The magnificent Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites. This Eastern Orthodox Monastery is over 1,000 years old and is the most important spiritual centre of Bulgaria. Rila Monastery is found in the Rila Mountains, about 100 kilometres from Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia and is still a working monastery. It not only contains important historical and literary relics but is also a beautiful building in a glorious location. Rila Monastery is a popular Bulgarian religious and tourist attraction and so it’s important to plan your visit to maximize your experience – here’s our guide on how to visit Rila Monastery.
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Why Visit Rila Monastery?
Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most outstanding architectural and historical buildings. The monastery, set in the Rila Mountain range is also one of Bulgaria’s biggest tourist attractions and it’s popular among both domestic and foreign visitors.
We’ll start with the main reason that many visit Rila Monastery – it is quite simply stunning. The monastery is set in the wooded hillsides of the Rila mountains which sets off the colours of the monastery quite spectacularly.
At a lower level, black and white striped colonnades and arcades protect the most glorious religious artwork. Higher up the stripes are red and white. The golden yellow domes that top the monastery crown a jewel of Bulgaria’s attractions.
During the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian language and culture were preserved here and Bulgaria’s famous revolutionaries – Vassil Levski, Peyo Yavorov and Gotse Delchev have hidden here over the years.
As a building, the monastery has thick stone walls which form an irregular design. There are two massive gates, covered wooden collonades and stairs, verandas, arches and hundreds of monastic cells.
How to Visit Rila Monastery
You can visit Rila Monastery independently or take a tour of Rila Monastery. It is possible to visit Rila monastery using public transport, but it is more difficult. The best way to visit Rila Monastery is either by car or via a guided tour.
Most tours start from Sofia or Plovdiv. Some local transport companies in Bansko will organize transport to Rila and also wait for you to return.
How to get to Rila Monastery on a tour
If you don’t have a car or don’t want to drive, then taking a day trip to Rila Monastery by tour is an excellent (and much more relaxed) way to see Rila Monastery and some of the surrounding attractions.
How to get to Rila Monastery by car
This is the best way to visit Rila Monastery. Renting a car in Bulgaria is easy (get quotes here) and the vast majority of roads you will drive on are in excellent condition (apart from maybe some parts of the old Sofia ring-road). Google maps works very well and major signposts will have names in both Roman and Cyrillic.
To drive to Rila Monastery from wherever you are coming from in Bulgaria means getting on to the Sofia- Kulata highway. This is known as the Struma motorway. You’ll want to leave the Struma motorway at the exit for Kocherinovo village. It will be signposted for Rila Monastery. Rila Monastery is a further 30 kilometres from the motorway exit.
There is paid parking at the monastery. Parking costs 5 leva for the day. Cash only.
How to get to Rila Monastery by shuttle
There is a daily Rila Shuttle service from Sofia. The Rila Shuttle leaves Sofia at 1000 each day and arrives at the monastery by 1130. The Rila shuttle meeting point is behind St. Alexander Nevski cathedral and in front of La Cattedrale restaurant. The Rila shuttle takes two hours and arrives at Rila Monastery at 1200.
The returning Rila shuttle leaves Rila Monastery at 1500 and arrives in Sofia at 1700. The drop off point is Alexander Nevski square in Sofia city centre. Travel times are approximate and dependent upon traffic.
The Rila shuttle costs from 19.99 Euros per person. You can book tickets for the Rila Shuttle here
How to get to Rila Monastery by bus
Hre’s the details of how to get to Rila Monastery by public bus.
Sofia to Rila Bus
There is a direct bus from Sofia’s Ovcha Kupel bus station which goes directly from Sofia to Rila Monastery every day. It leaves Sodia at 1020. The bus from Rila Monastery to Sofia returns at 1500 every day. If you take this bus you’ll have approximately 2 hours at Rila Monastery. The cost of this bus is 11 Leva.
Blagoevgrad to Rila Bus
The bus to Rila from Blafoevgrad leaves at 07:00; 12:00 and 15:00 from the Blagoevgrad bus station. The cost of the bus is 2 leva. Buses return from Rila to Blagoevgrad at 0810 and 1700.
Dupnitsa to Rila Bus
The bus to Rila from Dupnitsa leaves at 0640 or 1415. Return buses to Dupnitsa from Rila leave at 0900 and 1700.
