One of the longer train journeys across Europe, London to Istanbul is still very much doable and takes in some of the continent’s most interesting cities and trains.
The trip takes three to four days, beginning with the trusted 4.01 afternoon Eurostar from London’s St Pancras to Paris’ Gare du Nord and ending in Istanbul’s Sirkeci at 7.50am three days later. There are five possible routes, including going via Belgrade and Sofia, taking a ferry from Italy and going through Athens and Thessaloniki. The recommended route however, for comfort, cost and safety, is to go through Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.
Once in Paris, travelers walk the ten minutes from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est and hop on the City Night Line sleeper Cassiopeia to Munich. The Cassiopeia has regular seats, basic four or six bed couchettes and luxury sleeping cars, it also has a buffet car.
The train arrives in Munich at 7.10 on the morning of day two. There is a two and a half hour stop over for leg stretching and a quick breakfast before climbing aboard the 9.27 Austrian RailJet train that will shoot across Europe at 140 mph to arrive in Budapest at around 5pm that afternoon. The train crosses some stunning countryside, and traveling through the day gives the chance to take it in from the comfort of your seat.
This train also calls at Vienna and Salzburg, meaning that if passengers want to stop off and add these into their trip, it is easily done.
Once in Budapest, there is a few hours for dinner before catching the 8.19 EuroNight sleeper Ister to Bucharest, arriving at 11am the following morning. This is the point where west begins to feel like east. Passengers are advised to bring food as the restaurant car is often absent from the Ister and the journey is a long one. The couchettes on the Ister are also more basic and marginally less secure. This trip does, however, allow passengers to wake up to sunrise over the beautiful Romanian mountains, coming down through the Carpathians to reach Bucharest Nord.
The final leg of the journey is the most arduous, but with this the most interesting and possibly the most rewarding. It’s a long haul: trains leave Bucharest Nord at 1pm and arrive in Istanbul Sirkeci around 8am the following morning. This will also be the third night journey in three days and the strain can begin to tell. The train is the International Sleeper Bosphor. The departure board at Bucharest might read Sofia, but some carriages do go on to Istanbul – it is important to ensure you are in the right one. The afternoon journey once again crosses some spectacular landscape and has more than enough to interest even the more tired of travelers.
Until October 2013, the journey from Bucharest to Istanbul is interrupted at 1.45am at the Turkish border town of Kapikule where passengers have to disembark and pick up a bus service. This is due to works on the railway. The bus gets passengers into Istanbul at 8am, sometimes earlier, but it is worth bearing in mind this is a less comfortable option. Those fortunate enough to travel when the train is running straight through must also be prepared for disruption on the boarder at a similar time to buy a tourist visa and get their passports stamped. Passengers are also advised to consider a sleeper car over a couchette for this final part of the trip. Couchettes on the Bosphor are more basic than on other European trains and often quite dusty. There is also no buffet or restaurant car on the Bosphor so ensure food and water supplies are ample.
Day one and two of the return journey involve taking the Bosphor (or bus then Bosphor until Sept 2013) leaving Istanbul at 10pm and arriving into Bucharest at roughly 6.30pm the following day. Travelers then have to spend that night and day three in Bucharest; changing schedules mean it is no longer possible to have a direct connection here on the homeward journey. The end of day three sees the Bucharest-Budapest Ister, leaving at 7pm and arriving in Budapest at around 9am on day four. Day four is the final race on the day train from Budapest to Munich and the sleeper back to Paris, arriving in time for a morning Eurostar back to London on day five.
The cost for this journey can vary. The cheapest return is to use an InterRail pass, which comes to around £550. Without a pass, prices fluctuate, but a ballpark figure is £610 return. There is no London to Istanbul return; passengers must book each section of the journey separately. The easiest way to book is to contact European Rail. They will usually ask you to fill out a form detailing the legs of the journey and will calculate the cost from that. Not the cheapest way to reach Turkey, this still has to be by far the most interesting and memorable.