A Rila Monastery tour is among the best of Bulgaria's tourist attractions and activities. Even if you have a few less-than-graceful moments like I did!
Rila Monastery is Bulgaria's most famous, most visited, and best loved Eastern Orthodox monastery. Technically named The Monastery of St Ivan of Rila, this stunning complex is located just over 100 kilometers from the capital city of Sofia. The surrounding area, Rila Monastery Nature Park, is a protected area of pristine forested wilderness, where in one corner you'll find St Ivan's cave and final resting spot. Rila's importance in terms of Bulgaria's history, cultural, and religious life cannot be overstated. And, thankfully for visitors, it's not at all overrated! You couldn't ask for a better day trip from Sofia.
My visit was a highlight of my time in Bulgaria - even though I had some decidedly non-monastic awkward and ungraceful moments! Here are my best tips for visiting Rila and making the most the tour experience.
Your Rila Monastery tour options
A Rila Monastery tour really consists of three components. There's the visit to the Monastery itself; a large complex including a church, museums, and more. Next on the list is St Ivan's cave, where the founder of the Monastery lived (and maybe there's a side trip to St Luke's Hermitage too). Finally, there's the Kiril Meadow, part of which you'll likely see if you're visiting St Ivan's or St Luke's.
There are several options for Rila Monastery day trips from Sofia which incorporate all of these elements. The first is a traditional organized guided tour. Travel agents and major hotels can arrange this with little notice and the cost can vary from about €50 to €100. The gulf in prices can be attributed in part to a tour's level of luxury, included extras (such as lunch or scenic stops on route), and the amount of guidance and personal attention you receive on the ground.
You can also visit Rila Monastery independently using public transportation from Sofia. I haven't done this personally but some of my colleagues have (you can read about their experiences here and here). In general, a self-guided day trip is an affordable, rewarding, and relatively easy experience but be sure and confirm the bus schedule as there are only so many buses in any given day.
The final option is the one I chose and it's somewhere in the middle. I did a semi-guided tour organized by my hostel. Hostel Mostel Sofia's Rila Monastery tour was the best of both worlds - and in some ways, it was also kind of the worst. Still, I'm very glad I did it. Here's what my experience was like - and what you should know if you do it as well.
What to expect on the drive to Rila Monastery
With strict instructions from the hostel to not be late for the 9:30 am departure, I joined over a dozen other people outside Hostel Mostel. In about 15 minutes or so things were organized for us to depart. My rough impression was that there was one main guy who organized things and, when space was filled up in the van, off duty taxi drivers were recruited to provide extra transportation. There wasn't any introduction to speak of, nor much of a welcome. I'm honestly not sure if everyone on the tour was a guest of the hostel or if non-guests can also arrange to join in, space permitting. Regardless, it didn't really have much of a "tour" feel to it -which isn't always bad especially if early morning socializing isn't your thing. But still; a cheerful greeting would have been appreciated.
It was in one of these extra taxis that I found myself, along with three others who were squished in the very small backseat. This brings me to my first "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" moment. On the plus side, we were picked up right outside the hostel and we made the trip to Rila in under two hours. This was definitely preferable to the three plus hours that a public bus would take, plus the time to walk to the bus station and figure out the schedule, and so on.
On the downside, had I not finagled my way to the front seat (which was to everyone's benefit, given my notorious motion sickness...), I would have been miserable, jam packed in the backseat of a tiny taxi with two complete strangers. If personal space or motion sickness are issues for you, keep this in mind if you're contemplating a Hostel Mostel Rila Monastery tour.
The drive was smooth, efficient, and included a welcomed rest stop break at a clean, well stocked service station. My particular taxi driver was a Beatles fan so I loved his roadtrip music, but otherwise the trip was silent -and slightly awkward. Did I mention just how squished we were? But the scenery was pretty and the occasional visit from cows and horses on the roads were equal parts fun and nerve wracking.
Hiking to St Ivan's Cave
Our first stop was on the outskirts of a beautiful forest for a short-ish hike of about 20 minutes to the home and burial place of St Ivan, the founder of Rial Monastery. Let's pause here for an embarrassing personal confession. While I'm sure the organizers would describe it as a short "walk", it definitely felt like a hike to me. And, damn, the other hostel folks were nimble and fit, bounding up the hill like they too hadn't been drinking Bulgarian wine late into the night. Why was I the only one who was pitifully out of breath and sweating up a storm?
