Last updated on 22 May 2020
Located deep in a beautiful valley, the Rila Monastery is one of the top tourist attractions of the Balkans with around 1 million visitors a year. The monastery complex and the surrounding mountains are truly breathtaking.
Rila Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and is regarded as the most sacred and spiritual place in the country. It is also the largest monastery in Bulgaria, located at an altitude of 1147 m in the western part of the Rila Mountains. The monastery was established in 927 A.D. by the hermit Saint Ivan of Rila and built by his students.
During its 1100-year existence, the monastery changed its place, was demolished and rebuilt several times. Initially it was established 4 km from its current location, next to a cave where St Ivan actually lived.
Eventually, the original monastery was destroyed by an avalanche. It was first re-erected at its present place in the 14th century by a feudal lord, Hrelyo. The oldest preserved building in the monastery complex, Hrelyo’s Tower bears his name. The impressive, 23-m-high tower stands in the middle of the yard, next to the main church. It served as a refuge for the monks during attacks, its entrance is elevated 5.5 m from the ground for their security. Today it can be reached through the bell tower attached to it, built in 1844. There is a chapel on the highest floor of the tower with preserved medieval murals, including the oldest known image of St. Ivan of Rila.
Ever since its establishment, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian tsars, later acted as a shelter of Bulgarian language and culture in the times of the Ottoman rule. Most of today’s buildings of the monastery, including the main church, date from the middle of the 19th century and are masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture. They were built after a fire destructed the complex in 1833.
The exterior resembles a fortress more than a monastery with its high stone walls and little windows. The whole complex occupies an area of 8800 m² with a 3200 m² inner yard where the tower and the main church are situated. The four-storey (not counting the basement) residential part consists of 300 premises, 4 chapels, an abbot’s room, a kitchen, a medical room and a library. The monastery cookhouse is noted for its uncommonly large utensils.
The Rila Monastery History Museum holds manuscripts, old, printed books, documents from the 14th-19th centuries and many other objects such as church utensils, icons, weapons and more. Thousands of silver coins of three Bulgarian rulers are also exhibited here.
Rila Monastery is open from 07:00 to 20:00 every day while the main church is open between 08:00 and 18:00. Entering the monastery yard and the main church is free of charge.
The museum is open for visitors between 08:30 and 19:30 (08:30-16:30 from 1 October to 31 May), the entrance fee is 8 BGN. Entry to Hrelyo’s Tower costs 5 BGN.
Divine services (worships) are held at 17:00 every day, also at 06:30 on workdays and at 08:00 on Sundays.
Please note that it is not allowed to take photos inside the church or in the museum.
How to get to the Rila Monastery
BG: Рилски манастир, Rilski manastir; GPS coordinates: 42.133336, 23.340092
Rila Monastery is located about 120 km to the south of Sofia. The easiest way of getting there is by car, it is only a 1 h 40 min drive. If you’re arriving from Sofia, take the exit on highway A3 at Boboshevo, head south on road No. 1, then turn left to road No. 107 in the direction of Kocherinovo. You will reach the monastery in about 35 minutes from there. Paid parking is available right in front of the monastery.
If you’re without a car, you don’t necessarily have to pay for an organized tour to reach the Rila Monastery as there is public transport too. Buses from Sofia (Ovcha Kupel Station) and Blagoevgrad run regularly every day. Trains to Blagoevgrad are available from Sofia Central Railway Station.
Travel tip: Even if you visit the museum and go up the tower, you won’t really spend more than 2 hours at the monastery. There is only a hotel with a restaurant and some souvenir stalls next to it. We recommend combining your day trip with something extra to visit, for example, going further south to Bansko. If you wake up early, even a 7 Rila Lakes trip can fit in the day.
What to see nearby
Kirilova Polyana, a gorgeous meadow surrounded by high peaks, is only a 10-minute drive from the monastery further up on road 107. A nice glacial lake, called „Dry Lake” (BG: Сухото езеро, Suhoto ezero), can be reached from there with a short hike.
The cave where Saint Ivan of Rila lived is even closer in the same direction, only a 6-minute drive (4 km). It is actually a niche formed under a large rock. At one end there is a small tunnel that leads above the boulder. According to the belief, those who can’t go through the tunnel are sinners. There is a chapel at the site as well, named after the saint.