Over Memorial Day weekend 2022 I visited Bulgaria. In my 4 days there I explored the capital, Sofia, the second largest city, Plovdiv (via a private full day tour), and visited a winery. But by far the biggest highlight and what I think makes a trip to Bulgaria worth it, is visiting and staying overnight at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Rila Monastery, located about 1.5 hour drive outside of Sofia in Rila. Everything else about Bulgaria was honestly just ok in my opinion. It is definitely one of the lesser developed Eastern European countries, it is cash heavy, very little English is spoken, and it just has a fascinating vibe in that I think it very much is still figuring itself out (purely my impressions based on my experiences and interactions with people), there is a nostalgia for the Communist/Soviet days for sure and some things still very much run like they did back then and yet people have embraced modernity and their freedom as well, and there is this dichotomy of dislike for Putin but love for Russia.
I had been eyeing Rila Monastery ever since I found out about it and even more so ever since I learned you could stay overnight here and have full near uninterrupted access after hours to yourself. The experience was magical, restorative, meditative and surreal. Once you know the logistics and some unspoken rules then its really absolutely worth it all.
Rila Monastery is a 10th century Eastern Orthodox monastery. It is the largest and one of the longest surviving monasteries in Bulgaria and one of the most important religious sites in the country. It is also the #1 visited site in the country, and it attracts both locals and tourists. Rila Monastery is named after its found, Ivan of Rila, a Bulgarian Hermit. The stone tower is original and has withstood the test of time and wars. The monastery and church had been rebuilt after fires destroyed the original ones.
It is architecturally stunning, a masterpiece in Eastern Orthodox architecture and design. The murals in the main central church are very beautiful as well. Not to be missed is the museum, 8 lev for entry, it houses many artifacts but the most famous one and one that is truly stunning to behold in person is the intricately carved wooden cross known as Rafail’s Cross, it is famous for the carvings and the fact that it was all done from a single piece of wood.
The monastery is surrounded by nature and mountains, there are hikes and paths you can follow around it. Most people do a day trip or as a pitstop in a multi stop tour. But to truly embrace and experience the place, you really have to stay overnight. As an overnight guest you get access to the normally closed off upper floors of the monastery (most areas), and the best part is access to the site after hours where at times you may be the only one around. Another plus is you get to experience it in its true quiet nature, as during the daytime with tourists, they play a loud recorded bird call every few minutes to shoo away the birds. NOTE: to visit you must cover your shoulders and knees, this applies to both women and men, and its very strict inside the church, if you do not meet the standards they will provide coverings for you.
Rila Monastery tourist information website has some good information on how to get there as well as booking information and contacts for overnight stays.
Journey by bus or car is around 1.5-2 hours depending on traffic. It is all on well-paved and well signed roads. Google maps also works and is accurate.
Generally there are 3 ways, by public bus, tour bus or rental / private car. Unless you plan to drive through Bulgaria or the Balkans, I suggest just going by bus or tour.
Given timings and my shorter time in Bulgaria, I opted to book a packaged full day Rila 7 Lakes Tour + Rila Monastery, and simply noted in my reservation that I would be separating from the group after the guided tour of the Monastery since I had a overnight booking. However, just a few days before I was informed the ski lift at Rila Lakes were not yet operational for the season so the operator rebooked me to a National Museum + Boyana Church + Rila Monastery self-guided tour, only to cancel that one too due to “operational reasons” and rebook me on the mass guided Boyana Church + Rila Monastery tour with 30 people. This was fine by me, they didnt charge me extra and actually refunded me a bit of the difference and for me it was an means to an end and I got to see Boyana church as well, which is famous for its well preserved Medieval + Byzantine mosaics. I then had my hotel book a private transfer with English guide/ drive at 150 Euro (paid in cash) as the return as the buses/tours leave in the afternoon and got back to Sofia too late for me plans.
11 lev public bus, departs ~10:20AM and 6:20PM West Bus Station (Ovcha Kupel), returns 3pm.
Organized Tour Bus
20 euro roundtrip Rila Shuttle departs 12PM from St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Rila Shuttles also operates a few tours ranging from 25-40Euros. Tour packages usually have a combination and stop at Boyana Church, Rila 7 Lakes, and/or National History Museum. NOTE: most of the tours dont include admission, Boyana is 10 Lev and is limited to 10 people to enter at once and strictly no photography.
Staying Overnight: How to Book + Tips
The only way to book is to contact the Brotherhood of Monks that run and manage the monastery. A phone number is available if you want to try contacting them directly. Just keep in mind they do not really speak English. NOTE: priority is given to pilgrims / religious groups.
