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.

COVID-19 update See COVID-19 travel information.

Routes, train times, fares & tickets...

  Which route to choose?

  London-Paris-Budapest-Bucharest-Istanbul

  London-Paris-Belgrade-Sofia-Istanbul

  Video guide:  London to Istanbul by train...

  Variations via Amsterdam, Brussels or 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...

  Turkish e-visa

  Travel insurance, Curve Card & VPN

  Hotels in Istanbul & the famous Pera Palas

Information on other pages...

  Starting from other UK towns & cities

  Train travel in Turkey, beyond Istanbul...

  General information for train travel in Europe

  Luggage on trains & left luggage at stations   

  Taking your bike   Taking dogs

  Eurail pass guide   

  InterRail pass guide

  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:

17 October 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:

Istanbul Sirkeci station is now closed to mainline trains...

Sadly, Istanbul's historic Sirkeci station permanently closed to mainline trains 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.

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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

  Can I stop off on the way?

  How much does it cost?

 

  How to buy tickets

  What's the journey like?

  How to book using an InterRail pass

  Visas for Turkey

London ► Istanbul

Istanbul ► London

Can I stop off on the way?

How much does it cost?

There are two different ways to ticket a London to Istanbul train journey: (a) Normal point-to-point tickets for each train; (b) an InterRail pass.

Point-to-point tickets are cheapest, if you buy cheap advance-purchase tickets for each train several months ahead at the cheapest prices.

However, advance-purchase tickets commit you to a specific train with limited or no refunds or changes allowed.  I recommend using an InterRail pass because of the extra flexibility it offers.  With a pass you can simply reschedule or re-route if fire, flood, or missed connections affect your journey.  If you live outside Europe, you qualify for a Eurail pass rather than InterRail, but pricing & reservations are now exactly the same as for an InterRail.  Here is a summary of the total costs:

 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...

 £230 one-way

 £430 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

...if you use point-to-point tickets...

Calculating the cost of a London to Istanbul train journey is a black art.  You're not buying a London to Istanbul ticket, there's no such thing.  You're buying a separate ticket for each train, and the price varies depending how far ahead you book.  So get a calculator and add up the fare for your chosen class or sleeper or couchette for each leg of the journey.  Fares for Eurostar, TGV, Kalman Imre & Railjet are dynamic 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 even at the station on the day.

 1. London to Paris

 by Eurostar...

 From £52 one-way, £78 return 2nd class.

 From £115 one-way, £199 return 1st class.  Child 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.

...if you use an InterRail pass...

Using an InterRail pass is the most flexible way to travel from London or Paris to Istanbul.  It costs almost the same as point-to-point tickets if you're under 28 years old, it costs a bit more than point-to-point tickets if you're over 28, but the extra flexibility is worth it, especially for a round trip.  After buying the pass, you still need to pay for a Eurostar passholder fare & sleeper or couchette reservations.  More information about InterRail passes & how they work.  Here's the breakdown:

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

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

...or buy tickets by phone....

...or buy tickets at stations as you go...

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

What's the journey like?

1. London to Paris by Eurostar...

Eurostar trains link London & Paris in 2h20, travelling at up to 300 km/h (186 mph).  There are two bar cars, power sockets at all seats and free WiFi.  Standard Premier and Business Premier fares include a light meal with wine (or breakfast, on departures before 11:00).  There's a 30-minute minimum check-in (10-minutes for business premier) as all border formalities are carried out before you board the train.  More information about Eurostar including check-in procedureSt Pancras station guide Gare du Nord station guide.

Eurostar e320   Eurostar e320 first class seats

A Eurostar e320 at St Pancras.  More about Eurostar.

 

1st class:  Standard Premier or Business Premier.

Eurostar e320 2nd class   Eurostar e320 cafe-bar

Standard class seats.  Larger photo.

 

One of two cafe-bars, in cars 8 & 9.  Larger photo.

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

In Paris it's an easy 10 minute walk from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l'Est for the TGV to Germany.  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.  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.  Paris Gare de l'Est station guideMunich Hbf station guide.

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 to Munich at Paris Est.

1st class 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.

3. Munich to Budapest by sleeper train Kalman Imre...  More information.

Cosy & inviting, the photo below shows the modern air-conditioned Hungarian sleeping-car of the Kalman Imre at Munich Hauptbahnhof...  The sleeping-car has 11 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 & croissantThere's time for dinner in Munich before boarding, for a Bavarian meal and a beer or two, try www.augustinerkeller.de at Arnulfstrasse 52, to the north side of Munich Hbf.  See more information about the sleeper train Kalman Imre.

