From Bucharest and Sofia to Istanbul by Train Balkan Express and Bosfor

View over Istanbul from the Topkapi palace.

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Istanbul, terminus of the famous Orient Express and melting pot between East and West, always has been a popular destination for train travellers. However, in the recent years lengthly construction works in Turkey and Bulgaria have led to the demise of train travel to the booming city on the Bosporus. The old Sirkeci terminus in the city centre has been closed to make way for the new Marmaray suburban line. Consequently, trains from Thracia and Bulgaria can now only reach Halkali on the outskirts of the city. Still, the night trains from Bucharest and Sofia continue to operate, although travelling from Europe to Turkey by train currently is not as convenient as we would like it to be.


The night trains to Istanbul

In principle, there are two direct night trains to Istanbul: The “Balkan Express” starts its journey in Sofia. Just a few years ago this train even started back in Belgrade. With the reintroduction of the day train from Belgrade to Sofia you now again have a direct connection in Sofia to Istanbul. From Sofia the Balkan Express runs via Plovdiv to Dimitrovgrad. There, it is joined with the Bosfor from Bucharest. The “Bosfor” starts in Bucharest and runs via Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo to Dimitrovgrad. From Dimitovgrad both trains run together to the border towns of Svilengrad and Kapikule before continuing via Edirne and Cerkezköy to Istanbul. However, due to construction works and decreasing demand these trains are not anymore the grand night trains they used to be. Below I described how the services from Sofia and Bucharest to Istanbul look like today.

Night train in the now abandoned Istanbul Sirkeci station.
Night train in the now abandoned Istanbul Sirkeci station.

Construction works on the railway line from Kapikule to Halkali are reportedly finished and since 2016 a daytime train between the two cities operates. From February 21 2017 the night trains again run to/from Halkali station. This means that you do not longer have to travel with replacement buses between Kapikule and Halkali.

The station of Halkali is in a suburb far away from the city centre. TCDD (Turkish Railways) offer a shuttle bus service from Halkali to Sirkeci station in the heart of the old town. The bus from Halkali to Sirkeci departs at 07:30, while the bus from Sirkeci to Halkali leaves at 21:30. Calculate with about 45 minutes between the two stations.

Since March 12, 2019, there is once again a train service between Halkali and the city centre of Istanbul. From Halkali, the Marmaray suburban trains run every 15 minutes to the city centre and through the Bosporus tunnel to Gebze on the Asian side of Istanbul. Trains take about half an hour from Halkali to Sirkeci station in the old town. There are also two high speed trains running between Halkali and Ankara; the remainder of the high speed services from Istanbul will start at Söğütlüçeşme in the Asian part of Istanbul. You can get there with the Marmaray suburban trains.


From Sofia to Istanbul

The Balkan Express leaves Sofia in the evening and runs via Plovdiv and Dimitrovgrad to the border towns of Svilengrad and Kapikule. Then the train continues via Edirne to Halkali station in the suburbs of Istanbul. Since February 2017 the train conveys couchette and sleeper cars again and consists of one BDZ (Bulgarian Railways) couchette car with 6-bed and 4-bed couchettes available, one TCDD (Turkish Railways) couchette car (4-bed couchettes available) and a TCDD sleeping car (2-bed and 1-bed compartments available). In Sofia, the train has connection from the day train from Belgrade. As long as the train from Belgrade is on time, this would allow to make the trip from Belgrade to Istanbul in about 24 hours.


From Bucharest to Istanbul

As of February 2017, the Bosfor night train doesn’t run at all. Instead, you have to use a number of different trains and change several times. Changes are required at Ruse, Gorna Orjahovtisa and Dimitrovgrad. Naturally, all these trains consist of regular seated carriages only. In Dimitrovgrad you have to change to the night train from Sofia to Istanbul. Read more about this train in the paragraph above. You can see the detailed schedules at the links below.

During summer 2017 (June to September) there will be through couchette and sleeper coaches running from Bucharest to Istanbul again. These coaches will be attached to the Belgrade – Sofia – Istanbul train at Dimitrovgrad. As soon as we get confirmation the schedules will be updated accordingly. UPDATE: According to information from July 2017 the CFR sleeping car from Bucharest to Istanbul is not running anymore (July 2017).

