Interrailing from London to Istanbul by train is one of the world’s greatest train journeys. It’s a classic route that evokes the romance of the Orient Express and the glamour of the golden age of rail.
These days the Pullman carriages and steam locos have been replaced by high-speed trains and shared sleeper carriages. But this can’t detract from the adventure and excitement of crossing Europe west to east, waking up on your final morning in Istanbul, a remarkable city where continents collide.
If you go flat out, the 2,000 mile journey from London to Istanbul by train can be made in three nights, but doing it this way means you won’t have a chance to stop en route and explore some of the fantastic locations en route.
I’d recommend a couple of overnight city stops en route with an Interrail Pass for travel flexibility. This way you can do the whole journey plus a break at the end in Istanbul in a week.
Interrailing from London to Istanbul by Train – Quick Links
- Route Planning – London to Istanbul by Train
- Interrail Global Pass, Supplements and Reservations
- Connection Tips for the Journey
- Arriving in Istanbul – Visas, Relaxation and Sightseeing
Route Planning – London to Istanbul by Train
There is no one set way to get from London to Istanbul by train. But we’re assuming you want to take a reasonably direct route. You’ll first need to decide if you want to go via Belgrade and Sofia, or via Bucharest.
There are several ways to get to either way, but apart from the fixed start and endpoints, I’d suggest that you make Budapest a central hub for your London to Istanbul train journey.
In many ways, it’s the first place where east Europe meets west. Before Budapest, you’ll be able to ride on some of Europe’s most advanced high-speed trains. After Budapest, the pace slows, and the languages are culture will become more unfamiliar: Cyrillic script replaces the Latin alphabet in many places, the food and even religion changes.
So, if you take our advice and travel via Budapest, you’ve got two main route planning decisions to make: getting from London to Budapest and getting from Budapest to Istanbul.
London to Budapest by Train
Depending on how well you know western Europe, you may want to make this part of the journey as quick as possible and spend more time in eastern Europe. Part of the fun of the adventure is seeing the culture, landscape and architecture change along the way, so we’d advise a bit of time in the cities en route to Budapest, even if it’s a quick look round while you’re waiting for a connecting train.
There are three main ways I’d recommend getting to Budapest: which I call the northern, central and southern routes.
The Central Route – London to Budapest by Train
This is the simplest way. Take the Eurostar from London straight to Paris, then take the sleeper from Paris down to Munich in Germany. From here a daytime train will then take you to Budapest to arrive on the evening of day two.
If you leave in the morning of day one, you’ll have a chance to look around Paris and should have time for breakfast in Munich before heading eastwards.
You could, of course, spend an overnight stop in Paris first to get your first taste of the continent before moving on. And Munich – the capital of Bavaria – is a great city that warrants extra time in them if you want to extend your adventure and soak up the atmosphere.
Indeed, if you’re travelling in late September or early October, then you’d be foolish not to stop to experience Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest.
The Northern Route – London to Budapest by Train
But if like me, you’ve been to Paris a few times already, you might want to do things a little differently and try the northern route.
Take the Eurostar to Brussels instead of Paris, and after a look around and maybe a lunch of moules frites by the Grand Place, head across the German border to change trains again at Cologne.
You’ll have time for dinner in this handsome city – boasting the world’s tallest Gothic cathedral – before catching an overnight sleeper train south east to Vienna.
Have a leisurely breakfast or quick lunch in Vienna before changing trains to head east to Budapest and arrive in the evening of day two.
As with the Paris route, you could of course extend your trip with an overnight in Brussels or Cologne, but there’s probably slightly less in either of these cities to justify the extra night at this stage.
An extra option on the northern route is to change trains immediately in Vienna and take the train straight to Bratislava, Slovakia’s compact and pretty capital city. If you don’t tarry in Vienna, you can reach Bratislava for lunch in the old town before continuing in the early afternoon to Budapest.
