Last week, Lonely Planet’s annual best-in-travel list included the Istanbul-Sofia Express as an essential trip for 2023.
The night train resumed in April this year after being suspended in early 2020. When it was launched in 2017, it was a successor to older night train services, including several incarnations with variants of the Orient Express name. I boarded one of the fast suburban trains in the Eminönü district of Sirkeciin Istanbul and headed out of town to Halkalı, a nondescript commuter station that is now the starting point of this overnight train.
Departing Istanbul from here is akin to making the first trip from Euston to Watford Junction to board the Caledonian Sleeper: it’s a modern, functional station, if not much to see. Arriving in Halkalı, the nightly ceremony before departure began. Shouts of “Sofia!” from station staff called passengers out of an uncomfortably warm waiting room, through a baggage x-ray machine, and then onto the platform. I was directed to my 1990’s sleeping compartment by the train manager. Home for the night was air conditioned, with an outlet but no wifi and, unusually, a fridge stocked with water and some snacks.
At 8:45 p.m. sharp, we set off and rattled along the single-track track through the darkness. Somewhere along the way I dozed off. Around 1am we approached Edirne where the Selimiye Mosque lit up the cityscape. As the train driver left Edirne, he suddenly became unpopular and knocked on the doors with a brash “Check!” It was the cue to get up and join a slowly squeezing line of passes at Kapıkule on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There were a few hundred passengers on the platform, most of them still half asleep. Waiting for that passport stamp was the perfect opportunity to meet other passengers. We crossed the EU’s busiest land border and it became clear to everyone that taking that sleeper car doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep. All around, snacks and smoked goods were offered and stories exchanged.
It took about an hour to get everyone through the queue and back on board. As the train left Turkey, it crawled through openings in barbed wire fences and into Bulgaria, where another group of border guards took everyone’s passport for about an hour. I didn’t sleep until mine was returned. The barbed wire and the guards in the lookout towers weren’t for us on this train, but for someone.
The rest of the drive felt like a dream, partly because of the disrupted night that gave us a slightly sleepy sense of where we were. After breakfast we arrived in Plovdiv, famous for its Roman theater and well-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings. It is an excellent place for a stopover. The final drive over the mountains to Sofia was in daylight, offering views of rocky hills and forested streams.
There was no food service on board – passengers were supposed to buy a packed breakfast en route from Istanbul – but our enterprising train driver stopped by to sell coffee and tea for cheap, endearing himself to those he got out of bed had to lure in the night.
Around 9.30am the train arrived at Sofia’s communist-era station and I boarded the subway to the city center for brunch. Although signature banitsa Pastries are sold everywhere, and the city’s food scene has morphed into a diverse café culture centered on fine, strong coffee. A cup of this was very welcome after an unforgettable rail journey between two different cities that offered pauses for reflection and adventure on parallel tracks that stretched across South East Europe and beyond.
Tom Hall is a Vice President at Lonely Planet
The Istanbul-Sofia Express runs daily in both directions. It departs from Halkalı Station in Istanbul, a 45-minute drive from the center 8:45 p.m, scheduled arrival in Sofia is 9.35 a.m However, border procedures may cause delays. In the opposite direction, it leaves Sofia at 18:30 and arrives in Halkali at 05:34. Tickets cannot be bought online. Purchased in advance at Discoverbyrail.com – Tom Hall paid £105 (including Discover By Rail fee) for single occupancy in a sleeping compartment with ticket delivery to his Istanbul hotel. Based on a two person occupancy the cost is £57.50 per person via Discover By Rail. Tickets can be bought at the international ticket office in Sirkeci Second class tickets (no couchette or sleeper) are £16 plus £9 for a couchette or a sleeper for yourself £55. It is cheaper to buy in Istanbul, but there is a risk that the train will be sold out, especially in summer.