I arranged my visit to Mdina, the former capital of Malta in the medieval period, while I was still at the airport waiting for my transfer to the hotel. I have previously posted on a Facebook travel group for advice regarding what to see in Malta and found two other girls that were here during the same period of time, one as a tourist (Erika) and one as a resident (Daniela). We agreed to meet in the afternoon and explore Mdina together, having Daniela as a guide.
Even if the airport is just a few miles out of the capital, the traffic in Malta is so bad that it took over an hour to reach my hotel, the Hilton. I would recommend though taking a door to door transfer rather than the bus, as booked online, the price is very low (I paid £5 for a return transfer booked with Hoppa).
Once arrived at the hotel I only had time to take a quick shower and then hurry towards the station to catch the bus number 202 from St Julian (Ross stop) towards Mdina. I was meeting Erika on the bus, so I had to be there for a specific time. Luckily, the bus station was 2 minutes away from the hotel.
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The public transport in Malta is quite good but in the same time is very chaotic, with old and crowded buses. I was lucky to be one of the first ones on the bus and I spotted Erika straight away, in her white dress, having an empty seat next to her. We connected straight away and had a lot of time to chat, during the hour and a half necessary for the bus to cover the 8 km to Mdina. We ended up being more than half an hour late for the meeting with Daniela.
We could spot Mdina from the road, a while city on top of a hill. You have to know that Mdina looks more like a citadel inside Rabat town and often you will see that the buses actually go to Rabat and not Mdina. That’s because a very limited number of cars is allowed to enter the city and most of its streets are very narrow. Only about 300 people still live in Mdina and that is why the name of “The Silent City”. Walking through its streets, most of time times you won’t hear a single sound.
We entered the “Silent City” through Mdina gate, passing over an arched stone bridge decorated with statues of lions holding the coat of arms of Rabat. In the medieval period the entrance to the city consisted of three gates separated by courtyards. However, in the 17th century the city has been completely rebuilt and the gates were demolished to make space for Palazzo Vilhena. That’s when the medieval fortifications have been reconstructed and a new Baroque gate built a few meters away from the original one: Mdina gate.
What is there to do in Mdina? As soon as you step inside the city gate, take a few steps and you will be welcomed by a beautiful square with St Paul’s cathedral guarding it. The legend says that the cathedral was built on the same spot where the Roman governor Publius met Paul the Apostle, after his shipwreck in Malta. However, the cathedral we see today has been rebuilt in the 17th century following an earthquake which destroyed the old one. The new one was reconstructed in a Baroque style as well, with only a few original elements incorporated from the old cathedral (the ones that survived the earthquake, like the door for example). The floor of the cathedral is covered in marble tombstones commemorating bishops and members of the noble families of Mdina who are buried inside.
In order to experience the beauty of Mdina you have to visit it in the afternoon, early evening. During the day the horde of tourists will spoil its beauty and silent atmosphere. I arrived there at around 4:30PM and got the chance to explore an empty town, quiet, with almost no sight of other people around. The narrow streets between the tall buildings are like a labyrinth from where you’ll never know which corner of the city you’ll end up to. Will it be a square? Will it be a gate? Will it be a wall?
We ended up in an empty little square with a well in the middle. If you are a fan of the Game of Thrones you will recognise Mesquita Square easily as the location of Littlefinger’s brothel in front of which Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister fought. Did you know that the first season of the popular TV series was filmed in Malta?
If you get hungry while visiting Mdina, you have to know that there are just a few places to eat inside the city. I would recommend you to stop even for a coffee at Fontanella Garden which has an amazing location, right on the city walls. You can almost see the entire east side of the island from there and, despite the prime position, the prices are actually very decent. They have a great selection of cakes and light bites which come in huge portions. I ordered the ftira, a traditional Maltese tuna ciabatta, and ended up not being able to finish it or have any dinner that evening.
As the sun went down and the street gas lamps turned on, we went for a stroll in the gardens underneath the city walls. You have to note that these gardens do close at night, make sure that you check the schedule for when the gate shuts to avoid getting locked in.
We said good night to Mdina and left it to sleep, while we went to explore a little bit the streets of Rabat as well. Out first stop was at Domus Romana, the ruins of a 1st century Roman house. Unfortunately the museum was closed but we did take a peak through the fence and tried to imagine how it must have looked like.
Rabat is as beautiful as Mdina, with the same narrow streets and beautiful buildings but without the silence. In fact, the name of the city, Rabat, comes from Arabic and it used to mean “a suburb” of Mdina. In the past, before Mdina was rebuilt in the 17th century, the two cities used to be only one. Today, Rabat is mostly known for the catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha, underground cemeteries where the Romans used the bury their dead.
In Rabat you can also find the most famous place to buy pastizzi, the local snack of Malta. Crystal Palace is just a whole in the wall, across the street from Domus Roamna, where the best pastizzi on the entire island are made. Don’t miss it!
Have you ever visited a silent city before?
For more information, read this helpful guide on what you should know about Malta before you arrive.