Rila Monastery, how to visit the spiritual center of Bulgaria

There are places that justify a trip to a country and put it on the tourist map and in the case of Bulgaria that is the Rila monastery .

to visit the Rila Monastery  you have to enter through a winding and narrow road in a lush landscape of mountains.

It may surprise you that if one of the tourist icons of Bulgaria is not reached by a wider road.

Large central courtyard of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria
Large central courtyard of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria

But on your trip you will see that most of the Orthodox monasteries that you are going to visit in that country are located in hidden places, hidden among leafy forests, because their isolation is one of their characteristics.

In the area where the Rila monastery is located , there was originally a community of monks scattered around the mountain.

History of Rila monastery

In fact, the first Rila monastery was founded in the tenth century near the cave where the monk Ioan  , now known as San Juan de Rila , as a hermit , dedicated himself to fasting and prayer.

In particular, it was about 4 kilometers away from the current monastery that was built in the 14th century, and from the beginning it has been considered as the spiritual center of Bulgaria .

Mural paintings in the church of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria
Mural paintings in the church of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria

At present it is possible to reach this cave following a marked path, and next to it a small church was built.

In the seventeenth century the building of the monastery is destroyed, which led to its subsequent reconstruction.

To emphasize that between the XVIII and XIX centuries the monastery lived a great height because its monks opened near 50 convents in the most important places of Bulgaria .

Also during the occupation of the Turks, who arrived in Bulgaria in the late fourteenth century, the sultans themselves protected the monastery.

In the communist era, since 1961 it was considered a national museum, and after the fall of that regime, in 1991 the monastic activities were restored.

Visit Rila Monastery

The Rila monastery was the first visit we made on our trip to Bulgaria with a tourism agency specializing in tailor made trips .

Entrance door to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria
Entrance door to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

But if you prefer to visit it on your own, you will find that it is located between the mountains at an altitude of 1100 meters.

When you get to the parking lot of the Rila monastery you can not imagine what you will see inside.

From the entrance you will see a large stone wall with an access arch, an area that forms part of the wall of about 22 meters high that surrounds the large enclosure of almost 9,000 square meters with a large central patio.

Once you enter the courtyard that serves as a cloister, in the center of it is a large church and a tower.

The well-known Tower Jreliyova is the oldest building that is conserved in the monastery, since it goes back to the year 1335, and in its time it was a defensive tower of the monastery.

Throughout the interior of the walls rise several arcade plants where the cells of the monks are located, more than a hundred.

Mural paintings in the church of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria
Mural paintings in the church of the Rila monastery in Bulgaria

The building of the church of the Rila monastery that you can now see in the center of the great cloister is from 1837, and already the great decoration with murals of the exterior galleries announce what you will see in the interior.

With five cross-shaped vaults, the interior shows an impressive decoration, with the  carved wooden iconostasis being the place where the greatest artistic wealth is concentrated.

In particular, the mural paintings of the church and other corners of the monastery date from the 19th century, and were made by the best artists of the time,

During your trip around the country you will see that it is a type of decoration and common themes in all Bulgarian Orthodox churches.

In the Rila monastery you can also visit a museum with artistic objects from the 14th and 19th centuries that reflect the history of this spiritual enclave.

Among them you will see various gifts from Turkish sultans and also from other countries, such as Russia.

Tower and church of Rila monastery in Bulgaria
Tower and church of Rila monastery in Bulgaria

Icons of the best artists of the 19th century are also exhibited , and among all the objects there is a wooden cross from 1803 with 36 biblical scenes and more than 600 miniature figures.

In this museum that has some rooms in the basement, you can also see vestiges of the 14th century monastery.

Rila Monastery Schedules

The visiting hours of the Rila monastery are every day, from 7 to 20 hours, and you can climb to the top of the tower, where there is a chapel, from June to September.

You can visit the museum in summer from 8.30 am to 7.30 pm, and in winter, from October to May, from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm.

Access to the monastery grounds and the church is free, and the price of tickets to visit the museum is 8 BGN (4 euros) for adults, 1 BGN (0.50 euros) for students, with a discount too for families.

Rila Monastery in Bulgaria
Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

How to get to the Rila monastery

The Rila monastery is located 127 kilometers south of Sofia , from where you have to go along the A3 motorway, and it will take a little more than an hour and a half.