Of all the jewels of Bulgarian tourism, Rila Monastery shines the brightest. This gorgeous Orthodox monastery is nestled in the pine-covered hills of the Rila Mountains, like a secret tucked away from the world.
However, it’s not that secret — it is one of Bulgaria’s top tourist attractions, and visiting Rila Monastery from Sofia is one of the most popular day trips from Bulgaria’s capital.
With jewel-toned paintings telling an incredibly complex story in panels adorning the walls of the church, to its beautiful arches painted joyfully, to the pared-down white monastic building surrounding the church at Rila Monastery: Rila Monastery impresses us more and more each time we visit… which is a lot!
Because it’s on so many travelers’ wishlists to go from Sofia to Rila Monastery on a day trip, we end up accompanying our friends on a day tip to Rila Monastery nearly every time someone is in town – which means that between us, we’ve been to Rila Monastery six times, at least once in every season.
It’s shocking that it took us this long to finally write up our guide to visiting Rila Monastery from Sofia – but better late than never, we suppose! In this post, we’ll go over how to get to Rila Monastery from Sofia by car (our preferred method), tour (the second-best option), or public transit (the hardest, but cheapest). We’ll also cover things to see at and near Rila Monastery, and where to eat near Rila Monastery if you are traveling by car.
Getting to Rila Monastery from Sofia by Car
This is our preferred method of visiting Rila Monastery on a day trip from Sofia, as it offers the most flexibility. Because we’ve been to Rila Monastery so often, we try to also add something new to our trip itinerary each time we go: an unofficial junk museum in Kocherinovo, the hidden-gem pyramids of Stob, Boyana Church and Dragalevski Monastery on the outskirts of Sofia… the options are endless!
We’re both pretty comfortable with driving in the Balkans, so we don’t mind the… quirks, shall we say… of driving in Bulgaria. Drivers here can be a bit aggressive, turn signaling is rare, and road quality varies. We think that the trip from Sofia to Rila Monastery and back is a relatively good starter course for people driving in Bulgaria: the road quality is good and it’s mostly highway or country roads, so once you’ve made it out of Sofia it’s pretty smooth sailing.
Local Tip: Renting a car? We’ve rented cars dozens of times in Bulgaria through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental in Bulgaria here.
That said, if you’re a nervous or inexperienced driver, driving in Bulgaria may be a little intimidating and a guided tour may be a better option (we’ll go over the guided tour we recommend below).
If you’re driving from Sofia to Rila Monastery, you’ll be able to set your own schedule and add your own stops, which is a huge plus over a guided tour. Depending on your group size, it can also be more economical (though renting a car will likely be more expensive if you’re solo, and it’s probably a wash if there are two of you).
If you choose to drive to Rila Monastery from Sofia, we strongly recommend adding a few places on the way! For example, you could stop at Dragalevski Monastery and Boyana Church — another UNESCO site! — before getting on Route 1 and continuing onwards to Rila Monastery via the A3 until you reach Route 104 and then Route 1005 and 107.
This may sound complicated, but there is plenty of signage leading you all the way to Rila Monastery, and we recommend having Google Maps downloaded in the background if you don’t have a Bulgarian SIM or roaming activated.
If you’re leaving from Sofia city center, you’ll likely leave Sofia via one of its two main boulevards that connect the center to the Ring Road (Route 18) — Todor Alexandrov or Slivnitsa Boulevard — which brings you easily to the A3, which will bring you to Route 104, 1005, then 107 as described above. Again, simply turn on Google Maps with the map downloaded if you’re worried about remembering all this!
If you’re looking for a few places you can stop closer to Rila, we suggest either Stob (to hike to its ‘pyramids’ viewpoint) or the junk museum in Kocherinovo for a quirky place to visit.
If you choose to visit Stob, plan to do so in the cooler part of the day if you’re visiting in summer. The hike is short and moderate difficulty, but it can get scorching hot with not too much shade for stretches during the summer!
To get to the entry point to hike to the pyramids of Stob, enter “Стобски пирамиди” in Google Maps for proper directions. It’s about 35-40 minutes driving distance from Rila, but it’s not far out of the way so it’s a perfect detour for before or after Rila Monastery.
There is a small entry fee of 2 lev per person to pay for the upkeep of the trail. The hike takes about 30 minutes each way, and good shoes are a must! Be sure to bring plenty of water as well as a hat and sunblock for protection if you’re traveling in the summer.
