Mdina Malta and Rabat - 9 Essential Tips for Holidays in Malta (2020)
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Rabat and Mdina, Malta - 9 Essential Travel Tips and Things to do During Your Holiday

There are few places on the Maltese islands that remain a reflection of their earlier days. Rabat, and subsequently Mdina, located high on a sloping hilltop, are two of the locations that have retained much of their timelessness and stand as examples of Maltese rural living and architecture on the islands.

If you’re visiting Malta looking for a relaxing, cultural holiday, or simply wanting to get a taste of history, there’s no better place to stay in than the crowded, slim streets of Rabat and Mdina Malta with their vantage point over the surrounding fields and the sound of church bells ringing softly early in the morning.

Mdina Cathedral Aerial View

1. History of Rabat and Mdina

As with much of early Maltese history, Rabat and Mdina’s earliest days are shrouded in mystery.

Although Punic remains have been found in the area, historians can only estimate that settlers made Mdina their home around 700BC. It was uniquely suited to their purposes, being surrounded by fields and also high enough that they had a decent vantage point in the case of any invaders or attacks. 

Mdina, originally called Maleth, came first.

In 218BC, it became a Roman entity renamed as ‘Melite’, and had a large part of what is now Rabat incorporated into it. According to myth, it was the governor of Melite who helped usher in Christianity into the islands, after St. Paul cured his sick father when he was shipwrecked on Malta.

Remains of the Roman-era Mdina have been found, such as fragments of the city walls and part of the Temple of Apollo, however the ransacking of Malta over the ages have erased much of Mdina’s Roman elements. 

Following the fall of Rome, Mdina was reduced in size, and a trench was dug around the citadel to make it easier to defend.

Shortly after, Malta was ransacked by the Arab dynasty of Aghlabids, and Malta remained uninhabited until about 1048, where it was renamed ‘Medina’ and re-colonised by a Muslim community.

Shortly after, Malta became a Kingdom of Sicily, and present-day Rabat began to form on the outskirts of Mdina. 

The population of Malta in its entirety was about 10,000, with much of it settled in Mdina, Birgu, and Gozo, however Mdina was the most sparsely-occupied, and served mostly as the seat of the Universita, a communal entity which collected tax and administered the island’s resources. 

In 1530, Mdina fell into the hands of the Order of St. John, and during the Great Siege of Malta, served as the base for the Order’s cavalry, and was critical to the Maltese victory over the Ottoman Turk invasion by both attacking an Ottoman field hospital and firing their cannon to convince the invaders they had spare ammunition. 

The city was almost completely rebuilt in 1722 under the orders of Grandmaster de Vilhena, and shortly afterwards was invaded by the French. In 1798, while under French occupation, an uprising broke out that started the beginning of a 2 year revolt, after which the Maltese Islands became a British protectorate. 

Today Mdina, and subsequently Rabat, are two of the major tourist attractions in Malta, moreso Mdina than Rabat for its unique mix of architecture, stunning views, and its completely pedestrian-friendly approach.

The nickname ‘the Silent City’ stems partially from the fact that no cars, bar a select few of emergency vehicles, wedding cars, and resident vehicles, are allowed in the city, making it one of the few places in Malta to have this rule. 

This is also because there are only a few hundred residents actually living in Mdina.

In the evenings, as tourists leave, the city becomes eerily quiet, with very few people around. No people speaking, no music from entertainment areas, no horns or sounds of cars, no footsteps, no dogs barking ... 

This is when the city is truly silent.

Mdina by Night

Rabat’s and Mdina’s history is intrinsically twined together.

While initially forming a part of Mdina, Rabat has served as the home for people who work in Mdina for many generations.

Initially housing servants and workers who were employed by the nobles in Mdina, now Rabat stands on its own as a destination for tourists eager to get the full local living experience. 

Rabat is a very traditional Maltese village, so spending some time here just ambling around will give you a true feel of the local life.
 
