The Haghia Sofia, Istanbul

The incredible Haghia Sofia (above) & beautiful Blue Mosque (below), both just 10 minutes walk from Istanbul's Sirkeci station...

Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque

   
 

London to Istanbul in 3 days by train...

Istanbul is Europe's most exotic city, at the very edge of Europe where east meets west.  Can you still travel from London or Paris to Istanbul by train?  Of course!  The journey is remarkably straightforward, safe & comfortable, see the video guide.  Yet it's also an epic 2,000 mile 3 or 4-night adventure, rediscovering some of the mystery, intrigue and romance of long-distance train travel through the Balkans.  On this page you'll find an easy step-by-step guide to planning, booking & making a train journey between London or Paris and Istanbul, one-way or return, eastbound or westbound, using an InterRail pass or normal tickets, with schedules, fares, what the journey is like, suggested stopovers and how to book.

Routes, train times, fares & tickets...

  Which route to choose?

  London-Paris-Munich-Budapest-Bucharest-Istanbul

  London-Paris-Munich-Belgrade-Sofia-Istanbul

  Video guide:  London to Istanbul by train...

  Optional variations via Amsterdam, Brussels, Zurich

  London to Southern Turkey via the Greek islands

  London to Southern Turkey via ferry from Italy

  Venice-Simplon-Orient Express to Istanbul

  Useful country information - dial code, currency, etc

  Turkish e-visa

  Travel insurance, Health Card, Curve Card & VPN

  Hotels in Istanbul including the famous Pera Palas

Information on other pages...

  Train travel in Turkey: Istanbul to other destinations

  General information for train travel in Europe

  Luggage on trains & left luggage at stations   

  Taking your bike   Taking dogs  

  Railpass & Eurail guide   

  InterRail pass guide

  Starting your journey from other UK towns & cities

  The Orient Express, the truth behind the legend

  Istanbul-Aleppo-Damascus-Jordan & on to Cairo

  Istanbul-Tehran by Trans-Asia Express train

  Istanbul-Thessaloniki-Athens by train

  Istanbul-Cyprus by train+ferry

  Istanbul-Odessa (Ukraine) by ferry

Route map:  London to Istanbul by train...

Map showing train routes from London & Paris to Istanbul & Turkey


Useful country information

Train operator in Turkey:

TCDD (Tόrkiye Cumhuryeti Devlet Demiryollan) www.tcddtasimacilik.gov.tr

Train travel within Turkey     Istanbul-Athens     Istanbul-Sofia/Belgrade 

All-Europe online train times      Istanbul-Iran     Istanbul-Syria/Jordan

 

Railpasses:

Beginner's guide to European railpasses    Buy a rail pass online

Time zone:

GMT+3. No longer any daylight saving time, as of 2016.

Dialling code:

 

+90

Currency:

£1 = 7.4 Turkish Lira  €1 = 6.3 TL.  Currency converter

Tourist information:

www.turizm.gov.tr     www.turkeytravelplanner.com    

Recommended guidebooks    Map of Istanbul

Hotels:

Hotels in Istanbul including the famous Pera Palas Hotel.   Tripadvisor

Visas:

If you are a UK or EU citizen, see the see the visa information below.

Turkey has a new e-visa system, buy your visa online at www.evisa.gov.tr.

Page last updated:

20 February 2020. Train times valid 15 Dec 2019 to 12 Dec 2020.


Which route to choose?

London to Istanbul via Bucharest, or via Belgrade & Sofia?

First you need to decide on a route.  There are almost unlimited possibilities between London and Istanbul, but they all boil down into via Budapest & Bucharest or via Belgrade & Sofia, as shown in the route map above.  That's because just one train a day links Europe with Istanbul, an overnight train with two portions, the Bosfor from Bucharest and Sofia-Istanbul Express from Sofia, which combine into one train at Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria before heading overnight to Istanbul (currently stopping short of Istanbul at Halkali, as explained in the text).  Here's an assessment of the two routes to help you choose, although there's not a great deal of difference between the two routes:

IMPORTANT UPDATE

The last part of the journey into Istanbul has been affected by engineering work since 2012, while they revamp the tracks in connection with the Marmaray tunnel project to link the rail networks in Europe & Asia, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmaray.  Trains run to Halkali, a suburban station 25km west of central Istanbul, with free bus transfer to Istanbul Sirkeci station.

Istanbul Sirkeci station is now closed...

Sadly, Istanbul's historic Sirkeci station was permanently closed to mainline trains as from 1 March 2013, to allow lines to be rebuilt in connection with the Marmara Tunnel project.  It's long-term future is in doubt, it may become a museum, and it may or may not lose its train tracks.  It is possible that the mainline international trains will permanently terminate at Halkali, although once the project is complete you'll be able to use a suburban train between Halkali and a new underground station in central Istanbul near Sirkeci.

Back to top


London to Istanbul via Bucharest

This section explains the train times, the cost, what the trains and the journey are like, and how to arrange tickets.  For the route via Belgrade & Sofia, click here.  If you'd prefer to travel via Brussels & Cologne rather than Paris & Munich, or would prefer to take a ferry via Harwich-Hoek van Holland instead of Eurostar, no problem, see here for details.

In this section...

  London to Istanbul train times, eastbound 

  Istanbul to London train times, westbound

  How to buy tickets

  Visas for Turkey

 

  How much does it cost?

  What are the trains like?

  What's the journey like?

  Can I stop off on the way?

 

  How to book using an InterRail pass

  Custom-made travel arrangements

London ► Istanbul

Istanbul ► London

Can I stop off on the way?  Suggested stopovers...

What are the trains like? 

London to Paris by Eurostar:  See the Eurostar guide

Eurostar e320   Eurostar e320 first class seats

A Eurostar e320 about to leave London St Pancras...

 

1st class:  Standard Premier or Business Premier.

Paris to Munich by TGV Duplex...  See the TGV Duplex video guide

Sit back with a glass of red and enjoy the ride - book an upper deck seat for the best views.  The train has power sockets for laptops & mobiles at all seats in both classes, and a cafe-bar serves drinks, snacks & microwaved hot dishes.  The train soon leaves the Paris suburbs behind and speeds across a vast wide open plateau of woods and farmland at up to 200mph, past picturesque French villages of the Champagne region.  After an hour or two, the train leaves the high-speed line and slowly meanders through pretty wooded hills, the countryside eventually flattening out towards Strasbourg.  On leaving Strasbourg, look out for Strasbourg cathedral on the left with its famously missing second tower.  Minutes afterwards you rumble across the river Rhine into Germany, before heading on to Stuttgart and Munich.

TGV Duplex at Paris Gare de l'Est

TGV Duplex at Paris Est. These impressive 200 mph double-deck trains link Paris & Munich, a relaxing journey with reading book & glass of wine.  Book an upstairs seat for the best views...

TGV Duplex cafe-bar   TGV Duplex upper deck 2nd class seats

Cafe-bar on upper deck in car 4, serving tea, coffee, soft drinks, wine, beer, snacks & microwaved hot dishes.

 

2nd class seats on the upper deck.  There's a mix or tables for 4 and unidirectional seating.  360Ί photo.

First class on board a TGV Duplex   An TGV Duplex at Paris Est.

1st class seats on upper deck, a club duo on the left, a club quatre on the right.  360Ί photo.

 

A TGV Duplex.  The red near the door indicates 1st class, pale green indicates 2nd class.

Munich to Budapest by sleeper train Kalman Imre:  See the video...

Cosy & inviting, this is the modern air-conditioned Hungarian sleeping-car of the Kalman Imre at Munich Hauptbahnhof...  The sleeping-car has 10 compartments with washbasin, each of which can be used as a 1, 2 or 3 berth room, with toilets at the end of the corridor.  The fare includes a light breakfast of coffee, juice & croissantWatch the Hungarian sleeping-car video.  There's time for dinner in Munich before boarding, for a Bavarian meal & a beer or two try www.augustinerkeller.de at Arnulfstrasse 52, to the north side of Munich Hbf.

The sleeper train to Budapest   Sleeper compartment in the Hungarian sleeping-car from Munich to Budapest

The Kalman Imre, about to leave Munich...

 

2-berth sleeper...

6-berth couchettes on train to Budapest   4-berth couchettes on train to Budapest   Couchette car on the Kalman Imre to Budapest

6-berth couchettes...

 

4-berth couchettes

 

Hungarian couchette car at Munich

Good morning Budapest!

City of Budapest & the Danube

Budapest to Bucharest by sleeper train Ister...

