Where Valletta impresses with its swathes of World Heritage architecture, Mdina stuns with its golden fortifications and the Three Cities entice with their glimpses of the island’s maritime fortunes, it’s Rabat, on the west coast, that holds the key to much of Malta’s history. Peppered with archeological relics dating back almost two millennia, from St Paul the Apostle’s first steps on the island to catacombs, museums, gardens and more, our Rabat guide details the highlights not to miss.
According to the Book of Acts, trailblazing Christian missionary St Paul the Apostle took refuge in Rabat after being shipwrecked during a particularly tempestuous storm off the coast of Malta in 60 CE. He’s said to have established temporary shelter within a cluster of subterranean caves, now St Paul’s Grotto, and it was from here that he preached to the islanders about his faith. Indeed, the Grotto, now a charming underground shrine to the celebrated missionary, is thought to have been a place of refuge for the island’s first Christian community. Today, St Paul’s Grotto and the 17th-century church above it is a place of prayer and pilgrimage for many, including His Holiness Pope John Paul II who visited to pay his respects in 1990.
The Grotto is not the only underground highlight worth exploring. Ribboning out across 2,000 square metres beneath Rabat’s Ħal-Bajjada are a series of interconnected tombs and passages that were used as a burial ground during Punic and Roman times. Visit the Catacombs of St Paul to dive deep into Malta’s cultural and religious history; this subterranean complex marks the earliest and largest archeological record of Christianity in Malta.
While lesser known than the beautifully preserved tiled compositions of Pompeii or Sicily, the mosaics at the Roman Villa in Rabat are some of the finest in the western Mediterranean. Not much remains of the villa itself, but the vivid artistry, which dates back to the first century BCE, and other antiquities such as the marble statues and intricate terracotta ornaments, are well worth admiring. Post-exploration, head over the road to the Crystal Palace Tea and Coffee Bar for pea and ricotta pastizzi (traditional Maltese pastries) baked to perfection in the wood-fired oven. No Rabat guide would be complete without a mention of this favourite local pastizzeria.
For a deeper glimpse into the Punic-Roman period in Malta, the Baroque façade of Wignacourt Museum hides a handsome selection of ancient artefacts, including beautiful old ceramics and exquisite sculptures. The museum itself, the former residence of the Chaplains of the Knights of St John which was completed in the 18th century, has been lovingly restored to its former glory.
An opulent palazzo and private family home, Casa Bernard has been handed down through various families of wealth and esteem since its construction in the 16th century. Today, private Rabat guides offer a privileged peek into the lives of the palace’s previous residents. Apart from a noble background, the residents have consistently shared a common interest in art, and each has been a keen collector. Consequently, the villa is replete with rare objets d’art, stunning oil paintings and antique furniture; much of which has only recently been made available for the public to view.
Nestled in between Rabat and the fortified city of Mdina is Howard Gardens: a tranquil cluster of fruit orchards, ornamental gardens and a tennis court, knitted prettily together with shaded pathways. Roll out a rug for a picnic beneath the orange trees or pick up a Kinnie or two from the kiosks, and soak up the peace and quiet in one of Malta’s largest public parks.
A scenic outdoor escape with a wilder edge is Chadwick Lakes. These freshwater dams are populated with all manner of wildlife and indigenous foliage, and make a very picturesque backdrop for a picnic. Following a lazy alfresco lunch, there’s a plethora of nature walks to enjoy in the area, taking you along bubbling streams and past fragrant clusters of herbs and weeping willows.