A guide to magical Mdina, Malta’s silent city

A guide to Mdina: the silent city of Malta | PACKTHESUITCASES

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Exploring Mdina, the silent city of Malta, is a highlight of any trip to the island and an experience you shouldn’t miss while there as it’s really unlike anywhere else you might discover on your travels. Mdina is a tiny walled city and the former capital of Malta. It lies on a hilltop in the centre of Malta, with fewer than 250 inhabitants but boasting 4,000 years of history and an intriguing reputation as ‘the silent city’. How mysterious and beguiling does that sound? And yes, if you’re wondering, Mdina really lives up to this ‘silent city’ name. You’ll find it eerily quiet and, especially if you visit later in the day, strangely empty. The dim glow of the ornate streetlamps may be your only company on a dusky evening.

By day, Mdina is less creepy and more pretty. Honey-coloured walls line the winding streets. Colourful flowers and doors are everywhere. It’s a photographer’s paradise. And it’s such a small city that you won’t get lost for more than a minute, so you can wander down whichever pretty street takes your fancy.

If you’re planning a trip to Malta, get Mdina the silent city on your itinerary. Here’s my little guide to what to see, do and know before you go…

How Mdina became known as ‘the silent city’ of Malta

Mdina is pronounced ‘um-dee-na’. But it’s gone through quite a few name changes over the centuries. And of course its nickname ‘the silent city’ is by far the most enchanting. 

Sadly there’s no incredible legend behind the name. I was hoping to hear a tale of a witch who’d got fed up of everyone making a racket and she’d magicked them all into shutting up. But it’s actually just a nickname from locals. As I mentioned earlier, Mdina used to be the capital of Malta. It was a typical capital city full of hustle and/or bustle, and of course home to all of the richest nobles and anyone who was anyone. After the capital moved (it’s now Valletta), Mdina never regained its importance. The hip and happening nobles upped sticks to the new capital, and residents began to see Mdina as a bit of a ghost town, or a ‘silent city’.

Today, businesses in Mdina must adhere to noise restrictions, cars are also strictly limited to residents and emergency vehicles only, and visitors are expected to keep their voices down too. Luckily this will come naturally to most people because when you step through the gates, the strange hush is noticeable and you automatically find yourself talking softly. 

A brief history of Mdina

The Phonecians founded the city (known as Maleth back then) around 700 BC, and they picked a good spot. In the middle of the country and on a hill, you’ve got a good advantage for all the many invasions you’re most likely going to have to put up with as an island.

But not even a great hilltop vantage point could keep the Romans from getting in, and they took control of Mdina in 218 BC and renamed it Melite. Legend has it that around this time, St. Paul lived just outside the city walls after being shipwrecked on Malta. Hope he did it quietly.

Over the centuries, Mdina and Malta as a whole were ruled by all sorts of different people. During the Arab occupation of Malta, the city got renamed again to its current name of Mdina. This is derived from the Arabic medina, meaning ‘city’. How do they come up with these incredibly original names?

The city remained the capital of Malta throughout the Middle Ages, until the Order of St. John rocked up in 1530. They moved the administrative centre over to Birgu, near Valletta, and the aforementioned nickname was born.

What to see and do in Mdina the silent city

So the main point of Mdina is to just walk through the gate and lose yourself in the enchanting streets. Admire all the gorgeous Baroque features, taking in the silence. You’re in Mdina to enjoy its unique atmosphere and beauty. It’s not a ‘do this, see that, tick off the big sights’ kind of gaff. There are no normal shops, only tourist gift shops, and tourist-oriented restaurants and cafes. So you can pretty much whiz round in 10 minutes and ‘see’ everything. But it’s a place to linger and soak in the silent vibes.

There are five things that I think you should definitely make sure you do while exploring Mdina.

1. Find the most Instagrammable spot in Mdina

Need I say more?! If you search for Mdina on Instagram, you’ll get reams and reams of variations on this facade. Everyone who has ever visited Mdina has taken a photo of it. You can see why. The door, the flowers, the colour. I wonder which came first, this combination or Instagram? Perhaps it was a clever marketing move from Visit Malta…

Anyway, you’ll naturally find this beautiful spot as you wander around, so don’t worry about trying to look it up on Google maps before you get there. The city is so small, you won’t miss anything.

2. Have lunch with a view or treat yourself to a Michelin star meal

Although Mdina is tiny and doesn’t have a huge range of options to eat, there are some real foodie gems. Malta is brilliant for food in general to be honest, and even little nondescript cafés and kiosks tend to have high-quality delights. These are my favourite two spots in Mdina:

  • Fontanella Tea Garden is your best best for a lovely lunch or mid-afternoon cuppa and cake. Try to get a table upstairs for the best views, stretching for miles across farmland and over tiny hamlets dotting the landscape. The food is great, despite this café being incredibly popular with tourists. It’s so good in fact that the homemade cakes are renowned throughout Malta. You can also get the usual lunch options too: pizza, tapas platters, salads and sandwiches, all of which are delicious. Just make sure you leave room for cake.
  • The de Mondion Restaurant is an elegant Michelin-starred affair, somewhere you can get dressed up for of an evening. Set on the top floor of a beautiful 16th-century building, it’s a great option for a special occasion or if you just really want to treat yourself. Get a table on the terrace for stunning views while you tuck into the Mediterranean fine dining. Like with any Michelin star place, you’ll have to book ahead.

