Rila Monastery is Bulgaria‘s best known tourist attraction and one of the most beautiful painted Orthodox sanctuaries in Eastern Europe. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its frescoes and architecture, and a must visit in Bulgaria!
The monastery is located in Rila Mountains, some 120km South from Sofia. It is hidden in the deep valley of Rilska River and the forests of Rila Monastery Nature Park. Its location gives many opportunities to combine a sightseeing trip to the monastery with some hiking in the mountains. It might be a day walking trip to the surroundings, or a stopover visit during a longer trekking trip in Rila Mountains.
The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the saint hermit Ivan Rilski. And by then the place was marked by turbulent history, fires and plunders, but what we see today may only whispers for its past glory. Worth visiting are the main church, the museum and Hreliova tower. The main church “The Assumption of the Virigin Mary” guards unsurpassed frescoes, a miraculous icon and the grave of the last Bulgarian king Tsar Boris III. The monastic museum is just behind the church and its most spectacular treasure is the Rafail‘s wooden cross, carved with 104 miniature scenes from the Bible. Next to the church is the 5-store fortification tower with a small chapel on the top floor.
Also worth a try are the “monastic” donuts and yoghurt which you can buy from the bakery outside the Eastern Gate of the monastery! 🙂
How to get to Rila Monastery: it is not the easiest thing to get to the monastery by public transport but it guarantees some pure adventure. Starting from Sofia, first you need to get to the right bus stations in Sofia (there are few misleading bus stations and the one you need is certainly not the central one). Your bus station is named Ovcha Kupel /Bus Station West . The easiest way to reach it is by catching tram N:5 from behind the National Palace of Justice (the beautiful white building on Vitosha street with the two lions in front). Don‘t forget to pinch your ticket on the tram! Once you are at the bus station you have to find a bus destined to Rila (РИЛА) – the nearest town to the monastery – where you need to change the vehicle. You buy tickets directly from the bus driver (around 15 leva /BGN/ one way). Once per day (from the same bus station) there is a direct bus Sofia – Rila Monastery, departing at 10:20am. The drive takes around 2 hours and the return is at 15:00pm. If you want to spend some more time in the sanctuary, you can stay for the night in one of the few hotels around the monastery or in the monastery itself (yes, they offer rooms with private bathrooms, 30 leva/BGN per person/ per night).
What to do: One of the most interesting things to do around the monastery is the pilgrimage hike to the cave where the Saint Ivan Rilski supposedly lived in. The loop hike starts from the Eastern Gate on the road leading up to the mountains. In about 4km up the road you will find a parking lot with a steep path leading through century-old beech forests. A trail that goes parallel to the road also leads to the cave passing near Neofit Rilski’s cell school and St. Lucas Church, built in 18th century. The trail forks to the left from the main road a through the meadows about a kilometre above the monastery, at a small parking lot, where there is also a river bridge on the right side. No matter which way you follow, at a certain point you will get to a small chapel. Right behind it you will find a small dark cave in the rocks – the place where the saint spend some years feasting and where originally his remnants were buried. If you dare to enter and climb the wooden stairs leading to the higher exit through a tiny rock chimney, you will be guaranteed a purification of the soul 🙂 To get back to the civilization and the monastery, you have to follow the labels through the forest which will lead you to the road again.
If you have more than just one-day time and if you are well-prepared for a longer hike, Rila Monastery might be a good starting point for hikes in Rila Mountains. One of the options is hike to Ivan Vazov Hut (6 hours, +1200m), using the green marked trail, starting nearby the monastery. Have in mind that one-day loop-hikes are not recommended due to the big elevation gain/drop and distance. Once you are at the hut, you can easily reach the famous Seven Rila Lakes or Malyovitsa Area. Another possible hike is to Ribni Ezera Hut (5.30 hours/ 1000m). The first few kilometers the trail coincides with the asphalted road and the parallel trail going above the monastery уп to Kirilova Poliana and next it turns in а dirt road and a hiking trail, marked in yellow (read more about the hiking waymarks in the mountains of Bulgaria at General Info section of the website). Both huts offer basic conditions (dormitories, common bathrooms) and some basic food (bread, soup, beverages).
Watch this informational video about the monastery: