From exploring the dark depths of the Mdina dungeons to visiting Game of Thrones filming locations; here are the best things to do in Mdina, Malta.
Located on a central plateau in the middle of Malta, Mdina has silently observed the passing of history for millennia. Originally established by the Phoenicians as ‘Maleth’, a strategic fortress around 4,000 years ago, Mdina’s protective walls have provided shelter for countless kingdoms and civilizations through the ages.
The Romans renamed it ‘Melita’ and fortified the city further, while local legend tells of the Apostle Paul who sought refuge within its walls in 60 AD, introducing Christianity to Malta in the process. The Arab conquest of Malta in the 9th century reshaped the city’s landscape further, and it came to be known in Arabic as ‘Medina’, or the walled city, from which the modern name is taken.
By the 11th century, the Normans swept in, bringing European influences, and Mdina remained one of Malta’s most important cities until the Knights of St. John arrived in the 16th century. They focused their power instead on Valletta, which would become the Maltese capital. Mdina’s allure persisted, though, and its palazzos were chosen as noble retreats by the wealthiest families on the island. While empires ebbed and flowed, Mdina, the ‘Silent City’, remained a resolute, undisturbed tribute to Malta’s past.
Today, Mdina is one of Europe’s quintessentially historical destinations. The city, with its tall walls, impenetrable gatehouses, deep moats and lofty towers looks straight out of a medieval tv show; and perhaps that’s largely because it has, indeed, been the filming location of many a show, including Game of Thrones. If you’re planning a trip to Malta, then keep reading, as we explore the best things to do in Mdina.
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The best things to do in Mdina
Mdina is located in almost the exact centre of Malta, which is why for many centuries, the city was fortified time and time again so it could function as a protected capital. It served as the Maltese capital until the medieval period, and its narrow streets, ancient architecture and well-preserved walls attract countless tourists each year.
Very few people actually live in Mdina itself (the resident population is less than 300!) and the houses, palaces and land are generally owned by old Maltese families or incredibly rich newcomers. Adjacent to Mdina is the town of Rabat – it’s kind of like the Mdina suburbs – where people actually have space to live, work and park their cars.
Given how small Mdina is, it’s definitely possible to see all the sights here in one day. I visited on a day trip when I was staying in Sliema, which is a half-hour drive away if the traffic is light. You’ll need to park or get dropped off in Rabat, then walk over the moat and through the fortified gates to start exploring Mdina’s sights and attractions.
1. Walk through Mdina’s main gate and entrance
Entering Mdina through its grand main gate is an experience in itself. This imposing structure, with its Baroque facade, stands as a tribute to Mdina’s storied past, guarding the secret footfall of a millennia’s history.
As you approach, the city’s historic nickname, the ‘Silent City’, becomes evident. Beyond the gate, the modern world fades behind, replaced instead by the echoes of footsteps on ancient cobblestones. The gate itself, adorned with the emblematic crest of Malta, has witnessed countless centuries of history – from medieval knights to filling in as the fictional setting of Game of Thrones.
After crossing the deep moat and walking through Mdina’s gate, you’re immediately enveloped by narrow lanes, limestone buildings and the shadows of history. This entrance is not just a gateway to a city, but a portal to another era.
Read more: 15 Best Things to Do in Valletta, Malta
2. Admire the Baroque architecture of Mdina Cathedral
The Mdina Cathedral, officially known as St. Paul’s Cathedral, stands as a symbol of Maltese faith in the heart of the ancient city. According to legend, it’s built on the site where Roman Governor Publius, later the first Maltese Bishop, met the Apostle Paul after his shipwreck on the island in 60 AD.
Over the centuries, the cathedral underwent numerous transformations, and its current Baroque incarnation dates back to the 17th century, a magnificent rebirth after the devastating earthquake of 1693.
Architect Lorenzo Gafà designed the new structure, showcasing a harmonious blend of ornate stonework, impressive domes, and a meticulously crafted interior. The cathedral’s floor is particularly noteworthy, adorned with marble tombstones that immortalise the Mdina knights and nobles of old.
Read more: 28 Best Places to Visit in Malta
3. Delve into artefacts and antiquity at the Palazzo Falson
Within Mdina’s ancient walls lies Palazzo Falson, one of the city’s oldest buildings. The Palazzo is believed to have been originally constructed in the 13th century, reflecting the typical medieval Maltese architecture of the nobility, with its imposing stone façade and arched doorways.
The Palazzo is named after the Falson family, who were its primary residents for many centuries. Yet, its modern renown is largely due to Capt. Olof Frederick Gollcher OBE, the last resident and an art collector, philanthropist, and historian. Gollcher amassed a remarkable collection of artefacts, artworks and antiques during his lifetime. Today, you can explore his eclectic collection, which includes Oriental carpets, silverware, fine paintings, antique furniture and a library brimming with historic volumes.
The Palazzo also offers a unique glimpse into the domestic life of Maltese nobility, from its ornate private chapel to the enclosed courtyard.
