Mdina and Rabat (City Guide)

Online since: 09. April 2013

Mdina and Rabat (City Guide)

The entire city of Mdina is worth visiting. It is honeycombed with many narrow streets and has a huge city wall with three gates, a stunning cathedral (the interior of which is just as impressive as the exterior), a viewing platform that offers amazing views of the northern parts of Malta, and many more attractions. Rabat, on the other hand, is a more modern city. It also offers some attractive highlights, such as St. Paul’s Church and Grotto, the Museum of Roman Antiquities and St. Paul’s Catacombs. While Rabat is more vivacious, Mdina has more culturally and historically related activities to offer.

The three gates: Main Gate, Greek’s Gate and Gharreqin Gate

There are three ways – three gates – to get into the city. The most popular way is through the Main Gate, which leads directly to the main street of Mdina (Triq Villegaignon) giving a comprehensive first impression of Mdina. The other two gates are on the southwestern side of the city (at St Peters Bastion), both of which lead into small side streets. The Greek’s Gate is the entrance gate for cars, and as the Gharreqin Gate is located further away from the centre, it resembles more of a side entrance. It was cut into the wall in 1890 to create direct access to the train station in the valley. (There used to be a train in Malta that ran from Mdina to Birkirkara and Valletta.) The Baroque Main Gate was built in 1724 by the Grand Master de Vilhena to replace the old one. Inside the gate’s arch, you can see the statues of the patron saints of the city and the island – St Publius, St Agatha and St Paul – as well as the coat of arms of the architect de Vilhena, and that of a Maltese aristocratic family.

Vilhena Palace

Directly behind the Main Gate is the Vilhena Palace. Until 1730, it accommodated the University of Mdina. In the same year, the Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, after whom the palace was named, had the Palazzo Vilhena reconstructed into a summer palace. Since 1973, it has been the home of the Museum of Natural History.

In front to the Vilhena Palace, to the right of the Main Gate, a small staircase leads down to the Mdina Dungeons. There you can see a torture chamber from the Middle Ages and life-size mannequins depicting in gruesome detail how people were tortured back then!
If you follow the street to the right of the gate, you’ll get to the Corte Capitanale, a part of the Vilhena Palace. This was the former court of Mdina, and it was allegedly here that the commandant of the French garrison killed himself, after the pillage by Napoleon (not proven). In 1798,Napoleon stopped in Malta during his Egyptian campaign, to provide food for his fleet of more of 400 ships. He saw the chance to refill his war chest by plundering the entire island. He also banned the knights of the Order of St John, effectively paving the way for the British.)

St Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral

The most beautiful and magnificent building in Mdina is St Paul’s Cathedral, on Pjazza San Pawl (St Paul’s place). Inside and out, the church is decorated with a great number of ornaments. The side facing the Pjazza consists of two stunning bell towers, a gabled roof and a Corinthian column order.


An earthquake in 1693 caused severe damage in Malta and destroyed the Norman cathedral built in the 12th century in Mdina. The present cathedral was built as a replacement by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà, in 1702. Above the main gate, you can still see the coat of arms of the rulers at that time: Bishop Palmieri and Grand Master Ramon Perellos.

In the church

The interior of the church is decorated with elaborate designs and ornaments. You will see many paintings, as well as frescoes on the walls and ceiling, many of which were created by Mattia Preti in the 17th century. The cathedral is very impressive and definitively worth a visit.

Note: It is prohibited to take pictures inside the cathedral.

Triq Villegaignon – the small main road of Mdina

The Triq Villegaignon is Mdina’s small main road. It starts at the chapel of Sant Agata, right after the Main Gate, passes through the Pjazza San Pawl and St Paul’s Cathedral ending at the Pjazza Tas-Sur, from where you can enjoy the breath-taking view of the northern parts of Malta. Many of the city’s important buildings are situated along this street, such as the Palazza Inguanez, in which the Spanish king has right of residence to this day – but only Alfonso V and Alfonso XIII, in 1432 and 1927 respectively, ever made use of that right. Other buildings include the Palazzo Gatto Murina, with its beautiful Baroque façade, the Casa Testaferrata – the city palace of a family from the 17th century – the Banca Giuratale, the Palazzo Santa Sophia, the cloister and church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the Palazzo Costanzo, the Palazzo Falzon and the Palazzo Notabile restaurant.

The Viewing platform of Pjazza Tas-Sur (Bastion Square)

The Pjazza Tas-Sur, also known as the Bastion Square, in the north of Mdina, offers stunning views of the northern parts of Malta.

Our tip: You should enjoy the view with a slice of delicious cake from the Fontanella Tea Garden at the plaza!

Palazzo Santa Sophia

The Palazzo Santa Sophia was built in 1233, and consequently is Malta’s oldest, preserved building. The top level was only added in 1938. The building itself is rather inconspicuous.

Carmelite Cloister

Behind the Palazzo Santa Sophia lies the Carmelite Cloister, with an elaborately decorated church. It is said that the pillaging of the cloister during Napoleon’s raid of Malta was the final straw that triggered the Maltese revolution.

Museum of Roman Antiquities in Rabat

Rabat was partially built in the same area as the old Roman city of Melite. In 1881, a block of flats from the Roman era was discovered, and it was fully restored in 1921. Today, it houses a museum.


St Paul’s Church and Grotto

In the centre of Rabat are St Pauls Church and Grotto, which form a centre of worship around the apostle St Paul in Malta. Back in 1372, a chapel above St Paul’s Grotto outside the wall was mentioned for the first time in documents of the time. But the cult around St Paul only began somewhere between 1600-1617, when the Spanish nobleman Giovanni Beneguas lived there. A statue of the apostle stands near the church.

St Pauls Catacombs

Beneath Rabat lies a widespread system of catacombs, the construction of which probably began in the 2nd century and were used most during the 4th and 5th centuries. St Pauls Catacombs are located close to St. Pauls Church. A staircase leads down to a large, sacred room, beneath which another chapel is located. In the main crypt stand a circular table surrounded by a semi-circular bench – a feature unique to Malta – used for meals during the festival of the dead. Several hallways lead from the main hall to the burial caves.

St. Agatas Catacombs in Rabat

The Catacombs of St. Agata are probably the most fascinating ones in all of Malta. The old chapel now accommodates a museum, where you can also buy admission tickets to the catacombs. Staircases outside the chapel will lead you down there.

S. Wagner

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