Anyone who comes to Malta invariably visits Mdina – the island’s well preserved medieval capital. Some will stray into nearby Rabat because of its well-known attractions: a series of large early Christian catacombs dating from the third century AD and of course (and right on Mdina’s doorstep) the Domus Romana, which holds some of Malta’s best Roman remains and the finest Roman mosaics to be found in the islands. But Rabat deserves more than a cursory visit to these two main attractions – the town deserves a whole morning or afternoon to itself as a minimum.
Rabat is one of Malta’s oldest towns. Parts of the town’s core once formed part of the Roman city of Melita, before the latter was reduced in size to become the much smaller Medina during the Arab rule in Malta.
Rabat has a wealth of rich and well preserved churches. Two important ones are on Saint Paul’s street –the main drag of the old town. The parish church of St.Paul’s takes pride of place – a building with a well-balanced façade and a rich interior. Further down the street is the Franciscan church dedicated to the Nativity. Dating back to 1500 it holds within it some remarkable art pieces including two of the islands’ oldest religious paintings: a Lamentation for Christ and a Virgin and Child with Angels by Antonio de Saliba. Both have been restored recently. Over on the other side of Rabat is the Dominican church – a sturdy edifice typical of this order’s buildings. Adjoining the church is a peaceful cloister – the largest one in Malta. On Triq Santu Wistin is the Augustinian church. The church was designed by Glormu Cassar who later went on to build St. John’s co-Cathedral in Valletta – many in fact consider this church a forerunner to his Valletta masterpiece.
Rabat has even more attractions. The recently revamped Wignacourt Museum next to St. Paul’s church houses a good collection of paintings and these days provides the access to St. Paul’s Grotto – traditionally the cave where the Apostle lived during his three month stay on the island. The museum also includes in its subterranean level one of Malta’s larger wartime shelters where villagers took shelter during the frequent air raids of World War II.
One of Rabat’s quaintest attractions is Casa Bernard on Saint Paul’s Street. This is a 16th century baronial residence which has been fully restored to its past grandeur and is now open to the public from Monday to Saturday.
Rabat has a lively café scene with most of it centred on the piazza in front of Saint Paul’s church – while a more ‘local’ version of the tea and coffee shop is found at the other end of the street where the legendary Crystal Palace pastizzerija is an ever present institution – and open most hours too.
If you’d like to linger into the evening Rabat has a good choice of restaurants offering anything from seriously good food down to the cheap and cheerful.
Rabat is connected by direct buses to Valletta (bus nos. 51, 52,53), Sliema (202,203) and Bugibba (X3).