Rila Monastery is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Bulgaria. The colorful monastery was first established in the 10th century by St. Ivan of Rila. After being destroyed by the Ottomans in the 15th century, the monastery was renovated with the help of the Russian church. It was later destroyed once again by a fire in the early 19th century, after which a group of wealthy Bulgarians paid for it to be rebuilt as a way to build Bulgarian national pride while the country was still under Ottoman rule.
The monastery is most typically visited as a day trip from Sofia, usually with a tour company. Just one bus runs straight from Sofia to the monastery and back again and all other routes require multiple transfers.
Of course, I don’t like to do things the easy way.
After a significant amount of research, I decided to catch a 7:00 a.m. bus from Sofia’s central bus station to the town of Blagoevgrad, located about 60 miles south of Sofia and not far from Rila village, a popular jumping off point to visit the monastery. I arrived in Blagoevgrad around 8:30 and, without a good map to find my hotel, I caught a taxi for about $2 and was there within a few minutes. After checking in, I headed back to the bus station, proudly finding my way there without a map! Buses run hourly between Blagoevgrad and Rila, so I caught the 10:00 a.m. bus to the village, arriving there about 10:30.
And then I was stuck. The bus (actually a mini-bus) dropped me in the center of the village, not at a bus station, and I saw no taxis anywhere. I soon found a tourist information office, where bus schedules were posted and I saw the next bus to the monastery would not leave for two hours. I asked about the possibility of a taxi (which was suggested in my Lonely Planet guide) and was told no – no taxis go from the village to the monastery.
But as I exited the tourism office feeling a bit despondent, a yellow taxi pulled up alongside me, the driver rolling down the window and asking if I needed a ride. Just half an hour later, we pulled up in front of the monastery! As I got out of the taxi, the driver reminded me that the bus back to Rila village would depart at 3:00 p.m.
Despite my relatively late arrival, the monastery was not nearly as crowded as I feared. I wandered and took photos for about an hour (no photos allowed in the church itself) and then decided to embark on a hike away from the monastery to find the Chapel of St. Ivan of Rila, hidden in the woods a couple miles away (more on that later).
Even though my taxi driver had told me there was a 3:00 p.m. back to Rila village, the sign at the tourism office also showed a 5:00 p.m. one. It was close to 3:00 when I returned from my hike, so I decided to just chill, grab lunch at a restaurant just outside the monastery, and then head back inside for some more photos before catching the 5:00 bus. This turned out to be a great decision as the crowds really cleared out by late afternoon and I had the place almost to myself.
The bus (again, a mini-bus) left promptly at 5:00 and I was back in Rila village by 5:30, giving me just half an hour to kill before I could take the 6:00 bus back to Blagoevgrad.
All went as planned and I arrived in Blagoevgrad shortly after 6:30. With the sunset around 8:00, this still gave me time to explore the town a little bit before dark. While my initial entrance into Blagoevgrad was less than attractive, as I wandered around the Varosha (old) quarter and then across the river to the massive pedestrianized commercial area, it really grew on me and I wished I had more time there.
Finally, by 8:30, I was ready to call it a night and returned to my hotel for dinner. I soon fell into bed exhausted, but satisfied with how my custom day trip to Rila Monastery turned out – even with the taxi ride, it was cheaper than booking a trip with a tour company, I never felt rushed because I didn’t have to get an early bus to get back to Sofia and I got to see a cute town that I otherwise would have skipped altogether.