Last night, I decided to brave the train from Istanbul to Sofia in Bulgaria. It was supposed to be an overnight sleeper, but I learnt online that the engineering works in Bulgaria are causing disruption and resulting in rail replacement buses. I also heard in the hostel that someone went to get the overnight train to Sofia and it wasn’t running or they couldn’t find it.
Lets find out for real!
Train from Istanbul to Sofia August 2015
If you are travelling from Istanbul to Sofia by Overnight train in August 2015 you must read this to be aware of the disruptions and what effect this will have on your journey.
You will need to head to Istanbul Gar (Sikeci station) on the tram from Sultanahmet and you can buy a ticket from the International office for 62TL (about 20 EURO!)
Be aware of Rail Replacement buses on trains from Istanbul to Sofia
I was told by a friendly guy in the station that the rail replacement bus started to board around 9.30pm and then 10pm ‘go!’. So I arrived in plenty of time just before 9pm.
In the waiting room, I met Abi, another teacher and female solo traveller from London, who had just spent 10 days in Georgia. I truly love travel for the amazing people you meet and the stories they bring with them.
Bus number 1 Istanbul to Kapikule
At around 9.30pm we started to board the comfortable coach just outside the waiting room. But although we were supposed to arrive by 10.52am the next day, we were not really sure how this journey would go, or if we would make good time.
We actually got a food and loo stop after about an hour. He gave us a 20 minute stop at a lovely cafe restaurant that was still open at 11.20pm at night. Now, one of my main goals when I leave a country is to get rid of all my currency. So I went up to the guy on the food counter and showed him my 4.5 TL to see what I could get. He actually served me a small take out plate of rice and beans! Bargain!
Around 3 and a half hours after setting off, we arrived at Kapikule, where we thought we were changing to a train. But no train was there and we waited about 3 hours from twenty to 2 to 20 to five. In the mean time I made a Chinese friend and took a few pictures of demon dogs!
Many stray dogs and cats are in this area at big. Please not that they are not really demon, this was a camera fluke! But if you look up at the Kapikule sign, you will see bats flying aroundthere. You will also find a clean toilet tithe left of the station.
Bus Number 2 Kapikule to Plovdiv
Anyway, to our surprise, we saw another bus arrive. Yep, we had to change from a Turkish bus to a Bulgarian bus and we had been waiting for them to meet in the middle!
At around 20 to five we left on bus number 2 to head to for the Bulgarian border. Bulgarian border by bus in the middle of the night is somewhat disruptive! First you will get off to go through Turkish exit customs, then you will stop at Duty free, then you will stop for someone to get on the bus to check passports, then you will wait for sniffer dogs, then you will stop to get off the bus for Bulgarian customs!
The border agent will take all of your passports at this point. Don’t worry, they do come back! Nothing corrupt or dodgy is going on here. If you are an EU citizen you won’t need a visa. This whole process took at least an hour. Don’t expect to get much sleep!
After the border there was one more stop before Plovdiv. If you want to go to the loo here be very quick and expect basic facilities.
Arriving in Plovdiv Train Station
So here’s the shocker for the time schedule – we arrived in Plovdiv just one hour before we were supposed to be in Sofia! Predicted time arrival of 10.52 out the window! There are engineering works at Plovdiv, just go round the station with the crowds. Don’t panic when you see that the board is in Cyrillic alphabet (Looks like Russian) it will update to English as well. You will be tired at this point so make sure you check the departures rather than arrivals board!
I was so pleased that I could read Sofia in Cyrillic and asked Abi for a high five, which turned into a near miss and half hearted effort considering our 24 hour stay awake!!!
We then realised that I had to contact Phillip from www.rilashuttle.com who was meeting in about 15 minutes, even though we were 3 hours away! I tried the phone with coins and they just kept jumping out! People were telling me to get a carte telefon (phone card) but no where in the station was selling them and no one was speaking English! I finally resorted to asking a Bulgarian Policeman for help, and he said ‘I am listening!’ amazing! I told him I must phone Sofia and he lent me his mobile!
Plovdiv is a good place for a stop off if you get chance – it will be the capital of culture 2019.
The Train from Plovdiv to Sofia
The train (finally!) from Plovdiv to Sofia was around 3 hours and very pleasant. You can begin to see some mountainous scenery of Bulgaria. Was it optimistic to still hope for the sleeper? Absolutely!
Arriving in Sofia
Don’t fall into the trap of the taxi touts – they will completely rip you off! If you really want a taxi, walk outside the station around 100m in front you will see the official real taxis who should use the meter by law. Don’t pay more than 10-15lv for a ride in the city and agree your price beforehand if you are unsure.
Thankfully, we had the wonderful Megy from Rila Shuttle to meet me! I gained a friend here, because Abi was supposed to go on another overnight train to Belgrade, but that would have been crazy after the journey we had, so she joined me at my hostel. Megy welcomed us and drove us to our hostel Crosspoint.
The rail replacement buses are expected to be running until the end of August/start of September. If you have any updates on the overnight train Istanbul to Sofia please comment below.