Maybe I was just entirely off my game that day. Or maybe Bulgarians and Canadians have differing views of what makes a walk an easy one! But all the same, I recommend wearing proper sneakers for this trip and bringing along a bottle of water. (I travel with an insulated water bottle like this one for such occasions).
Our trip didn't include a trip to St Luke's Hermitage, which is a few kilometers away. If you're doing this as part of a DIY tour and are planning on taking in both sites, do a bit of online research to confirm directions and trail markers.
My exertion was well worth the effort to get acquainted with St Ivan. St Ivan, whose name is sometimes written as St John of Rila, is the patron saint of Bulgarians. He was born in 876 AD and his life as a monk was one devoted to solitude and prayer and isolation among the caves of the Rila Mountains. The tiny chapel that marks the place where he lived is cherished by his devotees and there are many mostly-burnt candles, wax covered ledges, and tiny notes stuck in cracks and crevices.
The tiny chapel area is built on the side of a hill and we entered St Ivan's cave through the chapel itself. We climbed up a set of rough rock stairs that twist and became more narrow but it didn't feel claustrophobic (at least, not to me!). It was well ventilated and the stairs, while somewhat uneven, were stable and not slippery. (And, thankfully, I had recovered sufficiently from my pathetic hiking efforts that I wasn't huffing and puffing here!)
After a short time climbing the stairs, we came to the exit of the cave. While it looks tiny in the pictures, it's not THAT small of a hole (my size 14 booty did just fine). But - be warned - exiting is not an especially graceful experience. After tossing up your backpack, you have to make your way up a couple of rough steps/ledges towards the top, where you can either grasp the hand of the guide to be pulled up the last little bit or basically flop out of the hole and onto the grass and rocks.
Or, if you're like me, you'll somehow manage to combine the two into an utterly ridiculous looking spectacle. All in a days' work!
Even if you're graceful and more coordinated than me, the exit out of the top of St Ivan's cave is a bit awkward. To get an idea of the experience, take a sturdy dining room chair and place its back against a wall. Stand directly in front of it and step on it, using the power of one leg to hoist yourself straight up so you're standing on the chair's seat. Now do it again with the lights off and try not to use your hands much! Imagine repeating that a few times and you have a good idea of what it's like to climb out of the cave. It's not that hard, it's not that dark, and it only takes about a minute- but if you aren't expecting the first toe ledge to be quite so high, you might feel out of your element.
While the two locations have nothing in common, as I was squirming my way up and out of the cave at Rila, I couldn't help but be reminded of another awkward rock experience - kissing the Blarney stone in Ireland! Something about disinterested guides helping you do strange things with strange rocks...
Visiting Rila Monastery: What to expect
The Rila Monastery complex is home to a post office, two museums, spartan guest quarters for anyone wishing to stay overnight, administrative offices for the religious officials, and the church itself. It's a beautiful, colorful, architecturally grand complex that is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Personally, I also loved its flowers, including a small lilac tree, potted red geraniums, and jaunty marigolds.
Our tour gave us about 2 hours to explore in and around Rila Monastery. To be honest, I found that two hours was more than sufficient for me. Perhaps it was a function of the Hostel Mostel tour that I was a bit disinterested - we weren't given any guidance so much as we were just ferried about between stops. So while I enjoyed exploring at my own pace, I also wish I had some extra insight into what I was seeing and experiencing. Again, I felt that awkward gap between experiencing some elements of being on a tour but not really all of them.
For this reason, if you too choose this tour, I highly recommend doing some background reading on Rila to gain extra appreciation for all that you see and experience. Another important part of the preparation? Making sure your outfit is appropriately modest for visiting a house of worship.
Where to eat at Rila Monastery
Outside the Monastery gates there is a smattering of businesses and services. I had lunch at Restaurant Drushlyavitsa, which has an incredible view of the Monastery and the surrounding mountains. The restaurant's patio is built over a vigorous brook, which is a really neat experience. Our tour guide, in one of his more tour guide-y moments, recommended the chicken soup and his suggestion was spot on. It was delicious and hearty and a good value for budget travelers at just a few dollars for a big bowl.
I also had fresh roasted fish (hmmm.... was it trout?) that came from the brook. It was accompanied by mashed potatoes and it was a welcome wholesome meal after a long trip of less than healthy food. (If you order it, note that the menu prices reflect the cost per 100 grams of fish, not the total price. I was told that the average fish weighs between 300 and 400 grams). All in, I couldn't have asked for a better home style lunch at Rila Monastery.
