Riding the Rails From Istanbul to Sofia

Eastern Express Riding the Rails from Istanbul to Sofia

Start at Sirkeci train station and hop on one of the frequent commuter services to Halkali. From here you walk into the main railway station where you show your international train ticket at a booth.

The Istanbul-Sofia Express features a Turkish TVS2000 sleeping-car and shared four-person couchettes, or private two-person sleeper compartments. It’s a daily summer & winter service.


After a night of sleep on the Eastern Express, I woke up to the sound of the trains at Halkali station, located on the western outskirts of Istanbul. It’s the only direct sleeper train connecting Istanbul with Sofia, and is operated jointly by Bulgarian and Turkish railways. This route is perfect for travellers seeking an unforgettable rail journey that straddles two continents.

It’s possible to take this route as a day trip, however it would mean having to get up early for your return journey, so I chose to stay overnight. To do this, you’ll need to buy a ticket from the Sirkeci train station, in person. Then, ride the B1 suburban train line to the end of the line at Halkali station. Once there, walk out of the suburban station and into the main train station. There, you’ll show your international train ticket at a booth to check in and they’ll wave you through to the platforms. The Istanbul-Sofia Express was the only train at the platforms, and is easy to spot thanks to a sign by each carriage.

The train consists of both fully-fledged sleeping cars and couchette cars. The latter are only available on the part of the trip between Bucharest and Dimitrovgrad, but there’s seated accommodation throughout the rest of the journey as far as Istanbul. There are no en-suite cabins, but there are toilets at the ends of each carriage.

The Istanbul-Sofia Express departs from Istanbul’s Halkali station each evening and arrives at Sofia station the following morning. This is the only direct daily train between Istanbul and Sofia, operated jointly by Bulgarian and Turkish railways. It’s the ideal route for those who want to experience the cultural shift between Europe and Asia. It’s a great way to cross the Bosphorus, thread across ancient frontiers and mountains and arrive in underrated Sofia. It also opens up pathways to further epic adventures across Europe.


Train journeys are booming in popularity as climate-conscious travellers seek out cross-continental adventures. The restored Istanbul-Sofya Express delivers unforgettable cross-border adventure, threading through fortress-like frontiers into Bulgaria and chuging across mountain passes to underrated Sofia. It’s an epic journey that’s perfect as a stand-alone trip or add-on to a city break or post-pandemic ramble.

From Istanbul, the sleeper train departs from Sirkeci station in central Cagaloglu. You can book tickets online, or at a ticket office inside the station. It’s best to arrive at least an hour before departure to ensure a bed. Once onboard, you’ll find a Turkish TVS2000 sleeping-car with beds in four- or two-berth compartments. A double sleeper costs $30 and a single is $33. A four-bed couchette runs $9.

The night train stops at Kapikule to clear customs and passport control, before arriving in southern Bulgaria. During non-DST days the train enters Bulgarian time at this point, and sets its clock back by one hour. The train is run jointly by TCDD and Bulgarian Railways, and the two trains meet at Gorna Orjahovitsa, on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

Boarding for the sleeper train starts at Halkali station an hour before departure. You can arrive up to just a few minutes before, but the train won’t wait for you. Boarding is quick and simple, and once onboard you’ll be settled into your berth by the evening.

In the morning you’ll reach Sofia. It’s a busy, bustling capital with plenty to see and do. Check out the soaring neo-Byzantine Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, explore Bulgaria’s burgeoning contemporary art scene at the National Museum of Natural History and take in the city’s varied cafe culture. You can indulge in the signature banitsa pastries at popular spots like Fabrika Daga and Kanaal, or try something new with a visit to Sofia City Art Gallery.

If you’re staying for a while, consider an onward connection to Bucharest or Belgrade. Between June and October there’s a direct sleeper train between Sofia and Bucharest, and then connecting services to Belgrade throughout the rest of the year. For details, see the Istanbul to Sofia & Bucharest page.


There’s one daily train each way that links Europe with Istanbul via Kapikule. During the summer it conveys direct sleeper cars from Bucharest and Belgrade, while the rest of the year you’ll board at Sofia, travel to the Bulgarian border station of Kapikule, then on to Istanbul. You’ll briefly get off the train at Kapikule to pass through Turkish border controls. The train stops here well after midnight – the noise of snoring passengers and knocks on windows signal that you’re at the first border – so make sure you’ve got your passport ready.

A couple of hours later, the train arrives in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. It’s a short walk from the city’s main train station to the downtown. The station is clean, modern, and comfortable. During your wait, you can grab a coffee from the station’s cafe. This is a good time to relax and unwind after the long journey.

The train is a mix of TCDD and Bulgarian Railways carriages. The TCDD carriages are sleeping cars while the Bulgarian ones are couchette cars. This service is operated by a joint venture between the two companies. The trains are fully booked and can sell out at certain times. It’s best to book early to avoid missing out.

You can buy tickets from Istanbul’s Sirkeci train station at the international sales desk. The cost is around PS16 for a bed in a 4-sleeper, PS9 for a seat in a couchette and PS55 for a sleeper cabin to yourself. You can also buy tickets online, but the price is slightly more.


The Eastern Express isn’t a scenic holiday train, but a commuter vehicle with standard coach seats, shared four-person couchettes and a lone car with two-person sleeper compartments. It’s full of business travelers heading to or from Istanbul, grandparents visiting their grandchildren and young adults going to or from university. It leaves Istanbul’s Halkali station daily at 22:40, arriving in Sofia at 21:00.

You’ll want to arrive at the no-frills waiting room about an hour before departure as boarding begins with a shout of “Sofia!” Once on board, your luggage goes with you into your sleeper or couchette cabin and can be placed on the baggage rack above the window, over the door to the corridor or on the floor. No one weighs or measures it.

If you’re traveling with a railpass, the cost of your ticket is based on whether you book second class or first and the number of beds you reserve in the sleeping car. A bed in a four-person compartment costs $32, with a private two-person sleeper cabin running $35. It’s best to buy tickets at Sirkeci train station in person where international sales desk is located.

While most regional trains make stops that are far apart, the Istanbul – Sofia Express is a fast and direct service. You can expect the journey to take just over 10 hours as it travels through Halkali, Cerkezkoy, Alpullu, Edirne, Kapikule, Svilengrad and Dimitrovgrad on its way to Sofia. The train route also connects to Bucharest during the summer.

Once at Sofia’s communist-era railway station, it’s a short metro ride to the city centre where you can explore its varied cafe culture with signature banitsa pastries and fine strong coffee at its heart. The next day, it’s easy to track down traces of the Ottoman past in this fascinating cultural crossroad.

To return to Istanbul, look for train 493/81031 which departs Sofia Central Station at 9:00 each morning and arrives in Istanbul’s Sirkeci Train Station at 12:00. Remember that Bulgaria and Romania both put their clocks forward 1 hour in the winter while Turkey doesn’t observe DST so it’s GMT+3 all year round.

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