The Southern Route – London to Budapest by Train
A third option is to take the southern route from Paris and overnight through southeastern France into Switzerland to change trains in Zurich the next morning.
The disadvantage of this route is that it forces you to complete the second stage of the journey via Belgrade. But if that’s where you were planning to visit anyway, then this route could work for you, and Zurich is an extremely pleasant spot to break the journey.
Budapest to Istanbul by Train
For the second leg of the journey, I’m assuming you’re travelling via Budapest and talk you through the two options: the Belgrade way and the Bucharest way. Both are equally enjoyable, so it all depends on which destinations en route take your fancy.
If you’ve taken the central or southern routes for the first leg of your journey, then there is another way to take, which I’ll detail later.
The Belgrade Way – Budapest to Istanbul by Train
This route takes you from Budapest south east into Serbia, where after a full overnight trip you’ll arrive in Belgrade by mid-morning. I’d heartily recommend an overnight stop in the vibrant Serbian capital, but if you’re stretched for time, you can head onward through the length of the country to cross over into Bulgaria the same day.
Be warned though, although it’s totally possible to do it this way; you’ll be missing out on one of Europe’s most exciting cities. And what’s more, the daytime journey from Belgrade to Sofia is long, slow and, if done in the summer months, incredibly hot and crowded.
After Belgrade, you’ll be heading onwards into Bulgaria. Here you can either stop in Sofia, the capital or continue through to cross the Turkish border to complete the journey to Istanbul.
A further option is to change trains in Sofia and stop overnight in Plovdiv. You can then spend a leisurely day in Bulgaria’s elegant, historic and friendly second city before your overnight train into Turkey.
The Bucharest Way – Budapest to Istanbul by Train
The other way from Budapest to Istanbul is via Romania. The route from Budapest to the Romanian capital Bucharest takes you over some picturesque mountain scenery, and you’ll find the trains some of the best to be experienced in eastern Europe, with comfortable sleeper cars and buffet cars serving very reasonably priced full cooked to order meals.
Despite what some of the guidebooks say, Bucharest may be a little rough around the edges, but is definitely well worth spending some time in; it’s a fascinating mix of 19th-century elegance and monolithic communist-era architecture.
From Bucharest, it’s a long slog over to Istanbul and best done by catching the sleeper train which first takes you briefly into Bulgaria before continuing into Turkey and your final destination.
Other Route Choices – London to Istanbul by Train
It’s not compulsory to travel via Budapest. Other options include using Salzburg in Austria as your central hub. From here, instead of continuing to Budapest where the journey splits, you can head south east and make your way to Belgrade via the Slovenian capital Ljubljana and the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Both are fascinating cities with a lot going for them, so if you’ve visited Budapest before you may like to take this option. Otherwise, I would recommend going via Budapest. There’s something about it that makes it feel like the perfect mid-point of the trip, and its size and grandeur make it really special.
Interrail Global Pass, Supplements and Reservations
As you’ll be visiting more than one country, you’ll need an Interrail global pass.
There are several types of global passes, but the good news is that it is perfectly possible to make the entire journey on the cheapest one: a 5 day within 10 days global Interrail pass.
Prices depend on your age and start at just £149 if you’re 27 or under.
Do be aware, though, that you’ll need to pay some supplements on top of this. The super fast trains of western Europe like TGV, Thalys and ICE all incur extra charges.
Also, as you’re starting your journey, you will need to purchase Eurostar tickets as they’re not included in an Interrail Pass. You can get Eurostar tickets from £36 to Paris or Brussels if you book in advance.
And if you’re spending the night in a sleeper car, then there will naturally be further supplements.
You’d be very wise to arrange all your reservations and sleeper arrangements for western Europe (anything west of Budapest) before travelling, especially in the summer months. There is more flexibility in eastern Europe, and you can get away with making reservations just before you travel.