The Ister from Budapest to Bucharest has a modern air-conditioned Romanian sleeping-car with carpeted 1, 2 or 3-berth compartments with proper beds & washbasin, plus several deluxe 1, 2 or 3 bed compartments with private toilet & shower, see the photos below.  Travelling in the sleeping-car is safe, comfortable & civilised.  The Ister also has a Romanian couchette car with 6-berth & 4-berth compartments, each berth with rug, sheet & pillow, berths converting to seats by day.  Couchettes are fairly basic, and a proper bed in the sleeper is much more comfortable and secure yet costs very little extra, so is the recommended option.  There's a Romanian bar-bistro car attached in Romania serving a cooked breakfast eastbound and dinner westbound, but taking some supplies of your own is always a good idea.  The Ister also has air-conditioned seats cars, but a mere seat is not recommended.

Traveller Philip Dyer-Perry reports:  "Budapest to Bucharest on the Ister is an absolute pleasure. I booked online with MAV and travelled in the new sleeping car, which was comfortable, smooth, and clean. There is a shower, but obviously not intended for use as most of the hose assembly was missing.  There was a dining car, and if you ask you can get a menu, but it's better to ask the man what he's got and negotiate a price.  If you have hard (non-Romanian) currency there is a certain amount of flexibility.  In the evening it was chicken & potatoes, next morning it was a rather tasty omelette.  Just be aware that the main purpose of the dining car is as a place for the traincrew to smoke!  It's good though, and a world away from Western Europe.  The Ister was around 20 minutes late on arrival in Bucharest, but the sleeping car attendant assured a fellow traveller that he would make the connection to Istanbul. In fact he even phoned his colleague on that train.  Once we pulled in we both ran, he to the Istanbul car, me to the Sofia portion, and we made it..."

Sleeper on the Dacia Express   Dacia Express at Sighisoara

A 1, 2 or 3-bed sleeper with washbasin.  Larger photo.

 

The sleeping-car (vagon de dormit) of the Ister at Budapest Keleti.  Sleepers convert from beds to private sitting rooms for day use.  

Couchette car on the Ister EuroNight train from Budapest to Bucharest   Romanian couchette car from Vienna to Bucharest

The vagon cuseta (couchette car) on the Ister, at Budapest.  Always book a couchette, not just a seat.  Couchettes convert from bunks at night to seats for day use.

 

4 or 6-berth couchettes.  Larger photo.

Couchette car on the Ister EuroNight train from Budapest to Bucharest  

Enjoy breakfast in the bar-bistro eastbound, or an evening beer westbound.  The bar-bistro is attached between Simeria & Bucharest.  Bar-bistro photos courtesy of Philip Dyer-Perry.

Bucharest to Istanbul on the Bosfor (June to September)...

In summer between June & September, a modern air-conditioned Turkish couchette car with 4-berth compartments operates direct from Bucharest to Istanbul Halkali.  There was supposed to be a Romanian sleeping-car with 1, 2 & 3 bed compartments as well, but the Romanians discontinued this in August 2017.  Photos below courtesy of Doc7Austin.

The Istanbul to Sofia Express   4-berth couchettes in seats mode

4-berth couchettes:  As well as the Romanian sleeping-car the Bosfor has a modern air-conditioned Turkish couchette car like this.  The seats convert to flat bunks with rug, sheet and pillow, 4 berths per compartment.

...or Dimitrovgrad to Istanbul by Sofia-Istanbul Express (September-June).

In winter from September until June you take a series of connecting daytime trains from Bucharest to Dimitrovgrad, where you join the new Sofia-Istanbul Express from Dimitrovgrad to Istanbul Halkali.  This has an air-conditioned Turkish sleeping-car with 1 & 2 bed compartments (there's even a shower at the end of the corridor!), an air-conditioned Turkish couchette car with 4-berth compartments, and a Bulgarian couchette car (non-air-con) with 6-berth compartments.

 

1 & 2 bed sleepers:  Above right, an air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 sleeping-car as used on the Sofia-Istanbul Express.  Comfortable, carpeted, with compartments bookable as singles or doubles.  Above right, a sleeper compartment shown with beds folded away and seats folded out.

 

4-berth couchettes:  The Istanbul-Sofia Express has an air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 couchette car with comfortable 4-berth compartments, shown above left with beds folded away & seats folded out.  Exterior shots courtesy of Paul Bateman

What's the journey like?

The journey from Bucharest to Istanbul is a pleasant, leisurely and enjoyable journey.  A few hours after leaving Bucharest the train calls at the Romanian border point, Giurgiu, then crosses the Danube into Bulgaria on a 2.5 km long steel bridge, the longest steel bridge in Europe, built in 1954 and now fitted with a road deck above the railway.  The Bosfor now spends a lazy afternoon meandering along pleasant river valleys across rural Bulgaria.  Relax in your private sleeper, pour yourself a beer or glass of wine (remember to bring your own food & drink), read away the hours & enjoy the trip.  After a late-night passport check at the Bulgarian border at Svilengrad, the train reaches the Turkish frontier at Kapikule well after midnight, around 01:25.  Here you will need to leave the train briefly to get your passport stamped (see the visa information below).  The train used to make a dramatic entry into Istanbul, passing through the Byzantine Walls of Theodosius and skirting the Sea of Marmara underneath the very walls of the Topkapi Palace, but now it terminates at Halkali and you take a Marmaray suburban train for the last bit into Istanbul.  However, you still arrive at Istanbul's historic Sirkeci station built in 1888 in the heart of the city, albeit at the new Marmaray platforms which are underground.  Sirkeci station is walking distance from all the sights, or you can hop into a taxi to the famous Pera Palas Hotel.  Expect an arrival an hour or two late, so allow for this and enjoy the ride...  Map of Istanbul showing Sirkeci station.

Brasov station, Romania   Scenery approaching the Carpathian mountains

Across Romania...  Brasov station in Transylvania.

 

After Brasov, the train climbs into the Carpathian mountains...

More Transylvanian scenery Predeal station, Romania

Scenery between Brasov & Predeal...

Predeal station, with Carpathian crags visible behind...

Scenery in the Shipka Pass, Bulgaria

Across Bulgaria...  Lush green scenery as the train descends the Shipka Pass...

Veliko Tarnovo station, Bulgaria   Craggy scenery in Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo station...

 

Crags near Veliko Tarnovo...

The Turkish border at Kapikule   Visa office, Kapikule

Entering Turkey:  At Kapikule after midnight you must get off to have your passport stamped....

 

This was the visa sales office, but a visa may no longer be necessary, see visa info.

Sunrise over Turkey

Good morning Turkey!  Dawn breaks as the train speeds east towards Istanbul...

The train at Halkali

Halkali  The Sofia-Istanbul Express with through car to/from Bucharest, at Halkali.  Courtesy of John Mcnamara...

The transfer bus from Halkali outside Istanbul Sirkeci station.

The free transfer bus from Halkali to Istanbul outside Istanbul Sirkeci station.  This free transfer bus no longer operates, you must now travel from Halkali to Sirkeci by frequent Marmaray suburban train, arriving at the new underground platforms beneath this historic station.  Courtesy of Philip Dyer-Perry.

How much does it cost? 

There are two different ways to ticket a London to Istanbul train journey, (a) buying normal point-to-point tickets for each stage, or (b) using an InterRail pass.  Point-to-point tickets are the cheapest option, assuming you book cheap advance-purchase tickets and buy each tickets from the cheapest source several months ahead, and find the cheapest prices available.  These cheap tickets commit you to the specific train you book for each stage, limited or no refunds or changes allowed.  It can be worth paying a bit more to use a pass because of the extra flexibility it offers.  With a pass you can make side trips or change your itinerary or route on the hoof.  With a pass you can simply reschedule or re-route if fire, flood, or missed connections affect your journey, but with cheap train-specific tickets you must stick to the booked trains and may have to buy new onward tickets if you miss a connection.  If you live outside Europe, you qualify for a Eurail pass rather than InterRail, but you should find pricing and reservations work in exactly the same way as explained below.

 Rough total cost...

 Very approximate total cost from

 London to Istanbul by train, including

 a couchette Munich-Budapest,

 Budapest-Bucharest

 & Bucharest-Istanbul...

 Point-to-point tickets - all ages...

 assuming cheapest possible fare, bought online from cheapest source...

 £220 one-way

 £410 return

 Using an InterRail pass - Adult...

 5-travel-days-in-1-month InterRail for one-way,

 10-travel-days-in-2-months InterRail for a return,

 plus couchette & sleeper supplements:

 £339 one-way

 £529 return

 Using an InterRail pass - Youth under 28...

 5-travel-days-in-1-month InterRail for one-way,

 10-travel-days-in-2-months InterRail for a return,

 plus couchette & sleeper supplements:

 £279 one-way

 £449 return

 Using an InterRail pass - Senior over 60...

 5-travel-days-in-1-month InterRail for one-way,

 10-travel-days-in-2-months InterRail for a return,

 plus couchette & sleeper supplements:

 £318 one-way

 £502 return

The cost, if you use point-to-point tickets...

Calculating the cost of a London to Istanbul train journey is something of a black art.  You're not buying a London to Istanbul ticket, as there's no such thing, you're buying a separate ticket for each train you take right across Europe.  The price for each ticket varies depending on where you buy it and how far in advance you book.  So get a calculator and add up the fare for your chosen class or type of sleeper or couchette for each leg of the journey.  Fares for the Eurostar, TGV, Kalman Imre & Railjet work like air fares, varying depending on how popular that date & train is and how far ahead you book.  Budapest to Bucharest also has some limited-availability offers if you book online direct with Hungarian Railways.  From Bucharest to Istanbul, the price shown below is fixed and is what you pay whenever you book, even if you bought at the station on the day.

 1. London to Paris

 by Eurostar...

 From £44 one-way, £58 return 2nd class.

 From £112 one-way, £168 return 1st class.  Child & youth fares 

 

 2. Paris to Munich

     by TGV...

 From €39 each way in 2nd class

 From €69 each way in 1st class.

 The price varies, book in advance to get these fares, full-price €139.

 If you book at www.bahn.de, accompanied children under 15 go free.

 

 3. Munich to Budapest

 on the Kalman Imre

In a  

seat:

In a couchette

In the sleeping-car

6-berth

4-berth

3-berth

2-berth

single

 Saver fare one-way:

€29

€49

€59

€69

€79

€139

 Saver fare return:

€58

€98

€118

€138

€158

€278

 Flex price one-way:

€95

€109

€115

€120

€139 

€209

Saver fare = advance-purchase fare, price varies, no refunds, no changes to travel plans. 

Flex price = fully flexible, refundable, buy any time.

 Or Munich to Budapest

 by RailJet...

 Economy class fares from €39.90 each way.

 First class fares start at €69.90 each way.

 If you book at www.bahn.de, accompanied children under 15 go free.

  

 4. Budapest to Bucharest

 on the Ister...

 Bought online at MAV-start.hu...

 From €39 with a bed in a 6-bunk couchette;

 From €59 with a bed in a 3-bed sleeper;

 From €97 with a bed in a 2-bed sleeper;

 From €182 with a single-bed sleeper

 All per person, berths sold individually, you don't need to fill the whole compartment.

 Booked in the UK...

 £87 each way in 6-berth couchettes.

 £95 each way in 4-berth couchettes.

 £99 each way in 3-bed sleeper

 £112 in 2-bed sleeper

 £198 in single sleeper.

 £162 each way in 2-bed deluxe sleeper with shower, £209 in single-bed deluxe.

 All per person, berths sold individually, you don't need to fill the whole compartment.

 

 5. Bucharest to Istanbul...

 Bought at the station in Bucharest or Istanbul or

 (in summer when the direct car runs) online from Romanian Railways

 €37.20 for a ticket + €14 supplement for a couchette in 4-berth compartment.

 The train is priced in euros, but you will be charged in Turkish Lira or Bulgarian Lei.

 Booked in the UK...

 £76 each way in 4-berth couchettes.

The cost, if you use an InterRail pass...

Using an InterRail pass is the most flexible way to make a train journey from London or Paris to Istanbul.  It's cheaper than using point-to-point tickets if you're under 28 years old, and although it usually costs more than point-to-point tickets if you're over 28, the extra flexibility is often worth it, especially for a return trip.  But after buying the pass, you still need to pay for a Eurostar passholder fare and sleeper or couchette reservations, so here's the breakdown:

How to book a London-Istanbul journey using an InterRail pass...

How to buy point-to-point tickets...

Option 1, buy tickets online...

You can buy tickets online for the London-Bucharest part of the journey in either direction, and this is the cheapest way to book because you can see all the cheap deals direct from the train operators and don't pay any booking fees.  However, you'll still need to book the Bucharest-Istanbul train by phone because this cannot be booked online.

  • When does booking open?

    Booking usually opens 92 days ahead for most trains, but 120 days ahead for Eurostar and 60 days ahead for Budapest-Bucharest.  However, I strongly recommend waiting until 92 days so you can buy most tickets together, doing a dry run on all websites first to check times and prices before booking for real.  Hotel accommodation can be booked before booking your trains risk-free if you use a site such as www.booking.com with free cancellation.  Before you start, I recommend making a list of the specific trains and dates you want to book, as each train is effectively a separate booking.

  • Step 2, book the Paris to Munich TGV...

    Use either www.trainline.eu or www.raileurope.co.uk (a small booking fee applies) or the German Railways website www.bahn.de (no booking fee), by all means check each site.  If you use bahn.de, I recommend registering when prompted so you can easily retrieve your bookings and re-print tickets at any time.  You print your own ticket.

  • Step 3, book the Munich to Budapest sleeper train...

    Book this at www.trainline.eu.  Use the journey planner to bring up the Munich-Budapest sleeper train marked EN with 0 changes. You print your own ticket.  You can also book at Austrian Railways www.oebb.at.

    If you want to take the railjet option rather than the sleeper between Munich and Budapest, you also book this at www.bahn.de or www.trainline.eu.  If you want to stop off in Vienna for (say) a day, use www.bahn.de, click Add intermediate stops and enter Vienna in the via box and 24:00 in the 'hh:mm stopover' box.  It'll then book you a 24 hour stopover in Vienna, but still let you buy a cheap €39 fare from Munich to Budapest if it's available.  You can even spend a few hours in Salzburg on the way as well, by entering Salzburg in the via box and (say) 04:00 in the stopover box, then adding another stopover and entering Vienna & 24:00.  All still from €39.90!

  • Step 4, book the Budapest to Bucharest sleeper train...

    For one-way or round trip tickets starting in Budapest, buy a cheap advance-purchase fare at the Hungarian Railways website www.mav-start.hu.  Before jumping in, read my tips & advice for using mav-start.hu and how your tickets are collected.  For Bucharest you need to use 'Bucuresti'.

    For one-way or round trip tickets starting in Bucharest, buy a cheap advance-purchase fare at the Romanian Railways website bileteinternationale.cfrcalatori.ro.  Click EN top right for English.  Bucharest is listed as Bucuresti (Romania).  Tickets must be collected from a Romanian ticket office such as Bucharest Nord.

  • Step 5, now book the Bucharest to Istanbul journey...

    ...from early June until September when the direct couchette car operates:

    When the through couchette car runs you should be able to buy tickets online at the Romanian Railways website bileteinternationale.cfrcalatori.ro.  Click EN top right for English.  For Bucharest enter/select Bucuresti (Romania) and for Istanbul enter/select Halkali (Turkey).  Tickets must be collected from a CFR station ticket office in Romania such as Bucharest Nord, so only use this site for one-way or round trip journeys starting in Romania.  Feedback would be appreciated.

    Alternatively, tickets can be arranged by agency Paralela 45 Turism, www.paralela45.com.  They can source train tickets starting in Bucharest, so far recommended by several seat61 correspondents.  Feedback would be appreciated.

    Or you can buy a ticket at the station in Bucharest, the direct couchette car usually always has sleeping berths available even on the day.  For international tickets go to ticket window 1 in a room marked Case de Bilete with a large blue sign, not far from the information kiosk in the centre of the station, see photos of this ticket office so you know what to look for.

    In the westbound direction, you can buy tickets for this direct couchette car at the international ticket window at Istanbul Sirkeci station.

    ...In the off-season when there's no direct couchette car:

    Go to the Romanian Railways website bileteinternationale.cfrcalatori.ro and click EN top right for English.  It won't book all the way to Istanbul when there's no direct train, so book from Bucharest to Dimitrovgrad, which it should do for around €30 (but priced in Romanian lei, of course).  For Bucharest type Bucuresti (Romania) and select Dimitrovgrad (Bulgaria).  If you get an error message and can't book Bucharest to Dimitrovgrad, simply book from Bucharest to Gorna Orjahovitsa instead.

    You've plenty of time when you arrive in Gorna to buy an onward ticket to Dimitrovgrad, and the international ticket office on platform 1 at Gorna Orjahovitsa should be able to sell you a sleeper ticket from Dimitrovgrad to Istanbul Halkali (feedback appreciated). 

    If you don't manage to buy the Dimitrovgrad-Istanbul sleeper ticket at Gorna, simply approach the sleeper or couchette attendant when you board the sleeper train at Dimitrovgrad and ask to pay for a free berth and if necessary buy a Dimitrovgrad to Istanbul ticket on board.  Don't worry, there are almost always places available even on the day.

    In the westbound direction, you can buy tickets from Istanbul to Dimitrovgrad at the international ticket window at Istanbul Sirkeci station.  You'll then need to buy a ticket from Dimitrovgrad to Ruse at the station when you get to Dimitrovgrad, or if necessary just pay on the train.  Then buy a ticket from Ruse to Bucharest at the station when you get to Ruse.  This is no problem, there are almost always places available.

