Mountains beyond mountains, the hip capital city of Sofia, Bulgaria is a paradise for travelers who are seeking the unique and the exceptional. Rila Monastery, the perfect day trip from Sofia, is just that. Dating back as far as the 10th century, Rila Monastery retains over 1000 years of history and beauty. In this post, we’ll talk about how to get to Rila Monastery from Sofia, what to do when you’re there, and a little something extra to see about St. Ivan of Rila, who the monastery is named after.
Looking to fill your itinerary while in Sofia? Check out our post on things to do in Sofia!
How to Get to Rila Monastery
Rent a Car
We think renting a car for Rila Monastery is the best option. Not only is renting a car dirt cheap but you get to see more of Bulgaria’s beautiful countryside (sunflowers!) and you have the freedom to explore the monastery on your time.
Plus there’s more to see than just the monastery. More on that below!
It will take you between 1.5-2 hours so if you start your day trip early enough then you should have plenty of time to explore and return the car!
There are sooooo many tours that will take you to Rila Monastery. Whether it’s through Airbnb or the tour company itself, you’ll have no problem finding an option. However, this is more expensive and you have time constraints.
There is a bus that goes from Sofia to Rila Monastery and it leaves at 10:20 am and arrives around 1:00 pm. However, it departs the monastery at 3:00 pm so you only have two hours to explore the area. We think you’d miss out on a few things.
There’s also a taxi. You can hire a driver for the day. But again, that option will cost you more than a rental car or a bus.
If you plan on renting a car then you’ll want to know about parking. There’s a parking lot right in front of Rila Monastery, which costs 5 lev for the day. We visited on a Tuesday in July and it wasn’t full.
If you visit on a weekend then you’ll probably have trouble finding a spot, especially in the summer. In that case, you would need to park on the side of the road either before the monastery or beyond it. You’ll see where other cars have done the same. We have read some reviews where people had to walk quite far!
That said, go early and try your best to go on a weekday!
Rila Monastery and the Gorgeous Backdrop
When you enter Rila Monastery, the first thing you notice is the monastery itself. However, our eyes quickly became stuck on the mountains surrounding it. It was like stepping into a different realm. Before entering any further, we let the cool mountain air wash over us for a bit. It was really refreshing.
Entry into Rila Monastery is free but there are some rules about clothing. It’s fine if you wear shorts or a tank top but they will give you a wrap skirt and a shawl/cape to cover up. There are no photos allowed inside so we’re unable to share any pictures. You’ll have to see it for yourself!
The walls are completely covered in frescoes and it’s one of the most unique churches we’ve visited. It has, of course, been rebuilt through the years. However, the oldest building in the compound is the tower next to the monastery. It dates back to the 14th century and you can pay a small fee to enter this one. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited.
If we didn’t teach English online then we would have stayed the night! There are many rooms available in the complex and they’re very cheap! From what we’ve read they’re pretty basic rooms but it would be awesome to wake up with that view!
Bring an appetite because you’ll find several restaurants just a few steps from Rila Monastery, and most importantly, you’ll find a bakery. We weren’t sure what the bakery sold and there’s no menu outside. There’s just a window to place an order and the table inside has a few items displayed. We just held up two fingers and were given a couple of fried breads that reminded us of funnel cake but better! There’s plenty of powdered sugar at the tables so pour it on!
What better place to try the Bulgarian national drink, Rakia, than in the Rila mountains?
St. Ivan of Rila Cave
St. Ivan of Rila, who Rila Monastery is named after, spent 12 years in a cave during the 10th century. It was near this cave that the original Rila Monastery was founded before being moved to its present location after his death.
This is where having a car came in handy! After we had finished taking in our final views of Rila Monastery and the mountains behind it, we drove on further. We weren’t totally sure where we were going and no one really spoke English but we found a map near the monastery and mostly figured it out.
If you’d like to see Ivan’s cave, then drive for about 5-7 minutes past Rila Monastery until you enter a very shady area and you’ll see a big faded sign. Park here! Most likely, there will be several other cars parked there too.
Shrine near St. Ivan of Rila’s cave
It’s about 15-20 minutes by foot to the cave and his burial from the starting point. The walk itself is worth making this trek!
If you don’t have a rental car but would like to visit the cave, it’s about an hour walk to the starting path from the monastery.
Other Things to Do
There is a museum in the Rila Monastery complex, but we did not visit. It seems like there are some really cool relics inside so if it’s something that interests you then go for it! However, we aren’t sure if there’s any English inside.
Rila Monastery is connected to a lot of hiking and outdoor activities. Many people were camping nearby, many hikers were passing through. If a hike interests you, like the Seven Rila Lakes, then you probably want to spend more than just a day trip at Rila Monastery and spend some time exploring Rila National Park. We’d be jealous!
Summary of Rila Monastery: Day Trip from Sofia
This was a very special day. Not only was the weather perfect but the crowds were small and at times we had the complex to ourselves. For a cheap day trip from Sofia, we highly recommend visiting Rila Monastery and learning a little more about this essential part of Bulgarian history.
For more general info on the monastery itself and the dress code, check out their official website.