Rila Monastery: The Stunning Unvanquished Fortress Of Faith

Standing in the courtyard of the Rila Monastery, looking at the impressive church, the tall tower, and the black and white striped arcades, you feel like you have entered a temple.

Not a religious temple though, but rather a sanctuary of culture, education, and history.

Rila Monastery Header

The Rila Monastery, nestled in the powerful hug of the highest mountains on the Balkans, has been an important cultural and educational centre over the centuries. It is considered Bulgaria’s holiest place.

Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site is the highlight of every traveller’s visit to Bulgaria.

Learn everything you need to know about how to visit Bulgaria’s most sacred place and the mysterious treasures it proudly keeps.

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The Humble Man Who Inspired Countless Followers

In the 10th century, a hermit monk by the name Ivan settled down in a cave in the hills of the Rila Mountain. The staggering crags and century-old trees in the highest Bulgarian mountain provided shelter for him and his faith.

St. Ivan of Rila
The image of St. Ivan of Rila greets the visitors at the entrance gate of the monastery.

Disgusted by the political situation in medieval Bulgaria, as well as the corruption of the church, he sought a place to practice his religion and devote himself to his beliefs.

He soon became known in the region as a holy man. People came from near and far to experience his wisdom first-hand.

After his death, in the middle of a dense forest at 1,147 m (3,763 ft) above sea level, his students founded the first Rila Monastery. The spot was approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) away from the monastery’s current position.

Throughout the years, the building was destroyed twice and robbed many times. Finally, in the 14th century, it was established at its present location.

To understand why did the holy man choose this exact spot to devote himself to his religion, you need to imagine the surrounding area.

Rila Monastery in Winter
The snow-covered peaks of the Rila Mountain behind the Rila Monastery look stunning in winter.

Rila Mountain is the highest in Bulgaria and on the Balkans. Its tallest peak – Musala – rises 2,925 m (9,596 ft) high. Several other Rila peaks also reach the impressive 2,500+ m above sea level.

Alpine lakes with crystal clear, refreshing waters further astonish and fascinate the traveller. The most famous of them, the Seven Rila Lakes, are only a couple hours away from the Rila Monastery.

So you see, St. Ivan Rilski didn’t choose this place by chance. People say that the mountain’s energy is extremely strong in this area.

Even today, with all the modern life’s distractions around you, you can still feel how special this place is the moment you walk through its gates.

Rila Monastery – A Fortress Of Faith And A Cradle Of Education

During the National Revival Period or Bulgarian Renaissance as it is also known, the Rila Monastery’s role in the cultural and spiritual education of the nation grew substantially.

In fact, it transcended into the biggest educational and cultural centre of the Bulgarian lands. Some of the most prominent educators received their knowledge here and dedicated their lives to spreading their wisdom.

Monk Entering The Rila Monastery Church
A monk enters the main church of the Rila Monastery, while visitors admire the frescoes.

The monastery’s library opened its gates to pilgrims. The number of monastery visitors grew rapidly and so did the number of newly erected buildings. The whole area transformed into a huge monastery complex. It was able to accommodate all who sought enlightenment in the holiest place in Bulgaria.

During the Ottoman ruling, sultans issued official decrees, which allowed the Eastern Orthodox monastery to function undisturbed.

Nowadays, you can visit the fortress-like monastery and most of its buildings.

You don’t need to pay an entrance fee to enter the Rila Monastery’s courtyard and to explore the church.

However, if you want to visit the tower, the museum, the icon gallery, or the kitchen, you need to buy separate tickets for each of them (see ticket prices below).

Nativity Of The Virgin Mary Church: The Hagiographers’ Masterpiece

The construction of the imposing church in the middle of the Rila Monastery’s courtyard began in 1835.

At this time, Bulgaria was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The monastery played a crucial role in keeping Christianity alive and sparkling the upcoming struggles for liberation.

