The Boyana Church in Sofia is one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria. Situated on the outskirts of the city, on the foot of Mount Vitosha, it takes a bit of planning to get there, and your visit is likely to be brief. So why should you make the effort to visit the Boyana Church? The answer lies in the remarkable medieval murals, a startling monument to Bulgarian art.
St Nikola and St Panteleimon Boyana Church
Part of the reason for the UNESCO inscription is the building itself. The church was built in three stages, at different times, but is regarded as “a homogenous whole”. And the earliest part is a near-perfect example of the Greek cross-vaulted style of church architecture. UNESCO describes the whole structure as “one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art”.
The church is more properly known as St Nikola and St Panteleimon Boyana Church. The first part, built around the end of the 10th century, was dedicated to St Nikola. The second section was added in 1259, and dedicated to St Panteleimon. There was a further addition in 1845.
The Frescoes of Boyana Church
But it is the murals that everyone comes to see. These are in three layers. The first church was covered with images, but these were painted over when the second part was added. However, in some places the later frescoes have peeled off, revealing the earlier pictures beneath. Further paintings were added in later centuries.
The second layer – from 1259 – is considered the most important. These pictures are one of the best examples of medieval Bulgarian religious art still in existence. And they are regarded as the predecessors of Renaissance painting.
The frescoes include more than 240 figures. There are 18 scenes from the life of St Nicholas, as well as images of other saints, biblical figures, and an impressive crucifixion. More unusually, there are also portraits of several of the church’s original donors.
Unfortunately I don’t have any of my own pictures to show you, as photography is not permitted inside the church. However, you can see some more of the frescoes on the Boyana Church website.
Visiting Boyana Church
The church is situated in a small park, with mature pine trees, and what look like old gravestones scattered about. There is also a small gift shop.
It is a pleasant location, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here. Only eight people are allowed into the church at any one time, and for a maximum of ten minutes. For this reason, you may wish to avoid peak times if you are visiting independently, as priority for entrance will be given to organised tours. Note that you will not be allowed to take photographs of the frescoes.
How to get to Boyana Church
Boyana Church is around 8 km from the centre of Sofia. You can take the No 2 bus to the end of the line at Buxton and walk around 25 minutes to the church (a mostly uphill, not particularly interesting, walk). The 64 and the 107 go the whole way, but they do not pass through the town centre. If you take the bus make sure you have cash to pay for your ticket.
Alternatively, there are several day tours from Sofia that include Boyana as part of their itinerary. There are some tours on the Viator site, or your hotel may be able to advise. Taxis are also a possibility. A compromise might be to take a taxi to the church, then walk down the hill to the National History Museum before getting the No 2 bus back into town. (You can buy a combined entrance ticket for Boyana Church and the National History Museum.)
Eating and Drinking
There are a few places to eat and drink close to Boyana Church. However, these are mainly aimed at tourists, and you may prefer to choose one of the more traditional restaurants in the area. I enjoyed classic Bulgarian food at The Three Wells, on Bulevard Aleksandar Pushkin, around halfway between the church and the National History Museum. Together with the church and the museum, this made for an enjoyable day out.
If you are visiting Sofia you may also enjoy the following: