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.

Holidaying with the Hungarians – Adria InterCity sleeper train from Split 🇭🇷 to Budapest 🇭🇺

Hungary won’t be on your list when it comes to a seaside holiday, it is a landlocked country after all. The nearest to the seaside you’re going to get here is Lake Balaton that happens to be a popular destination for Hungarians wishing to escape the bustle of the capital and other cities.

For those wishing to go further afield, there is a convenient sleeper train that’s very popular with Hungarian families looking to get their seaside fix. The “Adria” InterCity runs direct from Budapest Keleti station to Split in Croatia on the Adriatic Coast during the summer time – operated by the Hungarian State Railway company MÁV-START. Taking 14 hours in total covering 789km, this train is one of MÁV’s most popular night train routes offering comfortable accommodation onboard and the delight that is a Dining Car.

Recently I experienced the joy of travelling on the, unfortunately named (for 2020 onwards anyway), Corona InterCity which had an excellent Dining Car with an array of menu options – so I knew I was in for a treat with this journey.

I booked onto the northbound Adria InterCity, departing Split at 18:27 and booked to arrive at 09:35 into Budapest Keleti the following morning. Below is the route map.

Split station

Conveniently located across the road from its harbour and Old Town is Split station, which on specific summer afternoons is a exciting hive of activity with three international trains bound for Budapest, Prague and Bratislava (via Vienna) and the occasional train bound for destinations in Croatia. The entrance to the station is somewhat hidden, with trees and shops aplenty lining the street in front. I wonder how many people visiting Split actually know that there is a station here?

Once I had found the booking hall, there was no need to look at the departure board for the specific platform. Clearly visible in the distance was the Adria InterCity in MÁV-START’s new eye-catching blue and white livery on most of the cars boasting three Sleeping Cars, three Couchette Cars and indeed the eagerly awaited Dining Car. The train would be hauled by this Croatian Railways (HŽPP) 2044 locomotive (pictured) as far as Ogulin, where another HŽPP locomotive would take over as far as the border with Hungary.

Onboard the Adria

Sleeping Car

For this trip I had booked a sleeping compartment in Car 421. Having located my car, I was greeted by my friendly Sleeping Car attendant on the platform who checked my ticket and I was then pointed in the direction of my booked compartment, Berth 51.

This is the most premium accommodation on the Adria InterCity. These air conditioned compartments include a made-up bed with clean linen, a towel and some complimentary refreshments. At the end of the car is two toilets shared with other passengers in the car. There are up to three bunk beds available in each compartment and at the point of booking you can choose whether to reserve a single, two-person or three-person compartment. Keep in mind if you would like private occupancy for one person you would need to book a single compartment, but this does give the option of sharing with others at a lower price.

MÁV-START has been in the process of refurbishing these cars with a stylish blue livery and striking blue and yellow interiors and installing power sockets. On this train specifically there were two refurbished Sleeping Cars with a third unrefurbished one sporting the original red and light pink walls, so it is a lottery which one you will get.

These compartments are roomy (as train compartments go) and I did have a very comfortable night. Pictured below are the newly refurbished cars.

Dining Car

A rarity in Europe these days on night trains, is a Dining Car. On the Adria InterCity, MÁV-START make a point of this train including an “elegant” one previously in service on government trains. It was certainly a delight to experience some former glamour, but the drawback was that it was very hot without air conditioning and a warm 26°C outside. Thankfully there was a window that opened wide, perfect for taking in the sea air while enjoying the views en route.

The heat was not helped by the menu offering mainly ‘warming’ dishes, more suited for a cold winter’s day. Still I went ‘all out’ and chose a delicious roast duck with cherry sauce served with mashed potatoes, washed down with some white wine and followed by honey cake for afters. Don’t be fooled by the cherry sauce served in a soup bowl, there’s no surprise soup on offer. This set me back 5990 Hungarian Forint (14,16 €).

The Dining Car was very popular, with all the tables soon occupied. It’s worth mentioning that reservations are not possible, so tables are available at a first-come-first-served basis and it’s worth heading there as soon as you can on boarding.

Couchette Car

Couchettes are the other type of accommodation on the Adria InterCity which have also been refurbished recently. Couchettes come with sheets and blankets to make up a bed yourself and come with a lighter breakfast in the morning. These are shared rooms with other passengers, up to four or six people in each and shared washrooms and toilets are at the end of the car. The train was fully booked, so I didn’t get a picture of a compartment in the couchette car. However below is pictured a similar one on the Corona InterCity.

Scenery

On departure from Split there is a feast for the eyes out of the window as the train heads for the Dinári Mountains with the railway ascending to almost 900 metres above sea level. Be sure to take a look at the view at the back of the train too. In the morning the journey promises views of Lake Balaton as the train glides across its long eastern shore.

Border Controls

At the time of writing Croatia is not in the Schengen area, however, this is likely to change in the near future. This means that border formalities took place by both the Croatian police, for exit, and the Hungarian police, for entry to the EU.

The good news is that both of these checks take place at the same station in Hungary, at Gyékényes, where the train arrives at 05:09 in the morning. This is early, but it could have been far earlier if the Croatian police checked at a station in Croatia, so I didn’t mind this.

Then it didn’t go to plan…

Entering Hungary was a breeze, however, at the border crossing we stood for longer than scheduled. My friendly carriage attendant came to share the news, in perfect English, that there was a problem up ahead which meant that the train couldn’t continue its journey after Nagykanizsa. He explained that I’d have to pack my things and board a replacement bus to Balatonszentgyörgy where a replacement train would be waiting.

This is where MÁV-START and the onboard rail hospitality provider, Utasellátó, really came into their own I thought.

A ticket for the Sleeping Car includes a complimentary breakfast, usually served in the onboard Dining Car. Unfortunately there would now not be time to visit with a twenty-five minute running time to Nagykanizsa. However, my Sleeping Car attendant proactively came to tell me that I could still claim my breakfast in a takeaway box by taking my voucher to the Dining Car. He was not wrong. I was handed two croissants and an Earl Grey tea with a smile to provide some much needed sustenance for what the rest of the journey had in store.

I alighted from the train at Nagykanizsa and followed all the other passengers to the station exit. We were greeted by a staff pointing us in the direction of the replacement bus and then again at Balatonszentgyörgy to get on the replacement train. The whole process was calm and well organised. There was a seat available for virtually everyone on the replacement bus I took and more than enough seats for everyone on the replacement train to enjoy the views of Lake Balaton.

In the end we arrived into Budapest Keleti station only one hour after our scheduled arrival time. Impressive. The replacement train stopped at all the stations the Adria InterCity would have called at.

Later on by translating the MÁV-START mobile app, I found the reason for the disruption was that there was a lightning strike the night before leading to fallen trees on the line. The fact that MÁV-START set-up these contingency travel arrangements for the arrival of the early morning Adria InterCity is a wonder.

Business Lounge

Included in the sleeper ticket is access to the Business Lounge at Budapest Keleti. This comfortable lounge has a number of complimentary items, including sandwiches as can be seen from the menu below, though I didn’t have time to sample anything – just as well I got my complimentary breakfast from the Dining Car.

Booking and Fares

In 2022 the summer only train ran from July to September, three nights a week. This train is so popular that when I looked to book online in early summer, there was very limited availability for the upcoming two months. I wasted no time in getting my ticket which can be purchased on the MÁV-START website that you can show on your device or print out at home. This allows for all sorts of discounts, including InterRail and even FIP for rail staff travel.

Journey LegAdult using FIP Reduced Rate Card (50% ticket price)
Split to Budapest Keleti39520 HUF = 104,00 €

This article was first published in October 2022