While my first trip to Istanbul was from Rome, my most recent four trips were all from Sofia, so I’m well-versed in how to easily get from Sofia to Istanbul.
Your options are to fly (the most expensive but most pleasant way to go) or to take the sleeper train or to go by bus. Here are the step-by-step instructions for all three methods, including everything you need to know to get from Sofia to Istanbul by train, bus, or plane.
Sofia to Istanbul by Train
You can take an overnight sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul every night. It’s a pleasant overnight train, but there are some things you’ll want to know ahead of time to ensure your trip is enjoyable.
Buying Your Train Tickets
The costs of train tickets from Sofia to Istanbul depend on which kind of compartment or seat you book. The prices €18.48 for the ticket plus the following reservation fee:
- 6-bed couchette: €9.40 p.p.
- 4-bed couchette: €14 p.p.
- Double sleeper: €15 p.p.
- Single sleeper: €35
Thus a ticket in a 4-bed couchette is €18.48 + €14 = €32.48 or about 64 Bulgarian leva or about $38 USD.
To purchase your tickets, you have to go to the Central Train Station in Sofia and buy them in person. You can pay in cash or with a credit card.
Since there were three of us on our trip, we booked four tickets to reserve the entire 4 person room.
Pro Tip: Book at least a few days in advance. The train doesn’t serve very many passengers. When we went to book the day before, it was completely sold out and our trip was delayed a day.
Preparing For Your Train Trip
Beyond the typical packing tips for Istanbul, you want to double check that you have the following in tow:
Your Passport, Visa Information, Accommodations Information, and Onward Travel Confirmation: Make sure you have these readily available for the border crossing. There won’t be wifi and a Bulgarian sim won’t work, so have them printed or downloaded so you won’t have to rely on the internet.
Train Snacks: The train trip lasts about ten hours, and there is no snack car on the train. You’ll want to bring enough snacks and drinks for the trip and extra in case the trip is delayed significantly.
Charged Devices: There are outlets in most of the compartments so you can charge, but there is only one per room.
Leaving From the Sofia Central Train Station
You’ll be expected to be on the train platform forty-five minutes before the train’s departure. This time is used to settle into the train, which will leave exactly on-time.
Arrive at the station earlier than this, just to be safe. Find the platform you’ll be leaving from so you don’t feel rushed last-minute.
The station theoretically has wifi, but I can’t ever get it to work. However, the cafe in the above photograph does have wifi as long as you’re in it or very close.
If you need to use the restroom at the train station, the cost is 0.50 leva or about thirty cents USD.
Our compartment was very comfortable. We had an electrical outlet, cozy couches, and the fold-down beds were quite comfy. The train does not have wifi or USB ports, but I wouldn’t have expected those things on a Balkan train.
We were given pillows, sheets, water, and a small snack before the train pulled out of the station.
Our train car had two bathrooms. One was a squat toilet, and one was a regular toilet. FYI in case, you find the wrong one for your preferences.
Crossing the Bulgaria-Turkey Border
We pulled into the Bulgarian border control close to two am. Leaving Bulgaria, the border control came on and took our passports, leaving us to stay on the train. Our passports were returned with stamps about twenty minutes later.
The crossing into Turkey was more complex. We got out and lined up to have our passports stamped. While we were in the border control, the train was searched for contraband.
Several people’s passports were pulled and they were asked to wait. My two friends and I were among them. After about fifteen minutes we were pulled into the back room and asked to show our onward travel and local hotel bookings. They also wanted to know our professions and why we had been in Sofia. The border guard asking the questions was very nice (and he was also very attractive), but it was a lot more than I’ve been asked on my other trips to Turkey.
Since I’ve never been asked this when flying into Istanbul, it took me a little by surprise. Luckily we had this information on hand, but it could have been trickier if we didn’t have the information.
There was some hiccup at the border, and our train didn’t pull out for another hour after all the passengers were back on board. This caused our train to arrive almost two hours late.
Pro Tip: Print your onward travel and accomodations information out. Neither Bulgarian nor Turkish data works at the border.