4. Descend into the Mdina Dungeons Museum
Hidden beneath the streets of Mdina lies the Mdina Dungeons Museum, a subterranean maze that narrates some of the island’s darker chapters. As you venture into its shadowy corridors, eerily lifelike wax figures and dramatic soundscapes bring to life tales of crime, punishment and intrigue from the medieval era.
This unique attraction offers a stark contrast to the sunlit walls of the Silent City above. The dungeons, with their chilling ambience, provide an insight into the justice system of ancient Malta, revealing stories of betrayal, espionage and even supernatural folklore.
From scenes of Inquisition trials to tragic tales of noble conspiracies, each chamber of the museum is a portal to a different age, ensuring visitors leave with a deeper understanding of Malta’s history. A visit to the Mdina Dungeons Museum is not for the faint-hearted, but for those intrigued by the island’s mysterious past, it’s an experience not to be missed.
5. Take in the views from Bastion Square
Bastion Square, located atop the ancient fortifications of Mdina, offers you an unparalleled vantage point of the surrounding countryside, including its terraced fields and farmland. On a clear day, you can even see the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon.
The history of Mdina’s bastions is deeply intertwined with the island’s past. Built to protect its residents from potential invaders, these fortifications have stood the test of time and conflict, from the Medieval period to the Knights of St. John, World War II and beyond. The view from Bastion Square, especially during sunset, is exceptional, making this one of the best places to visit in Mdina.
6. Visit the National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History presents a comprehensive overview of Malta’s rich ecological and geological history. Housed in the splendid Palazzo Vilhena, built in the 18th century by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, the museum’s setting is as marvellous as its exhibits.
Upon entering, you’re greeted by displays ranging from intricate mineral formations, illustrating the island’s geological underpinnings, to endemic flora and fauna specimens. The museum offers a deep dive into Malta’s unique environment, and the exhibits showcase both land and marine biodiversity, highlighting the significance of the Mediterranean biome.
The museum doesn’t solely focus on Malta. It also provides insights into broader themes, such as human evolution, featuring fascinating artefacts that trace the journey of our species. Additionally, there are sections dedicated to mammals, birds, and even exotic creatures from different parts of the world.
7. Head down into St Paul’s Catacombs
St Paul’s Catacombs, located in Rabat, just outside Mdina’s walls, is one of Malta’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Delving deep underground, these catacombs were primarily used between the 3rd century BC and 8th century AD. They served as burial sites during the Roman and Byzantine periods, reflecting a curious mix of early Christian, Jewish and Pagan practices.
Walking through the labyrinthine tunnels, you can see a variety of burial arrangements, from large communal agape tables used for ritual meals to individual niches for the departed. The intricate network of interconnected tunnels and chambers spans over 2000 square meters, making it the largest early Christian underground burial site on the island.
The catacombs’ name is inspired by the Apostle Paul’s alleged visit to Malta; however, there’s no direct evidence he visited this particular site. Still, the mystique of St Paul’s Catacombs offers an unusual journey into Malta’s ancient past.
8. Dig into Roman history at the Domus Romana
Just on the outskirts of Mdina, in the adjacent town of Rabat, the Domus Romana offers a window into the lavish lifestyles of Malta’s Roman elite. Re-discovered in 1881, this archaeological site represents the remains of a Roman townhouse, believed to date back to the 1st century BC.
The most intriguing feature of the Domus Romana is its exquisite mosaics, which are among the finest and oldest examples of their kind in the Western Mediterranean. The intricate patterns, painstakingly assembled with tiny coloured tiles, depict various mythological scenes, providing insights into the cultural and artistic inclinations of the Roman inhabitants.
While only a fraction of the original villa is accessible today, the preserved sections offer a tantalising glimpse into its past opulence. The site’s museum enhances the experience, showcasing a range of artefacts found within the villa, from ornate oil lamps and fine pottery to personal items like jewellery and coins.
The Domus Romana doesn’t just stand as a testament to Malta’s Roman past; it serves as a bridge, connecting visitors with the lives and passions of those who walked the same grounds millennia ago. For history aficionados and casual tourists alike, it’s a journey not to be missed.
9. Pay your respects at the Imtarfa Military Cemetery
Located outside the high walls of Mdina, the Imtarfa Military Cemetery offers a poignant glimpse into Malta’s military history. The cemetery stands as a testament to the lives lost during both World Wars, with rows of well-maintained gravestones spread across its serene grounds.
Many of the interred were British military personnel and their families stationed in Malta, given the island’s strategic importance in the Mediterranean. As you stroll through, the weight of conflict in Malta is evident. Each headstone, engraved with names and regiments, tells a silent story of sacrifice.
While the cemetery primarily commemorates those from the British Commonwealth, it also includes graves of individuals from other nations, underscoring Malta’s role as a crossroads of cultures and histories. Visiting Imtarfa Military Cemetery is a sombre experience, but it’s also a place of reflection that connects visitors to a bygone era.
10. Explore Ta’ Qali National Park and the Malta Aviation Museum
Just outside Mdina, Ta’ Qali National Park is a refreshing contrast to the island’s rugged coastline and historical sites. Once a World War II airfield, the area has been transformed into a sprawling green space, serving as a recreational hub for both locals and tourists.