In 2019, the situation remains the same as in previous years: there are direct couchette and sleeping cars all year round between Sofia and Halkali. On the route between Bucharest and Halkali there will be a direct couchette car during summer from June 9 to October 7, 2019. During the remainder of the year you will have to change trains and only 2nd class seats are available.


2019 schedule

Bucharest – Istanbul | Istanbul – Bucharest

Sofia – Istanbul | Istanbul – Sofia


Tickets and reservations

Tickets are cheapest when bought locally at train stations. Online tickets are not available. The prices for Sofia – Halkali are as follows:

  • 2nd class single trip: 18,50€
  • 1st class single trip: 27,70€
  • 6-bed couchette reservation: 9,40€
  • 4-bed couchette reservation: 14€
  • 2-bed sleeper reservation: 15€
  • 1-bed sleeper reservation (1st class ticket needed): 35€

A single ticket from Bucharest to Istanbul it is 38,80€ in 2nd class. Currently you will travel to Dimitrovgrad in regular 2nd class coaches, then change to the night train from Sofia to Istanbul, for which you need a couchette or sleeper reservation. During summer season when direct couchette and sleeper carriages run from Bucharest to Halkali, prices start from 9,40€ for a couchette and from 22€ for a sleeper.

Rail passes (Interrail, Eurail, Balkan Flexi Pass) are valid. You just have to buy an additional reservation for a couchette or sleeper.


Good to know

Citizens of certain countries need a visa to entry Turkey. Please check on the website of your foreign ministry before leaving for your trip. Visa are available online via the visa application system of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs or at Turkish Consulates. I dont know if the possibility to get a visa locally at Kapikule station still exists, but I doubt it.

We are always very happy about first-hand reports from travellers. If you have been travelling this route recently, feel free to add a comment below or write in the railcc forum.

Update: March 2019

Flo Weber
I like to travel by train.
Flo Weber
- 4 days ago
Flo Weber
Flo Weber
f _at_


  1. Hello,
    I’m planning to go from Istanbul to Bucharest this week by using overnight train. But form the informations that I got from your page, out of summer season no direct train run this route. I’m afraid there will be so much tiring so many station switches until to Bucharest. What do you suggest to me, it’s worth doing this trip now? And another question, I’m not in Istanbul for the moment so, do I find tickets if I go to get it one day before the trip?

    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Olta!

      As far as I know there are only direct coaches from Istanbul (Halkali) to Sofia at the moment. If you want to go to Bucharest you have to travel on a coach to Sofia, then change trains early in the morning Dimitrovgrad, then Gorna Orjahovtisa, then Ruse. Schedule is here:

      This is the only option you have by train if you want to travel directly to Bucharest. If you have more time I would suggest to travel from Istanbul to either Plovdiv or Sofia; visit the town and travel to Bucharest the following day; when thinking about this option I think Plovdiv is not the best option since you would have to get up very early to get from Plovdiv to Sofia to get the train towards Bucharest.

      Another option if you have time and feel adventurous would be to go to Sofia or Plovdiv; then take the night train from Sofia to Silistra; cross the Danube by ferry, then go from Calarasi to Bucharest.

      Tickets for the train from Istanbul to Sofia/Bucharest are available locally at Sirkeci station in the centre of Istanbul; buying one day in advance wont be a problem.

      It would be great to hear from your experiences if you choose to travel this route! 🙂


  2. Hi Flo,
    Very nice.
    I have a few more questions.
    What time the night train leaves from Sofia and what time does it arrive in Halkali?
    Another question, do you know if have trains from Plovdiv to Istanbul?

    • You can find the schedule of the night train from Sofia to Istanbul above in the blog. The train also stops at Plovdiv.

  3. Hi Flo,
    Is the Balkan Flexipass a good option to take this route? I’m going to buy Balkan flexipass in Greece and go to Turkey via Sofia.

    • Hi Maira!

