The Istanbul-Sofia Express 🇹🇷🇧🇬 overnight train – comfortable but exhausting!

Every evening, the Istanbul-Sofia Express sleeper train departs into the night connecting stations in the two countries of Bulgaria and Türkiye. This train is jointly operated by state operators in the countries it serves, the Turkish Railways (TCDD) and the Bulgarian Railways (BDZ), and is the only direct rail daily scheduled service available connecting the two countries. Believe it or not there is not a daytime option to travel between the two places, and the questioning as to why will be even more apparent as you read this Travel Report.

This journey was the final leg of my epic trip from the United Kingdom to Istanbul exclusively by train, taking place in 2019. This grand finale did bring plenty of excitement and a sense of achievement, but also tiredness as the journey ahead resulted in little relaxation.

Recently after a break during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Istanbul-Sofia Express has started running in 2023 again with some changes. The departure from Sofia is earlier, at 18:40, and thus the arrival into Halkali, a suburb in Istanbul, is now at 05:34, the following morning. The departure is now three hours earlier than in 2019.

Departure from Sofia Central Station

We arrived in good time at Sofia Central Station for our 21:45 departure – over an hour and half prior to this time. This meant that there was some waiting around required in the station and, to accommodate, the Sofia Central Station did have available plenty of places to sit in the warmth to admire its unique architecture.

Sofia Central Station is the main passenger station in Sofia and is located about one kilometre north of the city centre. The station in its current form is built in a Brutalist architectural style and dates back to 1971 where the station opened in 1974. It has more recently been renovated. Direct trains to/from Sofia serve four countries including the cities of Belgrade, Bucharest, Thessaloniki and Istanbul.

The notices and departure boards are in Bulgarian and English. Bulgaria is one of the few European countries to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Onboard the Istanbul-Sofia Express

The Istanbul-Sofia Express came with a colourful mix of carriages – some old, covered in graffiti and rather dirty and others much newer looking and cleaner. Attached to the train was a variety of accommodation – sleeping cars, couchette cars and seated carriages, the former which are only available as far as the border where they are detached.

It is worth noting that there is no dining car or snacks to purchase on this train, nor any breakfast offering. Therefore, before departure we’re raided a supermarket in the centre of Sofia to arm ourselves with plenty of snacks and drinks for the journey.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

The sleeping cars on the Istanbul-Sofia Express are provided by the TCDD and make up all of the newer carriages built in the late nineties.

Armed with our reservation for car number 483, it took us a few moments to work out which car was ours as the coach number indicators weren’t in the usual place by the external doors as seen on other European train carriages. Hand-written on the side of the cars, in marker pen, were large three-digit numbers, one of which matched our reservation. The car numbers also happened to be marked on the destination plates, however, clearly these haven’t been obvious enough in the past to warrant the large scribble as well.

I’ve always wondered why many continental European trains have car numbers that are in the hundreds -if you know why please let me know in the comments section!

The sleeping car accommodation on the Istanbul-Sofia Express included the usual features of a sleeping car including air conditioning, a sink and curtains. It also had clean bedding, blankets sporting a tartan design (very cosy vibes indeed) and pillows provided. What really made this sleeping car compartment stand out compared to other European sleeper trains were a few features. Firstly, the compartments were the largest I’ve come across, and, secondly, there is also a fridge in the room that is stocked with some complimentary items including free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers.

Upon boarding, we found our sleeping car host who checked our travel documents briefly who then returned later to scrutinise them more after departure. Our compartment was initially set-up in ‘daytime mode’, which is that the beds that have been folded away to make way for two armchairs. When we were ready to sleep, we could fold the beds down to make up them ourselves.

There aren’t any en-suite compartments on the Istanbul-Sofia Express, with toilets at the end of each car. There was a choice between a western-style toilet at one end and a squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though!

Couchette Car and Seated Car

The Istanbul-Sofia Express also has a couchette car available for the full journey. At the time of the trip this was provided by the BDZ and it was quite a contrast to the cars provided by the TCDD with the carriage covered in graffiti and no air conditioning. Fast forward to today, this car has now been replaced with an upgraded air-conditioned TCDD Couchette Car improving the service offering.

Also on the train is seated accommodation available on the train as far as Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side of the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Seated accommodation is not available, however, for the full trip unlike nearly all other sleeper trains in Europe.

Border Controls

As Bulgaria is in the EU and Türkiye is not, there are two border controls to go through on the trip once the train has arrived at the border stations of Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side, and Kapikule, on the Turkish side. As this is a sleeper train unfortunately these controls fall during the night. Today, the eastbound train arrives at Svilengrad at 23:40, and in Kapikule at 01:45,

To keep things interesting the process required at each border station is different. At Svilengrad, the passports were collected by the sleeping car hosts and returned to us shortly before departure after checking by the police. Quite an easy process without the need to leave the compartment.

At Kapikule, the experience was entirely different. We had to disembark (with our luggage as is the case on eastbound trains) to go through passport control (showing my eVisa) and place our luggage through an x-ray machine, including our remaining items out of our compartment fridge! This took place in the main station building so we had to walk from the platform via the underpass. We were off the train for a pretty miserable hour, to be honest, and it was a chilly September night with only some stray cats to keep us company. Kapikule, like most border towns, didn’t exactly have a lot going on. One passenger was quite emotional, rushing to one cat’s defence, as one cat launched an attack at the smaller one. The authorities didn’t start the bag x-rays until after the last person has had their passport checked.

In 2019, when I made this journey, the train departed Sofia three hours later than today and not only that, the train picked up a delay of two hours within Bulgaria. This meant that we were finished with both borders at 05:00, which killed any hope of a good quality sleep. Not only that, the train was scheduled to arrive early in the morning, but we didn’t know how much time the train would make up in the early hours. Still we managed to get a few hours sleep and not miss our stop and end up in the train depot!

Arrival into Istanbul

Due to long-running engineering work, the sleeper train terminated in Halkali (and still does today) instead of the more central station of Sirkeci. Halkali is situated twenty-three kilometres from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our epic journey by rail, however, by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.It was lovely to finish our trip at the beautiful station of Sirkeci which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris between 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is jam-packed with old TCDD merchandise and machinery – well worth a look and free to enter.

Conclusion

The Istanbul-Sofia Express was quite a memorable experience! The sleeper train itself was comfortable and well equipped. Unfortunately, the disrupted night with the delay and the border controls, especially having to pack our bags and disembark with our luggage at Kapikule, meant for a largely sleepless night. The sense of achievement travelling across Europe exclusively by train was well worth it in the end, however.

Booking and Fares

This train is well known for being complicated to book, especially from abroad, with tickets only available in person at the station booking offices or via a travel specialist. Tickets or reservations can’t be issued online. The train can book up quickly and at the time I was able to use a renowned travel agent in Belgrade, Serbia who issued us with a hand written reservation to go with our tickets (quite a rarity these days!). This appears to no longer an option – you can check the Man in Seat 61 for the latest booking options from abroad.

Passengers with Interrail Passes (and FIP Free Coupons for European rail staff) are required to only purchase the reservation fee outlined below for their journey.

Journey LegCouchette
(2nd Class Ticket + couchette supplement)
Sleeping Car – 2 berth
(2nd Class Ticket + sleeping car supplement)
Sleeping Car – Solo Occupancy
(1st Class Ticket + solo sleeping car supplement)
Sofia to Istanbul18,48€ (+ 10,00€)18,48€ (+ 15,00€)27,72€ (+ 35,00€)

This article was first published in March 2023.

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