentioned in this article.
4. Snack On Premiere Pastizzi
If you’ve ever visited Malta before, then you know all about the island’s favourite street snack, pastizzi. These diamond-shaped, flaky pastry pockets are traditionally filled with creamy ricotta or mushy peas and are best served hot out of the oven. You’ll spot plenty of pastizzeriji (the name given to the small vendors selling pastizzi, qassatat and other oh-so-greasy but oh-so-yummy Maltese baked foods) all over the island. But the perennial favourite among locals is is-Serkin (a.k.a. Crystal Palace Bar) in Rabat, which lies around the corner from the Roman Villa. The premises has recently undergone a bit of gentrification. While it may have lost some of its rough-around-the-edges charm, the actual pastizzi remain as scrumptious as ever.
Top tip: Locals traditionally love to accompany their pastries with te’ fit-tazza (tea in a glass). Try with tinned milk for a more authentic brew.
5. Have A Slice Of Cake With Views
Those who love to follow the savoury with something sweet should head over to Mdina’s Fontanella tea garden. Fontanella serves all sorts of snacks, but is particularly popular thanks to its wide selection of delicious homemade cakes: apple pies, date pies, cheesecakes, carrot cakes, cassatella, meringues and much more. The establishment has also become a byword for ‘the best chocolate cake on the island’ among locals. Not only are their confections to die for, the unobstructed views from their terrace on the bastion walls are breathtaking.
Top tip: Bring a cardigan or jacket along if visiting during autumn/summer time, as it can get quite windy on the roof terrace even if the sun is out.
6. Hop On A Karozzin
As only residents’ cars are allowed into Mdina, you certainly won’t find any hop-on hop-off buses touring these stone-slab streets. But you can hop on a karozzin. These traditional horse-drawn carriages date back to the mid-19th-century and are popular with tourists looking to be whisked around Mdina’s highlights. While the coachmen are typically not the most eloquent of souls, they are certainly intimately knowledgeable about the history, culture and lore surrounding Mdina and its neighbouring Rabat. Many of these carriage owners have ties to the area that go back generations. So feel free to ask your driver any questions or for recommendations during your ride.
Top tip: If you’re a gifted haggler, you’ll probably be able to bargain with the coachmen for a better deal.
7. Discover Fantastical Game Of Thrones Sites
Cosplayers looking to re-enact iconic Game of Thrones scenes should definitely head to Mdina. The medieval city is a real-life King’s Landing, with several Season One scenes having been filmed here. Catelyn Stark rode across the walled city’s entrance bridge through Mdina gate. The exterior of Littlefinger’s brothel was housed in Mesquita Square, which is also where Jamie Lannister and his spearmen had a heated skirmish with Ned Stark and guards. Ned also confronted Cersei Lannister about her incestuous secrets in the peaceful gardens of St Dominic’s Priory. For greater insight into all of Malta and Gozo’s Thrones legacy, see our Complete Guide To Game Of Thrones Malta Locations.
Top tip: Keep a look out while browsing Mdina’s souvenir shops as some sell decorative replicas of Stark, Lannister and Targaryen swords, daggers and other such armour.
8. Play Princes & Paupers in Palaces & Dungeons
Mdina may be small, but it’s teeming with fascinating palaces-turned-museums open to the public. Palazzo Vilhena houses the Museum of Natural History, featuring an array of intriguing rocks, minerals and skeletal displays. Inside the 13th-century Palazzo Falson are some 45 collections ranging from jewellery to paintings, arms to Oriental rugs, as well as a library of over 4500 books and valuable manuscripts. And Palazzo de Piro gives visitors the chance to admire the grand interiors of a genuine palazzo over a spot of lunch.
For a touch of the macabre, head to Mdina Dungeons. Just past the main entrance of Mdina Gate, a narrow staircase to your right leads to these genuine medieval dungeons. Step inside and discover underground passageways, chambers and cells all with dark and mysterious tales to tell.
9. Enter the Grandeur of Mdina Cathedral
Mdina’s main square, which is dominated by the majestic cathedral of St Paul (not to be confused with the Rabat church dedicated to the same saint), is certainly one of Malta’s prettiest piazzas. The cathedral itself was founded in the 12th-century upon the site where Roman governor Publius is said to have met with St Paul after he was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel. The story goes that Publius invited prisoner Paul to his Mdina house, where Paul cured Publius’ father of a serious fever. This miracle converted Publius to Christianity, and he went on to become Malta’s first bishop.
Unfortunately large parts of the cathedral were severely damaged during an earthquake in 1693. The church was then rebuilt in the Baroque style. Inside, the floor is covered with marble tombstones of nobles and clergymen, and the vault depicts scenes from the life of St Paul. Of note is also the altar painting: The Conversion of St Paul by famed artist Mattia Preti. This painting miraculously survived the earthquake, as did the apse above the altar, featuring the fresco showing St Paul’s Shipwreck.
Top tip: If you chance upon a mass or wedding happening at the Cathedral, you can usually enter without paying the mandatory entrance fee. Just remember to always be respectful of the service in progress.
10. Watch History Come Alive
It may be dubbed the Silent City, but every nook and cranny of Mdina has a tale to tell. As such, a good tour guide will really help you get the most out of your Mdina visit. You can also go the audio-visual route thanks to two fantastic historical shows: The Mdina Experience and Knights of Malta 3D. Both bring Mdina’s tales of old to life with a mix of fascinating documentary and re-enactment. Gallop through 7000 years of the city’s trials and tribulations. Witness how Mdina was shaped by the Romans, Arabs, the Knights of St John and even a cataclysmic earthquake. After you leave the darkened auditorium, you’ll see Mdina in an entirely new light.
Top tip: If visiting in May, then be sure to check out the Medieval Mdina festival for two days of re-enactments and pageantry that bring medieval times to life.
11. Get Glass-Eyed Over Souvenirs
Take a memento of the Silent City back with you in the form of a genuine, local handicraft. The Mdina Glass shop is a treasure trove of colourful, striking glass pieces that will brighten any home. From vases and lanterns to a menagerie of weird and wonderful sculptures, all Mdina Glass products are handmade by local glassblowers using age-old techniques. Scattered around Mdina, you’ll also find plenty other quaint souvenir shops selling traditional lace, silver filigree and other artisan goods specific to Malta.
Top tip: Interested in glassblowing? Then visit Ta’ Qali Crafts Village, which lies some 2 km from Mdina, to watch local craftsmen forming glass right in their workshops.
12. Relish The Local Nightlife
End your Mdina experience with a meal at one of the many quality restaurants within the Silent City. There are plenty great trattorias and eateries hidden away down winding lantern-lit lanes and old courtyards to satisfy diners of all kinds. There are also many great bars and restaurants lining the staired hill of Saqqajja in Rabat. During summer evenings, Rabat really comes alive with musicians playing around the various watering holes as well as in Howard Gardens, which lie just on the outskirts of the ancient capital.
Top tip: Mdina is steeped in spooky folktales of ghosts and haunted houses. Head on a night-time Ghost Walk that brings these spectral stories to life.