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  • Writer's pictureHakan Şule Efil


For sure, there are those among us who love long train journeys. We had been eyeing the Sofia Express for a long time, decided to go on a weekend, and wanted to share this route with you from A to Z.

Before going on this trip, we had many questions and read the reviews and travel notes of those who had gone. Based on both our own questions and those asked to us, we have compiled the 'Comprehensive List of FAQs' for you as follows:

  1. Where and how do we buy the ticket? Can we buy it online?

  2. At what times does the train operate?

  3. Is staying overnight necessary? Did you stay overnight? What happens if we don't stay?

  4. How is life on the train? What should we bring with us?

  5. They say crossing the border is difficult. Is this true?

  6. Which hotel did you stay at? Find a hotel for us too.

Buying Tickets...

Let's start by talking about buying tickets. First of all, forget about buying tickets online. There is no online sale; you need to go to Halkalı Station to buy your ticket, and they give you a printed train ticket. Quite nostalgic. :) For the ticket, we bought a two-person sleeper compartment because we wanted to sleep and rest during the journey. It made sense for us. Depending on the number of people, you can choose your ticket accordingly. If you are traveling alone and do not close the two-person sleeper, a stranger may or may not come with you. Totally by chance. Just for your information...

Train Schedule...

The train runs only once a day. From Istanbul-Halkalı Station to Sofia at 20:45, and from Sofia to Istanbul at 18:30.

Now let's figure out how to squeeze this trip into a weekend...

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Firstly, if you say, "I don't want to stay overnight, my friend. I'll go, explore, and come back," your trip can be as follows...

  • Friday: Board the train from Halkalı at 20:45.

  • Saturday morning: Arrive in Sofia around 8:00, explore the city all day, and board the train back to Istanbul at 18:30 on Saturday evening.

  • Sunday morning: Arrive in Istanbul around 8:00.

Since you will sleep on the train during this trip, your accommodation will be on the train. (Details of life on the train will come shortly.)

The second option is if you say, "I want to stay one night." Your trip can be like this...

  • Friday: Board the train from Halkalı at 20:45.

  • Saturday morning: Arrive in Sofia around 8:00, check into your hotel.

  • You will have two days to explore.

  • Sunday evening: Board the train back to Istanbul at 18:30.

  • Monday morning: Arrive in Istanbul around 8:00. Ready for work. :)

We preferred to stay overnight, even if it meant being a bit late for work the next morning. Since we slept on the train, we didn't feel too tired during the day.

Life on the Train...

For life on the train, according to our research, we learned that we needed slippers, trash bags, food, drinks, and water. Therefore, we set out with a full stock (we did really well by listening to those who went). First, there is no place on the train to buy food and drinks. Second, there is a small trash area in the compartments for washing and throwing away garbage (right below the sink). They leave freshly washed linens for you in your compartment. We left while fresh sheets were laid out when we went, but when we returned, they were left in transparent bags, so we prepared them ourselves. Other than that, blankets are not individually cleaned. If you are extremely meticulous, we recommend bringing your sheet and blanket.

There is a common toilet in each car, not overly clean, even cleaner at the beginning of the journey, but over time, it turns into a toilet with little trace of cleanliness. Still, it is manageable. We don't think it's a serious problem.

How do we cross the borders?

First of all, they told us (whoever said it, we read it online :D), don't leave without paying your exit fee, or you will wait in a very long line there. So, thinking about this, we got the exit fee stamp from the bank. -It can be taken from an ATM, and you don't need any receipts, as we tried to get a receipt, but they didn't even look at it since it appeared automatically in the system.- In our opinion, it can also be taken from internet banking.

Now let's talk about how to cross the borders.

Crossing the Borders...

Around midnight, you reach the Kapıkule border from Turkey. They wake you up, you get off the train, and line up with your passports. After the exit procedures are completed here, you return to the train and continue sleeping until you reach the Bulgarian border because it takes about 1 hour to get there. At the Bulgarian border entrance, Bulgarian police come to the train and go through each compartment, taking your passports and leaving after completing the entry procedures to the country. They hand your passports back to you in person. Then, welcome a lovely train sleep and good morning, Sofia!

On the way back from Sofia, border controls are almost the same, but the only difference is that when entering Turkey, the police search both the compartments and you go downstairs with your bags for the control.

In short, border procedures are a bit cumbersome when they occur between sleep at night.

Where Did We Stay, How Did We Get to the Hotel, How Did We Provide Transportation?

We were at Sofia train station at 9:35 in the morning.