Option 2, buy tickets by phone....

  • Alternatively, you can buy all your London-Istanbul tickets by phone.  But please don't phone up a ticketing agency, say "I want to book a train ticket from London to Istanbul" and expect them to know which route and trains you want and to work it all out for you.  You aren't buying a ticket from London to Istanbul as such tickets no longer exist, you're buying 5 separate tickets for 5 separate train journeys.  So use the train times on this webpage to prepare a list of the specific trains you want to book between specific cities on specific dates (you may find the technique shown on How to plan an itinerary & budget helpful).  When you're ready to book, contact one of these agencies:

  • International Rail on 0844 248 248 3, lines open 09:00-17:00 Monday-Friday.  Overseas callers call +44 844 2482483.  Unlike some other agencies, International Rail are equipped with the French, German & Italian rail ticketing systems, so can sell the cheapest fares for all these trains from the UK to Italy and within Italy.  They charge a £10 booking fee for bookings under £100, £20 for £100-£300, £30 above £300. 

  • Deutsche Bahn's UK line on 08718 80 80 66, lines open 09:00-20:00 Monday-Friday, 09:00-13:00 Saturday & Sunday.  They don't charge a booking fee, just a 2% credit card fee.  Tickets can be sent to UK or Irish addresses, or (for a fee) overseas addresses.  Just be aware that their staff aren't always familiar with complex bookings like this and may need gentle persuasion.  You will need to talk them through exactly what train bookings you want, and be polite but persistent if necessary.

Option 3, buy tickets at stations as you go...

  • If you like, you can stay flexible and buy tickets as you go.  However, I'd strongly recommend buying the Eurostar ticket well in advance at www.eurostar.com because prices rise steeply as departure date approaches, like air fares.  I'd also suggest pre-booking the Paris-Munich TGV, using either Raileurope.co.uk (small booking fee) or www.bahn.de (no booking fee) (I'd check prices on both!) as there are also cheap deals if you pre-book.  The Munich-Budapest railjet train doesn't require a reservation and there are always places available, but again it might cost just €39 if you book in advance, but three times this if you leave it until the day of travel.  From Budapest to Bucharest and from Bucharest to Istanbul, buying at the station can actually be cheaper than pre-booking from the UK, as (a) the price is the same whether you buy in advance or buy on the day, and (b) the station in Budapest can sell you a ticket for these journeys using cheaper local tariffs, whereas UK agencies can only sell tickets using the standard international tariff.  There are almost always places in the sleeping car available, even on the day of travel, although of course nothing is 101% certain if you leave it till the day of departure, so buying as you go is probably a good option only if you have plenty of time and/or are planning to stopover en route anyway.  Remember that in the off-season, you may have to buy a Bucharest-Ruse ticket at Bucharest, a Ruse-Dimitrovgrad ticket at Ruse (or on the train) and a Dimitrovgrad-Istanbul ticket on board the train.

If you're in Istanbul, and want to buy tickets to western Europe...

There are occasions when you might want to buy train tickets from Istanbul to western Europe, including Amsterdam, Paris or London, when you're already in Istanbul (perhaps just arrived from Iran, say).  Here's how:

  • Go to Istanbul's Sirkeci station, ticket window 4.  Credit cards are now accepted.

  • They can sell tickets to Bucharest or Sofia.  You can find the cost of tickets from Istanbul to these cities at www.tcddtasimacilik.gov.tr (click English top right, click PASSENGER then Trains then International trains).  However, they can't sell tickets or make reservations beyond Bucharest or Sofia because they have no reservation computer linked to the reservation system for the rest of Europe.

    Note that in the off-season when there's no direct couchette car from Istanbul to Bucharest, you'll need to by a couchette or sleeper ticket from Istanbul to Dimitrovgrad and rebook there (or pay on the train if there isn't time) to Ruse, then rebook again in Ruse for the train to Bucharest.

  • So buy a ticket from Istanbul to Sofia or Bucharest, you can buy a Sofia-Belgrade-Budapest or Bucharest-Budapest ticket when you get there.

  • Then go to an internet cafe, check they have a printer, and book the sleeper train from Budapest to Munich and the TGV from Munich to Paris online at www.bahn.de, with cheap fares available if you book in advance.  You can buy a Eurostar ticket from Paris or Brussels to London online at www.eurostar.com.  If you simply turn up in Budapest or Munich, you can of course book these trains on the day if there are spaces available (and there usually will be), but you'll pay the full fare, no cheap deals available at the station on the day of travel.  Eurostar can also be booked on the day at the station in Paris or Brussels if all else fails, but you'll pay a much more expensive price than if you-pre book in advance online.

Bosphorus ferry   View over Istanbul from the Galata Tower

Ferries sail frequently across the Bosphorus from Europe side to Asia.  They also run occasional cruises through the Bosphorus to the edge of the Black Sea, well worth taking...

 

The Haghia Sofia (left) & Blue Mosque (right) seen from the top of the Galata Tower.  The equally famous Topkapi Palace is just out of shot to the left.

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E-visa for Turkey

Turkish visas...

  • UK citizens don't need a visa for Hungary, Romania, Serbia or Bulgaria, but until 2 March 2020 they need a tourist visa to enter Turkey.

  • If you need a Turkish visa, buy an e-visa online and print it out for $20 at www.evisa.gov.tr.  It's very simple to use, you can print your e-visa within seconds of applying.  You'll still need get get off the train at Kapikule (remembering not to leave any valuables in your compartment, but you can leave your larger bags), and follow everyone into the office marked 'Passports' on the platform to have your passport stamped.  Then you can get back on the train.  Your passport will then be checked again on board the train before the train leaves.  If you have an e-visa, there's no need to go to the visa office first to buy a visa as you used to.

  • You used to be able to buy a Turkish visa at the border station from a special office.  However, the office has closed so you must now buy an e-visa online before travelling.

  • LATEST UPDATE MARCH 2020:  From 2 March 2020, UK and EU citizens plus various other nationalities will no longer need a visa to visit Turkey for stays of up to 90 days.  Confirm the latest situation online.

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London to Istanbul via Sofia

The more traditional route...

The traditional route from London or Paris to Istanbul is via Belgrade & Sofia rather than Bucharest, that's the way the Orient Express would have gone in the 1920s and 1930s.  It's a fascinating & scenic ride, see video of the Belgrade-Sofia-Istanbul train journey.  If you use the journey suggested below you'll find decent quality air-conditioned trains from London as far as Belgrade, and indeed an excellent Turkish air-conditioned sleeper train between Sofia and Istanbul, the weak point in this route is the Belgrade-Sofia train outside the summer period, as you can see from the journey details below.  For variations to this route via Zurich or via Vienna & Budapest, see here.

London ► Istanbul

  • Day 1:  Travel from Munich to Zagreb overnight on the sleeper train Lisinski, leaving Munich Hbf at 23:20 and arriving at Zagreb at 08:35 next morning (day 2).  The Lisinski has a smart modern air-conditioned Croatian sleeping-car (1, 2 & 3 bed compartments with washbasin), a smart modern Croatian couchette car (4 & 6 berth compartments) and ordinary seats.  Watch the Croatian sleeper video.

  • Day 2:  Travel from Zagreb to Belgrade by train.  Until 4 October 2020 it leaves Zagreb at 11:03 and arrives Novi Beograd at 18:00 & Belgrade Centar at 18:07.  From 5 October 2020 onwards it leaves Zagreb at 13:04 and arrives Novi Beograd at 20:17 & Belgrade Centar at 20:25. 

    This train has air-conditioned Serbian carriages with comfortable 2nd class seats (no 1st class).  There's no catering, so bring along a picnic and maybe some beer or wine.

    Tip:  Although Belgrade Centar is slightly closer to the city centre, you have to rely on a single bus line.  Trams 7 & 9 link Novi Beograd station with the site of the now-defunct old Belgrade station on the edge of the old city every 5-10 minutes so you may prefer to get off at Novi Beograd and take a tram, see the Belgrade station page for more information.

  • Stay overnight in Belgrade.  I highly recommend the famous Hotel Moskva at the start of Belgrade's main pedestrianised street.  You have an evening to explore Belgrade & have dinner - see map of Belgrade showing station.  Make sure you wander through Belgrade to the fortress at sunset, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

  • Day 3, travel from Belgrade to Sofia by train.

    From 12 June to 20 September 2020 you take the direct train Balkan, leaving Belgrade Topcider station at 09:15 and arriving Sofia central station at 20:37.  The Balkan is 2nd class only and has no catering car so bring your own picnic and supplies of wine or beer...

    When the direct train isn't running (until 11 June & from 21 September 2020), you travel from Belgrade to Sofia like this:  Take the 05:58 from Belgrade Centar station, changing at Nis (arrive 10:40, depart 11:10) and Dimitrovgrad (arrive 14:45, depart 15:25) to arrive at Sofia at 18:36.