You'll see local women chatting and gossiping or shouting to each other from across the street or a balcony (a very Maltese thing), small groups of men whiling away the day, or munching on a 'pastizz' (cheesecake) or sipping a 'te fit tazza' (tea in a glass cup), old men gathered in the village squares, or just a bunch of working men and women going about their daily business. 
 
This is something which you won't find much of in other places such as Sliema, St. Julian's or Valletta.
 

A holiday in Malta is not complete with a visit to both Rabat and Mdina in Malta.

 

2. Points of Interest Rabat

Whether you’re staying in the area, or making your way up there for just one day, there’s a lot to occupy you in Rabat and Mdina, but here are the must-see sites to get you started. 

St. Paul’s Catacombs

The St. Paul’s Catacombs are a quiet, solemn look at a side of Malta that is seldom seen: underground.

St. Paul's Catacombs

The largest underground Roman cemetary in Malta, the catacombs were in use up until the 4th Century, and are widely believed to be the earliest instance of Christianity in Malta.

Featuring a number of underground galleries and over 20 underground temples which are open to the public, the St. Paul’s Catacombs fray into the St. Agatha’s Catacombs to create a combined burial complex spread out over 2,000 square metres.

Tickets are priced at €5 for adults, and worth it for the experience of seeing a part of Maltese history that is seldom visible. 

 

St Paul’s Church and Grotto

Alleged to be the location where St. Paul himself sought refuge after being shipwrecked, as well as the location where he chose to live.

St. Paul's Grotto

The subterranean grotto underneath the church has therefore become a source of pilgrimmage for practicising Catholics. Featuring a huge marble statue of St. Paul, as well as a depiction of St. Paul’s galley in silver, the Grotto is carefully maintained and usually filled with flowers for worship. 

 

Domus Romana / The Roman Villa

In 1881, the remains of a residence were accidentally discovered; since then, the Roman Villa has been open to the public as a museum, and features several beautiful Roman mosaics, statues, and artifacts, as well as a number of tombstones and remains.

Domus Romana

While very little was recovered of the actual townhouse, a building was constructed in order to protect the mosaics which now serve as the museum. Over the years, the displays have been modernised, and now feature a blow by blow account of daily living in a Roman family residing in Malta. 

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, go just for the beautiful marble statues of Emperor Claudius and his family, the first instance of artworks like this found in a public space. 

Howard Gardens

Bask in the sunlight with a cup of strong black tea in one of the biggest public gardens in Malta.

Located right outside of Mdina, these beautiful gardens serve as a resting area for people on their way into Mdina or out of Rabat, and it’s a peaceful spot to sit and rest on a Sunday morning when you’ve had your fill of the museums. 

Wignacourt Museum

Wignacourt Museum

The Wignacourt Museum reimagines what life was like for the chaplains that historically tended to St. Paul’s grotto below, and well worth stopping by if you’re interested in architecture; the museum features stunning baroque architecture. 

The Wignacourt also has a nice cafe, where you can eat in s traditional internal courtyard as feaatured in many Maltese houses of character, full of Maltese orange trees. It's a great place for breakfast or easy lunch.

Casa Bernard

A 16th century palazzo that’s been carefully and lovingly kept, this palazzo walks you through the life of Maltese nobility on the island; furthermore, descendants from its original owners still actually live on the premises.

Indulge in a guided tour, and walk through the premises. The building stands as a showcase for several important pieces of furniture, paintings, and objets d’art, which up until a short while ago were kept hidden away from the public.

The visits ends with a tour of the courtyard and the garden, so make sure to visit on a sunny enough day that you can enjoy the space fully. 

 

3. Points of Interest in Mdina

Mdina Bastions and Ditch

If you’re going to be close to Mdina, you need to make a trip into the Silent City a priority.

Beyond the unique position of Mdina in Malta, there’s another thing you also need to consider: the completely off-the-wall architecture that makes Mdina such a trip back through time.

Walk through tiny pathways built for nobles, stand by small doorways, and look up at towering buildings crowned with intricate cornices. Make your way to the fortress walls and look out over the surrounding area. There’s a reason why Mdina is so popular with tourists. 

