Train from Bucharest (Romania) to Istanbul (Turkey)

By Jakarta100bars
If you enjoy traveling by train, the trip from Bucharest (Romania) to Istanbul (Turkey) via Bulgaria is worth considering. You will take 3 small train, each with only a few wagons, across the rural areas of the 3 countries. The pace is rather slow, probably less than 60 km/h, with multiple stops in-between.

It is perfect for slow travelers who have plenty of time and who like meeting people from various nationalities. Surprisingly indeed, most customers onboard are foreigners, including many young backpackers. From what I was told, the fares are deemed too expensive by locals who prefer other travel options.

The train is neither the fastest nor the cheapest way to travel from Bucharest to Istanbul. To summarize:

Train: 18 hours trip - around 200 lei (44 euros)
Bus: 11-12 hours trip - around 160 lei (36 euros) on Autogari.ro or directly at the Murat international bus station
Plane: 1 hour 30 minutes - from 250 lei (56 euros) to 450 lei (101 euros) on Pegasus Airlines or Tarom.

Note: Due to some works on the railway, the Turkish section from Kapikule to Istanbul is currently replaced by a bus. More details below.

Booking the Ticket
The counter 1 of the Gara de Nord specializes in international train tickets
I bought my ticket at the Gara de Nord train station in Bucharest, just one day before departure (for hotel booking in Bucharest, you can visit this website: http://www.hotelsinbucharest.net).

You can only book a seat reservation for the Romanian part of your trip. Trains in Romania are rarely full so you normally don't need an advance booking. If you wish to do so, you must either call them (see their website) or book through an agent (for instance http://www.triptkts.ro/). You cannot reserve online for international trips.

I was told beforehand that sleeper coaches were available, but it was not the case. There are only normal seats. It might be due to the repairs on the Turkish section of the line (and the fact that we are changing to a bus). 

The price I paid was 183 lei for the ticket itself and 15 lei for the seat reservation. The train departs each day from Gara de Nord Station at 12.50. You should normally arrive in Istanbul the next morning at 7.50.

The train is not direct: First you must take the No. 461 going to Sofia in Bulgaria and stop halfway in the Bulgarian station of Gorna Oryahovitsa (after bout 6 hours). From there, take the No. 465 to Dimitrovgrad (about 4 hours), then another the No.493 to Kapikule in Turkey (about 3 hours). Finally, you'll ride a bus until Istanbul. In between you have several stops at border crossings.

Please find below a description of every steps of the trip:

Departure - 12.50 - Gara de Nord
The Gara de Nord is easy to reach by metro from the city center of Bucharest as you have a dedicated stop. If you are coming from Piaţa Unirii or Piaţa Romană, you'll just need to make a change at Piața Victoriei. Alternatively, the taxi is very cheap (less than 20 lei or 4,5 euros).

In the station, you will find anything you need to buy for the duration of the trip. You have pastry shops, bakeries, fast food chains (McDonald's, Subway) and even a mid-sized supermarket. You also have some money changers.

Important: There are not many options to buy food and water during the trip so stock up. Buy sandwiches, snacks and a large bottle of water. Try to get Bulgarian money in advance if you can at the money changers in the station.

The train No. 461 is rather confortable though the seats are not reclinable. Toilets were clean as we started the journey but after a couple hours they looked quite bad and there wasn't any toilet paper left (bring your own!). Having some hand sanitizer with you is not a bad idea either.
The toilets after a couple hours
1st Stop - 14.47 - Giurgiu Nord (Romania)
This passport control at the last town in Romania before the Bulgarian border should take about 40 minutes.

The controller will first collect every passports or IDs and then he will handle them to immigration officers. In the meantime, you can just wait in the wagon or outside. There is a very small outdoor café on the right as you exit the train. If you have Romanian money left, it's time to spend it all.

2nd Stop - 15.55 - Ruse (Bulgaria)
This is the first station after you pass the Bulgarian border. Again passports will be collected and checked by immigration officers. Two wagons might be added to the train (destination Sofia). You can go outside for a while until you get your passport back.

3rd Stop - 18.28 - Gorna Oryahovitsa (Bulgaria)
At this point, you will get out and get into another train, the No. 465 that departs at 18.45.

It is not as good as the previous one, particularly the toilets, but if you are lucky enough to be alone in a cabin, you'll be able to get some sleep.

It is a very slow train and by this time, you cannot see the landscape anymore.

Note: After 17 minutes, the train will stop in the village of Veliko Tarnovo, a pretty town among the top tourist destinations in Bulgaria. If you have time, I recommend you to stop there a couple days for sightseeing.

4th Stop - 22.50 - Dimitrovgrad (Bulgaria)
Be careful as there are two Dimitrovgrad stations. Stop only at the second one, which is the terminal station where everybody must go out.

You will have to wait for about 40 minutes for train No. 493 coming from Plovdiv and going to Kapikule (Turkey). 

This train is similar to the No. 461. The controller will come and ask you to write down your name, nationality and passport number.

5th Stop - 00.40 - Svilengrad (Bulgaria)
This is a standard border passport control in the last town before Turkey. It lasts about 40 minutes. You can get out if you want to but there isn't much to do. Most passengers stay inside and sleep.

6th Stop - 1.48 - Kapikule (Turkey)
You will have to exit the train and go to the immigration office by yourself. It is quite tiring as most people are sleepy at this point. You may have to wait up to 30 minutes for your turn.

Once you get a stamp on your passport, you must pass your luggage through an X-ray machine, and then go to the bus waiting just outside the station.

The bus is comfortable: It has toilets, reclinable seats an small TVs.

7th Stop - 7.40 - Istanbul (Turkey)
Depending on the traffic, you may arrive even earlier. The bus will drop you just in front of Sirkeci train station. It is a rather central area for visitors, close to many of Istanbul's top tourists attractions. It is also well-connected to the metro, the tram and even the boat.

I recommend you to choose your hotel in this area so you can just walk a few hundred meters and sleep once you arrive.  Click on this link for hotel recommendations: Hotels Near Sirkeci Train Station.

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