The onetime capital of Malta has a 3000-year history, most importantly as the stronghold of the island's medieval, Arab-influenced nobility; Mdina means ''city'' in Arabic. Aloof from the busyness of Malta's coastal towns, this perfectly preserved historical gem sits behind massive fortifications on a hilltop with commanding views across the island. Much of Mdina is built in beautiful honey-coloured stone, and its mansions and churches are pretty with baroque-era embellishments and hung with centuries of artworks.
St Paul's Cathedral is a baroque masterpiece with frescoes by Mattia Preti and floors covered in colourful coats-of-arms. The Cathedral Museum (palazzodepiro.com) has an eclectic collection that includes Roman coins, ancient Egyptian jewellery, Durer prints and flamboyant liturgical vestments. Medieval Palazzo Falson (palazzofalson.com) provides a peek into an aristocratic mansion, and is scattered with collections of snuff boxes, silverware, artworks and oriental rugs. The 30-minute multimedia Mdina Experience (themdinaexperience.com) provides a quick romp through the city's history.
A foie gras starter at De Mondion restaurant in Mdina.
Spoil yourself with dinner at De Mondion (demondion.com), one of Malta's top restaurants. It serves Mediterranean cuisine with a happy leaning towards upmarket versions of Maltese classics such as fish with white beans and asparagus, or duck breast with fig chutney. Stunning sunset views from Mdina's walls unfold beyond the windows, best accompanied by a superb orange and Grand Marnier souffle. For more casual meals, dine alfresco downstairs at Trattoria AD 1530 (xarapalace.com.mt).
Just outside Mdina's walls, the newer suburb of Rabat shouldn't be overlooked. Domus Romana (heritagemalta.org) preserves the remains of a first-century Roman townhouse and some of its contents, including fragile – but intact – glass perfume bottles. St Paul's Church is built atop the grotto where St Paul is said to have sheltered following his shipwreck off Malta. Nearby St Paul's Catacombs (heritagemalta.org) are among several rock-cut catacombs beneath Rabat used as burial chambers over centuries.
An alleyway in Mdina. Photo: Brian Johnston
Slow down and enjoy Mdina at an idle pace by wandering through narrow, winding streets and stopping at tiny squares for a coffee as you admire baroque facades. The town's alleys, closed to traffic, are quiet and secluded, especially in the evenings when day-tripping crowds have departed and nickname ''The Silent City'' becomes atmospherically appropriate. The fortified town's moat, recently landscaped into a public park with some startlingly modern additions, is also worth a stroll.
A guestroom at The Xara Palace hotel in Mdina.
The Xara Palace (relaischateaux.com) is the only hotel in the old city, and quite delightful. The luxury hotel, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux brand, inhabits a 17th-century palazzo wedged right above Mdina's old bastions, with views clear across half the island. It fronts a delicate courtyard of honeyed stone and incorporates lovely baroque architecture and antique furnishings and artworks. It has just 17 high-ceilinged guestrooms, all different, plus very personalised and helpful service.
Pageantry during the Medieval Mdina Festival. Photo: Brian Johnston
If you can time your visit for April's Medieval Mdina Festival (medievalmdina.eu) you'll not only enjoy pleasant weather but a weekend of flag throwing, music playing, falconry, archery demonstrations, pageantry and battle re-enactments, plus special lectures and exhibitions.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Visit Malta, Relais & Chateaux and Silversea Cruises.