how to visit rila monastery

How to Visit Rila Monastery [Bulgaria’s Most Beautiful Building]

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 center of Bulgaria.   Rila Monastery is found in the Rila Mountains, about 100 kilometers 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.

Rila Monastery is easiest to visit if you have a car while traveling – you can rent a car in Bulgaria here. Or if you’re traveling from Sofia, then you have several options for guided trips here.

  • This guided tour to Rila Monastery includes a visit to Boyana Church and leaves from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. You’ll travel by bus to Boyana Church and then on to Rila Monastery. Your guide will take you through the monastery and then you’ll get about two hours of free time. Check prices for this fabulous guided tour of Rila Monastery and Boyana Church.
  • If you prefer self-guided, then this tour to Rila Monastery and the Rila 7 lakes is a great option – it includes your bus transport and access to the Monastery. Check prices for a self-guided tour of Rila Monastery here.
  • You can also now take a tour from Bansko to Rila Monastery – with full transport and an English-speaking drive. – check rates and availability here.

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 colors of the monastery quite spectacularly. 

Rila Monastery Domes

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 the 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. (We recommend this guided tour of Rila Monastery.)

Most tours start from Sofia or Plovdiv.  There is also now a tour of Rila from Bansko available, you can find details here.

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. A day trip to Rila Monastery from Sofia is one of the best day trips from Sofia. It’s also possible to visit Rila Monastery on a day trip from Plovdiv.

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 work very well and major signposts will have names in both Roman and Cyrillic.

If you need to rent a car in Bulgaria we recommend Discover Cars for car hire.  You can search, compare and save up to 70%, with no hidden fees and free cancellation, it’s a perfect choice! Get a price for a rental car in Bulgaria here.

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 kilometers 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 1130-1200.    The Rila shuttle meeting point is behind St. Alexander Nevski cathedral and in front of La Cattedrale restaurant. 

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 center.  Travel times are approximate and dependent upon traffic.

The Rila shuttle costs 19.99 Euros per person.  You can book tickets for the Rila Shuttle here.

This self-guided tour of Rila Monastery from Sofia includes the Rila Shuttle and the entrance to Rila Monastery.

How to get to Rila Monastery by bus

Here are 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 Sofia 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.

(Here’s our guide to the best things to do in Sofia in case you’re spending time there too.)

Blagoevgrad to Rila Bus

The bus to Rila from Blagoevgrad 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 it’s more than enough.

Rila Monastery courtyard

The Interior of the Church at Rila Monastery

There are no photos or videos allowed to be taken inside the main church at Rila Monastery, but it is well worth the visit. There are five domes in the church, three altars, and two side chapels. Inside you’ll find the famous gold plated iconostasis – the wood carving and creation on this took five years to complete. The frescoes both inside and outside the church are glorious. They were finished in 1846.

The Ecclesiastical Museum at Rila Monastery

This museum contains items from the monastery’s history.  There are historic weapons, and 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 defense 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

The Ethnographic museum at Rila Monastery is a treasure trove of more than 35,000 items – there are wood carvings, icons, and many cultural items. The most unique of these items is the Cross Of Rafil. It’s named after its creator, the Monk Rafail. He created it out of a single piece of wood and used fine chisels and knives to carve 650 small figures and 104 stages on it. It took more than 12 years to complete. On its completion in 1802, the creator lost his eyesight!

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 Frescoes

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 are 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

On 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 grilled trout and potatoes.  The homemade “monastery” bread is spectacular too.  Fish in restaurants is usually priced by the 100 grams and each fish is usually between 3 and 4 hundred grams.  Regardless eating out here is very cheap by western European standards.

What to See Near Rila Monastery

If you rented a car or are taking a privately guided tour, then it’s worth trying to squeeze in a few extras to see near Rila Monastery. Here’s what’s to see in the Rila Monastery area.

St Ivan’s Cave

Saint Ivan Rilski is the namesake of the monastery and you can visit the cave in which he spent years of his life.  St Ivan’s cave (and grave) is about 3 kilometers 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.

Need a rental car to visit? Get rental car prices for Bulgaria here.

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 roundabout 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.

Stobs Pyramids

The hike from the car park to the pyramids will take around 30 minutes each way – it’s 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.

Visit Bansko near Rila Monastery

The mountain town of Bansko is a fabulous all season resort town. Located in the foothills of the Pirin Mountain National Park, it’s a great place to base yourself or visit. In winter this is Bulgaria’s biggest ski resort (and Europe’s cheapest ski resort). In Summer, Bansko comes alive with festivals, hiking, mountain biking, and a whole lot more – read more about Bansko in summer here.

Rila Seven Lakes

You’ll need a good half day to get the best experience of Rila Seven Lakes, or longer if you really want to enjoy the mountains and lakes here. If you have just a short time, you can visit on this guided tour from Sofia and take the chairlift. The Rila Seven Lakes are all glacial lakes by origin and are now connected by small streams. There’s no public transport to get here, so you’ll need to either take a tour or rent a car. Once you get to the base of the mountain the easiest way up is to take the chairlift (18 Bulgarian Leva). This takes you to the Lower Lake and from there you can hike.

Dragalevski Monastery

The Dragalevtsi Monastery is found on the lower slopes of Mount Vitosha on the outskirts of Sofia. This Bulgarian Orthodox monastery was founded in the mid-14th century by Tsar Ivan Alexander, later abandoned after the Ottomans invaded, and then established in the 15th century. It became an important literary center and many of the frescoes date from the 15th century.

Boyana Church

Boyana Church is a small Bulgarian Orthodox sanctuary about 25 minutes from Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia. There are incredible frescoes here from three different time periods – the 11th century, 13th century, and 19th century. These frescoes are examples of the Italian Renaissance medieval art of Eastern Europe. If you don’t have a car, then you can visit the Boyana Church as part of this tour alongside Rila Monastery.

Other places to visit in Bulgaria

While you’re in Bulgaria, don’t miss seeing these great places.

Plan your Trip to Bulgaria

Final Words on Visiting Rila Monastery Bulgaria.

At more than 1000 years old, this UNESCO World Heritage site is both the spiritual center of Bulgaria but also a stunning building in a stunning location. This is still a working monastery and contains important relics, but it’s an incredible place to visit. Be sure to stay for lunch and to explore some of the other attractions of the area while you’re here!

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