Imagine a series of seven glacial lakes in ombré shades of blues and greens, each distinct in their shape and color. Turning on your heel, you have a panorama of all 7 Rila Lakes, Bulgaria’s beautiful gem, below you.
What’s best? All of these beautiful glacial lakes and a sweeping panoramic view are easily accessible on a day trip from Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia.
One of the most famous hikes in Bulgaria, the gorgeous Seven Rila Lakes hike is one for your bucket list.
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What Are the Seven Rila Lakes?
While the Rila Mountains have countless glacial lakes, the 7 Rila Lakes hike is the name of the most famous hike in Bulgaria. It starts nearby Sapareva Banya, about 90 minutes away from Sofia.
There are seven main lakes (shocking, right?) that can be visited in an easy circuit that takes about 3 to 5 hours. The first
The next highest one is “Fish Lake,” which is the most shallow. Next up is “Trefoil,” so named for its strange shape. The largest one is up next and is called “The Twin” as it has a bit of a mirror-image look.
Next up is “The Kidney,” also named after its shape, and it’s the perfect spot for a picnic before making the final push up to the last two Rila Lakes: the Eye (the deepest one, at a depth of around 37.5 meters or 123 feet) and the Tear (the highest one).
The Tear is at a height of 2,535 meters or 8,317 feet, meaning you only gain about 500 meters of altitude during the hike, but it still manages to feel like quite a challenge nonetheless.
If you wish to stay the night at the Rila Lakes, it is possible to camp in designated areas, or you can also stay in a chalet on the northeastern shore of Fish Lake, at 2,196 meters above sea level.
I’m not sure how to book this in advance, but I do know the name is Chalet Seven Lakes. I do know that you can book a room before the chair lift to Rila Lakes at Panichishte, about 600 meters from the lift. It’s called Malka Yurta Hut and can be booked online here.
How to Get to the 7 Rila Lakes from Sofia
There are three ways to get from Sofia to the 7 Rila Lakes: by public transit, by bus, and by tour.
Getting to the Rila Lakes from Sofia by Public Transit
If you’re trying to get to the Rila Lakes from Sofia by public transportation, here’s how you do it.
First, to go from Sofia to the 7 Rila Lakes, you’ll want to start at the Central Bus Station. From there, you can catch a bus to Dupnitsa (written Дупница in Cyrillic) and then a minibus or public bus to Sapareva Banya (written Сапарева баня).
I recommend keeping the Cyrillic saved in your phone as most of the signage at the bus station is written in Bulgarian and is not transliterated to Roman letters. I’m not sure of the current exact cost of the buses.
The bus to Dupnitsa takes about one hour and then the bus to Sapareva Banya is another half hour or so. There is also a train to Dupnitsa but it’s not as fast or frequent as the bus so I don’t recommend it.
If you have trouble getting a bus to Sapareva Banya, you may just want to splurge on a taxi to get you the rest of the way there. A taxi to the chairlift which marks the starting point of the 7 Lakes hike should cost around 30 leva and take 45 minutes. This can be a good option if you have a group. You’ll want to tell the driver to take you to Pionerska Hut.
Alternately, from Sapareva Banya, you’ll still need to take a shuttle bus which leaves when full. You can find these in front of the municipality hall. The price isn’t fixed but should be somewhere around 5 to 7 leva per person. It’s a better option if you’re traveling solo.
When you arrive, you have two choices: to take the lift to the Rila Lakes hut where the hike starts (the Rila Lakes lift price is 18 leva or 9 euros return, or 10 leva/5 euros one way) or hiking all the way to the hut.
The Seven Rila Lakes lift will take about 25 minutes (it’s really slow, plus there are often lines; meanwhile, the hike to where the lift ends will take you around 2 hours. I recommend taking the lift unless you’re a serious hiker really looking for some exercise as this part of the Rila hike isn’t the most scenic.
Getting to the 7 Rila Lakes by Guided Tour
This is all to say that going from Sofia to the Rila Lakes is certainly possible by public transportation, but it isn’t exactly the most straightforward process as it requires 3 separate transportations. As a result, I often recommend that people who are uncomfortable with navigating the public transportation system avail themselves of a guided Seven Rila Lakes tour.
I recommend this 7 Rila Lakes tour from Sofia as the most inexpensive and convenient option for a day trip from Sofia to the Rila Mountains. Note that this doesn’t include the lift ticket price.
Another option is a tour that’s a little pricier, but combines the lakes and Rila Monastery; however, it is only available certain days of the week, so check availability here. It’s kind of hard to go from Rila Monastery to Rila Lakes without a tour, even with a rental car, so tours are better if you want to do both.
Getting to the Rila Lakes by Car
This is one of the most straightforward ways of getting to the Rila Lakes from Sofia. The drive is only about 2 hours, and it’s mostly highway except for the stretch up the mountain to the chairlift, so it’s pretty smooth driving.
To get there, take the city streets to the A3, then take Route 1. Exit onto Route 62, then take 6204 then 6206 to get to the chairlift. You can put Hizha Pionerska as your final stop on Google Maps for straightforward directions.
If you need to rent a car, we’ve rented cars dozens of times in Sofia. We’ve booked through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine, since it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental in Sofia here.
What to Know About the Seven Rila Lakes Hike (Difficulty, Weather, Etc.)
The hike to the Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria is incredibly beautiful and of average difficulty. The altitude of the hike will make it a little bit tough, as most of the hike varies between 2,000 meters and 2,500 meters.
It’s not possible to visit the Rila Lakes year-round, as they are covered with a blanket of snow much of the year. The best months to visit the 7 Rila Lakes are July and August, as the snow typically isn’t done melting until mid-June; alternately, by the end of September, snow is possible on peaks this high.