Alternatively, you can have your hotel concierge book on your behalf. Or a new service since I went is you can book online through Rila Monastery Tourist website for a 5.70 Euro admin fee and they will book for you.
You pay 30 lev / night at check-in in the administrative office that have specific hours, generally its 2PM until 6:30PM, but while I was there there was definitely a break sometime between 3PM and 5PM. This is also the check-in time, check out time is 11AM. Thankfully they have posted signed in English as well to help with all this. NOTE: you must bring your passport (I left mine in Sofia at my hotel but was able to use my U.S. License). For overnight stays, they do accept cards, but I’d advise to just pay in cash as the machines can be dodgy.
Generally just bring cash with you. The few restaurants nearby have card machines now, and it worked for me, but throughout Bulgaria the card machines are hit or miss, so just have cash handy just in case.
Accommodations and Experience and Rules
After payment and receiving my keys. I was guided to my room in the guest wing by the on duty monk. I asked about what rules I should observe but he did not seem to understand my question, he did speak some limited English during the check-in process though. I was also advised to return my keys to the museum. The posted English signs did notate to not smoke, or light any type of fires (most of the structures are wood), to be quiet and mindful that it is still a functioning monastery and to not bring food or drinks into your room (water is fine). I eventually learned some rules from observation and experience.
The rooms are basic but cozy. Most, I believe, are triples. You enter a foyer with coat hooks, with a bathroom to your side with sitting toilet, sink and showerhead and water heater (I did not shower during my stay so did not test out the water temperature). Then you enter the bedroom with 3 single beds, a closet, a table and a couple chairs. The beds are made and a towel is provided. While it was summer, it did get quite chilly at night but a thick wool blanket is provided and I slept very comfortable. The mattresses are a bit squeaky and soft and the pillow is flat but that is beside the point. It was so quiet and peaceful I slept right through the night.
I then began to explore. Essentially the upper floors are mostly open to overnight guests. However, I deduced that during public opening hours and especially at peak times in the afternoon, it is not advisable to wander too far from the guest wing. I figured this because shortly after settling in I walked around and along the corridors until I was stopped and though I showed my keys I was told I couldn’t roam the wooded floored areas/ historic residential wings (the cook lady had to find a young monk who spoke English) he then informed me of the basic rules which are simple common sense rules when visiting a religious site. But later in the afternoon and through the evening and the following morning I tried roaming to the historic wings again, and no one stopped me. And the same English speaking monk and cook lady walked past me a few times and didnt tell me to go back or that I didnt belong. My guess is that they would rather not have mass public see random people upstairs and think they too can bypass the roped off stairs and go upstairs for views, which I totally understand and respect.
I basically spent my time wandering the halls, sitting in various nooks with seating, did some reading, day dreamed/ meditated, and breathed in the fresh and crisp Bulgarian mountain air. I also did walk through some of the pathways around the monastery to the river below and there are some open seating areas, also a great respite from the crowds. Drinking the water from the fountains that run from the river head was also very nice. I also had a massive lunch at the only nearby restaurant open. The serenity and magic really started kicking in around 6-7PM when most crowds had departed, in the summers the doors remain open from 8AM until 8PM with a few tourists/locals that wander through before 10AM and after 6PM. Once they are gone it is just the monks and overnight guests. I was the only tourist staying overnight that night alongside a handful of local pilgrims. It was unreal.
A bizarre rule that was in place when I was there was that to visit the historic stone tower, you needed to be in a group of at least 3 people before the museum would let you purchase tickets to climb up. Not sure if this still is the case but it was strange.
You do not come here expecting anything gourmet. In fact there are very few options. There is the Monastery Bakery right outside the North Gate that runs from 9:30AM to about 3PM. For a whopping 1 Leva you can get a Mekitsi, Bulgarian Donut, with self serve powdered sugar. You can also order with jam/nutella and they sell water/sodas/ nescafe. No English menus. But the coupmle running the spot are very nice and understand what tourists are there to eat. I had this as a snack in the afternoon as well as my breakfast. Do not expect anything from the nescafe, once again, a means to an end.
Just down the street from the bakery is a restaurant. They do have English menus here, and the staff speak a bit of English. Here I ordered housemade Bulgarian sausage, Monastery Bread (delicious but massive), French fries (menu said potato garnished with white cheese), Katak: cheese/roasted pepper/garlic appetizer, and Bulgarian Beer. All for 37 Leva.
It really is hard to describe the experience of being at the monastery after hours and being nearly the only human as far as the eye could see. While I am not religious or Orthodox Christian, or Christian at all, the place felt welcoming, peaceful and just sitting there staring out towards the mountains the flank the monastery, breathing in the fresh air and listening to the winds and leaves blow, was very restorative and meditative. It is something to experience for sure, and is truly a unique one at that.