One of our all-time favorite ways to travel is by train. The quiet, continuous rumbling of the engine gives you time to think and unwind, and the views out the window usually offer unspoiled nature as far as the eye can see. While taking the train during the day has its perks, when pressed for time or just looking to save money on accommodation, overnight train is the way to go. Yes, it can get cramped, and yes, it’s hard to keep your balance while you tinkle; but it is all part of the experience!
Last summer we decided to go on a journey from our hometown Ljubljana to Istanbul by overnight trains. The best thing about this trip is the fact that overnight trains depart late in the evening and arrive early in the morning, giving you a whole day to explore the cities on your way. Here is how we visited Belgrade, Sofia, and Istanbul in a matter of days, plus some tips and info to help you plan your trip!
STOP #1: BELGRADE, SERBIA
Former capital of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s largest city, Belgrade is known as the metropolis of the Balkans. With its turbulent history and modern culture, the city has a lot to offer to travelers of any age and interest. The best way to explore the city in a day is by joining a free walking tour, starting at Republic Square, the central hub of Belgrade.
After you have seen and heard the essence of Belgrade from a local’s point of view, take a stroll down Knez Mihailova Street and stop for lunch in Skadarlija, bohemian quarter filled with bars and restaurants serving authentic Serbian cuisine. In the afternoon, rent a bike and discover Belgrade’s summer retreat, Ada Ciganlija. To end the day on a perfect note, join the locals and soak up the sunset atop the Kalemegdan Fortress.
Do not miss: Skadarlija, Temple of Saint Sava, Ada Ciganlija, and Kalemegdan Fortress.
Details: Train departs Ljubljana at 21:05, arriving in Belgrade at 05:54. The “early bird” price is 25 EUR. (We recommend buying this ticket in advance, whereas the rest of them we bought on the morning of arrival to each city.)
STOP #2: SOFIA, BULGARIA
Although slightly less known as Belgrade, Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is slowly but surely making a name for itself in the traveling community. Like most European capitals, Sofia too offers daily free walking tours, guided by knowledgeable English-speaking volunteers. To get in the center of action, walk down newly renovated pedestrian zone Vitosha Boulevard and admire the views of Mt Vitosha at one end and Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya at the other. If you’re more of an outdoor/hiking person, take the full day to breathe in some fresh air and explore the beautiful nature of Mt Vitosha. The base is easily reachable by public transportation and the mountain provides great hiking trails and picnic spots. If you happen to be in the area, be sure to treat yourself to a delicious meal in Loving Hut Sofia.
Do not miss: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. George Rotunda, and Mineral Water Springs.
Details: Train departs Belgrade at 22.05, arriving in Sofia at 08:32. The price for a sleeper is 27 EUR.
FINAL STOP: ISTANBUL, TURKEY
The magic of this two-continental city is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. Exploring Istanbul requires at least couple of days, although the main attractions are conveniently located close to one another, making it very manageable to tour. Take the whole day to admire the sights in and around Sultanahmet District to get a proper idea of city’s rich history and culture.
Best advice: Eat where locals eat, have a taste of traditional Turkish tea and coffee (add a shisha if it tickles your fancy), treat yourself to Turkish delights and dried fruit at Grand Bazaar, and buy a simit at a food stall.
Do not miss: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Grand Bazaar.
Tip: Try to avoid expensive Bosphorus boat tours. Instead do what locals do to enjoy Istanbul skyline – buy a token (4 TL = 1.20 EUR) and embark a boat that serves as a public transportation for residents between the European and Asian sides of the city.
Another tip: For best views of the city visit as many rooftop bars as you can!
Details: Train departs Sofia at 19:15 and arrives in Istanbul at 07:50. The price is 30 EUR.
Have you been on this trip before? Do you know of any other overnight train journeys worth taking?