Mdina Gate, Bastions and Ditch

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum

Once you’re in Mdina, there’s one location you’ll be able to see from every corner of the citadel: St. Paul’s Cathedral. This cathedral took over five years to build, and visitors can enter free of charge to gaze up at the high arched ceilings, frescoed with paintings of St. Paul’s Shipwreck.

Twin bell towers ring out the time for mass, and while the Cathedral is free to enter, please respect the parishioners who are attending mass at the same time. 

A few steps away lives the Cathedral Museum, which houses collections that were owned by several monastic orders in Malta. If you’re in the square anyway, we recommend you go to the museum; it will certainly give you a great understanding of religious orders in Malta. 

National Museum of Natural History

Of course, if you’re in Mdina, you can’t really miss stopping at Vilhena Palace, which houses the National Museum of Natural History in Malta, and has done so since 1973.

Prior to that, Vilhena Palace has also been a hospital for cholera sufferers, for British troops, and also for tuberculosis patients at different points of its history. 

The National Museum of Natural History is a sunny, bright building with multiple display areas filled with information about everything from Maltese geology to exotic animals and habitats, and with an entire hall featuring skeletons of vertebrates. You can also find a lot of information about Filfla and Fungus Rock, among others. 

Buskett Gardens

Rounding out our list of unavoidable places to see, we heavily encourage you to go and visit Buskett.

Originally a hunting ground created by the Knights of Malta, today it is a lush, woodland area run through with snaking paths that lead to good spots for picnics. So much so, that the name comes from "boschetto" which is the word for copse or grove in Italian.

The woodlands bloom with olive groves, lemon groves, and wildflowers, and are perfect for spending a day in when you just want to relax. 

Of course, this isn’t all there is to do in Mdina and Rabat!

As two of the oldest, and more remote, areas in Malta, the list of things to do in Mdina and Rabat could go on and on! Besides being home to some of the most beautiful countryside in Malta, there are many more museums and cultural hot-spots that you can find if you just go for a walk around the area. 


4. Where to Eat

If you’re in Rabat or Mdina, you’ll have a wealth of restaurants at your disposal at multiple budgets, so we’re going to lead you through your options and recommend our favourites. 

Budget Eats

Crystal Palace

You can’t really write an article about Rabat without mentioning the Crystal Palace, so let’s start there.

The Crystal Palace is a very small bar located across the street from the Roman Villa, and it is known for having the best pastizzi on the island.

Crystal Palace Bar

If you’re out and about and you don’t really want to stop for lunch, but just need something to keep you going, we recommend the Crystal Palace’s excellent pastizzi. 

It's not just a cheap place to eat, though, it's a proper traditional Maltese small bar. You'll always find a bunch on Maltese men, grumbling, arguing, joking and teasing each other and otherwise just whiling away their idle or break time.

Santa Lucia Cafe

Another Maltese staple, Santa Lucia Cafe is tucked away in a corner of Rabat, and is another old staple of the Maltese islands.

Dealing in artisanal savoury pastries and confectionery, Santa Lucia Cafe is very popular with the locals, and has a wide array of dishes to choose from at very affordable prices, making it ideal for a budget lunch or dinner. 

Chalk Cafe & Wine

Chalk Cafe and Wine

Chalk Cafe & Wine is a vegetarian-friendly cafeteria that offers a European-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner with healthy, homemade food and delectable desserts. Make sure to stop by here if you’re looking for good food at a budget, and best of all: Chalk Cafe has an upper floor with terrace seating that can truly make the most out of a good afternoon. 


Mid-Range

Looking for a little more for your buck? Here’s our favourite mid-range dining spots: 


Fontanella Tea Garden

Although primarily known for its cakes, Fontanella Tea Garden has more to it than its delicious baci cake. Set over two levels, and with an extensive menu dealing in local favourites, Fontanella Tea Garden has been a local favourite for over 41 years.