We had reserved a room at a hotel called Best Western Plus Bristol Hotel. It was 1.6 km away from the train station. We walked for about 25 minutes, leaving our bags at the hotel even though check-in was at 14:00, and started exploring Sofia.

Despite being a hotel about 15 minutes' walk from the center, we felt that it was not in a very safe distance at night. Therefore, it would be better to choose hotels closer to Vitosha Street or the center.

We used the subway for transportation within Sofia because everything is within walking distance. :)

Now, what did we do in this day and a half?

Well, if we have answered general information and the most curious questions, let's talk about what we did and where we went.

Let's list the main places we visited near our location:

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

A Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral located in the most central part of Sofia, with a height of 52 meters. The construction of the cathedral, which started in 1882, was officially opened in 1912. Built in memory of Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, the cathedral is the second-largest cathedral in the Balkans with a capacity of 10,000 people.

Ivan Vazov National Theatre

With its impressive architecture and central location overlooking the city garden, this theater is one of Sofia's iconic buildings. Established in 1904 by artists, although the theater was initially named the National Theater, it later took the name of Ivan Vazov, famous for his historical dramas, tragedies, and comedies. It is the country's oldest and most impressive theater.

Black Mosque / Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church

Built in 1528 by the order of Suleiman the Magnificent and converted into a church in 1903, the mosque was designed by the architect Mimar Sinan. It is called the Black Mosque because it features black granite in its minaret.

Banyabashi Mosque / Sofia Kadi Seyfullah Efendi Mosque

This is a mosque that has been inherited from the Ottoman period to Bulgaria. Built on natural thermal springs, steam even emanates from the mosque's wall holes. The mosque, famous for its spacious dome and 15-meter minaret, was designed by the architect Mimar Sinan. It is the only Muslim mosque open for worship in Sofia. While not open for tourist visits, it is accessible for worship. We only managed to see it as we passed by.

St. Nedelya Church

Dating back to the medieval era, St. Nedelya Church, according to some theories, was initially constructed from wood in 1867 but had its foundation laid with stone and later entirely reconstructed with stone. In 1925, it suffered damage during the assassination attempt on Bulgarian Tsar Boris III and was subsequently restored. There's an interesting piece of information about this church – it was initially known as Holy King or Sveti Kral because it housed preserved belongings from Serbian King Stefan Uros Milutin.

Located in the city center, you frequently come across it. :)

St. George Church

Built in the early 4th century as a Roman bath, this structure was later converted into a church within the walls of Serdika during the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It is considered the oldest building in modern Sofia. During the Ottoman period, it was used as a mosque but was later converted back into a church. In exceptional cases, the church is used for significant military ceremonies, Orthodox, and classical music concerts. With its nearly unchanged appearance, this church, which has preserved itself to the present day, is rumored to have hosted some of the most important meetings of the Serdica Council.

Remains of Serdica

While walking through the city center, you can see the remains of Serdica, the historical Roman name of Sofia.

Vitosha Street

This is the busiest and most crowded street where you can shop, eat, and drink. We spent most of our time here.

Exploring Sofia: A Quick Guide for Travelers

Visiting historical sites takes about half a day, leaving you plenty of time for meals and sitting on the street for a drink. In Sofia, people smoke everywhere, indoors or outdoors, so you might prefer sitting in open spaces even if the weather is cold. Prices for coffee range from 2-3 Leva, Aperol 4-5 Leva, beer 2-4 Leva, and meals vary from 3-10 Leva. Considering that 1 Leva is approximately 14.38 Turkish Lira, the prices are more budget-friendly compared to Turkey.

Now that we've explored the historical sites and enjoyed the city, it's time to return. After shopping at the market and collecting our belongings from the hotel, we walked towards the train station. The walk to the train station was a bit challenging due to the weight of our luggage on the way back.

Now, let's talk about the return journey because there's an important detail to inform you about. Everything at the train station is written in Cyrillic, and finding details like where your train departs and where you need to go can be a bit challenging. When we asked for help from the staff, they didn't assist (at least in our case). We managed to find the station by reading our ticket and trying to understand the signs. If you see a train with a moon and star symbol, know that it's your return train. :)

Here's a sequential list of things to do:

  1. Have breakfast with coffee and croissants on Vitosha Street.

  2. Explore historical sites.

  3. Sit at one of the street-side venues on Vitosha Street, enjoy something to eat or drink, and savor the city.

  4. For those who love taking street and city photos: You'll come across old and abandoned buildings during your walk, be sure to capture them.

  5. During your return, make sure to do some shopping at the market (dry meat, alcohol, etc.). Prices are genuinely affordable.

We believe it's a must-follow route. If you have questions or want to know more, let's meet in the comments. :)

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