The Rila Monastery is the most visited tourist attraction in Bulgaria with over one million visitors each year. The Monastery is situated about 120 kilometers from Sofia on the north-west part of the Rila Mountain. It's located in the deep valley of the Rila river on an altitude reaching 1.100 meters. It takes about 2 hours driving to reach it from Sofia.
The long history of the Rila Monastery began in the 10th century. It was started by Saint John of Rila, a priest who after he accepted the life of a monk, came to this place to live in solitude, poverty and prayer. He lived in a nearby cave and many legends started surround him such as that wild animals came to him without fear and that birds landed on his hands. He spend the rest of his life here. During his lifetime, he stated to gain many followers that stated camping in front of his cave and wanting to get his blessing and knowledge. His fame even reach the current ruler of the Bulgarian Empire, the tsar Peter I, which came to visit him in his cave - but John not wanting to succumb to the temptation of vanity and pride of receiving such an important visit, he refused to meet him so they only bowed to each other from a distance. The monastery was built by his followers in the vicinity of his cave.
The Rila Monastery was an important part of the Bulgarian culture, but due to the turbulent history of Bulgaria, it was destroyed, pillaged and set on fire several times mostly by the Turks during their occupation. But every time it was rebuilt and additional parts of the monastery where constructed, the last being the belfry that was build in 1844.
The monastery was even visited by Pope John Paul II in 2002., giving it an additional approval of its cultural importance.
Regarding the tours that take you to the Rila Monastery from Sofia, most of the tours include a stop to Boyana Church, an important medieval Orthodox church which is located on the outskirts of Sofia. It's a bit far from other sights in Sofia so it's a nice additional stop when visiting Rila. Another popular question about these tours: "is it possible to visit the Seven Rila Lakes on the same tour" - unfortunately no. Even thou the lakes and the Monastery are situated on the same mountain they are quite far from each other and there is not enough time to enjoy both destinations. There are several options available such as tours with lunch included, or if you prefer, you can visit the Rila Monastery with a private tour.