Strolling through the park, you’ll encounter manicured gardens and open fields that are popular spots for picnics, jogging. Playgrounds scattered throughout the area ensure that younger visitors remain entertained, while the adjacent crafts village offers a glimpse of traditional Maltese artisanal skills, including glass blowing.
Throughout the year, Ta’ Qali comes alive with various events, from open-air concerts to agricultural festivals celebrating the island’s rich produce. The park also houses the Malta Aviation Museum, offering aviation enthusiasts a trip down memory lane with its collection of vintage aircraft and wartime memorabilia.
Another of the park’s standout features is the amphitheatre, set against a backdrop of trees and often hosting cultural and musical events.
Map of the best things to do in Mdina
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Mdina, Malta:
The best time to visit Mdina
The best time to visit Mdina largely depends on your travel preferences:
- Weather: The most favourable weather for tourists is during spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November). During these months, Malta enjoys mild temperatures and fewer crowds, making it a comfortable time to explore Mdina’s outdoor attractions and wander its narrow streets.
- Peak Tourist Season: July and August are the peak tourist months for Malta as a whole due to the summer holidays. While Mdina never gets as crowded as some other tourist destinations because of its ‘silent’ nature, it will still be busier during these months.
- Festivals & Events: If you want to experience local culture, consider aligning your visit with local festivals and events. For instance, Mdina Grand Prix, a classic car event, is held annually in October. Additionally, Malta’s festa season, with local village feasts dedicated to patron saints, is lively, though the primary focus is outside of Mdina.
- Off-Peak Season: If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during the winter months (December to February). While the weather can be cooler and there’s a higher chance of rain, there are fewer tourists, and accommodation prices might be more favourable. Plus, the cooler weather can make wandering the ancient streets more pleasant than in the heat of mid-summer.
How to travel to Mdina
Reaching Mdina is straightforward due to its central location on the island of Malta. Here’s a quick guide on how to travel to Mdina:
From Malta International Airport
- By Taxi or Private Transfer: This is the quickest option. The airport is about 12 km away from Mdina, so the drive should take around 20 minutes under normal traffic conditions.
- By Public Bus: Take the direct bus X3 from the airport heading towards Bugibba. It will pass through Rabat, which is just outside Mdina. The journey takes about 40-50 minutes.
From Valletta (the capital)
- By Public Bus: Various buses connect Valletta to Mdina. Bus numbers 51, 52, and 53 travel from Valletta to Mdina, and the journey usually takes about 30 minutes. The buses are frequent, usually departing every 20 minutes.
- By Taxi: You can hire a taxi from Valletta to Mdina. It’s a 20-25 minute ride under normal traffic conditions.
From other parts of Malta
- Buses are well-connected across the island, and since Malta is relatively small, reaching Mdina from various parts isn’t very time-consuming. Check the local bus schedule and routes on the official Malta Public Transport website or use apps like Google Maps for real-time bus information.
FAQ: The best things to do in Mdina, Malta
Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Mdina:
Q1. What are the top attractions to see in Mdina?
A1. Some must-visit spots include Mdina Gate, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Palazzo Falson and Bastion Square for its panoramic views.
Q2. I’m a fan of “Game of Thrones.” Are there any related sites in Mdina?
A2. Yes! The Mdina Gate served as the backdrop for certain scenes in ‘Game of Thrones’. Wander the streets to feel like you’re in King’s Landing.
Q3. Are there any museums worth visiting?
A3. Absolutely. The Cathedral Museum offers ecclesiastical artefacts, while Palazzo Falson is home to a diverse collection of antiques.
Q4. I’d like to get a panoramic view of Malta. Where should I go in Mdina?
A4. Head to Bastion Square. It provides a breathtaking view of much of the island.
Q5. What are some unique activities to do in Mdina?
A5. Consider experiencing the Mdina Dungeons or watching the audio-visual show at the Mdina Experience to dive deep into the city’s history.
Q6. I’m a foodie. Any dining recommendations?
A6. Fontanella Tea Garden is renowned for its cakes and offers a splendid view. Additionally, Medina Restaurant offers a delightful blend of Maltese and Mediterranean cuisines.
Q7. Can I drive in Mdina?
A7. Mdina is often referred to as the ‘Silent City’ and is mostly pedestrianised. Vehicles other than those belonging to residents are typically not allowed inside. It’s best to explore on foot.
Q8. Are there any religious sites to visit?
A8. Yes, St. Paul’s Cathedral is a prominent religious site, and legend says that the Apostle Paul resided in Mdina after being shipwrecked on Malta.
Q9. What’s the best way to soak in Mdina’s ambience?
A9. Simply walk around! Mdina’s charm lies in its narrow streets, medieval and baroque architecture, and quiet corners. Consider a night walk for an especially atmospheric experience.
Q10. Any events or festivals in Mdina?
A10. Mdina occasionally hosts special events like the Mdina Grand Prix, a classic car event. It’s also close to the festa celebrations in neighbouring Rabat. Check local listings for dates and details during your visit.
There we have it, the best things to do in Mdina! What’s your favourite thing to do in Mdina?