Last updated on May 30, 2023
When planning your Malta itinerary, it is easy to direct your focus towards the coastal towns or the capital city of Valletta and overlook the gems that the central part of the island has to offer. Mdina, the first capital of Malta dating back to before Roman times, along with the city of Rabat where St. Paul lived and preached during his stay on the island, are two unmissable places that were right at the top of our bucket list. Here’s my overview of the top things to do in Rabat and Mdina. Hopefully, it will convince you to add both to your itinerary too…
Exploring the old capital city of Rabat
As we arrived in Rabat for the first time, we made our way to a local pastizzeria for some snacks. This place appeared to be very popular with the locals, so we grabbed a ftira and coconut buns to go. We then enjoyed them in the sunshine before setting out to explore the city.
It wasn’t until my second trip 6 years later that I learned the pastizzeria we visited was actually one of the most iconic spots on the island. Is-Serkin, popularly known as the Crystal Palace Bar, has been serving locals and tourists since the 1940s. Back in the day, it used to be a popular hangout place for British troops stationed in Malta, hence the other name.
People also call it “the shop that never closes”, as it buzzes with life 24/7. Even if you’re a night owl, you’re always welcome for some late-night munchies. The beauty of this place lies in its simplicity and adherence to tradition. Picture this: a no-fuss, retro setup that looks like it’s popped out of a 1940s postcard, and the scent of fresh pastries wafting through the air. If you’re looking for the place to have the best pastizzi in Malta, this is it!
Collegiate Church of St. Paul
Our first stop was the Collegiate Church of St. Paul where we attended the Sunday Mass. Although it was in Maltese, it was interesting to observe how it is celebrated in a country that is often considered the cradle of Christianity.
The church itself provides great insight into typical Maltese architecture of the 17th century. It is decorated with many ornate elements, including a marble statue of St. Paul, frescoes depicting different scenes from his life, and an altarpiece representing the Shipwreck of St. Paul. Right opposite the church, there is a little square where visitors can get some rest and enjoy the scenery.
As a university student at the time, I got a joint ticket to the Wignacourt Museum, St. Paul’s Grotto, as well as adjacent WWII air raid shelters with catacombs for a mere €3.50. If you want to take advantage of this deal too, you need to make sure to bring your ISIC card.
The recently renovated Wignacourt Museum houses an exhibition of various historical artefacts related to the Order of Malta. They include paintings, sculptures, silverware, ceramics, and an altar which was once used to celebrate the Mass. There is also an Italian-owned garden café / restaurant. You can try the specialties of Italian cuisine or enjoy a cup of cappuccino and a slice of cake in the presence of blooming flowers and a pomegranate tree.
St. Paul’s Grotto
The museum is linked to St. Paul’s Grotto. It is said to be the place where the apostle took refuge with his disciples after the shipwreck, as well as the meeting point for the first Christian community. I was lucky enough to be the only person in the grotto. It allowed me to look around and take a moment to think about what it must have felt like back in the day.
Inside the cave, there is a life-size statue of St. Paul and a hanging silver ship which was donated by the Knights in 1960. St. Paul’s Grotto has become one of the main places of Christian worship over the years, with many important people visiting the place. There is a plaque inside commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1990.
WWII shelters and catacombs
Whilst I considered myself lucky to be the only person in the grotto, I no longer felt this way upon entering the burial site of early Christians which was later used as air raid shelters during WWII.
I normally wouldn’t consider myself faint-hearted when it comes to such tourist attractions. As a matter of fact, I find them really fascinating. However, throughout my entire visit there, I felt rather uneasy and I was very relieved whenever someone else passed by. There were a lot of poorly lit corridors and I was afraid I was going to get lost.
It also didn’t help that my iPhone camera started acting up. Although everything looked perfectly fine on the screen, once I released the shutter, the photos would come out with strange colourful stripes. I am sure there is a logical explanation for it. However, at the time, it sent shivers down my spine and made me head towards the exit sooner than I was planning to.
Once I was reunited with my friend, we stumbled upon an opulently decorated street. My guess is that it was in preparation for the Feast of St. Joseph taking place in Rabat every March.
St. Paul’s Catacombs
During my second visit to the city, I explored a place I didn’t get to see the first time around. St. Paul’s Catacombs are a maze of ancient underground burial chambers. They were in use from the 3rd to the 8th century AD, therefore representing the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.
If you’d like to explore the complex, it’s open daily between 10 am and 6 pm and tickets cost €6. It spans across an area of 2,000 square meters. Inside, you can access more than 20 catacombs that were home to at least 420 burials.
They’ve kept it authentic, showcasing different burial types from wall niches to table tombs. Interestingly, the catacombs were open to all, regardless of faith. You can spot a Jewish Hypogeum within the complex, as well as evidence of Muslim and Pagan burials alongside Christians. It’s an interesting place to visit if you want to get a glimpse into early Christian rituals in Malta.
Visiting Malta’s Silent City, Mdina
Mdina, also known as the Silent City, is one of the most picturesque and unique cities in Malta that feels like it was taken straight out of a fairytale.
Built by the Phoenicians around 4,000 years ago, it was initially part of the same landscape as the neighbouring city of Rabat. It wasn’t until Malta was conquered by the Arabs that defensive walls were built around the city. This created the impression of a closed fortress that can only be entered through three gates. The Main Gate was actually one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones. I’m one of the people who haven’t seen a single episode, though, so it was never a reason for me to visit.
Once we were past the moat, we decided to skip all the tourist attractions. Instead, we went for a wander through the myriad of narrow alleys.
With all the empty streets, closed doors, and shutters, it was as if we had entered an abandoned city. It didn’t bother us at all, though. Quite the opposite – it felt like we were let in on some well-kept secret. Only an occasional passerby would remind us that we didn’t in fact have this fairytale city all to ourselves. We also loved the element of surprise not knowing what we were going to discover after turning another corner.
If you’re looking for a unique souvenir for your loved ones, it is worth visiting the local Mdina Glass shops. Inside, you can find a selection of world-renowned handmade artistic and functional glassware.
Fontanella Tea Garden
And when all the sightseeing and shopping wears you out, Fontanella Tea Garden is the perfect spot for a coffee break. Located atop the city walls, it provides beautiful panoramic views of almost the entire island.
Known for their vast selection of teas and homemade cakes, it’s the place to go to indulge your sweet tooth. In case you’re more hungry than peckish, they also serve a good range of local and international dishes. My friend Jon swears by their carrot cake. However, as it contains sultanas, I went for the white chocolate cheesecake instead, while Mac chose the Banoffee pie, and both were delicious. The other options behind the counter looked just as good, so I’d happily try more cakes next time.
The only thing to watch out for is that it can get incredibly windy on the terrace. My complimentary Lotus Biscoff biscuit sadly went flying off the table and we had to hold our plates as they kept sliding across it. Thankfully, there’s an indoor seating area too, where you can find some refuge in case of bad weather. Just double-check your outfit before you go, or you’ll end up matching with the table like me 😉
If you’re looking for more Malta inspiration, you can find the rest of my Malta series here. Finally, I would love to know – what’s the most fairytale-like place you’ve ever been to? I’m always looking to expand my bucket list, and I’m a total sucker for Instagrammable locations! Can’t wait to read all your suggestions in the comments below!