Rila Monastery: Bulgaria’s Must-See Mountain Retreat


Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is knocked unconscious in a black and white Kansas, and wakes up in a vivid, Technicolor Oz?

If you do, then you’ll know exactly what it’s like to walk through the arched gate and into the courtyard of the Rila Monastery.

Rarely have we seen a more breathtaking sight than stepping into this magnificent courtyard.


Located 75 miles south of Sofia, Bulgaria in the steep, forest-covered mountains, Rila (pronounced Ree-la) was the country’s first Christian monastery. Founded in AD 927 by John of Rila – a cave-dwelling hermit and the country’s traditional patron saint – it was originally built as a four-floor residential building to house 300 monks and provide guest rooms.

Courtyard 2

Surrounded by deep-green forests and with mountains looming overhead, the monks couldn’t have picked a more spectacular and tranquil spot to pray, meditate, and worship God.

Monk 2

The high stone walls surrounding the monastery look more like a fortress than an abbey, and they do an excellent job of hiding the incredible splendor inside.

Fortress Wall

A glance through the ornate gateway provides a delightful teaser view, but once inside you’re overwhelmed with floor upon floor of covered galleries, with colonnades and arches stretching along the walls. Each floor has it’s own unique style and color scheme, which is different than floors above and below. The repetition and simple color palette is classic elegance at its best.


Dominating the center of the courtyard is the Church of The Virgin, famous for its fresco-covered veranda. Lush colored illustrations cover every square inch, forming a remarkable, visual textbook on Orthodox religious beliefs.


Our visit to the Rila monastery was one of the highlights of our Balkan trip. It’s hard to overstate how impressive both the monastery and its location are, which is why it’s a major attraction for both Bulgarian pilgrims and foreign tourists. We don’t put attractions on our Do Not Miss list lightly, but this monastery sits right up there on the top with a few of our other favorite holy places: Bangkok’s Grand Palace; The Cave Temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka; and the Temples of Luang Prabang, Laos.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. Getting to the Rila Monastery:

If you have car, Rila is only a short drive from Sofia and should be a super easy day trip. But if you’re like us, and prefer public transit, its remote location makes it difficult to get to. We found it easiest to organize a day tour from Sofia. We organized our tour online with a local company (€25/person), and couldn’t have been happier with their service. It’s a low-key tour, and for a small additional fee, they’ll pick you up at your hotel. Also, we visited mid-week and crowds were not a problem, but weekends can be busy, so plan accordingly.


Photo Credit
11. Petr Dlouhý via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

73 thoughts

  1. Absolutely gorgeous. It’s like a breathtaking collision of various types of vernacular architecture from around the world; I’m reminded of monasteries in Romania, of haciendas and the Alhambra in Granada, of terrazzo palaces in Italy, and on and on… One more to add to my ever-growing list; in no small part thanks to the pair of you 😉

    1. This monastery was fabulous Amit, and I agree with your assessment that it’s an architectural mashup. In addition to the Alhambra, I’d throw in the Mezquita in Cordoba as well. It had lots of thick arches with striped painting that look similar to Rila. If you’re in the area, don’t miss Rila. ~James

    1. Thanks Martha. “Tucked away” is the perfect term. This place is waaaay up in the mountains, surrounded by a thick forest, and it even has a couple of rushing streams to reinforce the isolation. Walking through the gate into the courtyard was truly breathtaking, and we were lucky to be there when there weren’t many visitors. Fabulous! ~James

  2. Great photos, as usual, and that’s a wonderful aerial shot you found. I visited on a Rick Steves’ tour, and we slept in the monastery, but it’s not for anyone who wants comforts! (After all, it is a monastery…)

    1. The cells were off-limits Laura, so we didn’t get to see inside. But, I understand that monks get their comfort from prayer. 🙂 We really enjoyed this monastery, and are so glad we visited. Not so sad that we didn’t spend the night. ~James

  3. Such a beautiful place, tucked away in the mountain. Absolutely stunning. How fortunate for you to have visited when there weren’t many visitors.

    1. Lynn, we deliberately timed our visit for mid-week, which helped, but also, I think that we were just lucky as well. The tourist god was smiling on us, and for much of our time there, it was like we had the place to ourselves … well except for the monks roaming around. 🙂 ~James

  4. Can’t imagine where the monks got all the money for this!!!! (Hah!) Thanks for taking
    to me to all the wonderful places I can not travel to myself!!!!

    1. Actually Sayra, after a huge fire in the 1830s, much of the monastery was destroyed. But, in addition to being an important religious site, it’s also a Bulgarian culture icon, so donations flooded in for the renovation. It’s quite a sight. We hope that all is going well for you there in SA. You in particular will get a laugh because since we’ve moved back north, we’re re-acquiring all the cold weather necessities that we got rid of in FL. In fact, I bought a snow shovel just yesterday.:) Say hello to all our FL buds and have a great holiday. ~James

    1. Thanks Nelson. They had a huge fire at the monastery in the 1830s, and many of the residences were destroyed. So most of what we see now is from that restoration, but the state of preservation is amazing, especially the frescoes. ~James

  5. Wow! My mouth dropped open at the lead photo. I can only imagine I would walk around mouth agape bumping into other astounded visitors. As said in on of the other comments you do find the most extraordinary out of the way spots. I love that!