    See the Belgrade to Sofia page for full details, photos, tips & information.

  • Stay overnight in Sofia.  For an inexpensive hotel with great reviews just 10 minutes walk from the station, I recommend the excellent Hotel Favorit.  Spend the next day exploring Sofia.

  • Day 4, travel from Sofia to Istanbul on the Sofia-Istanbul Express.

    From 5 June to 5 October 2020 it leaves Sofia central station at 18:25 & arrives Istanbul Halkali at 05:20 next morning (day 5 from London).

    Outside this period from October to May it leaves Sofia central station at 18:25 & arrives Istanbul Halkali at 06:20 next morning.

    The Sofia-Istanbul Express has two safe & comfortable Turkish air-conditioned sleeping-cars and one Turkish air-conditioned 4-berth couchette car plus (for the peak summer period) one older Bulgarian 6-berth couchette car.  You cannot reserve this train from outside Bulgaria, but there are always places available on the day if you buy tickets at Sofia station, at least outside the July & August peak period.

    Be prepared to get off the train at the Turkish border at Kapikule late at night to buy a tourist visa and get your passport stamped and put your luggage through an X-ray machine.  In summer you arrive Kapikule 03:10 and depart at 03:50.

    The Sofia-Istanbul Express terminates at Halkali, a suburban station 25km west of Istanbul.  Buy a local ticket and take a frequent Marmaray suburban train from Halkali to Sirkeci (meaning the new underground Marmaray platforms at Sirkeci station, beneath the now-trainless historic above-ground station).  These Marmaray trains run at least every 15 minutes, journey time Halkali-Sirkeci around 35 minutes, fare around TL 11 (€1.70).  The Marmaray trains continue beyond Sirkeci through the Bosphorus rail tunnel to Sφgόtlόηesme, starting station for the high-speed YHT trains to Ankara & Konya.  Tip:  Halkali station only accepts cash and there's no ATM or money-changer nearby, so have some Turkish lira with you.  If you prefer to go direct to your hotel by taxi, it will cost around 60 YTL (€16) from Halkali to central Istanbul but have Turkish lira with you as there is no ATM at Halkali.  There is no longer any TCDD transfer bus, this ceased in September 2019, you must now take a Marmaray train.

Istanbul ► London

  • Day 1, evening, transfer from Istanbul Sirkeci to Halkali by frequent Marmaray suburban train.  Halkali is a suburban station about 25km west of central Istanbul.  At Sirkeci, Marmaray trains leave from the new underground platforms, not the original (now trainless) above-ground station.  Marmaray trains run every 15 minutes, journey time around 35 minutes, fare around TL 11 (€1.70).  To be on the safe side, I'd leave Sirkeci at least 1h15 before the sleeper is due to leave Halkali.  Buy food and drink before you leave as there are few or no facilities in or around Halkali station, just a waiting room.  Alternatively, a taxi should take an hour and cost around 60 YTL (€16).

  • Day 1, evening, travel from Istanbul Halkali to Sofia on the daily Istanbul-Sofia Express.

    From 5 June to 5 October 2020 it leaves Istanbul Halkali station at 21:40 & arrives Sofia central station at 08:42 (day 2).

    In the off-season outside these dates it leaves Istanbul Halkali at 22:40 & arrives Sofia central station 08:42 (day 2).

    The Istanbul-Sofia Express has two safe & comfortable Turkish air-conditioned sleeping-cars, one Turkish air-con 4-berth couchette car and an older Bulgarian 6-berth couchette car.  Be prepared to get off the train at the Turkish border at Kapikule late at night to have your passport stamped, in summer it arrives at Kapikule at 01:32 and leaves again at 02:30, in winter it arrives at Kapikule at 02:31 and leaves again at 03:15.  If you get any interior or exterior photos of this train, please let me know!

    A same-day connection with the train to Belgrade is theoretically possible in this direction and might work, but there may be delays so I'd recommend a stopover at Sofia, as shown below.

  • Day 2:  Spend the day exploring Sofia and stay overnight.  For an inexpensive hotel with great reviews just 10 minutes walk from the station, I recommend the excellent Hotel Favorit.

  • Day 3:  Travel from Sofia to Belgrade on the Balkan.  From 12 June to 20 September 2020, you leave Sofia central station at 09:15 and arrive Belgrade Topcider station at 18:29.  This train is 2nd class only and has no catering car so bring your own picnic and supplies of wine or beer.

    In the off-season when this direct train isn't running, you travel from Sofia to Belgrade like this:  Take the 09:15 from Sofia, change at Dimitrovgrad (arrive 10:25, depart 11:25) & Nis (arrive 14:44 depart 15:53) and arrive Belgrade Centar station at 21:02.

    See the Sofia to Belgrade page for full details, photos, tips & information

  • Stay the night in Belgrade.  I recommend the famous Hotel Moskva at the start of Belgrade's main pedestrianised street, great for an evening wander.

  • Day 4:  Travel from Belgrade to Zagreb on the daily train.  Until 3 October 2020 it leaves Belgrade Centar station at 10:02 & Novi Beograd at 10:09 arriving Zagreb at 18:12.  From 4 October 2020 onwards it leaves Belgrade Centar station at 07:00 & Novi Beograd at 07:14 arriving Zagreb at 15:13.

    This train has air-conditioned Serbian carriages with comfortable 2nd class seats (no 1st class).  There's no catering, so bring along a picnic and some beer or wine.  You've now time for dinner in Zagreb.

Can you stop off?

Of course.  Each train is ticketed separately, so it makes no difference to the cost if you want to spend some time in Paris, Munich, Zagreb, Belgrade or Sofia - although even travelling non-stop in 4 nights as shown above you get an evening in Belgrade and a whole day to explore Sofia.  Just book each train for whatever dates you like.

Point-to-point tickets or InterRail pass?

There are two completely different ways to ticket a London to Istanbul journey, (a) buy normal point-to-point tickets, or (b) use an InterRail pass.  If you are under 28 years old, the cheapest option is to use an InterRail pass as shown here.  If you are over 28, point-to-point tickets are a fraction cheaper for a one-way trip, assuming you get the cheapest deals for each train, but even so, the extra flexibility of an InterRail pass can make the pass option worthwhile as you can make side trips or change your itinerary or route on the hoof.  For a return journey, an InterRail pass is definitely the cheapest option assuming you will be spending less than 22 days away from home (giving you up to two weeks in Turkey), but if you plan to be away for more than 22 days, so cannot use a 10-days-in-22-days InterRail pass, point-to-point tickets are likely to be cheaper than two 5-day or one 1-month InterRail passes.  If you live outside Europe, overseas visitors don't qualify for InterRail, they must buy the more expensive Eurail pass range instead, which makes point-to-point tickets the cheaper option.

How much does it cost using point-to-point tickets?

Each train is ticketed separately, so add up the price for each leg of the journey.  At the western end, fares work like air fares, varying depending on how popular that date and train is, and how far ahead you book.  From Zagreb onwards, prices are fixed, and the price shown below is what you pay whenever you book, even if you bought at the station on the day.

 1. London to Paris

     by Eurostar...

 From £44 one-way, £58 return 2nd class.

 From £112 one-way, £168 return 1st class.  Child & youth fares 

 

 2. Paris to Munich

     by TGV Duplex...

 From €39.90 each way in 2nd class

 From €69.90 each way in 1st class.

 Limited availability, book in advance to get these fares.

 Flex fare £81 one-way, £142 return.

 

 3. Munich to Zagreb

 on the Lisinski...

In a

seat:

In a couchette

In the sleeping-car

6-berth

4-berth

3-berth

2-berth

single

 Saver fare one-way, from:

€29

€49

€59

€69

€79

€139

 Saver fare return, from:

€58

€98

€118

€138

€158

€278

Saver fare = Advance-purchase fare, price varies, no refunds, no changes to travel plans.

Berths are sold individually, so one ticket means one bed.  The other beds in your compartment will be sold to other passengers.  For sole occupancy, simply book 1 ticket in a 1-berth sleeper or 2 tickets in a 2-berth sleeper or 4 tickets in a 4-berth couchette & so on.

 3. Zagreb to Belgrade

     by day train...

 £43 each way if bought in the UK.

 €30 or so if bought at the station in Zagreb (recommended).

 

 4. Belgrade to Sofia

     by day train...

 £44 each way bought by phone in the UK.

 €20.60 bought at the station in Belgrade (recommended).

 

 5. Sofia to Istanbul

     by overnight train...

 Bought locally at the ticket office at Sofia or Istanbul stations:

 €18.48 for a 2nd class ticket + €10 for a couchette, or

 €18.48 for a 2nd class ticket + €15 for a bed in a 2-bed sleeper or 

 €27.72 for a 1st class ticket + €35 supplement for a single-bed sleeper.

