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As the realization dawned on me that the bus I would be sitting on for 3+ hours had no air conditioning and was equipped with windows that didn’t open, I was pretty sure I was going to be miserable.

This fact was compounded by 90+ degree heat, a packed bus, and a chain-smoking driver who kept dozing off behind the wheel as we zoomed along on twisty, narrow mountain roads up in the Bulgarian mountains.

Did I say miserable?

Perhaps “fearful for my life and sanity” is more like it.

Yes, it’s true that the ride from Sofia to Rila Monastery was less than pleasant. In fact, it probably ranks up there as one of the worst bus rides of my life.

But the payoff?


Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

It was nearly 6 years ago that I first heard of Rila Monastery.

It was mentioned in one of my favorite books, “The Historian,” which is about 99 percent responsible for my desire to go to Eastern Europe in the first place. Even before I had made concrete plans for my summer trip to Europe, I knew that Bulgaria was going to be included, just so I could visit Rila.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The monastery (which is officially called the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila) is the largest and most well-known Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Pilgrims and tourists come from all over the world to visit its painted church, arch-laden residential buildings, and museum. The surrounding mountain scenery is an added bonus.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The current monastery complex isn’t actually all that old by European standards, but its namesake, the hermit Saint Ivan of Rila, lived in a nearby cave in the mountains in the 900s AD. The early monastic buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1833, and reconstructed over the next 30 years.

Today, the site is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The highlights of visiting Rila Monastery definitely are the courtyard and the church itself.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The outside of the church is covered in colorful frescoes, which were painted in the mid-1800s by a handful of Bulgarian artists, with the most famous being the Zograf brothers. These frescoes are unlike most I’ve seen — they are vibrant and cheery, and totally eye-catching.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

These are contrasted by the serene, relaxed atmosphere that envelops the whole place.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria


Despite the miserable bus ride to get there, visiting Rila was one of the highlights of Bulgaria for me. I had been looking forward to it for so long, and it didn’t disappoint.


If You Go…

Thinking of visiting Rila Monastery yourself? Here are some tips for your visit:

Getting there…

  • If you don’t have a car yourself and don’t want to take a guided trip, the easiest (but not most pleasant) way to reach Rila Monastery is by public bus from Sofia. The ride takes roughly 3 hours one-way, with one bus transfer in the village of Rila. The tricky part is, there’s only one bus per day from Sofia (leaving around 10:20 a.m.), and only one bus back (around 3 p.m.).


  • Entry to Rila Monastery is free! The museum, however, requires a small entry fee. And donations, of course, are also accepted.

What to wear…

  • Rila is still a functioning monastery, so modesty should be observed out of respect for the monks who call the place home. No mini skirts or short-shorts are permitted, and both men and women should cover their shoulders when entering the church. If you’re deemed to be too exposed to enter the church, there are some cover-ups available for you to use.

Taking photos…

  • You can take all the photos you want in the courtyard and of the frescoes on the outside of the church. Photos are NOT permitted, however, inside the church, the residential parts of the monastery, or the museum.

Where to stay…

  • If you don’t want to cram everything into one day, there are very basic, hostel-style rooms available to rent at the monastery. When I say “basic,” I mean squat toilets and no running water. Conversely, you can probably find accommodation in the nearby town of Rila.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria


Just like the rest of Bulgaria, Rila Monastery isn’t a place many people outside of Eastern Europe visit. But I promise it’s a site well worth the effort.


Would YOU want to visit Rila Monastery?


*Note: I visited Rila Monastery as part of a complimentary 18-day “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid TravelBut all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

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30 Responses to Rila Monastery, In Photos

  1. Jess says:

    I’m dying to go to Eastern Europe and The Historian is almost 100% responsible for that! For now, I’ll live vicariously through you and your awesome pics.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Ooo, another Historian fan, yay! I visited almost every place mentioned in that book this summer. And it was awesome.

  2. Beautiful beautiful artwork. Nicely photographed and described, Amanda!
    fotoeins | Henry recently posted..La petite ville française de Akaroa

  3. Gaelyn says:

    Those colors are So brilliant. Your Eastern Europe journey has me intrigued.
    Gaelyn recently posted..Crazy Jug Point North Rim Grand Canyon

  4. Ele says:

    Great photos. I’m a photo junkie, so that’s important to me. After seeing your photos I think it’s high time I changed my old digital camera to something more professional for blogging. What camera do you use?

    Did you know that:

    “Besides breaking the ‘political monopoly’ of Byzantium in Eastern Europe,
    Bulgaria broke also the monopoly of Latin, Greek and Hebrew as the exclusive
    ‘holy languages’ of Christendom. Along with introducing Christianity as a
    common religion shared with Byzantium and Rome, Knyaz Boris I the Baptist
    ensured the approval by both the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople that
    the Church language in Bulgaria would be the spoken language of the country.
    In Western Europe the holy books became accessible to the common people
    much later, with Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible in German, and the 1611 King
    James Version of the Bible in English.”
    Ele recently posted..Mushrooms in Lithuania (well, some of them)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for those fun facts, Ele!

      I’m glad you liked the photos. Right now I’m shooting with an Olympus E-PM1, and love it.

  5. Amazing photos. Not sure my travels will get me to Bulgaria one day, but this is definitely a gorgeous place!
    A Montrealer Abroad recently posted..Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal Best Places, Approved by Locals

  6. Rebecca says:

    I’d never even heard of Rila Monastery before you started mentioning it in your travel posts and now it is DEFINITELY on my bucket list! :D

  7. Wow it’s just so beautiful!!!! Great shots!

  8. What a wonderful place! But I think we’ll rent a car :-) You are the hero!
    Victor Tribunsky recently posted..Le Pont du Gard Breathtaking, but That is Only Water Conduit!

  9. This place is stunning! I’ve never heard of it before but it’s going on the list now.
    Caroline Eubanks recently posted..Packing for a Trip to Europe

  10. H-Bomb says:

    That place is so incredibly beautiful; some of the photos in this article would have been worthy candidates for your photo-of-the-week feature. I can’t imagine how long it took to paint those frescoes . . . And I also really like all the arches.
    H-Bomb recently posted..One small step for an H-Bomb: my visit to a space shuttle

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Oh, one or two of these may eventually end up in that coveted photo of the week spot! ;)

      But yes, the frescoes and arches are all very pretty – and very photogenic!

  11. Kieu says:

    Wow, A! What a beautiful place. Adding this to my list if I ever get to Bulgaria.
    Kieu recently posted..Takayama Cuisine: mMm.. Miso Hungry!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Definitely add it to that list! It’s not a place most people can say they’ve been. But yes, it is beautiful.

  12. ehalvey says:

    God, I love Orthodox architecture.
    ehalvey recently posted..Spires in Copenhagen (Photos)

  13. been there, a real gem of Bulgaria :)
    very nice photos!!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks! I agree that’s its a true gem in Bulgaria – and one that most people (outside of the region, at least) have never even heard of!

  14. [...] to go to Bulgaria. I knew virtually nothing about the country, but I knew it was the location of Rila Monastery — a grand Orthodox monastery high up in the Rila Mountains that I read about for the first [...]

  15. [...] Rila Monastery, Bulgaria (2012) [...]

  16. [...] to famous sites/monuments (included things on this tour included wine tasting in Hungary, visiting Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, and walking tours in multiple cities). Some extras that I signed up for on this tour [...]

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