The 7 Rila Lakes have different weather than in Sofia, as there is over a 1,500 meter altitude difference. Expect cloudier weather with cooler temperatures than in Sofia, with more potential for rain and snow.
However, be extremely careful to apply enough sunscreen! The high altitude in the Rila Mountains means that you are much likelier to burn and if you do burn, burn quite severely!
My husband once nearly got sun poisoning from not wearing sunscreen while doing the 7 Rila Lakes hike and felt sick for two days. You should wear SPF 30 or higher and reapply it regularly as your sweat may break it down quickly.
I personally started the Rila hike at the top of the lift, as I didn’t want the extra 2 hours each way as I’m not that fit.
It took me about 75 minutes to reach the Kidney, accounting for plenty of photo (and breath-catching) stops. On the hike you pass the Lower Lake, Fish Lake, Trefoil Lake, and Twin Lake, ticking off five of the seven Rila Lakes quite easily.
The area near “The Kidney” is a great place for a leisurely picnic as it’s rather flat here and it’s a natural break before the more intense push up to the higher two lakes.
The next push is up to The Tear, the highest of the 7 Rila Lakes, and it’s the most challenging part. The rock here can be a bit loose and the uphill part is more severe, so if you are traveling with children or people who aren’t so fit, you may choose to skip this part of the hike.
However, you will miss the greatest panoramic view of the lake – so it’s up to you! It takes about 60 minutes up and 30 minutes down, but it could easily be 2 hours with all the photo stops you’ll want to make.
From here, you can take the same route back (which since you’re going downhill will take about 60 minutes) or take an alternate route back which is about twice as long, about 2 hours or maybe a bit more. If you have time, take the alternate route, but keep in mind the lift’s closing time (4:30 PM) when deciding!
What to Pack for the Rila Lakes
If you’re visiting the Seven Rila Lakes, you’re going to want decent hiking gear! I have done the hike in sneakers and it was doable, but not the easiest. I would have been way more comfortable in hiking boots, which I have with me now that I’ve moved to Bulgaria.
I use and recommend Ahnu hiking boots for women – they’re stylish, super comfortable, require very little breaking-in time, and they come in nice colors and styles that aren’t your average hiking boot. This is the pair that I own. Men, try these Keen Targhee hiking boots which are highly reviewed – my friend Megan uses a women’s pair of Keens as her main hiking boots and loves them.
You may or may not want trekking poles. I didn’t use them, but I don’t have a fear or heights or unsteady footing. Especially the last uphill part of the hike, trekking poles could come in handy. I’d recommend these ones.
Don’t forget sunscreen! My boyfriend got a really bad sunburn at Rila, and I almost did as well (but luckily I was able to cover my shoulders with a scarf and minimize my sun exposure).
Even though the temperatures may feel cool, the sun will be hot, hot, hot! I like this sunscreen and bring it back from the US often, but I also love my handy solid sunscreen stick that can make it through airport security with no issues.
Don’t forget to bring a jacket! The weather can turn quickly up in the mountains, so don’t be poorly prepared. I recommend the Marmot PreCip jacket as I’ve had it for years and it’s stood up to every test. And traveling the world for 3+ years, there’s been many! Here’s the women’s version (I own a purplish-blue one) and the men’s one.
Finally, on the day of the hike, be sure to pack plenty of water as well as snacks to keep your energy up. You can buy water and snacks at the mountain hut before the lift and where you start your hike, but it’ll be overpriced, so better to bring it from Sofia.
Where to Stay in Sofia
If you don’t choose to stay in Rila Lakes, Sofia is the natural place to call home before and after your hike as it’s only 90 minutes from Sapareva Banya. Here is where we always recommend to our friends visiting the city!
Budget: For a hostel, we always recommend Hostel Mostel. I have never stayed at the Sofia location but several of my friends have and have always spoken highly of it. I stayed at the one in Veliko Tarnovo and it was excellent. Perks include a free vegetarian dinner in addition to breakfast included in your stay! Check rates and availability here. If you are traveling in peak season, be sure to book online, as Hostel Mostel is popular and tends to get booked up.
Mid-range: For a trendy new boutique hotel that is shockingly affordable, we recommend R34 Boutique Hotel. The location is fantastic, near the Ivan Vazov National Theater in central Sofia. It has gorgeous, loft-inspired details like exposed brick, giant windows, and streamlined but modern décor. It’s a great bargain, too – check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Luxury: As far as we see it, there’s only one option for the best hotel in town: Sense Hotel. We go to their upscale, beautiful rooftop bar all the time when we have guests in town – it has one of the best views in the entire city and they make fantastic cocktails. With beautiful views over Alexander Nevsky, Sofia’s most iconic landmark, the hotel couldn’t be in a better location. Sense Hotel also boasts a state-of-the-art fitness center, an art gallery in the lobby, an excellent spa with luxe treatments, and an indoor pool. It’s truly the best choice in town. Check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Sofia Travel Resources
We want you to have the best trip to Sofia possible. To help you, we’ve created a number of resources that will be helpful.
If this will be your first time in Bulgaria, check out our Bulgaria Trip Planning guide.
Next, check out our gigantic list of 101 Things to Do in Sofia. We also have Sofia restaurant and bar recommendations. We also have articles for popular day trips from Sofia like Plovdiv and Buzludzha.
Planning a Trip to Bulgaria? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Make sure you always travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy – especially if you’re hiking in Rila mountains and taking advantage of Bulgaria’s many awesome outdoor activities! You need to be covered in case you have an accident or fall victim to theft. Travel insurance will help you recover your expenses and continue to enjoy your trip.
For travel insurance, we both use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.