The train is priced in euros, but you will be charged in Turkish lira or Bulgarian Lei

How much does it cost using an InterRail pass?

Using an InterRail pass is the most flexible way to make a train journey from London to Istanbul, and often the cheapest.  But after buying the pass, you still need to pay for a Eurostar ticket and various sleeper or couchette supplements, so here's the breakdown:

  • 1)  The InterRail pass itself... 

    For a one-way trip to Istanbul, a 5-days-in-1 month flexi InterRail pass gives a 5 days of unlimited 2nd class train travel in all the countries you pass through within an overall period of 1 month starting any date you like, which is plenty to make the journey, even with a day or two in Vienna and Budapest and Bucharest.  It costs £196 if you are under 28 years old, £255 if you're 28-59, or £230 if you're over 60.  Children 4-11 inclusive get a free £0 InterRail pass if accompanied by an adult.

    For a return trip to Istanbul, a 10-days-in-2-months pass costs £278 if you are aged under 28, £362 if you're aged 28-59, or £326 if you're over 60.  Children 4-11 inclusive get a free pass if accompanied by an adult.  This gives a total of 10 days of unlimited 2nd class train travel in all the countries you pass through within an overall period of 2 months, which is enough to make the outward and return journeys, even with a day or two in Vienna and Budapest or Bucharest if you want, as long as you complete both your outward and return journeys within the 2 month period covered by the pass.

    It's not usually worth bothering with a 1st class pass, as only a 2nd class pass is needed for most sleepers & couchettes on the Munich-Zagreb train, and the Balkan trains are often 2nd class only, so a 1st class pass would cost a lot more but only make any difference on the London-Paris-Munich sectors.

  • 2)  A Eurostar passholder fare from London to Paris:  InterRail passes now cover Eurostar as from 2017, but you still need to pay the Eurostar passholder fare of €30 in standard class if you have a 2nd class pass or €38 in standard premier if you have a 1st class pass.  See the Eurostar page for full details of this passholder fare and how to buy it.

  • 3)  The Paris-Munich TGV reservation:  With an InterRail pass, the passholder supplement for the Paris-Munich TGV is around €10.

  • 4)  The Munich-Zagreb sleeper or couchette reservation:  Expect a couchette in 6-berth to cost around €13, couchette in 4-berth €20, bed in 3-bed sleeper €22, bed in 2-bed sleeper €33.  Bed in single-bed sleeper (1st class ticket or pass required) around €77.

  • On the Zagreb-Belgrade & Belgrade-Sofia daytime trains, a seat reservation is optional.  No fee to pay for passholders, just show your pass.

  • 5)  The Sofia to Istanbul couchette reservation:  A couchette in a 6-berth compartment costs around €10.

  • Remember the new rule for using InterRail flexi passes on overnight trains:  As from 2019, overnight trains only require one day of a flexi pass to be dated, the date it leaves, as long as you don't change trains after midnight.  See the more detailed explanation here.

  • More information about InterRail passes & how they work.

How to book, using an InterRail pass...

  • Step 5, alternatively, you can make all these reservations by phone, from International Rail on 0844 248 248 3, lines open 09:00-17:00 Monday-Friday, overseas callers +44 844 2482483.  Alternatively, try DB's UK telesales line on 08718 80 80 66, lines open 09:00-20:00 Monday-Friday, 09:00-13:00 Saturday & Sunday, no booking fee, 2% credit card charge.

  • Step 6, you cannot book the Sofia-Istanbul train online anywhere, or even book it by phone outside Bulgaria, so simply book this train at the international ticket window at Sofia station when you reach Sofia.  There are always places available, so don't worry.  When I last travelled there were just 8 of us in a 60-berth couchette car.

How to buy point-to-point tickets online...

  • Step 1, book from London to Munich at www.raileurope.co.uk or www.trainline.eu and print your own tickets.  Tip:  If you'd like a longer connection in Paris, simply click More options, enter Paris (any station) and a suitable stopover duration.  A small booking fee applies.

    Alternatively, you can book London to Paris at  www.eurostar.com then book Paris to Munich at the German Railways site www.bahn.de, it should make little or no difference to the price, but there's no booking fee on either of these sites.

  • Step 2, book the sleeper from Munich to Zagreb at www.trainline.eu.  Use the journey planner to bring up the direct Munich-Zagreb sleeper train marked EN with 0 changes. You print your own ticket.  You can also book this at the Austrian Railways website www.oebb.at.

  • Step 3, Zagreb to Belgrade cannot be booked online, just buy at the station in Zagreb, this won't be a problem.

  • Step 4, the Belgrade-Sofia train cannot be booked online, so either buy it at the station in Belgrade when you get there (there will always be places available) or buy it by phone as above, or perhaps arrange it via Belgrade's ex-Wasteels Mr Popovic.

  • Step 5, the Sofia-Istanbul night train cannot be booked online or indeed booked by phone anywhere outside Bulgaria, so simply buy the ticket at the international ticket windows at Sofia station when you get there, there are always plenty of free places - I had a 6-berth couchette to myself!

How to buy tickets by phone....

  • Alternatively, you can buy all your London-Istanbul tickets in one go by phone or email.  But please don't phone up a ticketing agency, say "I want to book a train ticket from London to Istanbul" and expect them to work it all out for you.  You aren't buying a ticket from London to Istanbul, such tickets no longer exist, you're buying 6 separate tickets for 6 separate train journeys.  So use the train times on this page to prepare a list of the specific trains you want to book between specific cities on specific dates (you may find the technique shown on How to plan an itinerary & budget helpful). When you're ready to book, contact one of these agencies:

  • International Rail on 0844 248 248 3, lines open 09:00-17:00 Monday-Friday.  Overseas callers call +44 844 2482483.  Unlike some other agencies, International Rail are equipped with the French, German & Italian rail ticketing systems, so can sell the cheapest fares for all these trains from the UK to Italy and within Italy.  They charge a £10 booking fee for bookings under £100, £20 for £100-£300, £30 above £300. 

  • Deutsche Bahn's UK line on 08718 80 80 66, lines open 09:00-20:00 Monday-Friday, 09:00-13:00 Saturday & Sunday. They (obviously) use the German Railways reservation system but on the plus side don't charge a booking fee, just a 2% credit card fee.  Tickets can be sent to UK or Irish addresses, or (for a fee) overseas addresses. Just be aware that their staff aren't always familiar with complex bookings like this and may need gentle persuasion. You will need to talk them through exactly what train bookings you want, and be polite but persistent if necessary.

What's the journey like?

London to Paris by Eurostar:  See the Eurostar guide

Eurostar e320   Eurostar e320 first class seats

A Eurostar e320 about to leave London St Pancras...

 

1st class:  Standard Premier or Business Premier.

Paris to Munich by TGV Duplex...  Watch the TGV Duplex video guide

Sit back with a glass of red and enjoy the ride - book an upper deck seat for the best views.  The train is equipped with power sockets for laptops & mobiles at all seats in both classes, and a cafe-bar serves drinks, snacks & microwaved hot dishes.  First class passengers on this route are given a simple but tasty meal box with a small bottle of beer or wine served at their seat, included in the fare.  The train soon leaves the Paris suburbs behind and speeds across a vast wide open plateau of woods & farmland at up to 200mph, past picturesque French villages of the Champagne region.  An hour or two later, the train leaves the high-speed line and slowly meanders through pretty wooded hills, the countryside eventually flattening out towards Strasbourg.  On leaving Strasbourg, look out for Strasbourg cathedral on the left with its famously missing second tower.  Minutes afterwards you rumble across the river Rhine into Germany, before heading on to Stuttgart & Munich.

TGV Duplex at Paris Gare de l'Est   Upper deck second class on board a TGV Duplex.

TGV Duplex at Paris Est. These impressive 200 mph double-deck trains link Paris with Nice, Marseille, Munich, Barcelona & Switzerland...

 

2nd class table for 4 on TGV Duplex upper deck...

First class on board a TGV Duplex   An TGV Duplex at Paris Est.

1st class seats on the upper deck, with a club duo on the left, a club quatre on the right.

 

A TGV Duplex.  The red near the door indicates 1st class, pale green indicates 2nd class.

Munich to Zagreb by sleeper train Lisinski...   Watch the video

This modern sleeper train is a pleasure to travel on, whether in the privacy of your own sleeper or in economical couchettes.  There's time for dinner in Munich before boarding.

The 'Lisinski' sleeper train from Zagreb to Munich, at Zagreb main station   Sleeper compartment in the Croatian sleeping-car from Munich to Zagreb

The sleeping-car on the Lisinski:  The modern air-conditioned Croatian sleeping-car of the Lisinski from Munich to Zagreb has 10 compartments with washbasin, each of which can be used as a 1, 2 or 3 berth room, with toilets at the end of the corridor.  Above left, the sleeper arrived at Zagreb.