How to get to Rila Monastery by train
Trains in Bulgaria are cheap but slow. You can take a train from Sofia to Dupnitsa. (see train timetables here). You will need to take a train early enough to catch one of the two buses per day from Dupnitsa to Rila Monastery. The bus to Rila from Dupnitsa leaves at 0640 or 1415. Return buses to Dupnitsa from Rila leave at 0900, 1500 and 1700. Take the train from Dupnitsa to Sofia.
What to See at Rila Monastery
When visiting Rila Monastery you will want to consider what parts of the monastery you want to visit. The Rila Monastery Complex contains the following areas which can be visited.
The complex itself at Rila is really rather stunning. You can walk into and around the courtyard for free here. The black and white and red and white striped architecture is beautiful. The religious artwork on the walls and ceilings of the colonnades is magnificent. If this is all you do here, then its more than enough.
The Interior of the Church at Rila Monastery
The Ecclesiastical Museum at Rila Monastery
This museum contains items from the monastery’s history. There are historic weapons, portraits and you’ll learn a little about the history of the monastery. (you can read heaps about the history of Rila here). If you do want to visit the museum, then the entrance fee is 8 leva (cash only) and a reasonable visit will take you about 30 minutes. You can also take a guided tour of the museum.
Visit the Hrelja Tower at Rila Monastery
This tower was built in the 14th century as a defence for the monastery. It’s the oldest part of the structure here. It will cost you 5 leva to climb to the top for the views.
The Rila Monastery Ethnographic Museum
Rila Monastery Opening Hours
- The Rila Monastery complex and church are open to tourists from 0700 to 1930 every day.
- The Rila Monastery history museum is open every day from 0830 to 1930.
- The Rila Monastery Ethnographic museum, Tower of Hrelio, Bulgarian renaissance guestrooms and Monastery farm are open every day from 0830 to 1700.
Rila Monastery Entrance Fee
There is no entry fee for access to the monastery complex, but there are separate entry fees for the historical museum and the ethnographic museum.
Rila Monastery Dress Code – What to Wear to Visit Rila Monastery
This is a working religious monastery. It is also in the mountains, so it will be considerably cooler than Sofia and Plovdiv. Short skirts and shorts are not allowed. Do not wear sleeveless shirts. We always recommend carrying a scarf for women, although this is not enforced in this monument. Men are requested to remove hats.
Take a sweater it will be colder than Sofia. Wear comfortable shoes.
Additionally, no smoking is allowed within the monastery complex, and photos and video taking inside the church and the museum is not allowed. Photos are allowed in the rest of the publicly accessible complex. You should be silent within the church.
When to visit Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most popular tourist attractions as well as a working religious facility. It gets very busy here at weekends and public holidays. It is especially busy around religious holidays. The road may not be passable after snow.
Where to Eat at Rila Monastery
At the opposite side of the monastery to the paid parking there are several stores and restaurants. The Restaurant Drushlyavitsa is located right next to a rushing stream. You can order typical Bulgarian food here. We especially recommend the grilled trout and potatoes. The homemade “monastery” bread is spectacular too. Fish in restaurants is usually priced by the 100 grames and each fish is usually between 3 and 4 hundred grames. Regardless eating out here is very cheap by western European standards.
What to See Near Rila Monastery
St Ivan’s Cave
Saint Ivan Rilski is the namesake of the monastery and you can visit the cave in his he spent years of his life. St Ivan’s cave (and grave) is about 3 kilometres past the monastery. There’s a specific parking area here (signage is only in Bulgarian). Leave the car and walk to St Ivan’s grave. It will take about 20 minutes to walk and you’ll need hiking sandals or shoes. There’s a small chapel here and also the cave where Ivan hid for years. You can enter the cave, although it’s not that big. You need to go through a small tunnel into the cave and then leave through a narrow exit. Legend has it that only those with a clean soul can exit through the tunnel. Good luck.
Visit The Stob Pyramids near Rila Monastery
If you’d like to stretch your legs a little after visiting Rila Monastery then we recommend stopping off at Stob Pyramids. It’s round about 40 minutes driving from Rila but hardly out of the way. There’s a 2 leva fee (cash only) per person to access the site and the parking here is free.
The natural landforms that make up the Stob pyramids have been created by weather erosion. While the trail is well marked, it’s also easy to walk off it and there’s nothing (other than common sense) stopping you from clambering around some of the rocks. (Don’t. You’ll destroy them). They’re interesting to see and it’s a pleasant (if warm) walk.
The hike from the car park to the pyramids will take around 30 minutes each way – its up and down and the trail requires reasonable walking shoes, although you’ll get away with hiking sandals. There’s no shade. Take a sun hat and don’t do this in the heat of the day. Take plenty of water.
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