What to see in Bulgaria
Tourist attractions Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous religious building in Bulgaria. An Eastern Orthodox Monastery, Rila Monastery sits in the lush Rilska River Valley, on the slopes of the mist-shrouded Rila Mountains. A place of pilgrimage for the past 1000 years, the complex covers an area of 8,800 square metres. At its heart is the Nativity of the Virgin Church, recognised for its colourful architecture and religious art.
One of the holiest places in southeastern Europe, Rila Monastery was established by St. Ivan of Rila in the 10th-century, a few kilometres from where the current monastery stands. The hermit lived for many years in the surrounding mountains and caves, dedicated to a monastic lifestyle. Although the first monastery was a modest affair it attracted a number of devotees and by the 14th-century, construction on the current Rila Monastery began, with the main church being added in the 19th-century with help from the Russian Orthodox Church following a devastating fire in 1833.
Encompassed within the fortified walls of the quadrangle courtyard, the monastery remains a place of supreme spiritual importance today. If you visit Rila Monastery you can choose to stay the night in one of the humble lodging rooms that surround the central courtyard for a taste of the lifestyle of a monk.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, you can travel to Rila Monastery from the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, just under a 2-hours drive away.
Things to see at Rila Monastery
If you take a tour of Rila Monastery, the best thing to see is the Nativity of the Virgin Church, the main building in the centre of the courtyard. Constructed in the 19th-century, it is the jewel in the crown of the Rila Monastery. With its three yellow domes, colourful facade and beautiful black and white brickwork it truly is a sight to behold. If you visit Rila Monastery be sure to explore the interior of the church, home to invaluable frescoes and icons, some of which painted by eminent Bulgarian painter Zahari Zograf.
Across the courtyard, the Tower of Hrelja is another of the most enchanting things to see at Rila Monastery. The oldest surviving building in the complex, this medieval tower dates back to the 14th-century. Climb the stairs up to the top of the tower to discover a quiet chamber, filled with original paintings and medieval armour.
Many who travel to Rila Monastery simply visit the main church and courtyard, but the on-site Ecclesiastical and Historical Museum is well worth a visit. Home to 1000 years of history, the museum holds treasures from the original monastery in the times of founder Saint Ivan himself. You’ll also find exhibitions on Bulgarian culture and folklore in this monastery museum.
Finally, to truly appreciate the origins of Bulgaria’s most iconic religious landmark, visit the Church of the Dormition of St. Ivan, just a few kilometres from the monastery. The 5-kilometre hike is a popular pilgrimage route, culminating in the tiny Church of Dormition and the nearby cave, home to the grave of St. Ivan himself. The saint spent 12 years of his life in this remote cave and inside is a shrine dedicated to him. You’ll also find a holy spring nearby, said to have appeared in response to St. Ivan’s prayers during his years of solitude.