Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery 

Prior to visiting Sofia, I scoured the travel blogs for easy day trips after it was apparent that one full day in Sofia was quite enough. (Sofia recap here!)

There were multiple options, including Plodviv, a more popular tourist destination than Sofia, and the even farther out towns on the Black Sea. However, a 2.5 hour bus ride to Plodviv didn’t seem like the relaxing vibe we were going for, and the Black Sea in Bulgaria in January? No thanks.

That left one final possibility: the UNESCO World Heritage recognized, Rila Monastery. It sits about 90 minutes outside of Sofia in the highest mountain range in Bulgaria. That alone makes it amazing…until you see the monastery in person and realize it is also incredibly photogenic, especially when covered in snow and sitting within snow-capped mountains.

We arranged for a private car to take us out there ($80 round trip for two people, completely worth it!) and after a surprisingly beautiful ride – once outside the outskirts of Sofia, which is lined with Soviet-style buildings – we arrived to this breathtaking hideaway.


The Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th Century by St. Ivan of Rila. He actually lived outside of the monastery in a cave high in the mountains, which you can hike up to. (We weren’t wearing the right shoes…and also, a hike in the cold didn’t seem like so much fun!

We didn’t get to the monastery until around 10 a.m., and even though it had opened at 8:30 a.m., we had the place to ourselves!


Entrance into the Monastery is free, although there is a museum within one of the walls that is around $3 to go in to. Not being museum people – we opted just to enjoy the grounds…which comes complete with it’s own sweet guard dog!


The Rila Monastery is guarded by two iron gates, and inside has 300 living cells. Only around 60 men live there full-time (meaning it has been continuously active since the 10th Century), and some of the cells are available to stay in for a night or two.


In addition to the monk’s cells, there are multiple kitchens, a large dining room, drawing rooms, four chapels, a library and even a hospital.


The grounds from the back gate.

We thankfully told our driver that we only needed 2 hours at the monastery and that was plenty of time to look around the grounds (you can only stay on the main floor as the monks reside in the upper floors), go on a little walk outside of the monastery gates and have a cappuccino at the one small cafe next to the monastery.


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The frescoes in the main church were amazingly colorful and ornate.


Thankfully we were alone while walking around and in the main church – we would have bumped into someone because we spent most of the time with our heads tilted up!


Out the back gate, where the sweet guard dog found us.


Johnny walking the back trail. There is one hotel, a small cafe and a little gift “shop” on the grounds.


Despite the cold, the snow made the area seem that much more mystical.


So incredibly beautiful (and isolated!)

I’m sure in the winter, when the trails in the hills surrounding the monastery are cleared for hiking, more time would be needed. But in the winter, two hours is more than enough.

And even though the drive one-way is almost as long as the visit itself, it is worth it.




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