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Mdina is the jewel in the crown of Malta. Perched on a high rock in the centre of the island, its strategic location helped to protect residents from invaders in ancient times. These days, the only invaders are hordes of tourists that descend en masse from cruise ships and the coast. They wander through the medina, posing for photos and marvelling at the cool inner courtyards, quaint tourist shops and labyrinthine alleys. Many make the mistake of booking an organised tour. They fail to realise that for a fraction of the price, and more excitement, they can easily make their own way to the city. No flag bearers to follow, no timetables to adhere to and extra pounds in their pockets! So, with the British pound at record lows, discover how to save money on an independent day trip to Mdina and neighbouring Rabat.
Buses all seem to offload in the same area by the walkway to the entrance of the Mdina. Wherever you travel from in Malta you should find it easy to orientate once you arrive. The walls of Mdina will be on one same of the main thoroughfare whilst the city of Rabat is on the other opposite side.
Getting to Mdina
Although the cost of day trips to Mdina is quite reasonable in Malta (anything between £12 and £50), unless you want to be herded around like sheep, it is best to skip these and DIY a day trip to the city. There are several options to get you to the city which will save those valuable British pounds – another cocktail please!
An Uber from Valletta to Mdina costs around €15. With tours including transport starting at around £22, even a single traveller will save money on Uber. It is also the least stressful way to get to the city.
To get anywhere on Malta by public transport you need to download the Tallinja app. You can then search for bus routes and timetables. Note, I use the word timetable very loosely as buses turn up when they want. It is not uncommon for a bus to be twenty minutes or more behind schedule. Who knows whether this is simply a cavalier approach or poor scheduling. Either way, do not rely on the timings if you need to catch a connection. If possible, select direct routes as it will make your journey considerably less stressful.
Buses to Mdina
Buses 51, 52 and 53, in theory, run at ten minute intervals from the outskirts of Valletta to Mdina. We did however wait forty minutes with no sight of any bus to Mdina (see note above re timetables). If you leave from Sliema and the surrounding area bus 202 runs direct to Mdina but it often fills. It pays to go to the first stop to improve your chances of securing a spot. The bus runs hourly so it is a real pain if you turn up and it shows up full. Bus tickets cost €2 each way per adult but there’s a bunch of passes and multi ticket cards you can purchase to reduce your costs.
The 202 also passes through the town of Mosta where you will catch a glimpse of the Rotunda of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta Nosta. From a distance it looks quite unassuming but close up, it is a remarkable building and houses one of the largest unsupported domes in Europe.
It is modelled on the design of the Pantheon in Rome but in my opinion is more beautiful with ornate stone carvings around the porticos, towers and clock face. Amazingly the dome is 51 metres high, 45 metres across and has 6m thick walls. Another astonishing fact about the church is that in 1942, during World War II, a bomb crashed through the dome into the church below but failed to explode. Divine intervention maybe?
See getting around Malta for more information on public transport and other options.
Car hire in Malta is cheap but unwise for multiple days unless your hotel has designated parking. Many hotels are in very congested areas without car parks and you could spend a lot of time fruitlessly searching for a parking space.
You can however book a car for a day for around €30 here. This is clearly a much more expensive option and honestly, I do not recommend car hire as you still have to find parking when you get to Mdina. This itself will be no mean feat!
However if you wish to visit multiple destinations on your day trip, and have the patience of a saint (both for traffic and parking) Rental Cars allows you to search all available options.
You can hire a bike or scooter from numerous depots around the island from as little as €15 a day. Note however Malta is far from flat so if you like an easy ride it may be better to pick another option. Although the journey is only around 13km each way, there are plenty of climbs to negotiate!
Mdina old city
Once you arrive, stepping through the Main gate of Mdina is like entering a time capsule. Gone are neon signs, chain stores and traffic jams. Instead, you enter a labyrinth of narrow streets, where scents of flowers and mouth-watering food carry on gusts of wind that whistle through the alleyways. Horse drawn carriages transport tourists on tours of the walled city and restaurants and cafes squeeze into nooks in the walls overlooking the valley far below.
There are many notable buildings within the walls including palaces, monasteries, churches, musuems and the Cathedral of St Paul. Less than 1km square and with a population of just 250 people, it is a treasure trove of sights. However, the true beauty of Mdina is in the ability to amble through the honey-coloured streets and soak up the laid-back atmosphere. Residents chat on doorsteps and colourful flowering bushes sway in the wind. With ornate balconies and vivid painted doorways it seems like little has changed since medieval times when locals were cocooned inside the walls as protection from hostile troops.
Outside the city walls, Rabat is a larger urban sprawl that showcases architecture typical of the island. Italian renaissance style palaces mingle with Moorish buildings in hues of golden sandstone. Vividly painted enclosed balconies and ornate ironwork decorate the simple exteriors and wherever you go on the island you will spot beautiful historical homes such as these!
The other big attraction of Mdina and Rabat is the catacombs of St Paul’s. These Roman burial grounds date back to the 3rd century BC and contain around 30 tombs where more than 1,000 people were buried. The catacombs are a fascinating network of tunnels and decorated chambers and for just €5 you can visit daily between 10 and 4.30pm.
A Rabat treat
Allow sufficient time on your day trip to Mdina to visit both cities and their picturesque streets, grand churches, palatial homes and host of bars and restaurants. Then, once you tire of exploring, head to Crystal Palace Bar in Rabat for a cold beer and a Pastizzi (supposedly the best on the Island according to our Rat Run leaders – see this post for more information on that).
Our route to Mdina
As you can see, it is not an arduous journey to travel to Mdina and Rabat however the gems you will discover are well worth the effort. A day trip to Mdina should not be missed during your visit to Malta. Save money by doing it your self and then you will have more money to spend on cocktails, beers or pastizzi!