Frescoes Under The Church Arcades
The frescoes under the church arcades depict countless biblical scenes, saints, and martyrs.

That’s why the most renowned master builders of the century arrived to construct the church building. Master Pavel who had previously worked on the legendary Mount Athos was the main builder. He used his skills and his knowledge to incorporate medieval elements and baroque spatial principles.

The most distinguishable feature of the church is the stunning frescoes.

The most prominent Bulgarian hagiographers of the 19th century – Zahari Zograf, Dimitar Zograf, and Stanislav Dospevski – painted their masterpieces here.

Joined by other talented painters, within several years they drew elaborate biblical scenes and depictions of the lives of saints and martyrs. Their art covered the church interior walls, the domes, the façades under the arcade, and the ceilings under the domes.

Furthermore, they painted 40 huge icons for the iconostases and countless smaller ones.

St. Michael Fresco Outside The Church
The vibrant frescoes of the main church are an excellent example of the enormous talent of the hagiographers.

Skilled woodcarvers under the supervision of Atanas Teladour created the central iconostasis. After three years of hard work under the talented hands of the carvers, came to life a masterpiece iconostasis.

Its size and composition are unrivalled on the Balkans.

The carvings resemble three-dimensional sculptures rather than the typical carvings you can see in other churches. The vibrant colours complement the richness of the interior.

At the dim light of the candles and the sun rays coming from the windows, you can see the glitter on the golden-painted wood.

Nativity Of The Virgin Mary Church Interior
The masterpiece of the wood carvers – the iconostasis – and the richly decorated interior of the Nativity Of The Virgin Mary Church.

The Hrelyo Tower: The Oldest Surviving Building In Rila Monastery

In 1335, the local governor Hrelyo helped construct the monastery’s tower.

Later named after him, the 23 m (75 ft) high construction served as both a residential and defending structure. The top floor of the tower hosts a small chapel with magnificent frescoes.

Hrelyo Tower
The Hrelyo Tower, the tallest and oldest building of the Rila Monastery complex.

Climbing the steep, narrow, and winding stairs is a challenging exercise.

However, the rewarding views of the Rila Monastery’s arcades, the roofs of the church’s domes, and the peaks of the Rila Mountain in the background are more breath-taking than the steps.

The Museum: The Keeper Of The Monastery Treasures

The Rila Monastery History Museum boasts extremely rich collections.

The items trace the evolution of the monastery and show its cultural, educational, and spiritual importance through the centuries.

On display, you can see numerous books, chalices, crosses, icons, certificates, as well as gifts from pilgrims, political, and religious leaders.

The printing press, which was brought to the Rila Monastery from Vienna in the 1860s, served to extend the monastery’s popularity and importance.

History Museum - Rafael Cross
The majestic Rafael’s Cross is the highlight of the abundant collections of the History Museum.

The monks were unable to keep up with the increased demand for hand-printed images of St. Ivan of Rila and scenes of his life. They acquired the printing press and started producing a greater number of religious copies.

You can see the previously used copper printing plates and the resulting images on display alongside the press.

Other magnificent items on display feature

  • The original wooden door of the Hrelyo Tower.
  • Certificates from the sultans, confirming the independence of the monastery.
  • Icons from the 14th and the 15th century.

Despite the countless treasures in the museum, the highlight of the collection is the so-called Rafael’s cross.

Named after the monk who carved it, the cross is 80 cm (31.5 in) high and 42 cm (16.5 in) wide. 600 figures, grouped in 36 biblical scenes cover every millimetre of the wooden masterpiece.

You would need hours to appreciate the elaborate, unique work, which took the monk 12 years to complete and cost him his eyesight.

The Library: The Richest Collection Of Books On The Balkans

Between the 11th and the 16th century, the Rila Monastery Library acquired several thousand books and manuscripts, making it one of the largest libraries in the modern world.

Marble Fountain In Church Arcades
The marble fountain under the church arcades.