4-berth couchettes on Munich to Zagreb train   Couchette car on Munich to Zagreb train, at Munich

The couchette car on the Lisinski has modern air-conditioned 6-berth and 4-berth compartments.  Above right, the westbound train is seen boarding at Zagreb. See panorama photo.

Scenery between Ljubljana, Zagreb & Belgrade

Wake up to scenery like this between Ljubljana & Zagreb, along the river Sava...

Zagreb to Belgrade by air-conditioned train...

This is a spacious and comfortable air-conditioned Serbian train, with modern 2nd class seats - there's no 1st class.  There's no restaurant car, so take a picnic and some beer or wine with you.  On arrival in Belgrade, you have time to wander into town, perhaps visit the fortress overlooking the confluence of Danube and Sava, have a coffee at the Hotel Moskva (free WiFi!) and perhaps dinner at the basic but remarkably cheap Zelturist restaurant in the corner inside Belgrade station.

2nd class seats in a Serbian air-conditioned train   The train from Belgrade to Zagreb & Zurich, about to leave Belgrade

Belgrade to Sofia on the Balkan More photos & information...

This train has only two carriages, it's old and graffitied but comfortable enough.  Power sockets, WiFi, even catering?  Forget those!  Bring your own picnic and bottles of beer, and buckle up for an old-school ride through the Balkans on the route of the Orient Express.  If you get any more photos of this particular train or especially the scenery please let me know!  In summer this train runs direct, in winter it's a series of connecting trains, one even has air-con(!).

The Belgrade to Sofia train

The Belgrade-Sofia train, currently summer-only, at Topcider station in Belgrade.  Just two coaches, one Bulgarian, one Serbian, but comfy enough in spite of the graffiti.  Bring your own food & drink and enjoy a scenic run across the Balkans.   Photo courtesy of Matthew Woodward - see more photos & an account of this journey on his blog.

2nd class seats on day train from Belgrade to Sofia   Scenery from the Belgrade to Sofia train

2nd class seats in the Serbian car.  Photos courtesy of Remco van der Kort.

 

The train snakes through a gorge east of Nis, photo taken from the rear carriage.  Courtesy of Matthew Woodward.

Sofia to Istanbul by Sofia-Istanbul Express...

This is now a decent train, with smart air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 sleeping-cars with cosy carpeted 1 & 2 bed compartments plus an air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 couchette car with 4-berth compartments.  The sleepers have a washbasin in each compartment and even a small fridge to keep your been cold!  But bring your own picnic and beer, as there's no catering on the train.  You have to get off the train at the Turkish border to have your passport stamped, but you will still get some sleep.

Dusk in Bulgaria

Good night Bulgaria!  Dusk falls on a summer evening, soon after leaving Sofia...

Sunrise in Turkey, approcahing Cerkezkoy

Good morning Turkey!  Dawn breaks as journey's end approaches...

 

An air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 sleeping-car as used on the Sofia-Istanbul Express.  Comfortable, carpeted, with compartments bookable as singles or doubles.  Above right, a sleeper compartment shown with beds folded away and seats folded out.

 

The Sofia-Istanbul Express usually has two couchette cars.  One is an air-conditioned Turkish TVS2000 couchette car with comfortable 4-berth compartments, shown above left with beds folded away and seats folded out.  The other couchette car is an older non-air-con Bulgarian couchette car with 6-berth compartments.  Exterior shots courtesy of Paul Bateman.

The train at Halkali

Halkali  The Sofia-Istanbul Express with through car to/from Bucharest, at Halkali.  Courtesy of John Mcnamara...

The transfer bus from Halkali outside Istanbul Sirkeci station.

The free transfer bus from Halkali to Istanbul, arrived outside Istanbul Sirkeci station.  Courtesy of Philip Dyer-Perry.


Video guideLondon to Istanbul by train...

This video takes you from London to Istanbul by train via Zurich, Zagreb, Belgrade & Sofia.  Filmed in 2013, at a time when the train temporarily only ran from Sofia to Cerkezkφy for a bus transfer to Istanbul.  It also features the now-discontinued Belgrade-Sofia overnight couchette train - you now do this run by day.  So a lot has changed, but it'll get you in the mood...

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Possible alternative routes...

Variation via the Harwich - Hoek ferry: The ferry alternative to Eurostar...

  • This is worth knowing about if you need to travel at short notice when Eurostar is expensive, or if there are any problems affecting the Channel Tunnel or Eurostar, if you want to avoid the Tunnel, or simply want to travel via Amsterdam.

  • Simply book an overnight journey from London (or any Abellio Greater Anglia station) to Utrecht or Amsterdam by Stena Line Rail & Sail service as shown on the Stena Line Rail & Sail page.  Then book daytime trains from Utrecht or Amsterdam to Munich from €39 using www.bahn.de

  • In Munich you can pick up the route via Bucharest or the route via Zagreb, Belgrade & Sofia as shown above.

Variation via Brussels & Cologne...

  • If you prefer, you can travel London-Brussels-Cologne-Vienna-Budapest instead of London-Paris-Munich-Budapest, it makes relatively little difference to the time or cost, see the London to Hungary page for details of train times, fares & how to buy tickets. 

  • You take the 12:58 Eurostar from London to Brussels, a connecting high-speed Thalys train to Cologne, the Austrian Nightjet sleeper train from Cologne to Vienna and a connecting railjet train to Budapest.  From Budapest onwards you join the route via Bucharest shown above.

Variation via Zurich...

  • You can travel from London to Zurich by Eurostar & TGV via Paris.  There's then a direct Croatian sleeping-car leaving Zurich at 20:40 and arriving Zagreb around 11:00 next morning, picking up the same late morning train to Belgrade shown in the route via Belgrade & Sofia above

  • The disadvantage is that (a) it takes an hour longer, as you need to leave Paris at 14:22 to Zurich instead of 15:54 to Munich, you arrive Zagreb two hours later so don't get a chance to have breakfast there, and (b) it may cost more.  However, you get into your cosy sleeper at Zurich at 20:40 instead of having to stay up till 23:20 at Munich and you see great scenery in Austria which you pass through at night on the Munich-Zagreb run.

Variation via Budapest - Belgrade...

  • If you want to see Vienna & Budapest, then go onwards via Belgrade & Sofia, this would normally be no problem.  However, the Budapest-Belgrade line is blocked due to line upgrading for all of 2020 and probably beyond.

Map showing train routes from London & Paris to Istanbul & Turkey

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London to Turkey by Italian ferry

  • In 2010 there were two ferry companies sailing from Italy (Brindisi or Ancona) to Cesme in Turkey, about 50 miles or one hour by bus from Izmir.  The companies were Marmara Lines (www.marmaralines.com) and Meslines (www.ferries.gr/mesline/brindisi-cesme.htm).  The voyages took 2 days.  See the London to Italy page for train travel from London or Paris to Ancona or Brindisi.  However, neither company seems to have run since 2011.

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London to Turkey via Greece

London to southern Turkey via Italy, Athens & the Greek Islands...

If you're heading for southern Turkey, for example, Bodrum or Marmaris, this can be a better route than heading to Istanbul overland by train.

  • Step 1:  Travel from London to Athens by train & ferry via Bari in Italy, see the London to Greece page for full details.  The journey takes 2 nights.  I'd recommend spending at least 1 night in Athens.

  • Step 2: Take a ferry from Piraeus (the port of Athens, 25 minutes from central Athens by metro) to either Kos, Lesvos (the port on Lesvos is Mytilini), Samos (the port is Vathi) or Rhodes (Rodos in Greek).  For Piraeus-Lesvos (Mytilini) see www.hellenicseaways.gr to check sailing dates, times, fares and to book online.  The voyage takes 9.5 hours.  For Piraeus-Kos or Piraeus-Rhodes see www.bluestarferries.gr to check sailing dates, times, fares and to book online.  Ferries normally sail Piraeus-Rhodes overnight, often calling at Kos very early, with cabins available.  For Piraeus-Samos see www.kallistiferries.gr.

  • Step 3, take an onward ferry to southern Turkey.  Ferries from Rhodes to Marmaris sail several times a week, see www.marmarisferry.com or rhodes.marmarisinfo.com for details.  Journey time 1 hour by catamaran, 2 hours by car ferry.  Ferries sail from Lesvos (Mytilini) to Ayvalik in Turkey daily Monday-Saturday, crossing 1 hour 10 minutes, fare €30.  Ayvalik is a few hours by bus north of Izmir.  A hydrofoil sails around 15:30 every afternoon from Kos to Bodrum, fare €28, crossing 1 hour, see www.bodrumexpresslines.com.  Ferries sail from Samos to Kusadasi at 08:30 & 17:00 from April to October, 1 hour 15 minute crossing, fare €30 (€50 open return), see www.meandertravel.com/ferrytosamos to check times, dates & fares.

