One of the most beautiful sights in Bulgaria according to tourists and locals alike is the Rila Monastery, which is located in the middle of the Rila Mountains. There was no way we were gonna come to Bulgaria and not see it. But there are a couple of things I wish I had known in advance that would have made the visit a lot better.
You can take a bus there instead of taking an expensive tour.
The Rila Express leaves from Bus and Coach Station Zapad on Ovcha Kupel daily at 10:20 am. It picks up at platform 7. Look for the sign that says “Rila Monastery.” It takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to get there, because there’s a ridiculous stop in some dumpy area where you have to just wait and maybe pee in a squat toilet if you feel like being super disgusting. It returns at 3 pm. And it’s only 11 lev each way, which you pay on the bus. This gives you total freedom to see and do whatever you want.
This may not be nearly enough time to do everything.
The Rila Monastery is gorgeous all around and it’s pretty large to walk around in. There’s also a museum you can visit for a fee, where you can see works like Rafail’s cross, which is intricately carved out of a single piece of wood. You can walk all around the monastery, the church and in and out of the grounds. But you know what that doesn’t leave you time to do? Eat lunch. You only have two hours total. Unless you take a very short trip around the monastery, which isn’t worth it, you’re not going to have time to eat, though there are restaurants around there. My recommendation is to bring something like a sandwich in your bag to eat on the bus.
Definitely eat the monastic donuts.
Honestly I would come hungry to the Rila Monastery because the hottest ticket around the monastery is the monastic donuts (mekitsa). A huge line forms outside the donut window where you can buy a bag of donuts and cover them in powdered sugar or jam. They’re a mix between beignets and elephant ears, and they’re only 50 cents each. They’re somehow crunchy and fluffy at the same time, and not as greasy as you would expect. Definitely better than eating at one of the restaurants on the area unless you have more time. They’re great with drinkable yogurt, which you can buy from the same window.
This isn’t where the original monastery was
The Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by the followers of St. John of Rila, who was a hermit living in a cave. The students built the monastery to have a place to stay when they went to him to study. It was rebuilt in its current location in the 14th century. It was later destroyed by a fire and rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. It’s currently one of the most popular UNESCO sites in Bulgaria, symbolizing Slavic cultural identity.
You can’t take pictures inside the monastery church.
The inside of the church is stunning, especially in the afternoon when the sun shines through the smoky interior creating beams of light. But unfortunately you can’t take photos inside. (We snuck a few anyway.) You can take as many photos as you like on the grounds of the monastery and the exterior of the church.
You might want to stay the night.
Sofia is a good hub for a lot of beautiful places in Bulgaria, including the famed Rila Monastery. Many other places worth visiting are on the same side of the country as the Monastery including the Seven Rila Lakes, the Rila Mountains, and Boyana Church. A lot of tour companies bundle many of these together, especially in the summer. But that makes for an exhausting day and not much time at any given stop.
Perhaps the better option is to spend at least one night in Rila and do cheaper and shorter day trips from there so you’re not restricted by the bus schedule to Sofia and long transportation times between destinations. That way you’ll give the Rila area the time it deserves.