Connection Tips for the London to Istanbul by Train Journey
On a long Interrail train journey like the trip from London to Istanbul, there are several connections where you may have a short time in a new city before catching your onward train.
You’ll want to make the most of your time, so planning ahead will pay dividends.
My top recommendation is to make sure you’ve got a day bag as well as your main luggage. Before you arrive for a connection, get it packed so as soon as you arrive, you can head straight for left luggage.
If you’re travelling within the EU get a couple of Euro coins handy, otherwise you may have to head for an ATM quickly, get some cash then visit a newsstand to break a note for some coins for the left luggage.
If you’ve got to change stations, as you do in Vienna, for example, then get to your new station and drop your bags first before attempting to explore the city.
Do your research before you arrive and don’t be too ambitious. Pick a couple of sights near the station. You don’t want to be exploring too far from the station and then have a mad dash back to catch your connection if you get lost or waylaid.
Sometimes it’s more enjoyable just to find a pleasant cafe near the station and recharge with a meal or a coffee and snack and just watch the world go by rather than dashing around a new city worrying about making it back in time. The point is that you want to get a flavour of the places you stop in, you don’t need to follow the whole tourist trail.
Arriving in Istanbul
Reaching your final destination is incredibly exciting. You’ll have covered the whole of Europe from west to east and seen the culture slowly change. The last leg into Turkey is something of an adventure in itself.
The best option to do this is on a night train, but even so, don’t expect a good night’s sleep as you’ll have to stop at the Turkish border and get out at the station to get your passport stamped. You’ll need to make sure you’ve arranged a Turkish visa first, as the days of being able to simply purchase one at the border are numbered.
Back on board, you should be able to get a couple of hours more sleep before waking well on the way to Istanbul. You’ll cross the Thracian plain – the European part of Turkey – first before arriving in the suburbs before the sprawling city appears.
Unfortunately the historic Sirkeci Station – the original destination of the Orient Express – has now closed, and arrival in Istanbul is not nearly as atmospheric as it used to be.
And because of significant engineering work to accommodate the new underground train tunnel linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, the final train stop is in flux, and you’ll need to check carefully before making the journey.
Despite this, once you’ve finally arrived in Istanbul, you won’t be disappointed, and you really should schedule at least a couple of nights in the city before moving on.
Once You Arrive – Istanbul Sightseeing Tips
After the long overnight journey to Istanbul – and the sometimes tiring overall trip – there’s no better way to feel human again than taking a trip to one of the city’s historical Turkish baths. One of the best is the Cemberlitas Hammam, which is housed in a beautiful old structure just next to the Grand Bazaar.
There’s so much to see and do in Istanbul we couldn’t possibly do it justice here, but to quickly get yourself oriented, you can do no better than head up the Galata Tower. Here the views stretch across a minaret studded panorama from Europe to Asia, and you can really reflect on how far you’ve come.
You’ll also most likely want a good meal and some time to relax and recharge. My top tip is to avoid the tourist traps in the historic Sultanahmet area – where most of the main sights like the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar are concentrated – and head across the Golden Horn to Istiklal Street, where the locals come to shop, dine and go out.
One of the most famous dining areas is Cicek Pasaj, which is a wonderfully evocative old arcaded street where you can eat traditional mezze and be serenaded by gipsy musicians. An even better tip, however, is to pop just around the corner to Nevizade Sokak – this is where a younger crowd hangs out, and the vibe is more authentic and the food and service arguably better.
Aside from that, pack a good guidebook – Top Ten Istanbul (from DK Eyewitness Travel) is an excellent option for a short trip as it cuts out all the extraneous detail that the Rough Guides and Lonely Planets tend to pack in – and try to cram as much as you can in before you return home.
And if you’re really adventurous, you could even make your way back from Istanbul to London by train again with Interrail, tracing a different route back through the Balkans!
Image credits: vilipix, nicubunuphotos, Juraj Patekar, miguelvirkkunen