  • I recommend using this technique to plan out your itinerary to make sure everything works, and you book the right trains and ferries for the right dates!

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Venice Simplon Orient Express:  www.belmond.com/venice-simplon-orient-express

  • The Venice Simplon Orient Express runs from Paris to Istanbul once a year, usually in August, with vintage 1920s Wagons-Lits sleeping-cars, restaurant cars and lounge.  The journey costs around £5,000 per person, but it's very popular and normally leaves fully-booked, so buy tickets as soon as you can.  To find out more about this train, see the Seat 61 Venice Simplon Orient Express page.  To check prices & to book online, go to www.belmond.com/venice-simplon-orient-express.

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Train travel within Turkey

See the Train travel in Turkey page

  • There are some excellent modern train services in Turkey.  For train travel within Turkey, including onwards express trains from Istanbul to Ankara, Konya, Izmir, Cappadocia and Pamukkale, see the Train travel in Turkey page.

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European Rail Timetable & maps

Thomas Cook European Timetable -  click to buy onlineTraveller's Railway Map of Europe - buy onlineThe European Rail Timetable (formerly the Thomas Cook European Timetable) has train & ferry times for every country in Europe plus currency & climate information.  It is essential for regular European train travellers and an inspiration for armchair travellers.  Published since 1873, it had just celebrated 140 years of publication when Thomas Cook decided to pull the plug on their entire publishing department, but the dedicated ex-Thomas Cook team set up a private venture and resumed publication of the famous European Rail Timetable in March 2014.  You can buy it online with worldwide shipping at either www.stanfords.co.uk or www.europeanrailtimetable.euMore information on what the European Rail Timetable contains.

A Traveller's Railway Map of Europe covers the whole of Europe from Portugal in the west to Moscow & Istanbul in the east, Finland in the north to Sicily & Athens in the south.  On the back are detailed maps of Switzerland, Benelux & Germany, plus city plans showing stations in major cities.  Scenic & high-speed routes highlighted.  Buy it online for £14.50 + postage worldwide (UK addresses £2.80) at www.stanfords.co.uk/Continents/Europe-A-Travellers-Railway-Map_9789077899090.htm or (in the Netherlands) for €13 + €5.50 postage from www.treinreiswinkel.nl.

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To get the most out of your trip, definitely take a good guidebook - I'd recommend the Lonely Planets guides as about the best out there for independent travellers.  The Middle East guide is less detailed, but covers Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Israel and other countries as well as Turkey.

Click the images to buy online at Amazon.co.uk

Lonely Planet Turkey - click to buy online   Lonely Planet Middle East - click to buy online

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Hotels in Istanbul & Turkey

Recommended hotels in Istanbul...

Without a doubt, the famous and historic Pera Palas Hotel, where Agatha Christie, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk and even King George V have stayed, is the most interesting place to stay, see the section below.  It wasn't that expensive, by grand hotel standards, although prices have risen after its recent complete refurbishment.  The nearby Grand Hotel de Londres offers similar affordable grandeur, www.londrahotel.net, just 35 euros for a basic single, 50 euros for a double, more for a renovated room.  It's apparently a favourite with archaeologists working in Turkey!  Alternatively, the Yasmak Sultan is a good choice.  For a good cheap hotel in the Sultanahmet travellers' area, try the Park Hotel.  If you are on a tight budget and want a backpacker hostel room or dorm bed at a rock-bottom price, see www.hostelworld.com.  For independent reviews of Istanbul hotels, see www.tripadvisor.com.

Pera Palas Hotel, Istanbul.  Click to book

Easily the most famous and historic hotel in Istanbul is the Pera Palas, built in 1892 by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits to accommodate the passengers arriving by train on the Orient Express from London and Paris.  It was closed for refurbishment for several years, but reopened in 2010 with its delightfully faded grandeur fully restored.   If your budget will stretch (prices after refurbishment will start at around €200 a night for a double room, up from around €100 in its previously faded form), it's a wonderful and historic place to stay.  One of it's rooms has been kept as a museum to Turkish leader Ataturk, another room (411) was regularly used by Agatha Christie, and can actually be booked by guests.  Book the Pera Palace online...

The Man in Seat 61 says:  "Istanbul's famous Pera Palas hotel is a classic, one of my favourite hotels anywhere - admittedly much pricier after its refurbishment, but now a true 5 star hotel with helpful & friendly staff.  It's a special place for my wife and I, it just happens to be where I told my wife she was pregnant with our first child, after the hotel's duty manager translated a certain Turkish word..."

Pera Palas hotel main entrance   The Pera Palas Hotel, Istanbul

The Pera Palas hotel, main entrance...

 

The Pera Palas hotel, after its recent refurbishment.

Pera Palace Hotel, lobby   Pera Palas Hotel, main lounge   Pera Palace hotel lift

Pera Palace Hotel, lobby...

 

The main lounge...

 

The old lift...

Pera Palas Hotel, Istanbul:  Typical bedroom.   Agatha Christie's room 411 at the Pera Palas Hotel

Bedrooms have been elegantly refurbished.  This is a corner suite, with sitting room next door...

 

Agatha Christie's room 411 where she wrote Murder on the Orient Express (taken before refurbishment)

My favourite hotel search site: www.booking.com

www.booking.com is my favourite hotel booking site and I generally prefer booking my hotels all in one place here.  You can usually book with free cancellation - this allows you to confirm your accommodation at no risk before train booking opens.  It also means you can hold accommodation while you finalise your itinerary, and alter your plans as they evolve - a feature I use all the time when putting a trip together.  I never book hotels non-refundably.  I have also come to trust their review scores - you won't be disappointed with anything over 8.0.

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Travel insurance & health card

 

 

Columbus direct travel insurance

Take out decent travel insurance, it's essential...

Never travel without proper travel insurance from a reliable insurer with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover.  It should also cover loss of cash & belongings (up to a limit), and trip cancellation.  An annual multi-trip policy is usually cheapest even for just 2 or 3 trips a year - I have an annual policy myself.  However, don't expect travel insurance to bail you out of every missed connection, see the advice on missed connections here.  Here are some suggested insurers, Seat61 gets a little commission if you buy through these links, and feedback from using insurance for rail & ferry travel is always welcome.

In the UK, use www.confused.com to compare prices & policy features across major insurance companies.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over 65, see www.JustTravelCover.com - 10% discount with code seat61.

        If you live in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or the EU, try Columbus Direct's other websites.

  If you live in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

Get an EU health card, it's free...

If you're a UK citizen travelling in Europe, you should apply for a free European Health Insurance Card, which entitles you to free or reduced rate health care if you become ill or get injured in many European countries, under a reciprocal arrangement with the NHS.  This replaced the old E111 forms as from January 2006.  The EHIC card is available from ww.nhs.uk.  It doesn't remove the need for travel insurance, though.

 

Curve card

Get a free Curve card to save on exchange rates & foreign transaction fees...

Banks often give you a poor exchange rate, then charge you a currency conversion fee on top.  A Curve MasterCard means no foreign transaction fees and gives you the mid-market exchange rate, at least up to a certain limit, £500 per month as I write this.  The balance goes straight onto one of your existing debit or credit cards.  And you can get a Curve card for free.

How it works:  1. Download the app for iPhone or Android.  2. Enter your details & they'll send you a Curve MasterCard - they send to most European addresses including the UK.  3. Link your existing credit & debit cards to the app.  4. Now use the Curve MasterCard to buy things online or in person or take cash from ATMs, just like a normal MasterCard. Curve does the currency conversion and puts the balance onto whichever of your debit or credit cards you choose.  You can even change your mind about which card it goes onto, within 14 days of the transaction.

I have a Curve Blue card myself and it's great - I get some commission if you sign up to Curve, but I only recommend such things when I've read up on reviews and tried it myself.  See details, download the app and get a Curve card. Use code MAN61 to get £5 cashback after signing up and using your Curve card the first time.

 

Express VPN

Get a VPN for safe browsing when you travel.  VPNs & why you need one explained...

When you're travelling you often use free WiFi in public places which may not be secure.  A VPN means your connection to the internet is encrypted & always secure, even using unsecured WiFi.  In countries such as China where access to Twitter & Facebook is restricted, a VPN gets around these restrictions.  And lastly, you can select the geographic location of the IP address you browse with, to get around geographic restrictions which some websites apply - for example one booking site charges a booking fee to non-European visitors but none to European visitors, so if you're not located in Europe you can avoid this fee by browsing with a UK IP address using a VPN.  VPNs & why you need one explainedExpressVPN is a best buy and I use them myself.

 


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