Last week, Lonely Planet’s annual Best in Travel list listed the Istanbul-Sofia Express as a travel essential for 2023.
The night shift started again in April this year, after it was discontinued in early 2020. When introduced 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, bound for Halkalı, an unassuming commuter station that is now the starting point of this overnight train.
Leaving Istanbul from here is like traveling first from Euston to Watford Junction to board the Caledonian Sleeper: it’s a modern, functional station, but not much to look at. Once in Halkalı, the night’s pre-departure ceremony began. Screaming “Sofia!” of station staff called passengers out of an uncomfortably warm waiting room through a baggage x-ray machine and then onto the platform. I was led to my 1990s sleeping compartment by the train manager. Coming home for the night was air conditioning, with an outlet but no wifi and, unusually, a fridge stocked with water and a few snacks.
Leaving on time at 8:45 p.m., we rattled along the single-track line through the darkness. Somewhere along the way I dozed off. By 01:00 we approached Edirne, as the Selimiye Mosque lit up the cityscape. Leaving Edirne, the train manager suddenly became unpopular and knocked on doors with a brisk “Control!”. It was the signal to get up and get into a slowly shuffling passport queue at Kapıkule on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There were a few hundred passengers on the platform, most of them still asleep. Waiting for that passport stamp was the perfect chance to meet fellow passengers. We crossed the busiest land border in the EU and it became clear to everyone that taking this sleeper does not guarantee a good night’s sleep. Snacks and cigarettes were offered and stories were shared.
It took about an hour to get everyone through the line and back on board. Leaving Turkey, the train crawled through gaps in barbed wire fences and into Bulgaria, where another pair of border guards took everyone’s passports for an hour. I didn’t sleep until mine came back. The barbed wire and the guards in watchtowers were not for us on this train, but for someone.
The rest of the trip felt like a dream, in part because of the interrupted night that evoked a slightly dizzy feeling from where we were. At breakfast we arrived in Plovdiv, famous for its Roman theater and well preserved 19th century wooden buildings. It’s an excellent place to stop. The last trek over the mountains to Sofia was done in daylight, with views of rocky hills and wooded streams.
There was no food service on board – passengers would have to buy a packed breakfast when leaving Istanbul – but our enterprising train manager stopped by to sell coffee and tea for change, endearing himself to those he had to lure out of bed in the night.
At about 9:30am, the train arrived at the communist-era Sofia train station and I boarded the metro into the city center for brunch. Although signature banitsa pastries are sold everywhere, the city’s food scene has evolved into a diverse café culture centered on fine, strong coffee. A cup of it was most welcome after an unforgettable train journey between two different cities that offered food for thought and adventure on parallel tracks, stretching across southeastern Europe and beyond.
Tom Hall is a vice president at Lonely Planet
The Istanbul-Sofia Express runs daily in both directions. It departs from Istanbul Halkalı station, a 45-minute journey from the center, at 8:45 p.m, scheduled arrival in Sofia is 9:35 am but border procedures can cause delays. In the opposite direction, it leaves Sofia at 6:30 PM and arrives in Halkali at 5:34 AM. Tickets cannot be purchased online. Pre-purchase at Discoveryrail.com – Tom Hall paid £105 (including Discover By Rail surcharge) for single use of a sleeping compartment, including delivery of tickets to his Istanbul hotel. For a two person occupancy the cost is £57.50 pp via Discover By Rail. Tickets can be purchased at the international sales counter in Sirkeci where second class tickets (no couchette or sleeper) cost £16 plus £9 for a couchette, or a sleeper for yourself £55. Although cheaper to buy in Istanbul, you run the risk of the train selling out, especially in summer .