Many visitors of Bulgaria are taking advantage of the proximity of Sofia and Plovdiv to Istanbul and using the convenient train option to reach there. I have recently traveled myself using this train, so here is a quick overview of this transport option, and the many Pros for using it.
Why travel from Plovdiv or Sofia to Istanbul via train?
This is a night train
You don’t lose any time for sightseeing, you get on the train in the evening and you are in Istanbul in the morning, ready for sightseeing and adventures.
The train leaves from Sofia at 21.30 (from Plovdiv should be approx 3 hours later) and reaches Istanbul around 8.30 am. For the direction back: 21.40 departure time from Istanbul, around 8.40 you are in Sofia.
The train has mandatory sleeping wagon selection
You may choose between 2, 4 or 6-bed compartment, with slight difference in pricing. So, when you reach your destination you have also taken your sleep (well, not the best sleep because of the stops on the border, but it’s pretty decent.)
The train travels every day
Or at least it travels every day as of June 2019.
You can buy tickets on the same day
Maybe during specific holidays in Turkey or high-season summer months it may be busier and you may need to book a few days in advance, but in mid June there were pretty many empty beds in the train, both directions. So you can book a bed even on the same day. I consider this a big advantage when travelling abroad since often your initial travel and sightseeing plans change completely. So, once you are in Bulgaria and have figured your trip out, you can decide whether or not you can spare some days for visiting Istanbul, and go for it.
Note: tickets are sold only at the main railway station (for Sofia), all other bureaus selling train tickets do not sell tickets for Istanbul train.
Fixed pricing on tickets
Unlike bus or air transport where tickets become more expensive as seats diminish, here the ticket price is fixed and depends on the number of beds in your sleeping compartment. For a 4-bed sleeping compartment we paid approx 55 EUR return price per person. Discounts of any type were not applicable.
Unlike travelling with an airplane, you can bring plenty of luggage + have liquids with you. Well, don’t bring alcohol and cigarettes, there are limitations on the quantities you can bring from these. Have in mind you get 0.5 l of water and a small snack as bonus for the travel, so don’t worry if you forgot to take those for your trip 🙂
You are much more comfortable in a train, compared to bus or air transport. I did take a walk between the compartments and even had tea with the host of our sleeping wagon.
A downside in terms of comfort were the multiple checks on the border, and they even have you get off at the Turkish border. On the Bulgarian border they come in the train to check you. But, well, it’s the same with bus transport so one should simply take this is an opportunity to get outside and stretch out a bit.. Don’t forget to put a coat on when exiting the train on the border, the nights might be chilly even in the summer.
No traffic jams
Unlike travelling by bus or car, with the train there is no danger for traffic jams. And in working days, traffic jams are quite common in both Istanbul and Sofia.
Free / cheap transport to the city center in Istanbul
The train stops at Halkali train station in Istanbul which is some 30 kms to the city center. There is, however, a free bus included with your ticket and you can reach the center in about an hour with it. I would, however, advise to use the Marmaray suburban railway, departing right from Halkali. It takes 30 mins, costs 5 turkish lira (less than 1 euro) one way and is way more convenient. It also drops you right in the center.
Quick tips about your stay and sightseeing
- If you are spending only a few days in Istanbul – I would advise staying in the old city (Sultanahmet) so you don’t lose time travelling to the sights, most sights are in walking distance there. (We stayed in Esans hotel which had beautiful traditional Ottoman decoration). There are plenty of hotels and hostels for every budget. Alternatively, stay close to Galata tower since the tram can quickly take you from Galata to Sultanahmet.
- To avoid waiting at long queues when visiting the sights, buy combined tickets. I got our combined tickets at Topkapi palace which has numerous ticket selling booths, without waiting at all. Then, thanks to this decision, we did skip waiting long queues elsewhere.
- Book experiences online. You can refer to the link below where I booked our Dervish show visit for example. You could cancel the visit free of charge 24 hours before. Thanks to the online booking, we got first-row seats for this experience.
Hope this post has answered any questions you might have, if planning a trip to Istanbul during your stay in Sofia. Enjoy!