I accidentally visited Boyana Church twice. The first time, I went by myself. The second time, I went on a tour to Rila Monastery that included a stop at Boyana. I love slow travel, because it gives me the luxury of getting to go to places two or three times instead of feeling rushed.
The first time, I met some really cool American military officers working on recovering a World War II pilot that went down in Bulgaria. The second time, I went with my friend on the tour and got to photograph the church in a beautiful fog.
Boyana has three eras of construction, and it’s pretty easy to see where the different sections begin and end. The earliest part was built in the late 10th and early 11th century. Here’s a breakdown of architecture from the church’s website.
The church is Eastern Orthodox, and inside its painting and frescos are similar to those in the Troodos in Cyprus and the monasteries in Meteora. Growing up Catholic in America, even with Orthodox relatives, I only experienced the Orthodox church in academic circles and not as a living, breathing religion. And I almost never interacted with its history. Spending the last three months spread out over the former Byzantine empire and seeing the religious legacy it left has been thrilling.
From UNESCO’s description:
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two story building to be erected next to it. The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.
When I went on my own, the taxi from my apartment was 8 leva (about 5 dollars). There is also a bus that goes out that way, which I rode when I was lost.
The second time, we booked a tour to Rila Monastery which included a stop at Boyana. We didn’t know it until the morning of, though. There are lots of tours that do both or do Boyana and Vitosha.
The entrance fee to the church was 10 leva (about $6 USD). There is no fee to wander the grounds.
Things to Do While You’re There
At the church itself, you’ll want to tour the entire church grounds and go inside. You’ll also want to stop by the little gift shop (it’s kind of a trip).
Afterwards, you can go to the National Museum of History, which is nearby (although I got SO lost trying to walk between the two). There’s also a free hiking tour on Mount Vitosha during the warmer parts of the year.
If you choose to go up on Mount Vitosha, check out Kopitoto, the cool tv tower with great views of the city.
- Bring cash. Even though they have signs that say they take credit cards, they wouldn’t take mine.
- There are no concessions, so take water, etc.
- You don’t get much time inside the church (and they watch you like a hawk), so if you’re really interested in the artwork start asking questions right away.
- Like almost everywhere in Sofia, some of the people who work there spoke amazing English and some spoke very little.
- Dress weather-appropriate. Most of your time will be outside.
- More photos of the Giant Sequoia trees on the church grounds
- A deeper dive into the church’s history
- Archeology in Bulgaria looks at the mural of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ
- The blog for the Free Sofia Tour covers how to visit Boyana and the National Museum of History
- From Gary Arndt, a photograph of one of the murals and the write-up of his visit