Rila Monastery is one of the most popular day trips from Sofia and a must-visit place in Bulgaria. And it is famous for a reason – the UNESCO listed monastery has a huge historical and religious value for Bulgaria and is simply stunning.
Fortunately, you can easily go for a day trip from Sofia to Rila Monastery so visiting this little gem can be a perfect addition to your Bulgaria itinerary. In this article, I will tell you all about visiting Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.
Table of contents
- 1 Where is Rila Monastery
- 2 A short history of Rila Monastery
- 3 Why visit Rila Monastery
- 4 How to get from Sofia to Rila Monastery
- 5 What to expect at the site
- 6 What to see at the Rila Monastery
- 7 Tips for visiting Rila Monastery
- 8 Final thoughts on visiting Rila Monastery
- 9 Further reads
- 10 Travel Resources
Where is Rila Monastery
The famous Rila Monastery is located in the south-west part of Bulgaria, around 120 km away from Sofia, the capital city. It is surrounded by Rila Mountains at the elevation of 1147 meters above the sea level.
A short history of Rila Monastery
The monastery was named after the hermit Ivan of Rila who lived in the 10th century in the nearby caves.
The first monastery was founded in that very place in the 14th century but the breathtaking building we can admire today dates back to the middle of the 19th century when it was rebuilt after the fire in 1833. Back then Bulgaria was still part of the Ottoman Empire and Rila Monastery was an important center of the Bulgarian language and culture.
The monastery is one of the most spectacular examples of the Bulgarian National Revival architecture (you can find many buildings in this style in Plovdiv or Koprivshtitsa) and therefore was declared a national historical monument in 1976 and 7 years later was recognized by UNESCO.
The inscription to the World Heritage List says Rila Monastery is “a characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance (18th–19th centuries), the monument symbolizes the awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation.”
Despite the huge popularity of the site, this is still a working monastery, with around 60 monks living there.
Why visit Rila Monastery
As you can see Rila Monastery is one of the most important historical sites in Bulgaria (you can even find it on the 1 lev banknote) and that’s already a good reason you don’t want to miss it too. Each year around one million tourists and pilgrims visit the place and are in awe of its beauty.
To be honest, I didn’t find the monastery all that impressive when looking at the pictures before visiting but as soon as I walked through the gate to the courtyard my jaw has dropped. No picture can show you the beauty of this place, you need to visit Rila Monastery to see it yourself.
Rila Monastery is known for the amazing external frescoes and they surely are impressive. They are bright, colorful, and rich in decorations but when you look closer you can find some intriguing scenes too (my favorite find was the devil walking with a man on a chain).
How to get from Sofia to Rila Monastery
The difficulty of getting from Sofia to Rila Monastery depends on what mode of transport you use.
The best is, of course, car, especially that there is a decent parking lot right in front of the main gate to the monastery complex. This way you can also plan your trip to Rila Monastery to avoid crowds that visit the place usually in midday.
But even without your own or rented vehicle, there are ways to getting from Sofia to Rila Monastery easily.
Public transport is available but very limited, to one bus only. The bus leaves from Sofia’s West Bus Station – Ovcha Kupel (located a bit away from the center) at 10:20 am and back from Rila Monastery at 3:00 pm so you have around 2 hours on the site. This is a rather cheap option, around 25 leva (€13) altogether, but it’s not very convenient.
I chose a private shuttle bus to take me from Sofia to Rila Monastery. I booked it a day before via Get Your Guide, the price was €20 and I was very happy with my choice.
The shuttle leaves from behind the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia at 10:00 am and arrives at the monastery some 2 hours later. It’s a self-guided tour, you only get a map with info about the Rila Monastery complex and you are free to explore the place on your own.
The shuttle back to Sofia departs at 3:00 pm meaning you have around 3 hours at the site. I found it to be more than enough to see everything (including a visit on the tower and in the museum) and to have lunch. The bus was comfortable and the 2-hours ride from and to Sofia went smoothly, although the last part of the road is a bit twisting and narrow.