      Yes, Balkan Flexi Pass is a good and cheap option to travel this route. 🙂
      Keep in mind that you will still need a reservation for couchette or sleeper to travel in the night train from Sofia to Istanbul.


  4. hola flo buenas tardes tenemos pensado ir a estambul saliendo desde sofia el 25 de julio somos tres personas quiero saber cual es el tren mas conveniente y cual es el precio, lo puedo comprar por anticipacion

    gracias por tu ayuda

  5. Hola Flo,
    en mayo de este año viajo a Europa desde Chile y tengo considerado viajar a Estambul desde Paris con el eurail global pass. Cuantos días de viaje son hasta llegar a Estambul y cual es la manera más conveniente? El pase en eurail cubre todos los trenes que debo tomar?
    Gracias por tu ayuda, muy interesantes tus consejos.

    • Hi Jorge!

      Thank you. 🙂
      There are many options available. These three options make the most sense in my opinion:
      a) Istanbul – Bucharest by night train; then Bucharest – Budapest or Vienna by night train; then Budapest/Vienna – Munich – Stuttgart – Paris
      b) Istanbul – Sofia by night train; then Sofia – Belgrade; then to Ljubljana – Munich and on as above; or from Ljubljana to Zurich by night train and on to Paris
      c) Istanbul – Sofia – Belgrade as in b) then to Budapest and continue as in a)
      Overall you should plan at least four days; but make stops in between to visit some cities too!
      The Eurail pass is valid on basically all trains you will need. If you have more detailed questions I recommend to ask in the forum:

  6. Hi Flo, I need to travel from Istambul to bucharest, and I’m wondering if the overnight train is the best option. Doy you know exactly how much time it would take this trip? is there a way to buy tickets online?


    • Hi Pat,

      the overnight train is the only option if you want to travel this route by train. 😉
      The train conveys an older, slightly nostalgic sleeping car (1, 2 or 3 bed compartments) of Romanian Railways CFR as well as a more modern couchette car (4 bed compartments) of Turkish Railways TCDD. Personally I enjoyed the trip in the CFR sleeping car a lot and would also recommend it if you like the feel of a more classic rail trip.

      You can find the link to the schedule in the blog:

      There is no way to buy the tickets online; I would recommend to do so at Sirkeci station in central Istanbul:


      • Hi Pat,

        I just got the information that the CFR sleeper apparently is of a more modern type – so if you want to save some money you could get a bed in the TCDD couchette as well. Both carriages are modern, air-conditioned coaches.


  7. My question about: I am traveling Turkey with Visa Tourism.and this is My first time travel .i am from egypt. Please i ask Is it possible to use the train to travel to Serbia (Belgrade)? What are the ways to travel Serbia from Turkey? I do not believe that I can not enter Serbia from Egypt because of the difficulty of the visa, I would be very excited to ask people of experience.

  8. Hi,
    I took this journey on Friday 24th March. I purchased tickets a couple days in advance at Sofia Central Station, at booths 19 and 20 which are reserved for international tickets. Sleeper carriages are available at the front of the train. You must present your passport, or identity card (or a copy of it) so that its identification number can be added to your ticket.

    The train travels to the Turkish border where Immigration officers board the train to inspect your passports and visa (disappearing with them off the train for a short while before returning them). At this point they also give your luggage a cursory check, and ask if you are bringing any alcohol or cigarettes into Turkey. A short while later you are required to get off the train and go to a passport control office where another inspects your passport and visa, and stamps them with an official stamp.

    The train goes as far as Halkali station, which is only 27km from Istanbul. Included in the price of your ticket is the minibus that will take you from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.

    Our train departed shortly after 2100, and we arrived at Istanbul Sirkeci shortly before 0900. The train was clean, the cabins adequately comfortable and warm, and overall the journey was very pleasant, would recommend!

    • Hi Jamie,

      thank you very much for your report!
      So you still have to get off the train at the Turkish border station of Kapikule. Did you travel on board a sleeper? Are the prices mentioned here in the blog correct?

      Thanks again and have a great onward journey!

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