3. Spot all the pretty doors and door knockers

Mdina is a real haven of pretty doors. Turquoise, minty green and red appear to be the most popular colours. I especially enjoy the more shabby-chic rustic ones.

Many of the colourful doors also have unusual door knockers in the shape of animals. There’s something to feast your beady eye on round every corner. My favourites are the little dolphins and seahorses, presumably related to Malta’s maritime ways. But lions are probably the most popular animal of choice, and you’ll see them everywhere. 

4. Learn the history of the city 

As already mentioned, Mdina has a very long and bloody history of being constantly invaded and fought over by just about everyone: Romans, Arabs, Spanish, French and of course British (we have to go and invade everywhere don’t we? Embarrassing). Oh and the country had a massive earthquake to top it all off.

As well as reading up on the history before you go, you can also learn about all this horror at The Mdina Experience. It’s one of those little informative films made by tourist boards. They’re always mildly clunky but give you some good information from local experts. There’s also a medieval tavern on site, where you can have a drink surrounded by staff in costume to get into the historical mood. The film takes about half an hour and costs €6. 

The Mdina and Rabat walking tour is also a good idea if you want to understand the city’s rich history. It takes 2 hours and will take you round everything there is to see, and the guide is really knowledgeable.

5. Head to St Paul’s Cathedral

This is one of the few actual ‘sights’ in Mdina, if you don’t count the walls and streets themselves. The majestic and imposing 17th-century cathedral looms over the main square in Mdina and will likely be the first thing you stumble across. Like most Baroque cathedrals, it’s super swanky inside, with lots of tiles and impressive gold decor. I found it pleasingly light and bright though; some cathedrals can be very dingy even if they’re ornate. Oh and keep a look out for our shipwrecked mate St Paul, as he features in the ceiling frescos.

Fun fact: St Paul’s Cathedral has two clocks, like many churches around Malta. When facing it, you’ll see a normal clock on the right and a special one that tells the month and year on the left. This is apparently to confuse the devil so he doesn’t know when everyone is off to mass. He could just Google it these days I suppose.

Mdina the silent city: ghost stories 

I’d read that you have to see Mdina at dusk or night to appreciate its eerie silence, so when I visited I stayed until early evening when it was going dark and the beautiful streetlamps began to light up. Now, I don’t believe in ghosts one bit. But I still get freaked out by the thought of them (logical, I know). And you can deffo imagine bumping into one in Mdina. I had to look up whether or not it’s allegedly haunted and of course, it is.

One of Malta’s most popular ghost stories is apparently that a woman stands silently at the end of the dark streets in Mdina, urging people to follow her, before walking straight through a wall (presumably to Malta’s version of platform 9 3/4?).

There’s another ghost story about a woman who killed a knight and was sentenced to death. This seems particularly harsh as he’d attacked her and she was defending herself and didn’t mean to actually kill him. Poor woman. We demand a re-trial! Anyway, before being beheaded, they let her get married to her fella. Apparently, she now pops up in the background of tourist photos as a headless bride, wedding dress and all. Check your selfies.

If you’re into ghostly goings-on and you’re planning a trip to Malta, you might enjoy the ‘Dark side of Valletta Walking Tour’. It takes you through all the mysterious and creepy bits of the capital city of Valletta at night.

Outside the silent city walls: Rabat

A guide to Mdina: the silent city of Malta | PACKTHESUITCASES

Once you’ve walked down every street in Mdina (easily done as it’s only a little’un), make sure you venture out into Rabat. Mdina doesn’t have many locals actually living in it, but Rabat is a bit more ‘real’. It’s still incredibly quiet, but you’ll spot a few dog walkers and locals milling about. It has equally pretty streets as Mdina and an impressive church (St Paul’s, again) so it’s worth walking around a bit before you get the bus back to Valletta.

If you have time, pop into the St Paul’s Catacombs while you’re in Rabat. These burial chambers, dating back to the 4th century, show the earliest Christianity on Malta because Roman law forbade burials within the city. You’ll only need 15 minutes maximum to see the catacombs, and don’t expect them to be as impressive as others around Europe. They’re not full of skulls piled up or anything like that. But they’re worth seeing if you’re there.