The downside of this option (and the public bus) is that you arrive with most of the visitors so the site can get a bit packed, especially if you visit on Sunday in the summer (like I did). But then, this is the best way to visit Rila Monastery as a day trip from Sofia.
What to expect at the site
You might be surprised how small Rila Monastery complex is (I was!), everything is within a few steps distance, literally.
Besides the monastery complex, you will find there also a souvenir shop (attached to the tower), and just outside the gate there is a small bakery and restaurant so there is no need to taking extra food with you, you can get the lunch there (and you will have plenty of time for that).
What to see at the Rila Monastery
Of course, the main reason to visit Rila Monastery is the main church “The Nativity of the Virgin” and I’m sure you will be impressed with it, both inside and on the outside (I mean, those frescoes!). But there is more to see in the complex!
The tower of Hrelja is the oldest building in the complex, built in 1334-1335. You can climb to the upper part of the tower, the steps are a bit steep but altogether it’s not too high. From up there you can admire the whole complex and the surrounding high mountains.
A History Museum is a great place to learn more about Rila Monastery and its background as well as to admire the impressive collection of some 35 thousand artifacts, including beautiful icons and wood-carvings.
If you have a bit more time you can go hiking to the nearby hermits’ caves.
Tips for visiting Rila Monastery
The Rila Monastery complex is open every day from 7 am to 7:30 pm.
The entrance to the complex is free of charge, however, you need to pay if you want to go up to the tower (5 leva) or the museum (8 leva).
You are allowed to take pictures in the complex, but it is forbidden inside the church and in the museum.
Rila Monastery is a very popular site so if you can visit it in the off-season or on weekdays in the summer. I was there on Sunday, in August, and as you can see in my pictures it was rather busy.
Keep in mind that this is a religious site so visit the place with respect and dress accordingly (so no short skirts or tank tops).
If you have extra time you can stay overnight at the monastery – I bet it must be an unforgettable experience and most likely you will have the place almost to yourself early in the morning or in the evening. There are a few basic rooms in the monastery complex or you can stay at Hotel Tzarev Vrah just outside the gate. Click here to book a room.
There is a restaurant outside the monastery. They are not the finest but the food is decent and the prices are reasonable. You can try Bulgarian dishes there.
You can combine a day trip from Sofia to Rila Monastery with other places. My initial plan was to go to Seven Rila Lakes and then to the monastery but since I had problems with my knee I figured hiking is not the smartest idea and focused on Rila Monastery only.
Another option is to see during one trip Rila Monastery and Bojana Church – another sacral masterpiece with the frescoes from the 13th century.
Final thoughts on visiting Rila Monastery
I’ve been to the capital of Bulgaria many times but only during my recent trip I’ve decided to go for a day trip from Sofia to Rila Monastery. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the place, I have to admit I’ve decided to go mainly to tick it off from my list of places to visit in Bulgaria.
Rila Monastery was so much better than I expected!
I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of this place and so during my visit I was walking around dizzy with all the colors and details. I spent so much time just staring at the frescoes, looking at the details and searching for some quirky ones.
This is a real gem of architecture, one of the most beautiful monasteries you will ever see and I strongly believe everyone visiting Sofia should go for a day trip to Rila Monastery too.
I’ve been a few times to Bulgaria and I think it is one of the most underrated countries in Europe. You might want to read my other articles about this country:
- Bulgaria itinerary – what to see in Bulgaria in 2 weeks
- Sofia, Bulgaria – the city that can be a new Berlin!
- 50 Sofia pictures that will inspire you to travel to Sofia, Bulgaria
- Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria – is this the prettiest town in the country?
- Why you should visit Shumen, Bulgaria
- Day in Veliko Tarnovo – my highlight of Bulgaria
- Best reasons to visit Bansko, Bulgaria
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