Fontanella Tea Garden

Originally a family-run restaurant, today Fontanella is a brand renowned across the island for its exquisite recipes and selection of traditional treats. 

We recommend their chocolate cake, and have it seated on the second floor at one of the tables. The view over the bastions makes it entirely worth it!


The Fork and Cork Restaurant

Relatively new on the scene, the Fork and Cork Restaurant features a Mediterranean-inspired fusion menu with options to suit even picky palates.

Highly rated as an unmissable culinary experience, the Fork and Cork Restaurant is open daily for dinner, and has some interesting dishes on offer, such as their chicken liver parfait with mushrooms, crostini and red berries, their layered pasta with fish and shellfish ragu in saffron sauce, and their date fritters with bay leaf ice-cream. 


L’Agape Osteria

Relaxed and elegant, L’Agape is an Italian restaurant that prides itself on making their limited menu sing through a combination of local ingredients and fresh produce. We recommend opting for one of their meat dishes, and definitely don’t skim on dessert!

Their pillowy pavlova, with an accompaniment of multicoloured berries, is a favourite! 


High End

Maybe for one night only, (or anytime, depending on your circumstances) you should treat yourself. Here are some places to start making memories. 

Grotto Tavern

If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, there’s not much better you can go than dining in a 2000-year-old cave. Featuring high ceilings and traditional Maltese building elements such as wooden beams and stone walls, the Grotto Tavern offers both an a la carte menu as well as two tasting menus to choose from.

Grotto Tavern

If it’s your first time, we recommend their 6-course tasting menu, featuring a delicious breaded brie with pumpkin chutney to start with, carrot and ginger soup, and pork loin, among other dishes. 

They also have a completely separate menu for vegetarians, with gluten-free pasta available at an extra charge. 


Castelletti Restaurant

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Castelletti Restaurant is tucked away inside a 17th century palazzo, and has recently undergone renovation. Part of the building is also home to the remains of a Roman village, which are now open to the public for viewing. 

Try their afternoon tea experience, available daily between 2.30PM - 5.30PM, with a selection of sandwiches and pastries available, as well as scones and free-flowing tea and coffee. 

If you’re looking for something a little bit later, their dinner menu is exquisite! Don’t skimp on ordering their focaccia castelletti as a starter, and if you’re feeling adventurous, we recommend trying their traditional Maltese rabbit, which is gently slow-cooked in Chardonnay wine, garlic, fresh tomatoes and marrowfat peas. Round off the evening with dessert, and a romantic ramble around Rabat’s tangled streets, and you’re set for the night. 


De Mondion Restaurant

Consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in Malta, de Mondion is a restaurant that you should visit even if you’re not staying in Mdina.

De Mondion - Mdina Malta

Located on the Mdina bastions, and surrounded by countryside and wide open sky, the de Mondion combines local produce with cutting-edge culinary technique to create a fusion menu made for memories.

We recommend their ‘Taste of Malta’ menu for a truly authentic, chef-curated experience, featuring local dishes such as rabbit and snails to an impressive 5-course menu. Add a cheese board to that for an extra price, and you’re ready to dine like an Mdina noble! 

 
 

5. Hotels in Rabat / Mdina

Although it's not as popular as some of the central areas, there’s no shortage of places to stay in Rabat, depending on how much you want to spend!

Mdina is a bit more scarce. There is only one luxury boutique hotel (Xara Palace), where if you're willing to splurge, is an excellent treat. 

(You might find yourself rubbing shoulder with celebrities - many celebrities who come to Malta usually lodge at this hotel).

Here are our favourites: 

 

Mid-range

 

Interested in spending a little more, and getting a little more? Here’s what kind of apartments you can get for a little bit extra. 


Myn

Malta’s first Albergo Diffuso-inspired hotel, Myn, in Rabat, takes high-end accommodation very seriously, and each of the stunning rooms are heavily modelled around a different aspect of Maltese style.

Myn in Rabat Malta

Bask in light-lit rooms in a quiet area of town, in rooms that come fully-equipped with air-conditioning, wifi, and a tea-kettle, as well as any other special requests that you might have.

