Bulgaria Travel Guide

Is This the Most Beautiful Monastery in Europe?

PHOTO: By Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

A visit to Rila Monastery in Bulgaria is a religious experience—in several senses of the word.

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (a destination on our Go List 2019), certainly has no shortage of magnificent religious sites from the red-bricked Saint Sofia Church to the gold-plated Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. But for all their beauty, they can’t quite compare with Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains. With its scenic backdrop, immaculate frescoes, and striped porticoes, this monastic complex is well worth the two-hour pilgrimage from the capital.

What Is Rila Monastery?

This glorious UNESCO Heritage Site is the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in all of Bulgaria, housing around 60 monks today. Founded back in the 10th century by the hermit Ivan of Rila, it eventually grew to become the focus of spirituality in the country, receiving the patronage of just about every tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Its beauty has stood the test of time: while it was ravaged by the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century and subsequently by a fire in the 19th century, it was painstakingly rebuilt in each instance.

Why You Should Make the Trek 

For one, Rila Monastery is a shining example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, standing as a bastion of Slavic cultural identity following centuries of Ottoman rule. Its appearance is a sight to behold, with its distinctive black-and-white striped porticoes juxtaposed against brilliantly colored frescoes­the latter of which are the handiwork of Bulgarian artistic greats like Zahari and Dimitar Zograf.

By Vesna Kriznar/Shutterstock Dennis Van De Water | Dreamstime.com

INSIDER TIPThere are many treasures within its walls, too. In its main church, you’ll find a gold-plated iconostasis; at its small museum, visitors can glimpse Rafail’s Cross, a famous crucifix depicting over 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures—all hewn from a single piece of wood.

GETTING THERE

Rila Monastery is situated in a forested valley up in the Rila Mountains, which is the highest mountain range in Bulgaria. But it’s not as inaccessible as it sounds; in fact, there are several ways to get there.

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Self-drive: This is a popular option, but you may need some familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet in order to interpret road signs. The 130km drive should take two to three hours, depending on traffic conditions.

Shuttle bus: The most comfortable—but also the most expensive—option. You’ll be ferried to and fro in an air-conditioned vehicle, usually by an English-speaking driver to boot. Try RilaShuttle.com; prices start from 19.90 EUR (US$23) for a two-way transfer.

Public bus: By far the cheapest alternative, with a return ticket costing around 22 BGN (US$13). Do note that there’s only one bus daily, which departs from the West Bus Station (Ovcha Kupel) at 10.20am and arrives at Rila Monastery at around 1 pm.

WHEN TO GO

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Rila Monastery is a popular day trip in summer, especially among locals, so you can expect quite a crowd. We’d recommend visiting in low season—the monastery is unexpectedly beautiful in winter, with frost blanketing its grounds. Plus, there are far fewer visitors in winter, making for better photo opportunities.

INSIDER TIPBe sure to check out the old-school bakery behind the monastery, which sells homemade—and utterly moreish—mekitsi (traditional dough fritters) for less than US$1 apiece. For a heartier meal, you’ll find a handful of Bulgarian restaurants behind the bakery, many of which serve up the local specialty of trout.