A final note on carriage rides in Mdina and horse welfare

I’m a lifelong equestrian and horse owner, so my every waking hour revolves around horses in some way. I try not to mention them too much on the blog, but I’m going to have to slip a horsey mention into this post as Mdina has carriage rides on offer, and you might be considering doing one on your visit. Now, the few carriage horses I saw when I visited Mdina were all in decent condition apart from some slightly overgrown hooves, which is far better than the general state of working horses in most countries. But my hard and fast rule is to never do tourist carriage rides anywhere abroad, even in very civilised countries.

Equine welfare does seem to be a bit of an issue in Malta, according to their Times. And even if the horses seem in okay condition in Mdina, you never know whether the way they’re cared for at home aligns with the standards you’d keep your own horse. For example, many countries don’t give their horses any turnout (time in a field to graze and be with other horses) so they spend all their time in a stable. That’s unthinkable to many equestrians in countries where turnout is a standard part of welfare. Given that you just don’t know how they’re kept, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution with these decisions.

I’d recommend giving carriages a miss and spending your time exploring Mdina (or anywhere) on foot.

Mdina the silent city: useful information

Where to stay in Mdina if you want to stay overnight

If you’re visiting Malta, I wouldn’t actually recommend staying in Mdina as it’s so tiny and not near other attractions. You should stay in Valletta (try 19 Rooms or Paulos Valletta if you want my recommendations for there).

However, if you do want a bit of the silent city overnight rather than as a day trip, there are some rather nice options you could book just for one night in Mdina. You’d be able to get some brilliant photos late at night or early morning when all the other tourists have gone. Here are a couple of lovely ones that I’ve researched:

  • The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux – If you’re going to make the effort to stay over in Mdina itself, within the city walls, you need to go all out and book somewhere fabulous (and pricey). For around 250€, you can treat yourself to a night in this luxurious hotel. It’s also where the aforementioned Michelin-starred restaurant is, so would be an ideal night away for an anniversary or big birthday when you want to splash out.
  • Casa Azzopardi Guesthouse – If you don’t want to go quite as wild with the spending, stay just outside in Rabat. For about 95€, you can get a huge room in this pretty B&B, just a short walk to Mdina.

How to get to Mdina

To get to Mdina, get the number 51 bus from Valletta for an absolute bargain of €1.50. It takes about half an hour. You alight in Rabat, just outside the city walls of Mdina. Everything is very walkable in the silent city once you’re there. 

When to go to Mdina

I went to Malta in April, when it was busy but also unseasonably cold all week. Not a good combination. Like with many places in Europe, spring and autumn usually tend to be ideal for visiting. Avoid in the height of summer as it can get heaving and far too hot to be able to explore comfortably. I wouldn’t fancy Mdina full of tourists in August: not such a silent city then.

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  1. Mdina looks lovely. Very atmospheric with all that history. No doubt now that summer is here the walls offer welcome shade. Rare to find any tourist destination that you can have to yourself.

  2. Mdina looks so lovely! I have been eyeing Malta recently, but need to see if it’s feasible for me at the moment. I love your shoes too—so cute!

  3. Thank you for sharing! Love the pics. I’m a sucker for colorful doors so Malta would be right my alley 😀 Mdina looks lovely too! Love historic towns.

  4. Mdina looks so charming! It kind of reminds me of the “El Centro” neighborhood of Cartagena, though, in the sense that it really caters to tourists and that no locals actually live there. It’s kind of a strange feeling, to feel like you’re in a “tourist town”. Not necessarily something that I seek out when traveling. Anyway, thanks for sharing this post! Your photos are lovely 🙂

  5. Mdina seems pretty dreamy! I’m obsessed with that Instagrammable wall (I see why!) and your silver shoes! Where are they from?!

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I felt the same as you about Malta – somewhere that looks great in photos but I didn’t connect with it at all. Spending the first day of our trip throwing up wasn’t the best start though to be fair! Maybe it’s the Game of Thrones connection but it really reminded me of Dubrovnik but whereas I really loved Dubrovnik I couldn’t get the same feeling about Malta. I’m glad we went to Mdina but I wouldn’t rush to go back.

    I’ve also just had great fun suggesting to my partner that we should go back through our pictures to check for ghosts!

    1. What a relief someone else felt the same. I just felt like it was rather soulless, which I feel bad saying – it’s tricky to blog about somewhere you don’t like. But it looks SO pretty in photos that I’m sure nothing I say will put anyone off going haha. I’m keen for Dubrovnik!

  7. Wow you spent way more time in Mdina than us! We didn’t really like it there at all. Took forever to get there and then millions of tourists. We did like Valletta though 🙂

  8. I love your blog! I’m so annoyed at myself for not checking this out before our 2 week trip to Malta (Gozo, primarily) which will end on Saturday! Keep on blogging, I’m hooked!

  9. I’m suspecting Mdina might be my highlight on our trip! Looks very pretty. Interesting point about the carriage drives – I’ve never taken one abroad either but I’m always looking at how they appear to be treated, because my parents actually used to do them in Orkney when the cruise liners were in! It’s quite a nice way to see a place, but it’s funny I’ve never really thought about doing them myself.

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