The collection boasts records in Slavic and Greek languages. The artistic merits of the scripts even exceed their literary importance. Most of the books feature incredible illustrations from renowned painters.

The library also contains an impressive collection of printed books. The earliest of them date back to the 16th century.

The Monastery Kitchen: Feeding Countless Pilgrims Through The Centuries

The monastery’s kitchen is a rather impressive architectural achievement.

The 25 m (82 ft) high chimney is constructed in such a way that the smoke from the gigantic room can escape without suffocating the cooks.

The Oven In The Monastery Kitchen
The oven in the monastery kitchen is so huge that it might as well be able to accommodate a whole tour bus.

The enormous pots and spoons, as well as the oven, which might be able to accommodate a whole tourist bus, serve as a reminder of the huge number of people who were welcomed here.

The Bakery: Serving Legendary Snacks Since 1866

The monastery kitchen is no longer operational but just outside the monastery walls, you’ll find the established in 1866 bakery.

Don’t leave Rila Monastery without trying the legendary traditional Bulgarian snack, called mekitsi.

The fried dough melts in your mouth and is a great source of much-needed calories after the exhausting visit to the largest Bulgarian monastery.

Mekitsi From The Monastery Bakery
Don’t leave Rila Monastery without trying mekitsi from the monastery bakery.

You can also stock on freshly baked bread and buffalo yoghurt produced in the nearby Rila town.

Things To Do And See On The Way To The Rila Monastery

Before reaching the Rila Monastery or after you pay it a visit, there are several other interesting things you might want to do in the region.

Visit The Stob Pyramids

The majestic sandstone creations of nature are even worth a separate visit. Located near the village Stob, they rise up to 12 m (39 ft) high and can be spotted from the road.

However, be careful in case it has rained. The ground around the pyramids becomes extremely slippery and it’s dangerous to climb to the Stob Pyramids.

Stop At The Orlitsa Nunnery

Before you reach the Rila Monastery, you can pay a visit to the Orlitsa Nunnery.

In the last five centuries, countless pilgrims have stopped here on their way to the Rila Monastery.

The St. Peter and Paul Church of the nunnery was built in 1469. Inside are kept the relics of St. Ivan Rilski.

Eat Bulgarian Delicacies At The Local Restaurants

The restaurants along the way to the Rila Monastery, and in the two little towns you’ll pass, offer freshly prepared Bulgarian delicacies.

The fresh trout – grilled or fried – is to die for. Traditional Bulgarian dishes are served in clay pots while scrumptious salads compliment your lunch and tease your palate.

Try The Organic Honey

Buy a few jars of the sweet nectar of the gods.

The producers sell it directly in front of their houses. You can see the colourful beehives in their gardens and taste their healthy product before deciding which sort to buy.

Buy Typical Bulgarian Clay Pots

Another colourful sight by the edge of the road is the piles of traditional clay pots.

They are not just great travel souvenirs but also indispensable in the kitchen.

How To Visit The Holiest Place In Bulgaria

Below are several tips and useful information to help you plan your visit to the holiest place in Bulgaria – the Rila Monastery.

Rila Monastery Courtyard From Hrelyo Tower
The Rila Monastery courtyard as seen from the Hrelyo Tower.

Getting To The Rila Monastery

The most comfortable way to travel to the Rila Monastery is by car.

From the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, the drive is approximately 2:30 h long (depending on the road conditions and traffic). The first about 90 km (56 mi) is a well-maintained highway. The last 35 km (22 mi) will take you through picturesque little towns and villages.

Flowers Under The Arcades Of The Rila Monastery
Flowers under the arcades of the Rila Monastery.

The Rila Monastery is also 120 km (75 mi) away from the Greek border. So, for example, if you’re staying in the second largest Greek city, Thessaloniki, you can visit Rila Monastery on a day trip.