    1. Sue, I’m not easily wowed, but this monastery knocked my socks off. It looks like a fortress from the outside, and other than the colorful gateway arch, it’s impossible to see what’s inside. When we walked through the gate, we gasped in unison. This place took some planning to visit, but it was worth every bit of effort. I’ve never seen anything like it. Don’t be surprised if you see more photos. ~James

  6. What an amazing setting for a Monastery; it must have been incredibly hard to build it there on this remote location. The architecture is truly inspiring and beautiful, it reminded me a little of some of the buildings I have seen in Florence.

    1. As other commenters have said Gilda, this monastery is a combination of lots of architectural styles, and I love the result. And you’re right, it must have been a chore to build. It’s remote now. How remote must it have been in the 1820s, when the massive, post-fire renovation was done – a truly impressive building. ~James

    1. You’re right Tess, especially when you consider that Bulgaria was a communist powerhouse for many years – knowing that communists aren’t terribly understanding about religion and religious buildings. Luckily, it has survived. ~James

  7. The black and white walls made me feel like I had ended up in an Escher painting. The paintings reminded me that the few Christians at the time could write. The paintings served as their books. Talk about inspiration. –Curt

    1. That’s amazing Curt, because Terri and I both said exactly the same thing about Escher. He has a staircase print that looks exactly like one of the areas of the monastery. And you’re right on about the frescoes. We’ll be doing a post on the frescoes, and when you see the photos, there will be no doubt about the message of hell for sinners. ~ James

      1. They painted a grim picture when it came to hell, James. I think the artists had more “fun” painting hell than they did heaven. Looking forward to it. –Curt

  8. It looks absolutely gorgeous. I want to go there, and have put it on the bucket list. Eastern Europe has been on our radar for a while now, and I’m sure we’ll get there eventually. Your current series is really whetting my appetite.

    1. Alison, a few years ago we were in the same boat. Our travel map had a big blank spot in Eastern Europe, and we decided to make our next few Europe trips focus on these areas. And even though they’re becoming more like Western Europe (at least in the big cities), there’s still lots of differences and influences that make it a very interesting area to explore. I think that you and Don would enjoy it. ~James

    1. Nicole, when we were there, the crowds weren’t a problem, but we visited mid-week and in the shoulder season (our usual approach). It’s a popular tourist attraction as well as a pilgrimage destination for Bulgarians, so we’ve read that it can be very crowded in the high season. ~James

  9. What an incongruous splash of color and design out in the middle of that thick forest! I’d love to see it myself some day. I’m always a little surprised when monasteries are so ornate; if I were a monk I think I’d find that antithetical to a life of simplicity and contemplation!

    1. It does seem at odds doesn’t it Lexie. We didn’t go into it in this post, but the extravagant colors and design could be related to the monastery’s history. During Ottoman rule, this monastery was an icon and depository for much of Bulgarian history. Its libraries stored, and saved lots of what would later be the only copies of important books. There was a huge fire in 1833 which almost destroyed the place. Apparently, native Bulgarians recognized what an important national symbol the monastery was and funds poured in. So when viewed as an important national symbol, the fantastic colors and frescoes make more sense. ~James

    1. Thanks Pam. As I said to someone else, this place had a huge WOW! factor. Actually, it’s my first monastery, and it will probably be my high-water mark for the future. ~James

  10. This place certainly looks remote to attract crowds but, after seeing your photos I can understand why this place is on the tourist track – it’s absolutely amazing! I love your analogy of going from black and white to living color. And Rila Monastery has all the details you could ever want to photograph. Living vicariously through your posts until we can visit the Balkans! Anita

    1. Anita, I’m sure that you guys will eventually get to the Balkans, and I wasn’t joking about not missing this place. It was one of the highlights of the entire trip, and we’re so glad that we visited. We’ve seen many places that have individual elements that we saw there, but never have we seen a place with so many beautiful architectural and artistic details in one place. Also, we’re not big on organized tours, but the one we used was good for this monastery. ~James

  11. Looks like the weather you had was much nicer than ours (grey and drizzly), however we found it pretty easy to get there by public bus!

    We were however a little underwhelmed by the place, but perhaps it had simply been too many monasteries/churches in the preceding weeks…

    1. Chris, we had the perfect weather day there, and of course, that made a difference. And I can relate to church burnout. We’ve learned over the years to spread church visits out. Actually, this was our first (and only) monastery on this trip, so I think that the combination of lots of things coming together made it very special. And, of course, it always helps to if there aren’t crowds of tourists. ~James

  12. Of all the travelers one could choose to write about a place like this, I would choose you two… When you visit iconic cultural touchstones like Rila Monastery, you write with the appreciation of art, architecture, and history and it makes places so much more than a “Day3: Monastery visit” recitation of place and time. Reading the comments reveals even more- the fire, the restoration, the library!