Another place you could visit is the quirky “Junk Museum” in Kocherinovo! It’s labeled that way on Google Maps, but you could also punch in its name in Cyrillic “Евро Мийт Енд Милк” — which, transliterated, means “Euro Meat and Milk” for some reason….
Entrance is free, but donations are requested, so we suggest leaving 2+ lev per person. It’s right off the road you’ll be taking to Rila Monastery, so it’s quite literally on the way!
Every time we go to Rila Monastery, we end up eating at Taverna Magic of Rila. It’s delicious, home-style Bulgarian food with traditional favorites. As you drive away from Rila Monastery, it’s the first restaurant on your left side (ignore the ones on the right).
Be sure to try to the tasty river trout… if you are able to pick bones from your fish better than Stephanie or me.
Getting to Rila Monastery from Sofia by Guided Tour
There are several guided tour options that bring you to Rila Monastery easily and hassle-free. Most guided tours pair Rila Monastery with another sight best visited by car, so you can get a 2-for-1 experience.
For UNESCO seekers and budget travelers, we strongly suggest the Rila Monastery and Boyana Church day trip.
For just 30 euros, it takes you to two of Bulgaria’s most beautiful UNESCO sites on a full-day tour, including transport and an English-speaking guide. Check tour itinerary and more details here.
Stephanie did a tour basically identical to this one on her first visit to Rila Monastery and loved it!
Boyana Church may not look like much from the outside, but inside, you’ll find magnificent frescoes from several distinct periods of the church’s existence. The church itself dates back to the 11th century, making it one of the oldest surviving churches in Bulgaria.
Be sure to bring a little cash for entrance fees (the Rila Monastery Museum, optional, is 8 leva/4 euros per person and Boyana Church, mandatory, is 10 leva/5 euros per person), lunch, and tipping your guide.
If budget is your main concern, but you don’t want the hassle of public transit, there’s another option! You can skip Boyana Church and visit Rila Monastery only, which costs 20 euros for a shuttle transfer (no guide) that gives you two hours to explore Rila independently. Check tour details and availability here.
There are also several other options which include a stop at Rila Monastery and somewhere else in Bulgaria. Our preference would be for this epic and affordable Rila Monastery and 7 Rila Lakes tour, well priced at 40 euro per person.
It’s pretty hard to work out the timing yourself if you self-drive (Steph and I once attempted it and messed up the timing big-time and had to forego the Lakes!), so doing it on a day trip where they keep you on track time-wise is a much better idea.
However, because the Rila Lakes are at a pretty high altitude, the tour is only available from late May until early fall. Check tour availability, inclusions, and itinerary here.
If you’re more into learning about Bulgaria’s delicious wine scene, there are two fabulous tour options for you — this one which includes wine tasting of 5 local wines at Medi Valley winery near Rila Monastery, and this one which includes the lovely town of Melnik in the heart of Bulgaria’s best wine region.
Getting to Rila Monastery from Sofia by Public Transit
Full disclosure: in our cumulative six visits to Rila Monastery in every season, we’ve never taken public transit because both renting a car or taking a tour are so economical and easy.
According to the Free Sofia Tour, here’s how you do it:
There’s only one daily public bus to Rila Monastery. It leaves at 10:20 from the West bus station (Ovcha Kupel). You can get there in around 25 minutes with tram N5 just behind our starting point at the Palace of Justice. The bus arrives around 13:00. It leaves to Sofia at 15:00 and is back in the city around 17:30. Return ticket cost 22 BGN (11 EUR) and you buy it from the driver.
Considering that a tram ticket to and from Ovcha Kupel costs 3.20 BGN, your total for transit for the day would be 25 leva, 12.50 euros. Considering that the cheapest shuttle option (here) is 40 leva / 20 euros, we’d definitely recommend taking the shuttle over the bus to save time and headache. The price difference is not so huge, and it can be a bit difficult to navigate the Bulgarian bus system without a good grasp on the language, especially if you have no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet!
However, if you’re on a tight budget to the point where 15 leva makes a huge difference, you’re welcome to test out public transit for yourself — we’ve never done it, so we’d love to hear from you!
5 Things to Do at Rila Monastery
Check the murals and decorations both inside and outside the church
I don’t know what’s more exquisite at Rila Monastery – the stunning colorful exterior, painted in nearly every shade in the rainbow and telling a dramatic story, or the beautiful interior with its moody lighting, gold-plated detailing, or dramatic iconostasis.
