Unexpected Opportunities in Bulgaria: the Rila Monastery and Plovdiv

Going to Bulgaria and only seeing Sofia is a crime, in my book – Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery prove my point.  Sofia has some of the key sites to see in Bulgaria for sure but it is only but a fraction of what a visitor should experience.  I did not have ample time to travel around Bulgaria but wish I had been able to.  I hear folks in the smaller towns are very hospitable and that the natural beauty of the countryside and the large number of monasteries and churches around the country are worth seeing.  And let’s not forget wineries!

Our time was limited in Bulgaria since we were there for a wedding but was expanded courtesy of the volcano in Iceland that shall not be called by its name.

CNN anchor talking about the volcano – or about to eat Iceland

That presented us with an unexpected opportunity…  So we decided to explore more of this interesting Eastern European country!

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery

Since our time was limited, we made the Rila Monastery our top priority for being the largest monastery in Bulgaria and being a beautiful one in a beautiful location, about 73 (117 km) miles from Sofia in the valley of the Rilska River and at an altitude of over 3,700 ft (1,100m +).

We got a car and a driver as we did not have time to figure out other logistics given how busy we had been with the wedding events.  This allowed us to recover from the wedding party the night before but also to soak in the scenery.  We drove past apple orchards (I had never seen one) and small towns on our way to enter the Rila Mountains area where the monastery is nestled in.  This part of the drive was simply beautiful full of green and tracking the river most of the way.  With the snowmelt from the mountains, the river was fast and it was a sight to behold.

We arrived at the monastery and seeing it blew us away.  What an incredible structure!  It is not ancient (reconstructed in the 1830s; the tower dates from the 14th century) but the site has been in use for centuries as a monastery.  St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave about an hour’s walk away from the monastery many centuries before.   One can make the hike to the cave and it surely is a beautiful walk through the forest but we didn’t have time to do that…

Inside the monastery’s courtyard is a beautiful church.  Its architecture seems an interesting mix of what I understand Orthodox church architecture to be but also with elements that reminded me of the Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain (and, thereby, of Arab architecture as in the columns and arcs on the perimeter of the church).

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church portico ceiling

Church’s portico ceiling

Old tower at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

The old tower

Rila Monastery hallway in Bulgaria

Around the halls of monastery


As we looked into how to spend an our final day in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was brought to our attention as worth seeing so, since it wasn’t far from Sofia (about 90 miles), we decided late that morning to go for it.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city and has a population of over 330,000, was something unexpected to me.  It is a very charming town, with a large pedestrian area in the old part of town.  It has seemingly a different climate than Sofia and I do not mean just in meteorological terms:  it felt happier, livelier.  Not being the capital city, it didn’t seem to have the weight that title may impose.  While there were definitely buildings that carried Soviet-bloc stereotypical architecture, there did not seem to be much of it in the city center – I am glad they did not raze parts of old town, like in Bucharest, for grandiose communist projects!

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the city center

The city center teemed with life, people were out and about, and the open spaces seemed more inviting and taken advantage of than in Sofia.  To be fair, it rained most of the time I was in Sofia but somehow, I think Sofia is more of a “city” and Plovdiv more of a “town” where I give the town label a more positive meaning.  In the city center (which reminded me of Bratislava and maybe Salzburg, a little bit), there are some Roman ruins, cleverly revealed in the midst of the pedestrian area.
Roman ruins in Plovdiv, BulgariaThe hill (one of 6 around the city; a seventh was removed early in the 20th century) in old town Plovdiv is definitely a must-see.  It has some of the best views of the city but also some neat architecture.  It also offers views to excavations of Roman ruins and a Roman theater near the appropriately named Yellow School.
Ruins of a Roman theater in Plovdiv, BulgariaWhile some of the old buildings need repair, restoration work is evident in many of the structures, which are very interesting architecturally.

Building in need of repair in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Beautiful even it its disrepair

Home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Colorful home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I wish we had known about Plovdiv before going to Bulgaria.  I would have really enjoyed an overnight stay to relax in a cafe and watch life go by…  If you go to Bulgaria, do not miss spending some time in Plovdiv!