    Thank you for not only searching out unique cultural places like Rila, but for sharing them in the ways that you do- small micro-details fit into the grand overall picture of time and people. It is always a pleasure! Love your blog, James & Terri…

    1. Thanks so much Jonelle for your kind words. Compliments are always gratifying, and especially so when they come from a blogger of your calibre. Early on we decided that the blogosphere didn’t need another travel journal, and from the beginning, we’ve tried to take a different approach. As you know from your travels, each place, no matter how grand or how grim, has its own story, and it only takes some digging to find the interesting bits. We think that this process not only makes a more interesting blog but it also vastly improves the travel experience. Thanks again for the kind words, and have a great holiday in VA. ~James

      1. I could not agree more, on all points. Now I know why I keep following you and Terri around the world… 😉 Always a pleasure.

        Best wishes and safe travels to you both. Will you be stateside or opting for exotic holidays this year?

        One of our enduring memories is of being in Rothenburg ob der Tauber on a full moon Christmas Eve, crunching through the snow to the little Lutheran church at midnight, singing carols (well, my daughter sang in German- we just hummed in English) with bells. We didn’t understand the words of the priest, but knew the story well. And we easily interpreted smiles and hugs that translate in any language and culture.

        Happy holidays to you, wherever you are!

      2. We visited Rothenburg in the autumn last year Jonelle, and it was charming. It must really have been like living a fairy tale to have been there at Christmas. We’ve spent a few Christmas holidays on the road, and while they can be fun, if we have a home, we try to spend our holidays at home. So yes, this year I will warming my feet on my hearth at home in Lexington, KY. Happy Holidays. ~James

    1. Thanks Bertie. This monastery is one of those sights where the location and the buildings are inextricably linked. The monastery was a wonderful sight, but the location added an aspect that made it even better. ~James

    1. Mike, like you, I’ve seen my share of cathedrals, but this is my first monastery. There are a number of monasteries in the Balkans that can be visited, but I can’t imagine them being more amazing than Rila. We’ll be doing a post on the frescoes which were also fabulous. If you make it to this part of the world, don’t miss Rila. ~James

  13. Whoa, what a marvel, and some really great photos of it. Florence was technicolor for me, like that. But this place almost makes one want to become a monk (or not).

    1. The colors here were striking, and the frescoes, which we’ll being doing a post on, were fabulous. We saw a few monks roaming around, and they all looked pretty relaxed … must be all that prayer and meditation. ~James

    1. Walking through the gate really did feel like that Marie. There was a small parking lot, surrounded by trees, and other than the painted archway, there was nothing but a 5 story fortress wall. Walking through the gate into the courtyard made both of us gasp at the colors. ~James

  14. When I went to Rila Monastery in 1987, there was an ancient bakery there that sold the most delicious hot loaves. My future mother-in-law had brought me there, thoughtfully packed кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), сирене (sirene, a white-brine cheese), salami, and tomatoes. Together with the hot bread, we feasted on the grass just outside the monastery. A wonderful memory.

    1. This is a lovely story Risa, and I’m sure that it must be a very special memory for both you and your mother-in-law. Before visiting Rila we knew that it was an important religious site, but we didn’t know what an important national symbol it was for aiding in preserving Bulgarian culture. BTW, you probably remember that just outside the rear entrance there were a couple of small stone bridges crossing a small rushing stream. We enjoyed our own picnic sitting on one of these bridges. As you say, as wonderful memory. ~James

  15. Wow!! I am, as the British say, gobsmacked! This place is unreal. How fortunate are you to have seen it. Wishing you both a wonderful Christmas. Will you be back in the US for Christmas or out gallivanting?

    1. Thanks Darlene. This monastery was exceptionally attractive, and was even better than we expected (and our expectations were high). Watch for tomorrow’s post for a look at the fantastic frescoes. As for Christmas, if we have a home, we prefer to be at home on Christmas. So yes, this year I will be warming my feet by my own fire in Lexington, KY. Do you have any North American family or friends coming to Spain for the holidays? ~James

    1. Jeff, we were very impressed with Rila. You know how sometimes when traveling things just come together. Well that’s what happened for us at Rila: beautiful mountain location, few tourists, a quiet and sunny afternoon, and outstanding architecture and art. If you get to this area, I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed. ~James

  16. This has to be one of the most colorful, carefully painted monasteries anywhere. We saw several in China, but not in such good condition. Also, thanks for the info on how to get to it. Your tip about hiring a driver sounds like a great idea.

    1. This was my first monastery Rusha, and I seem to have found my high-water mark on the first go. It was fabulous, and I think that we lucked out and visited on the perfect day. We had beautiful weather, few tourists and a nice picnic lunch overlooking a rushing stream just outside the walls. Sometimes it all just works out. ~James

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