Luckily, you don’t have to choose — visit both! Be sure you dress appropriately for visiting the monastery: both men and women need to cover shoulders and knees.
Visit the Ecclesiastical Museum
Holding objects from the monastery’s history, including some beautiful portraits and historic weaponry, a stop in the museum is a great way to spend thirty minutes learning a bit more about the monastery’s past.
If you’re pressed for time or on a guided tour, feel free to skip. However, if you have the extra time it makes a great addition to your visit Entrance is 8 leva / 4 euros.
Get an incredible view from the Tower of Hrelja
This 14th-century tower served as a defensive structure for Rila Monastery and is the oldest structure in the Rila Monastery complex.
There’s a 5 leva (2.50 euro) charge to go to the top of the tower.
Shop for souvenirs and kitsch
We love Bulgarian souvenirs, and we always suggest monasteries as one of the best places to buy them! Because Rila Monastery is so touristic, you will find a greater proportion of mass-produced crap, but there are also beautiful gems that you can find: we recommend picking up a painted icon if it means anything to you!
Visit the Ivan Rilski Cave
Past the monastery about 3 kilometers, you can visit the cave of Ivan Rilski – the saint for whom the monastery is named. You’ll find a parking area with Bulgarian signage directing you to Ivan Rilski’s grave. The hike takes about 20 minutes and you’ll want proper footwear for it!
Once you reach the endpoint of the hike, you’ll see a small chapel and the cave where Ivan Rilski spent years in hiding. You can enter Rilski’s cave and visit it for yourself if you’re not too claustrophobic! There are some stairs that allow you to pass through a small tunnel leading up to a narrow exit. Supposedly, only those with a clean soul can exit through the tunnel… so if you’ve sinned a lot lately, maybe don’t test your luck!
5 Things to Pack for A Day Trip to Rila Monastery
If you’re planning a day trip to Rila, you’ll want to pack all the normal essentials, but here are a few things we strongly recommend bringing that may not have crossed your mind. For more, check out our complete Bulgaria packing list.
– A physical guidebook, in paper or on Kindle. We love Lonely Planet Bulgaria & Romania for this region and strongly recommend it to supplement blogs. Blogs are great, but a combination of a blog and a guidebook is key to having the best access to information easily at your fingertips.
– A water bottle with a filter. While generally, the tap water in big cities in Bulgaria is drinkable, such as in Sofia and Plovdiv, we generally recommend using a water bottle with a purifying filter to reduce your plastic consumption and ensure you won’t drink any funny-tasting water on your stomach that could make your trip unpleasant! We recommend the GRAYL water bottle – it filters water perfectly in an instant so that you can even drink from lakes, bad taps, etc.
– Motion sickness pills. Bulgarian bus rides can be hot and stuffy in the summer and cause motion sickness! If you have a weak stomach as we do, save yourself and bring some non-drowsy motion sickness pills.
– Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in the Balkans tend to be… how can we say it?… not so well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment (and germs!) and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
– Travel safety items. We think Bulgaria is very safe to travel, but at the same time, it never hurts to be prepared! Some people like to carry money belts, but neither Stephanie or I use these. Instead, we both carry the same PacSafe anti-theft backpack. It has locking zippers, slash-proof construction with metal mesh hidden in the fabric, and tons of other smart security features — all while being cute and stylish enough to be our everyday bag. We recommend it highly for both male and female travelers, as it’s neutral enough to be unisex. We also strongly recommend travel insurance! Our recommendation is at the bottom of the post.
Where to Stay in Sofia
If you choose Sofia, here’s where we suggest you stay.
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.
Still looking? Check out our complete guide to where to stay in Sofia.
More Bulgaria Travel Resources
If this will be your first time in Bulgaria, we have some resources to help make your first trip here a breeze. Check out our guide on how to plan your trip to Bulgaria, which goes over everything from visas to ground transportation to budgeting your trip.
Don’t forget to check out our Bulgaria packing list which has details of everything you’ll want for your trip.
Since you’re staying in Sofia, you’ll want to check out our things to do in Sofia and Sofia itinerary posts to help guide your way through the city we call home. Make sure to check out our guide to avoiding taxi scams in Sofia as well.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy. The country is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I 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.
Pin This Guide to Visiting Rila Monastery from Sofia for Later!
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.