‘An unforgettable rail journey’: my night on the Istanbul-Sofia Express

The overnight service from Turkey to Bulgaria started running again this year and was voted one of the world’s best journeys for 2023 by Lonely Planet

Last week Lonely Planet’s annual Best in Travel list included the Istanbul-Sofia Express as an essential journey for 2023.

The overnight service restarted in April this year, after being suspended in early 2020. When introduced in 2017, it was a successor of older night-train services, including several incarnations using variants of the name Orient Express. I boarded one of the speedy suburban trains at Sirkeciin Istanbul’s Eminönü quarter, heading out of the city to Halkalı, an unassuming commuter station that’s now the starting point of this night train.

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Leaving Istanbul from here is akin to first travelling from Euston to Watford Junction to board the Caledonian Sleeper: it’s a modern, functional station, though not much to look at. Once at Halkalı, the night’s pre-departure ceremony was getting under way. Shouts of “Sofia!” from station staff summoned passengers from an uncomfortably warm waiting room through a luggage X-ray machine and then on to the platform. I was directed to my 1990s-era sleeper compartment by the train manager. Home for the night came air-conditioned, with a power socket but no wifi and, unusually, a fridge stocked with water and a few snacks.

Leaving on time at 8.45pm, we rattled along the single-track line through the darkness. Somewhere along the way, I dozed off. Close to 1am we approached Edirne, with the Selimiye mosque lighting up the cityscape. Leaving Edirne, the train manager suddenly became unpopular, knocking on doors with a brisk “Control!”. It was the cue to get up and get in a slowly shuffling passport queue at Kapıkule on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There were a few hundred passengers on the platform, most still half asleep. Waiting for that passport stamp was the perfect chance to meet fellow passengers. We were crossing the EU’s busiest land frontier, and it was becoming apparent to all that taking this sleeper does not guarantee a restful night. Snacks and smokes were offered around, and stories were shared.

Selimiye mosque, Edirne.
Selimiye mosque, Edirne. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It took about an hour to get everyone through the queue and back on board. Leaving Turkey, the train crawled through openings in barbed-wire fences and into Bulgaria, where another set of border guards took away everyone’s passport for an hour or so. I didn’t sleep until mine was returned. The barbed wire and guards in observation towers weren’t for those of us on this train, but they were for someone.

The rest of the journey felt dream-like, partly because of the interrupted night inducing a slightly dozy sense of where we were. At breakfast, we arrived in Plovdiv, famed for its Roman theatre and well-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings. It is an excellent place to stop over. The final haul over the mountains to Sofia was done in daylight, offering views of rocky hills and forested streams.

There was no on-board food service – passengers should buy a packed breakfast on their way out of Istanbul – but our enterprising train manager did pass through selling coffee and tea for small change, endearing himself to those he had had to coax out of bed in the night.

Plovdiv’s Roman theatre.
Plovdiv’s Roman theatre. Photograph: Petar Mladenov/Alamy

At about 9.30am, the train arrived at Sofia’s communist-era railway station and I hopped on the metro into the city centre for brunch. Though signature banitsa pastries are sold everywhere, the city’s food scene has evolved into a varied cafe culture with fine, strong coffee at its heart. A cup of that was very welcome after an unforgettable rail journey between two different cities that offered pause for thought and adventure on parallel tracks, stretching across south-east Europe and beyond.
Tom Hall is vice president at Lonely Planet

The Istanbul-Sofia Express runs daily in each direction. It leaves Istanbul’s Halkalı station, a 45-minute journey from the centre, at 8.45pm, scheduled arrival in Sofia is 9.35am but border procedures can cause delays. In the opposite direction it leaves Sofia at 6.30pm and arrives at Halkali at 05.34am. Tickets cannot be bought online. Purchase in advance from Discoverbyrail.com – Tom Hall paid £105 (including Discover By Rail fee) for single occupancy of a sleeper compartment including ticket delivery to his hotel in Istanbul. For two-person occupancy the cost is £57.50pp via Discover By Rail. Tickets can be bought at the international sales desk at Sirkeci where second-class tickets (no couchette or sleeper) cost £16 plus £9 for a couchette, or a sleeper cabin to yourself £55. While it’s cheaper to buy in Istanbul, this runs the risk of the train being sold out, especially in summer.

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Tom Hall

The GuardianTramp

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