Visiting the Spectacular Rila Monastery of Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

After a very interesting overnight ‘train’ journey from Istanbul to Sofia (when the train was cancelled and became a bus!), I decided to hit the mountains and check out Rila Monastery with It is the largest and most famous Orthodox Monasteries in Bulgaria. I really enjoyed Sofia as a city, and visiting the Rila Monastery was one of my favourite places to visit on my 10 day Bulgaria Itinerary.

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Introduction and a Brief History of Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery which is also known as the Saint Ivan Rila is the largest and famous monastery of Bulgaria, comprised of beautiful Eastern Orthodox school of thought to which people visit from all across the world for its architectural history and rich culture. The Monastery was founded in the 10th Century by St John of Rila. It is not just a monastery, but a whole complex which includes historic churches, museums and a residential area. It is located in the Rila Mountain range, surrounded by lush green meadows, high peaks and seven lakes. Rila Monastery itself presents some stunning architecture set against an amazing backdrop of mountains.

Rila Monastery Architecture arches

Getting to the Rila Monastery

Heading to the Rila Monastery by public transport from Sofia is difficult to do in just one day. There is direct bus from Sofia (10:20 departure from Ovcha Kupel bus station) to Rila Monastery, arriving at 1pm (see how to get to Rila Monastery). The bus takes around 3 1/2 hours, with lots of stop-offs and a long way to walk once you arrive. I would not recommend public transport for a day trip to the Rila. If you want to spend a few days in the mountains, it may be a viable option as you will not be going there and back on the same day. Take tram

You can book a shuttle or Private tour with Prices range from just 25€-50€. The Rila shuttle will pick you up from your hostel in Sofia city center and get you to Rila monastery in around two hours. This was cheaper than the other companies I found, and the staff speak great English.

We set out from Crosspoint Hostel at around 8:45 AM. Philip and Megy of Rila shuttle were very informative about Bulgarian culture and the history of Rila Monastery. It was also very interesting to see some local Bulgarian villages, which were in big contrast to the city of Sofia.

Rila Monastery

Hiking up to St John’s Cave in Rila

We first drove past Rila Monastery and started with St John’s cave. The story is that St John, who was the founder of Rila Monastery, lived as a hermit in this cave.It is a small hike, around 20 minutes to get up to St John’s cave. The views are stunning across the Rila Mountains.

Just be careful of your footing, as it is very rocky and uneven. It can also be slippy in the rain. The route to the cave is marked on trees and rocks as you can see. It is customary to greet other hikers in the mountains, you can say Dobre Den. At one point we were even walking on tree roots!

Inside the cave, you will see that people have left icons and candles in memory of St John wasn’t van. In order to get out of the cave on the other side, you have to get through an extremely small hole. There are steps to help you and actually it looks smaller than it is. However, if you are a little claustrophobic, you may not want to go through this part of the cave!The Bulgarians say that those who fit through the whole okay to come out the other side of good people, and anyone who cannot fit through are sinners – thankfully, I made it through!

There is a very small chapel next to the cave, which I recommend that you go in. Remember that this is an Orthodox Christian place of worship and pilgrimage, so speak quietly and cover your legs and shoulders. You can also purchase a candle and light it in memory of St John. You can also make a small donation to the chapel.

Rila on the day of the Ascension of St John

We then headed to Rila Monastery. Today was a very special day to visit the ministry because, for Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, it was the Ascension of St Paul, the founder of the Monastery. The Rila Monastery remains in use and the place of worship. There are around 10 monks who still lives there.

The Main Church

The main church is situated at the center of the monastery and it’s made by architect Pevic Laonov. The Church is dome shaped and the most precious part is the gold plated dome, Iconostasis. Tourists are attracted to the Church which is decorated with fascinating wood carvings. The roof of the entrance to the main Church is painted with colorful images of Saints and Biblical scenes.

Rila Monastery Orthodox Christian murals

You can go into the Monastery and into the central Church, the Church of the Nativity, for free of charge. Again, remember to respect that it is a place of worship. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and no photos in the Church.

These ornate frescoes and stunning gold leaf decoration is standard of Orthodox churches. Words cannot really describe how astonishing the inside of the church is – it is covered with vibrant Christian icons from floor to ceiling.

Rila Monastery church ceiling

The Residential Area

This Complex has a residential area inside where many monks still reside to this day. It has a library too where old printed books and manuscripts from the ancient times are available for scholars to get benefit from historical literature.

Rila Monastery Museum

There is a museum in the Monastery that you can visit for just 10 Bulgarian Lev (price may have increased since the writing of this blog in 2022). Inside you will see frescos, tapestries, Bibles and priests vestments.

Within the Rila Monastery Museum there are four exhibitions – a historic museum, ethnographic museum, icons exhibition and resemblance of traditional Bulgarian room. The museum of Rila Monastery is specifically very famous for its Rafail’s wooden cross. Rafail was the Monk of monastery who made different religious miniatures, and this piece is stunning.

Please note that photos are not allowed in the Rila Monastery Museum or inside the Church of the Nativity.

What to eat at Rila Monastery

If you go through the Monastery and out the other side you will find a restaurant with beautiful mountainous views. Philip highly recommended the trout – it is mountain trout (not sea trout) and a specialty of Rila. It was amazing. Get it with a salad or potatoes (it comes on its own!) and make sure that you remove the bones!

Rila Monastery River Trout Gorsky Kut

If you want a traditional Bulgarian drink, you can try the Rakyat, also be warned, it’s quite strong! So….please drink your Rakyat after you have visited the Church, not before!

Exploring the surrounding areas

The surrounding area of Rila Monastery is great for hiking, and there are 7 Rila Lakes….

  • Saltaza’
  • Okoto
  • Babreka
  • Bliznaka
  • Trilistnika
  • Ribnoto Ezoro
  • Dolnoto Ezoro

Rila Monastery Tours with Rila Shuttle

Rila Shuttle is a company based in Sofia with excellent experience and service. They are English speaking and a good option if you want transport without paying for a guide. This is who you should book with if you want to shop local.

Rila Monastery Tours with Get Your Guide

A good option is to pair up your visit to Rila Monastery with a visit to Boyana Church. The Boyana Church is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church situated on the outskirts of Sofia, which was also added to the UNESCO world Heritage list in 1979. This Rila Monastery and Boyana Church Tour does exactly that.

Rila Monastery Tours with Viator Travel

Viator travel run a day tour of Rila Monastery and Boyana Church with a light lunch and a Rila Lakes and Rila Monastery tour from Sofia. They also offer a Rila Monastery tour from Bansko.

Tips for Visiting Rila Monastery

  • Combine with Boyana Church if you are short of time, or Rila Lakes if you have longer.
  • If you are looking for lunch, the nearby Rila Monastery Restaurant serves fresh water mountain trout – a delicacy of the local mountainous area.
  • For views and photographs from above, climb the tower.
  • If you are looking to stay over, you can actually arrange to spend the night at the Monastery.
  • Ask your guide to head to Saint John of Rila’s hermitage and grave which is approximately 5km further up the mountain. Most Riga Monastery tours make a stop there. After a short climb, you find yourself at a small old church. The narrow path on the right takes you to the cave where the saint lived and was buried after his death. 

Rules to Observe during Rila Monastery Tours

  • No smoking or drinking on the premises
  • No going upstairs in the residential quarters where the monks reside
  • No pets allowed
  • No video or photography inside the temple or the museum.
  • No short skirts, vest tops or skimpy outifts.

Above all, many thanks to for their sponsorship, and, of course to Philip and Megy who ensured that we had the most wonderful day.

Further Reading on Bulgaria

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