Before heading off on my trip around the Balkans I had never actually heard of the 7 Rila Lakes in Bulgaria, let alone planned to go there. It was only when I ended up with a free day in Sofia and started looking at day trips that I found one of the most popular involved hiking in the Rila National Park to a point where you can see all of the 7 Rila Lakes from one incredible viewpoint. After a quick look through the photos, and knowing I wasn’t going to have too many opportunities to get into nature and out of the city in this trip, I knew I HAD to do it.
Which day tour to choose
As I didn’t have any of my own transport on this trip I had to take a group day trip to visit 7 Rila Lakes, which picks you up and drops you off in Sofia. There are a bunch of different tours available but they run on different days of the week and some include different activities in addition to the hiking in the Rila National Park.
I ended up opting for the 7 Rila Lakes and Rila Monastery tour from Get Your Guide. I was not actually bothered about visiting the Rila Monastery because I’d been to many monasteries already during my time in Greece, the only reason I booked on this particular tour is because it was the only option running on the day that I had free to go.
If you have more flexibility it is swings and roundabouts as to what you choose. The pro of this tour was that the Rila Monastery is actually well worth visiting (more on that below) but the con was I didn’t feel I had enough time to comfortably complete the hike in the allocated time (again, further details on that below).
It is also worth noting that even though this is classified as a ‘day tour’ it is unaccompanied and unguided throughout. You’re really just paying to be driven between the locations with some other people.
Hiking 7 Rila Lakes
Getting to the starting point
You have to get on a chairlift up the mountain to get to the start of the hike. There is a little ticket booth in the car park opposite the cafe where you buy your chairlift tickets (18 lev for a return). Be prepared that there is sometimes a queue for the tickets and also the chairlift, although day tours start early to reach the car park at 10am and even in the ‘peak’ season there was no queue at that time.
The chairlift ride is pretty much worth it in itself because the scenery is spectacular. It takes around 30 minutes and it a perfect time to really take in the National Park and appreciate the beauty of the forests and mountains in this park of Bulgaria.
When you get off the top of the chairlift follow the crowds to the start of the hike, which heads up the slope past the little white building on the left. Important to also note that this white building is where the only toilets are on the hike.
Finding your way
As you are walking unaccompanied it is understandable to be a little nervous about getting lost, especially if you’re not used to hiking alone. On this hike there’s no need to worry, as it’s incredibly popular and there are always lots of other people. You will be given a map (if you opt for the day tour) but the paths are very clear and well signposted. There are also markers along the way at major viewpoints so you can choose to walk to a certain point and back rather than do the whole route if you are short on time.
How difficult is it?
The difficulty lies in the steepness of some sections. Rather than a gradual incline most of the way up, there are some very steep sections and some completely flat sections. The flat sections are amazing because you can really appreciate the surrounding landscape and they give you a chance to catch your breath between the other bits but getting through the inclines can be a bit tough, more mentally than physically sometimes.
I’m not someone who does a lot of cardiovascular exercise in everyday life so I’d say I have an average level of fitness and it wasn’t too difficult for me (definitely not as bad as the hike to Pulpit Rock in Norway).
My #1 tip – prepare for it to be cold!
The most important thing I learnt on this hike was that, regardless of how warm and sunny it is in the rest of Bulgaria, it is drastically colder on this trail!
I was blessed with great weather for most of my trip around the Balkans in September. It is a good time of the year to travel this area of Europe and so I only brought the minimum warm clothes (i.e. 1 jumper, 1 pair of jeans and a waterproof jacket) and this was the only day I ended up wearing them. From the moment I got on the chairlift I was absolutely freezing and by the end I had to put my hood up on my jacket because I had earache from the cold.
Visiting Rila Monastery
If you’re on a day trip that also visits Rila Monastery you’ll do after the 7 Rila Lakes hike. Although it’s in the same area it’s located on the other side of the mountain from the start of the hike so it takes a while to get there, especially because the roads are very windy.
I had no real expectations for the monastery and didn’t know much about it before I visited, other than that it is the biggest monastery in Bulgaria and one of the most important cultural and historical buildings to Bulgarians. It is also a huge tourist attraction in Southern Europe, despite it being so remote, and it’s not hard to see why!
It’s free to enter the monastery but there is an entrance fee (I think it’s around 8 lev) if you want to go in the museum. There is also a small shopping area out the back where there are restaurants, souvenir stalls and a little hole in the wall selling traditional Bulgarian doughnuts (highly recommend).