The hotel offers a tour desk and babysitting services. 

Travelling with furry friends? Myn doesn’t charge extra for your four-legged guests, so feel free to take them along. 

Check Availability

Casa Azzopardi

A newly-renovated guest house tucked away in one of the older streets of Rabat, Casa Azzopardi is only 250m away from Mdina’s main entrance, and has 3 beautiful rooms for guests to choose from.

Casa Azzopardi

This means that rooms can go quickly at Casa Azzopardi, so if you’re looking for a beautiful location to enjoy Rabat from with all the trimmings, book early! 

Guests who opt for the room with a terrace can make use of their own private jacuzzi, in addition to the room staples of private bathrooms, flat-screen TV, and free wifi.

All guests rooms come with air-conditioning, and the host and owner is a qualified sommelier who will be happy to guide you to the best restaurants in Rabat to dine at. 

Check Prices at Casa Azzopardi

Quaint Boutique Hotel

Located only 200m away from St. Paul’s Grotto, this tiny boutique hotel prides itself on rooms to fit any specification, and even the smallest comfort room comes with a dizzying array of home comforts to make your stay there even more special.

We recommend opting for one of their superior penthouse suites to take advantage of the view. The hotel offers its own on-site hotel, and a beautiful sun terrace for guests to sit at and make the most of the day. 

Check Availability


High-End / Luxury Hotels in Mdina / Rabat

You’re in Malta, you’re on holiday - treat yourself with a room with all the trimmings. 

Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux

It’s impossible to start any list about luxury accomodations in Malta without mentioning the Xara Palace.

Xara Palace entrance in Mdina

A 5-star boutique hotel in Mdina, the Xara Palace is a converted 17th century palazzo with unspoiled views of the surrounding Maltese countryside and all the amenities one could hope for when on holiday, plus some unique offerings to truly make your holiday unique. 

With four on-site hotels to choose from, and 17 individual rooms to enjoy, the Xara Palace can be a lovely home away from home while you’re in the Maltese islands, and will definitely give you a rarified view of what life is like in one of the most exclusive cities in Malta. 

Xara Palace offers guided food tours around Mdina and Valletta, as well as a gourmet tasting experience, so foodie travellers, definitely put this location down on your shortlist! Beyond that, the hotel also offers dry-cleaning and ironing services, in-room massages, and an outdoor pool. 

Check Availability at Xara Palace

Tikka

With 24-hour service and only two rooms to pick from, each room comes equipped with a free-standing bath-tub and shower, a terrace overlooking the view of St. Paul’s catacombs, and a fully-equipped kitchen. 

The house retains much of its charm and has been lovingly restored to make sure that guests who opt for Tikka want for nothing. If there’s anything you need, the hosts will be happy to guide you.

Bedding, towels, and kitchenware are provided at no extra charge, and free parking is also available. 

Budget

With so much to do on the Maltese islands, you might not want to spend a chunk of change on your lodging. Here are a few budget stays:

Villa Vittoria Guesthouse

A tiny boutique hotel located in the heart of Rabat, this 400-year-old palazzo makes for beautiful accommodation to rest in when you’ve had your fill of exploring the surrounding areas. 

Villa Vittoria Guest house in Rabat

Built around common areas including a terrace, laundry room, and a lounge, guests can take their pick of beautiful rooms in a quiet area. The owners have their quarters within the same location, so any problems that arise can be dealt with promptly. 

Check Availability

 

D’Ambrogio Guesthouse

This bed and breakfast has been rated highly for a comfortable bed, beautiful rooms, and friendly staff, and is only 400m away from the Roman Villa. Wifi is available throughout the property, and each room comes fitted with a television; for a higher price, you can also have a balcony or a terrace to use. 

Furthermore, this location has been highly rated for two person stays. It’s run by hostess Pauline and her family, and is only a few minutes away from the town centre and all the touristic sites. 

