It’s the combination of mountain peaks, magnificent Revival period monastic architecture, religious reverence and a bit of national pride that puts a big smile on the faces of visitors to the Rila Monastery.
Don’t believe us? Sit down and watch the people entering the monastery’s courtyard!
The Monastery is the undisputed crown jewel of Bulgarian tourism and the country’s most important cultural and religious center. Each year it welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors, tourists and pilgrims, alike.
Go early in the morning or in the late afternoon in order to avoid the tour-bus crowds.
An UNESCO site since 1983, this is one of the oldest religious centers of the Slavic world. It has remained continuously active since it was founded in the 10th century –that is if we turn a blind eye to the short period in the 1960’s when the monastery was transformed into a museum by Bulgaria’s Communist government.
The once large monk population, hosted in the nearly 300 living cells has now dwindled to approximately 60 men that permanently reside here.
Several churches, chapels and museums are part of the monastery complex. Note that each museum has a separate entrance fee and opening hours.
Colorful Orthodox frescoes at Rila Monastery's main church
Colorful frescoes cover the walls and ceiling of the outer corridors and the portico of the Church of the Birth of Virgin Mary, Rila Monastery's main church.
Adulteresses punished at Doomsday, Rila Monastery nartex wall
We especially like the depictions of the inferno: it is not every day that you see hairy devils with long tails torment sinners on Judgment Day.
Entrance fee: Free
Opening hours: 7am- 8pm
Pictures are not allowed inside the church.
HRELYU TOWER AND CHAPEL
This 23 meter-high stone tower dates back to the 14th century and is the oldest structure in the Monastery. The small chapel at the top preserves some of the original frescoes.
Entrance fee: 5 lv.
Opening hours: 8.30 am-4.30 pm
Rila Monastery History Museum guards the generous endowments diven to the monastery by rich patrons, local noblemen, Bulgarian and foreign kings and Ottoman sultans throughout the centuries.
Yet, the most famous exhibit here was made in house.
The wooden cross with 100 miniature biblical scenes and over 600 figures, each no bigger than a grain of rice, was hand carved by the 18th century Rila monk Rafail. After laboring over the cross for 12 years Rafail is believed to have lost his sight.
Entrance fee: 8 lv
Opening hours: 8.30am-4.30pm
Extended summer hours: 8.30 am – 7.30 pm
Pictures not allowed.
Rila Monastery’s magernitsa (the large communal kitchen) is where big pots and pans once simmered over open fires and dark smoke gushed out of the cone-shaped chimney roof.
One can only wonder if this place inspired some of the images of hell on the main church’s portico wall.
Note: The magernitsa has been under renovation for several years.
MUSEUM OF DAILY LIFE
(at the Samokov gate)
Often passed by, this little museum provides a glimpse at the day-to-day life of Rila Monastery.
Learn how the sizeable land holdings of the monastery were managed and how monks and local villagers laboured to keep the hundreds of monks and pilgrims fed and clothed.
Check out the large furnace where bread to feed hundreds was baked every day (1000 loaves at a time).
Entrance fee: 4 lv
Pictures not allowed
No signs in English.
CAVE OF ST. JOHN OF RILA
Many pilgrims take the steep, but easy hike to the original cave dwelling of the St Ivan Rilski (approx 40 min). A small church erected at the site holds the saint’s remains.
HISTORY OF RILA MONASTERY
St. Ivan of Rila, a 10th century hermit saint was the founder of Rila Monastery
The area first became famous when the 10th century hermit saint Ivan Rilski retired in a nearby cave for a 7 year long solitary prayer. The fame of the ascetic saint and the monastery he founded quickly spread and the flock of pilgrims only increased after St. Ivan Rilski’s death in 946 AD.
The monastic complex moved from the cave area to its current location in the 14th century, thanks to a generous donation by the local feudal prince named Stefan Hrelyu. The stone tower in the monastery’s courtyard dates back to that period and is still called Hrelyu’s tower.
Rila Monastery has always been generously endowed by kings and nobles. Its accumulated riches became an appealing target for band of marauders. To ensure its protection, the Monastery employed 40 armed guards.
A watch tower was erected a few kilometers down the road. Watchmen were stationed there and a warning shot was fired in case of an attack. The large gun used to fire the signal is now on display in the Monastery’s History Museum. The watch tower still stands.
During the Ottoman rule (15th – 19th century), the monastery was one of the few active cultural institution in the Bulgarian lands. Monks labored here preserving rare manuscripts and keeping alive the spark that lit up the Bulgarian belated Renaissance in the 18th century. The large monastic library became a major source of historical knowledge and national identity. The Rila Monastery played a central role in the process of nation building.
HOW TO GET FROM SOFIA TO RILA MONASTERY
Getting from Sofia to Rila Monastery is relatively painless if you have a car or are willing to spend 20-30 Euro for a tour.
Driving is the easiest and the fastest way to reach the monastery from Sofia.
Drive south from Sofia for 95 km, passing Dupnitsa. Before reaching Blagoevgrad turn left right after Kocherinovo and drive for 28 km to Rila Monastery.
Only one direct bus per day departs from Sofia to Rila Monastery.
The bus leaves at 10.20 from Sofia Bus Station West a.k.a. Bus Station Ovcha Koupel and arrives at Rila Monastery around 1pm. It departs back for Sofia at 3 pm.
Note that on weekends and religious holidays the bus gets crowded with pilgrims and tourists.
Sofia's Hostel Mostel runs a minivan to Rila Monastery upon request. A minimum of 3 people are required. The price is 20 Euro per person.
Call Hostel Mostel at +359 889 2232 for more information.
ORGANIZED TOURS TO RILA MONASTERY
A minibus with an English speaking guide departs from Nevski Cathedral square at 9 am and returns to Sofia at 5 pm. The tour will take you to Boyana Church and the Rila Monastery in one day for 25-35 euro per person. Advanced reservations are required.
For an individual guided tour of the Rila Monastery contact a travel agent or simply pop-up at the Sofia Tourist Office.
Here is some additional information about visiting the Rila Monastery.
ENTRANCE FEES TO RILA MONASTERY
Entrance to the monastery courtyard and church is free of charge.
Hrelyu’s Tower and Chapel: 5 lv
History Museum: 8 lv
Museum of Daily Life: 4 lv
PARKING AT RILA MONASTERY
Parking costs 4 lv per day for cars and 6 lv for buses.
TAKING PICTURES IN RILA MONASTERY
Pictures are allowed in the courtyard only.
Rila Monastery is an active Orthodox Christian Monastery.
Visitors are advised against entering in top tanks, shorts, bathing suits or other inappropriate attire and against drinking or eating inside the monastery.
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