  1. I wil visit the Monastery soon. looking forward to see Plovdiv too. I am in sopot now.
    Nice pictures of Chile. I am from Punta Arenas

  2. Admittedly I knew very little about Bulgaria…beautiful stuff…
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..California Route 1 – Big Sur to San FranciscoMy Profile

  3. Wait – what? You’d never seen an apple orchard?! Ok, surprise #1 for me. Surprise #2 is how lovely Bulgaria is! Like Deej, I really know nothing about the country but now I’d like to learn more. Love the architecture and your photos!
    Francesca recently posted..My annual trip back in timeMy Profile

    • Yep, Francesca, I probably wouldn’t recognize an apple orchard if it walked past me! City boy! But I did go apple picking last year with my goddaughter and he sister so maybe I do stand a chance now 🙂

  4. Once again you impress me with your Eastern European trips. These photos are spectacular. I really like the striped one. 🙂
    Leah Travels recently posted..Three Reasons I Love Las VegasMy Profile

    • Thanks for checking it out! I seem to be accidentally on an Eastern European kick since 2009 and especially this year. I have fallen in love with it for sure!

  5. wow! looks so charming. i love it. i especially love the church photos at the beginning. i have never seen a church with those sort of colors before. i bet it as incredible to see in real life!
    lola recently posted..Cambodia Countdown – 4-3-2-1-0 BLAST OFFMy Profile

  6. hahahaha RAUL. i got too distracted by your caption of that weather woman to properly absorb the rest of this post. i’m still laughing.
    the lazy travelers recently posted..no travel requiredMy Profile

    • I am glad someone gets my humor. My cousin and I kept laughing as we watched this lady give the ash cloud forecast. Poor tiny Iceland!

  7. Great tips Raul. Sometimes when the travel gods through you for a loop it ends up working out for the best.
    John recently posted..The Joys of Traveling By MopedMy Profile

  8. definitely some great spots in Bulgaria…I say it’s a hidden gem in Europe… I loved my time there.

    stay adventurous, Craig
    Craig Zabransky recently posted..Sunset Sunday – Sunset on the Arno River in Florence, ItalyMy Profile

    • Any other places you would suggest checking out? I wish I had had more time to go to smaller villages, walk in the forest near the monastery, etc.

  9. Some great tips and beautiful pictures of Bulgaria. Good to know that visitors should allocate more time to visit these beautiful places.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Five adventures overseas that went wrongMy Profile

  10. Wow, that monastery is absolutely spectacular! Amazing architecture. I was in Bulgaria briefly years ago – in Sofia, as a matter of fact – and this post makes me want to visit again. I’d love to check out Plovdiv. I really like mid-sized cities with great pedestrian areas.
    Pola (@jettingaround) recently posted..Photo of the Week: Nationals Park in Washington, DCMy Profile

    • Pola, I have come to realize that it is the “second” cities in Eastern Europe that draw me. Plovdiv in Bulgaria, your native Krakow in Poland, and Brasov in Romania are great examples of this! Brasov had a square that was ALMOST as impressive as Krakow’s, by the way 🙂

  11. I wouldn’t know what the apple orchard would be like. Loved the photos – this seems to be a pretty special part of the world
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..Luxury African adventure: Malawian style by @davidsbeenhereMy Profile

  12. Here is very good bulgarian nature and beauty places. I live in Plovdiv and I thing that everybody must come in our country even one time or more 🙂

  13. Hi Raul,
    Thank you for the info. My husband and I are going to take a 2 weeks trip to Bulgaria & Romania. I was planning to spend a couple hours in Plovdiv and move on to Kazanlak, after reading your article, we decided to stay one night there. I hope our experience there will be as good as yours.
    Jin Yi recently posted..Uova da Raviolo義大利半熟(爆漿)蛋黃餃My Profile

    • Awesome!!! Let me know how you like it after you go! I wish I could have stayed overnight to see how the Plovdiv felt in the evening.

  14. I came across to your blog from Twitter and it was nice to read about your visit to my country. For sure there are huge number of interesting places here in Bulgaria.
    Eli Ivanova recently posted..До Клисурския манастир край Банкя – една мързелива разходкаMy Profile

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