Check Price and Availability

Estrella Lodging

One of the rare pet-friendly accomodations on the island, Estrella Lodging offers beautifully-appointed, air-conditioned apartments and rooms located close to the heart of town.

Open since 2015, Estrella Lodging offers wifi throughout and can even do your grocery shopping before your stay there, if you’re renting a self-catering accommodation! Units come equipped with a flat-screen TV, but if you’re interested in cooking your meals yourself, some units come with a kitchenette. 

 

6. Getting to Rabat and Mdina

Malta Airport to Rabat / Mdina

By Car

Renting a car to get around Rabat is definitely a very good option, as Rabat’s relative remote location can be difficult to get to by transport! We offer car hire, so shop around for the best deal on our website!

By Public Transport

Rabat is well-serviced by buses that can take you both to the main bus hub in Valletta, as well as to close districts such as Mosta and St. Paul’s bay. Rabat also has a nightbus - N50 - that passes through the region. 

Day Trips / Hop-On, Hop-off

Hop-on, hop-off bus tours frequently stop in Rabat, and are a good way of seeing the island and exploring the parts that you wish to see more of.

7. Interesting Short Facts 

  • Chadwick Lakes is actually the remains of a river that existed during the Pleistocene era. In the 70s the local government created a number of dam structures to keep the rain water from running off to the sea for replenishment of the water table and for agricultural use, given that Malta has quite an arid climate.

  • Pope John Paul II visited and prayed in St. Paul’s Grotto in 1990 on the first ever papal visit to the Maltese islands. 

  • Rabat Football Club took home the Maltese Cup in 1986. 

  • There are over 50 small districts and hamlets in Rabat!

  • St Dominic’s Convent featured in Game of Thrones as the Red Keep. 

  • Mdina was originally the capital of Malta; and hence why it is surrounded by bastions. It was only after 1571 that that accolade was given to Valletta. Mdina was also used as a ruse for the Ottomans during the Great Seige of 1565, where a feign was set up to show thousands of soldiers in the capital and plenty of ammunition to spare (when in fact there was only a few hundred with very few resources). This ensured that the Ottomans would not dare try to attack the capital.

  • Mdina Gate, which also featured in Game of Thrones, was only built in 1724. It has also been featured in other films such as the Count of Monte Cristo, Black Eagle and many more.

  • Mdina is the second-most popular city with tourists. 

  • There are ten chapels and churches in Rabat alone. 

  • ‘Rabat’ means ‘suburb’ in Arabic, probably because it was a suburb of the then capital city: Mdina.

8. Frequently Asked Questions

Is Rabat easy to get around?

If you’re content to stay in the main area of Rabat and Mdina, there’s no issues! Some of the walks and the surrounding areas might be hard to get to, but there’s plenty to see in the main area of Rabat to keep you occupied. 

How far is the airport from Rabat?

It depends! If you’re going by bus, the airport is around an hour to two hours away. By car, it is only a half hour drive, depending on traffic!

When is Rabat’s feast day?

The 19th of March, is St. Joseph’s Day - this is a great time to visit Rabat because there is plenty of local celebrations. Easter time is also a great time to visit because the religious traditions are very strong in this village and its neighbour Mdina.

Is Rabat expensive to stay in?

It might be on the higher end side, but you might be able to find a good deal on accomodation. Speak to us via our chat or call and we'll definetely offer you some good bargains.

What are some events you shouldn’t miss?

We recommend visiting Rabat during December to attend Natalis Nobilis, Malta’s premiere Christmas market, however there are numerous events to take part in all throughout the year. The Rabat feast day, Easter when religious traditions run strong, around the Medieval Mdina are all good times to visit.

9. Booking a Holiday to Mdina or Rabat

Choice Holidays as a travel agency based in Malta can offer the best advice when it comes to planning a visit or holiday in Mdina. We can guarantee best prices when it comes to package combination of flights and tickets so do get in touch, tell us what you need and we'll make sure we find the perfect holidays for you. 

Why not book your holiday to Malta now - get in touch?

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