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. However, 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.
Construction works on the railway line from Kapikule to Halkali are reportedly finished and since 2016 a daytime train between the two cities operates. However, TCDD (Turkish Railways) continues to operate a replacement bus service for the night train between Kapikule and Istanbul. It has been announced that in May 2017 the trains could again run all the way to Istanbul. As in the past we suspect that any change will be announced at very short notice. We try to keep track and will post here as soon as we hear any news.
Latest news from BDZ (Bulgarian Railways) suggest that there will be trains running through to Halkali station (on the outskirts of Istanbul) from 1st April 2017! According to BDZ there will be a sleeper and couchette car running from Bucharest to Halkali, a couchette car from Sofia to Halkali and even a couchette car running from Belgrade via Sofia to Halkali. However, we were also informed about a document from TCDD (Turkish Railways) suggesting that the replacement buses will run until June. We will keep you informed about any new developments of course.
From Sofia to Istanbul
The Balkan Express leaves Sofia in the evening and runs via Plovdiv and Dimitrovgrad to Svilengrad and Kapikule, the Turkish border town. The train currently does consist only of a regular 2nd class coach. No couchette or sleeping car runs! 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
In 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. As on the train from Sofia, no couchette or sleeper cars are available. You can see the detailed schedules at the links below.
tickets and reservations
Tickets are cheapest when bought locally at train stations. A single ticket in 2nd class for Sofia – Istanbul is 19,60€, for Bucharest – Istanbul it is 38,80€. A 1st class ticket would only be needed if you wanted to travel in a single sleeper. However the trains currently do not convey sleeper nor couchette accomodation. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to buy a 1st class ticket for this trip. When the train used to run all the way to Istanbul the fares for a bed in a couchette started at 9,40€, for a bed in a sleeper at 16,50€.
Rail passes (Interrail, Eurail, Balkan Flexi Pass) are valid. As there are no couchette or sleeper coaches running at the moment no additional reservations are necessary.
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.
The trip is currently quite arduous and not very comfortable. You have to use rail replacement buses and even change trains if you are travelling from Bucharest. At the border you have the border and custom controls in the middle of the night. Until the trains run through all the way again it is worth having a look at regular long distance buses that operate regularly from Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas to Istanbul.
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: December 2016