Also outside the Monastery are small souvenir shops, a bakery that serves up delicious tiny donuts (highly recommended) and - during my visit - a litter of the most adorable, fluffy, roly-poly puppies!
Overall, for €20, the Hostel Mostel Rila Monastery tour represented a good value. While not the comfiest of rides, I'd rather have a shared taxi ride than a longer, less convenient public bus trip. I'm glad our group was taken directly to St Ivan's and to the Monastery as opposed to having to make our own way between the two. And there were a few times when the guide was helpful, like dragging us out of the last bit of the cave and making a lunch suggestion. I'm not sure I would have two or three times as much enjoyment if I had paid two or three times as much for a more structured, traditional tour experience. Since the "guides" were really mostly coordinators of our movements and transportation, €20 was just about right.
Hostel Mostel Sofia review and tips
Of course, if you're reading about the Hostel Mostel tours, chances are you want to hear a bit about the place itself! Hostel Mostel Sofia is my budget accommodation of choice in Bulgaria's capital city. I waffled back and forth, alternatively leaning between them and a couple of other top choice hostels in Sofia city center thanks to my invaluable Lonely Planet guide, but in the end I definitely made the best choice. If you want the best hostel Sofia has to offer, I think Hostel Mostel is a real contender.
I really loved Hostel Mostel's location in the heart of Sofia. Everything I wanted to visit was just five or ten minutes' walk away. The staff were exceptionally friendly, very helpful, and their dry sense of humor was the bright spot of every conversation. Their relaxed, sincere attitude extended to the general mood of the hostel. All the other guests I chatted with were equally laid back and good humored.
I really appreciated all the services they provided, including restaurant advice and even laundry services. At every turn, there were awesome resources for the guests, including a book shelf and a "free money" box of currency from other countries. (Don't just take my word for it: You can see what other travelers had to say about it by reading more on Trip Advisor.)
I stayed in one of the Hostel Mostel private rooms. Here's where things got interesting! My private room was about two blocks away from the Hostel Mostel dorm rooms and main building. The cheery staff walked me there and showed me how to use the key for the building's front door and then for the apartment itself. It felt like a cross between AirBnB, a shared student flat, and a hostel. There was a kitchen, a small sitting area, a common bathroom, and three or four private rooms (which you could lock).
On the plus side: It didn't feel like a hostel. But on the negative side: It didn't feel like a hostel!
Mornings were annoying, as an unwanted walk separated me from Hostel Mostel's breakfast. I also worried about not having instant access to the staff if there was an emergency (though there was a phone there). However, it also felt like I got a holiday apartment in Sofia for the cost of a hostel bed. And while it would never win any style awards, it was clean and comfortable and I slept well. My charming street was a mix of residential properties and a few quaint businesses, including an Italian restaurant and a corner market. My fellow private room guests were quiet and I barely heard them at all - definitely a nice change from the usual boisterous feel of hostels.
When booking Hostel Mostel Sofia, here are some tips to get the best bang for your buck. Ask the staff where exactly your room will be. My understanding is that there are several private room flats similar to what I experienced. If you don't want a long walk between your room and the main hostel itself, have a chat with them about location. And, if you're given the choice between having the staff walk with you or just following directions or a map, definitely choose the first option. I felt silly at first (I'm a super adventurous travel writer! I can handle anything!) but I was so glad just to have someone with me so I knew exactly where I was supposed to be, as locating an unmarked residential building is a bit different from finding a hotel or hostel.
When possible, book directly with the hostel. The Hostel Mostel breakfast is fantastic and includes deli meat, cheese, sliced cucumber and tomato, fruit, yogurt, breads, and more. It's definitely a step above the usual hostel fare. Hostel Mostel also provides free dinner (really!) in the form of a simple meal like pasta and beer (and there's always a vegetarian option). However, the meals aren't always included if you use a third party booking agent (then again, they might be... definitely read the fine print of your reservation).
My trip to Bulgaria started out on a bit of a whim, motivated by nothing more than the fact that I was in neighbouring Turkey and was keen to visit one more country. It was a hunch that definitely paid off! I loved traveling in Bulgaria and my time at Hostel Mostel and visiting Rila Monastery were both highlights of my trip. And if you're so lucky to travel a similar route, I'd love to hear all about your experience!
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