Regular bus connections are available from Sofia, Dupnitsa, and Blagoevgrad. However, buses are not in great condition. Moreover, if you’re travelling by bus from Sofia, you’ll spend more time driving than visiting the Eastern Orthodox fortress of faith.

If you don’t have your own wheels and want to avoid public transportation, you can book a day trip to Rila Monastery from the city centre of Sofia. The tour also includes a visit to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Boyana Church, at the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital.

Opening Hours Of The Monastery

It is possible to stay at the Rila Monastery even after dark (see the next section).

However, the museum, the icon gallery, the tower, and the kitchen are only open between 8:30 AM and 7:30 PM (June 1st until September 30th) or between 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM (October 1st until May 31st).

Rila Monastery Courtyard
The Rila Monastery courtyard with the green peaks of Rila Mountain in the background.

Since the Rila Monastery is an active place of worship, here is also the schedule for the services:

  • Work days: 6:30 AM and 5:00 PM.
  • Sundays and holidays: 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

The service is held in the main church, except during the winter months. The monastery chapel Nativity Of The Christ at the monastery bookshop hosts the worshipers in winter.

Entrance Tickets

You don’t need a ticket to visit the Rila Monastery courtyard and the Church Of The Nativity Of The Virgin Mary.

The ticket price for the Hrelyo Tower, the History Museum, the Icon Gallery, and the kitchen is 5.00 leva ($3.00) for adults.

The reduced ticket fee for students and senior citizens is just 1.00 lev ($0.60).

You need separate tickets, sold at each entrance.

Church Domes From Hrelyo Tower
Climbing the Hrelyo Tower is rewarded with magnificent views, for example of the church domes.

Spending The Night At The Rila Monastery

If visiting Rila Monastery on a day trip won’t satisfy your curiosity, you can spend a night here as well.

The monastery provides a few basic rooms for travellers.

For reservations, you can call the monastery at (+359) 89 687 2010, Monday to Friday, 10 AM – 7 PM.

In the area, you’ll find further accommodation options.

Food And Drinks

Eating and smoking within the monastery walls are forbidden.

Several fountains in and around the Rila Monastery will satisfy your thirst with clear, refreshing mountain waters.

Depictions Of Hell
After seeing the frescoes with the depictions of hell on the exterior of the main church, I wouldn’t want to break any rules while on monastery grounds.

Outside the Rila Monastery walls, you’ll find the bakery, established in 1866. Next, two restaurants with questionable reputation will serve you food. A snacks shop is also available.

My recommendation is to try the traditional mekitsi from the bakery and eat your lunch (or maybe also dinner?) at one of the restaurants along the way.

For example, Restaurant Gorhim at the entrance of Pastra is an excellent choice. The cosy interior, the friendly staff, and the scrumptious Bulgarian food and wine on the menu will satisfy even the most ostentatious traveller.

The Undeniable Importance Of Rila Monastery

Nativity Of The Virgin Mary Church And Hrelyo Tower
The Nativity Of The Virgin Mary Church and the Hrelyo Tower

You can rarely visit another heritage site in the world which played such a huge role in a nation’s history, education, religion, and culture.

Rila Monastery is sacred not because of its religious merits but because of the role it played in keeping the national spirit alive during the five dark centuries of Ottoman ruling.

Countless educators and scientists received their knowledge here and spread their wisdom among the people. The importance of the monastery was even recognised by the sultans who officially declared the Rila Monastery’s independence.

Today, the monastery amidst the peaks of the Rila Mountain is the biggest tourist landmark of Bulgaria outside of the capital Sofia.

It is easily accessible, so you have zero excuses not to visit the holiest place in Bulgaria!

I’m curious, what is the most sacred place in your country? Leave a comment below!

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  1. I love the natural surroundings and the history of this monastery, and those are such stunning frescoes!

  2. Yes, everything about the Rila Monastery is amazing! You should definitely visit, Dee, and check the incredible energy and atmosphere of the place :)

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