A Day Trip To Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

With virtually five days in Sofia, there was no doubt that I was going to get a Bulgarian day trip out of my time there. I was even planning two – but I didn’t know what to prioritise in case the second one didn’t work out (whiiiichit didn’t). Two of the best day trips from Sofia are to the nearby city of Plovdiv and a monastery up in the mountains in Rila.

Rila or Plovdiv? Plovdiv or Rila? A monastery or a city?? WHICH TO CHOOSE?

Let me tell you RIGHT now – I’m sure I would have liked Plovdiv, but Rila Monastery was 100% the correct choice.

It’s not often that I walk into a courtyard, feel my jaw involuntarily drop, and hear myself shout “WOW” without even realising I’m doing it.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery? THIS PLACE had that effect on me.

Originally, I had been planning to take the public shuttle from Sofia, which takes you out there in two hours and gives you a good amount of time at the monastery before whisking you back to the city. When I arrived at the hostel and saw that they offered a tour there for the same price, I booked it through them, assuming it would be the same sort of deal.

So imagine my surprise when I was led out, expecting to be shoved onto a bus with a load of other people, and instead faced with a car that would be taking six of us out to Rila National Park.

It was practically a private tour.

An American girl and I were squeezed into the back – we were basically in the boot, on two seats so low down to the ground that our knees were up by our chests! And you thought it was going to sound glamorous.

What I hadn’t expected from Bulgaria was so many mountains. Sofia is surrounded by them, and an hour to the south lies Rila National Park which is full of them.

It also has a smattering of cute towns and villages, and we stopped in one of them for a break from the winding mountain roads and the chance to get some food or water. Everything was silent and peaceful.

Rila, Bulgaria

We learned that lots of people have these trellises across their properties to grow their own grapes for wine!

Rila, Bulgaria

Our first proper stop on our day trip to Rila wasn’t even the monastery – it was actually a cave, where a hermit monk lived over a thousand years ago. The cave is now a shrine where people come to pay their respects.

St Ivan's cave, Rila, Bulgaria

Ivan Rilski is now a saint in Bulgaria, and next to his cave lies a beautiful little church, the Church of Sveti Luka (or St Luke’s Hermitage). It’s said that St Ivan lived in the cave for seven years to become closer to God, and that he founded Rila Monastery itself.

St Luke's Hermitage church, Rila, Bulgaria
St Luke's Hermitage church, Rila, Bulgaria

The church is unassuming, and the inside is worn down, but equally it harnesses a charm that I couldn’t quite place. It was just incredibly peaceful.

After climbing out of the cave through a tiny hole in the top, we headed back to the car for the main event.

St Ivan's cave, Rila, Bulgaria
This is where we climbed out of the top! The backpack gives it perspective… yes, it was tight!

We had already passed Rila Monastery, though I had barely noticed. From the outside, it’s a huge mass of brick wall and absolutely no hint of what’s inside.

I think that’s part of what made the place so incredible. You have a plain old brick building outside, and then suddenly:

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

I walked around the monastery for a long time, taking it all in and looking at everything from different angles. Honestly, it’s so cool! There are various rooms all around the courtyard, from gift shops to art galleries to museums.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

I had read just before we left that you HAVE to go into the museum, and being that the monastery itself is completely free, I decided it would be worth paying the 8 lev to go in and learn a bit more about it.

I’m going to be completely honest and say it wasn’t.

It had a lot of artifacts from throughout the ages, such as the Ottoman period, and some of the pieces were interesting, but the museum was way smaller than I expected and I didn’t feel that interested in what it was showcasing – mostly fancy dinnerware and crowns and bishops’ outfits, and a lot of crosses. It didn’t really have much actual history of the monastery, which is what I had expected. That said, I don’t mind the money going towards preserving the place as a whole, because it is amazing.

And so I was happy to walk around some more.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The paintings on the outside of the church are absolutely amazing too. So much detail!

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

There are a few places around to grab lunch too; some of it felt a little touristy (doughnut stall, anyone?) but we picked a place that our tour guide recommended right opposite the back of the monastery. The service was so bad that it was hilarious. I came to learn that this seems to be how things are in the Balkans (either that or I got INCREDIBLY unlucky!!). At one point, we politely reminded the waitress that we had ordered some extra bread and she barked “YES, I KNOW! I can’t do EVERYTHING!” and then literally threw the bread onto our table! (On the flip side, the bread was delicious! Homemade flat bread with herbs!) Then when we were paying, she yelled – literally yelled – at one of us to move out of her way. It was incredible.

But, not a standalone incident in the slightest. We brushed it off, but we did laugh about it on the way back!

Plus, this was our view:

Rila National Park, Bulgaria

To get back to the bus, we had to walk through the monastery again, which was such a shame. We couldn’t have timed our trip better, as the weather was worsening as we were leaving. As the clouds rolled in, I managed to get this final shot which I really like, so I’ll leave you with a more atmospheric one:

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery is very much worth the day trip from Sofia, and it’s cheap and easy to get to.

I ended up loving Sofia so much that I didn’t find time to take another day trip to Plovdiv, but I’m so glad I managed to make it to Rila. There are plenty of hikes to do in the area as well, including the Seven Rila Lakes. It’s definitely possible to spend far more than a day in Rila National Park, but it’s easy to get a taste of it in a day too.

What’s the most beautiful monastery or church you’ve been to?! This has to be one of my favourites!

While you’re here, do you fancy reading more about my Balkans trip? Here are some of the highlights:

 Sofia: A City Of Colour And Contrast
⭐ Exploring Beautiful Belgrade
⭐ Sorrow In Sarajevo: A Heartbreaking Tale Of The Bosnian Capital
⭐ Mostar: The Gem Of Bosnia
⭐ Surviving Dubrovnik – And Falling In Love With It
⭐ Hiking & Heating Up In Kotor, Montenegro
⭐ Adventures In Albania: Two Hours In Tirana Is Not Enough
⭐ Sunshine, Lakes & Statues In North Macedonia

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A day trip to Rila Monastery, Bulgaria, from Sofia!

12 thoughts on “A Day Trip To Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

  1. What a stunner! I’m sure my travel wishlist from reading others’ blogs just keeps getting longer… I think the Basílica de San Juan de Dios in Granada would take the prize for the most memorable religious building I’ve visited. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it definitely has the wow factor 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooo I’ll have to look that up! I’ve been to the cathedral in Seville and that was pretty impressive, although not my favourite (that would be Notre Dame, so I was gutted when that caught fire). I went to a bone church in Faro, Portugal, so that might be my most memorable, haha. And Wat Pho in Thailand!

      (and yes, I’m constantly adding places from people’s blogs and recommendations!!! lol)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sainte Chapelle (just round the corner from Notre Dame) has some seriously fine stained glass. I couldn’t quite believe it when Notre Dame caught fire – hopefully once it’s been restored it’ll be as good as new. Ooh I’ve heard of that place in Faro, but haven’t been!


  2. It is magical there at Rila..isn’t it? I did go to Plovdiv as well, but that was like going to any other medieval town (it is quite nice and interesting – so you still have a place to explore on your next trip to Bulgaria). You can rest assured that your decision was right if you needed to choose one of the two 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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