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Visit to Rila Monastery – the essentials

all you need to know

Explore Rila Monastery on your own

The Monastery of St. John of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery, is one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria. It is also probably the most famous historic landmark in Bulgaria.

The drive from Bulgaria’s capital is only 1.5 hours long and the monastery is quite easily accessible. It is therefore an ideal option for a one-day trip from Sofia. If you plan to explore this Orthodox jewel on your own, you can rent a car and drive there or take a bus.

Of course, if you prefer to go on a guided Rila Monastery tour, there is a multitude of options for every budget.

So, in case this 1000 year old stronghold of Christian Orthodox faith is on your to-do list, here are a couple of things you should know.

Dress Code

There is a certain dress code you need to follow, when entering the monastery grounds. Unfortunately, most restrictions apply to women. Tank-tops, shorts and short skirts are in general a no-go. Best to have a scarf handy to put around your shoulders when you enter the courtyard.

The rules for entering the The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church are even stricter:

  • your shoulders and knees must be completely covered. They do loan proper attire for covering up during your tour of the church just in case;
  • take off your hat and sunglasses, and do not place your hands in your pockets – this is considered to be disrespectful;
  • leave your backpack behind. You are not allowed to enter the church with a backpack. Quite often people end up leaning on or scratching the walls and thereby, destroying the delicate frescoes.

Taking Pictures

The restrictions on taking pictures and making videos in the monastery are very tight. You are allowed to do so in and around the courtyard. The outside frescoes of the main church are also OK to photograph, but that’s about it.

Taking pictures inside the museums and the church itself are strictly forbidden, not even against a small donation.

 

Museums

Most people visiting the Rila Monastery are unaware that there is more than one museum on the premises. All entrance fees are paid in the main Ecclesiastic & Historical Museum. Here is a full list of all exhibitions you can visit.

  • Ecclesiastic & Historical Museum – Located in the East wing, this is the main museum. It is therefor dedicated to the monastery’s history. Here you can see the monastery’s most prized possession – the Rafail’s Cross.
  • Monastic Cell – Located in the South wing, the reconstructed monastic cell and novice room are a bit of a surprise for most visitors. As it turns out, Orthodox monks didn’t have it too shabby. You can request the key from the main museum.
  • Hrelyo’s Tower – This prominent building in the monastery’s courtyard is the oldest construction in the complex. It dates back to the 14th century. Most of the tower is open for visitors. It offers a nice view on the yard, but beware the steep stairs.
  • Ethnographic Museum and Revival Era Guestrooms – Located in the North wing, this exhibit displays traditional Bulgarian cloths, jewelry and items from the Revival Era Period. Especially stunning are the richly decorated guestrooms. They were furnished with funds and gifts from several Bulgarian towns and therefor, carry their respective names, i.e. the Koprivshtitsa, Chirpan, Teteven and Kyustendil Rooms.
  • Monastery Industries in the 19th century – The exhibit shows some of the monks’ economic activities. Among them were sheep breeding, dairying, bee-keeping and farming. This exhibit further includes the monastery’s water-mill, bakery and kitchen.
  • Icon Gallery – Located in the South wing, here you can see some of the monastery’s most prized icons. Most are from the period 17th – 19th century. Here are also the portraits of Rila Monastery’s abbots. It’s a rare treat for Christian Art enthusiasts.

Culinary Culture

In case all these Orthodox icons and frescoes make you hungry, there are two things one must try when visiting the Rila Monastery:

1) ‘mekitsa’ – a traditional Bulgarian pastry made from deep fired kneaded dough. You can get a ‘mekitsa’ from the monastery’s own bakery, just outside Samokovska Gate. Just look for the crowd waiting in line;

2) trout – this is traditional for this for the area. You can get trout in any of the numerous restaurants in the vicinity of the monastery. Just pick one. We, however, recommend a visit to Tsarev Vrah Restaurant, behind the bakery. First, they serve freshly baked, homemade bread from the bakery, which is simply delicious. Second, when you are a visitor of the restaurant, you get a discount on your entrance to the monastery’s History Museum. All you need to show is your restaurant receipt.

 

Accommodations

Did you know that you can stay overnight in the monastery itself? Well, now you do!

You can rent a room on the premises. However, be aware that as a couple you can sleep together in a room, only if you are lawfully married. Else, you will be separated in women and respectively, men rooms only.

There are also several small hotels in the area, as well as an official camping spot.

Post Office

For all you postcard fans out there, the Rila Monastery has its own Post Office. It is located to your right when you enter the grounds through the Dupnitsa Gate (West wing). It works daily, including Saturday and Sunday, between 8:30 and 17:00 with a lunch break from 12:00 to 13:30. However, the lady running it might occasionally not show up at all, due to personal reasons and there is no replacement.

 

 

Medical Service

The monastery has a medical professional present on Monday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday. For the rest of the week, you can call an on-duty medic. Their mobile number can be found on the door of the Medical Service office.

 

 

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