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

The Kalman Imre, about to leave Munich...

 

2-bed sleeper. Larger photo

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

City of Budapest & the Danube

Good morning Budapest!

4. 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.

Brasov station, Romania   Scenery approaching the Carpathian mountains

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...

5. 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.  The Romanian sleeping-car with 1, 2 & 3 bed compartments  was discontinued this in 2017.  But it's cheap enough to buy several tickets to get dual or even solo occupancy.

A few hours after leaving Bucharest the train reaches the Romanian border point, Giurgiu.  It 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 then spends a lazy afternoon meandering along pleasant river valleys across rural Bulgaria.  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.

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 cou]chette car like this.  The seats convert to flat bunks with rug, sheet and pillow, 4 berths per compartment.

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.

Istanbul Sirkeci station.  You 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.

...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

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...

Back to top


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:  Belgrade Centar station is closer to the city centre, but you have to rely on a single bus line to reach the centre.  You may prefer to get off at Novi Beograd and take a tram, trams 7 & 9 link Novi Beograd station with the site of the original now-defunct Belgrade station on the edge of the old city every 5-10 minutes, 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, and you transfer to central Istanbul by suburban train as follows:  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 £52 one-way, £78 return 2nd class.

 From £115 one-way, £199 return 1st class.  Child 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 English-speaking telesales line on 00 49 (0)30 311 68 29 04, lines open 08:30-20:00 Monday-Friday, 09:00-13:00 Saturday & Sunday UK time, 1.5% fee for phone bookings.

  • 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.com or www.thetrainline.com 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.thetrainline.com.  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 English-speaking line on 00 49 (0)30 311 68 29 04, lines open 08:30-20:00 Monday-Friday, 09:00-13:00 Saturday & Sunday UK time, 1.5% fee for phone bookings. They (obviously) use the German Railways reservation system.  Tickets can be sent to any address worldwide for a small fee. 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?

1. London to Paris by Eurostar...

Eurostar trains link London & Paris in 2h20, travelling at up to 300 km/h (186 mph).  There are two bar cars, power sockets at all seats and free WiFi.  Standard Premier and Business Premier fares include a light meal with wine (or breakfast, on departures before 11:00).  There's a 30-minute minimum check-in (10-minutes for business premier) as all border formalities are carried out before you board the train.  More information about Eurostar including check-in procedureSt Pancras station guide Gare du Nord station guide.

Eurostar e320   Eurostar e320 first class seats

A Eurostar e320 train.  More about Eurostar.

 

Standard Premier/Business Premier.  Larger photo.

Eurostar e320 2nd class   Eurostar e320 cafe-bar

Standard class seats.  Larger photo.

 

One of two cafe-bars, in cars 8 & 9.  Larger photo.

2. Paris to Munich by TGV Duplex...  Click for video guide

In Paris it's an easy 10 minute walk from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l'Est for the TGV to Germany.  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.  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.  Paris Gare de l'Est station guideMunich Hbf station guide.

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 on upper deck, 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.

3. 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...

4. Zagreb to Belgrade by 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 go into town, perhaps visit the fortress overlooking the confluence of Danube and Sava.

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

5. Belgrade to Sofia by Balkan Express 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.  Courtesy of Matthew Woodward.

6. 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 at Halkali.  From here, you take a Marmaray suburban train to Istanbul Sirkeci station in central Istanbul.  Courtesy of John Mcnamara...


Video guideLondon to Istanbul...

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.

Tip:  It can pay to compare prices across multiple hotel sites:  HotelsCombined.com is a price comparison site which compares hotel prices on Booking.com, Hotels.com, Expedia, Accor, Agoda and many others.  Though if there's not much in it, I prefer keeping all my bookings together in one place at www.booking.com.

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Travel insurance & VPN

 

Columbus direct travel insurance

 

Always take out travel insurance...

Never travel without travel insurance with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover from a reliable insurer.  It should also cover trip cancellation and loss of cash & belongings up to a reasonable limit.  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, feedback is always welcome.

In the UK, reliable insurers include Columbus Direct.

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

You can use www.confused.com to compare prices & policy features across major insurance companies.

        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.

 

Curve card

Get a Curve card to save on foreign transaction fees...

Banks often give a poor exchange rate, then charge a currency conversion fee as well.  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 use a Curve Blue card myself - I get a little commission if you sign up to Curve, but I'm recommending it here because I think it's great.  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.  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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