Arriving at Halkalı Station
You will be woken up about an hour before pulling into Halkalı. Use this time to gather your things, fold your blankets, and put away your beds. In my opinion, this would only require a twenty-minute wake-up call at most, but I don’t make the rules.
We should have been in Istanbul a little after seven am, but, due to the issues at the border, we got in closer to 9 am.
The train arrives at Halkalı Station and there’s a free transfer bus that takes you into the city. Everyone from the train gets off and gets onto the bus together. It’s about a block away from the station, but everyone will walk over together so you can’t get lost.
Every seat on the bus fills up if the train was sold out, so don’t expect to have any spare room. The ride takes about an hour.
Even though our bus was late, the transfer waited for us so we didn’t have to fend for ourselves.
Arriving in Central Istanbul
After the transfer bus picked us up and drove us into Istanbul, we got dropped off at Istanbul Sirkeci Station. It’s currently under renovation, but you can tell it’s a gorgeous building underneath and it will be again.
Have the address for your accommodations ready ahead of time. Depending on distance, you may choose to walk to your hotel. For those staying a bit further away, you’ll want to grab a ride to your hotel.
If you have data, you can order an Uber (my preferred way to travel around Istanbul). However, those without data will want to grab a taxi at the taxi stand. For this, you will need Turkish Lira to pay. You can get some at one of the ATMs inside the station.
When taking a taxi, make sure they turn on the meter and keep a friendly eye on it. When you arrive, you’ll pay in cash. You don’t need to tip but round up to the nearest lira.
Taking the Sofia to Istanbul Bus
Metro (Metro Plus) has five buses that leave for Istanbul daily. You can check their schedule here.
The trip by bus takes about nine hours and leaves from the Serdika Bus Station, which is in between the Train Station and the Central Bus Station. To purchase your tickets, you’ll need to go to the Metro office at the Serdika station. They’re in office 121. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets on their Turkish website (but not their Bulgarian one), but it’s always given me trouble so I prefer to buy in person.
You’ll need to bring cash for the ticket and your luggage. Tickets are about twenty-five euros or fifty leva (about $30 USD). When paying in Bulgaria in cash, expect them to only take leva. However, once you’ve crossed into Turkey, you’ll need Turkish lira (although you may be able to use Euros at the bus stops).
During the trip, the bus stops several times for food and so people can use the toilets. There’s no toilet on the buses, so make sure to go ahead of time. If this is one of your first Balkan bus trips, I highly recommend reading up on our Balkan bus trip guide. Better safe than sorry!
For the border crossing, you’ll go through at Kapikule. This is a bit of a process, which I’ve outlined my experiences in the section on traveling by train under “Crossing the Bulgaria-Turkey Border.” You’ll want to read up on this before leaving Sofia.
When arriving in Istanbul, the journey will end at Bayrampaşa, a suburb of Istanbul. There is a free shuttle that takes about thirty minutes which will drop you off in Istanbul proper. The same taxi and uber advice from the previous section apply here as well.
Finding Cheap Sofia to Istanbul Flights
Unfortunately, budget flights haven’t come to the Balkans yet, so many will find it surprising that a non-stop flight typically costs a minimum of $110 USD to fly from Sofia to Istanbul one-way and $185 USD for a round-trip ticket. The nice thing is that many of these flights are with Turkish airlines (one of the nicest airlines operating in Europe) and include a free checked bag.
To find the best and cheapest tickets, we recommend using Google Flights.
Tips for Flying from Sofia to Istanbul
The Sofia Airport is a smaller one, and I love how easy it is to get from check-in through security and border control. I can typically accomplish these three steps in twenty minutes or less, which is unheard of in most major cities.
If you choose to fly out of Sofia, read our Sofia Airport Guide so you know what to expect. The airport is a simple one, but there are some peculiarities like how far apart the terminals are.
When going through border control in Turkey, you will probably not be asked to show your visa, but you will need to make sure you have access to a paper or electronic copy just in case.
When arriving at the airport in Istanbul, I prefer to order an Uber rather than take a taxi. If you do order an Uber, the driver will arrange a pick-up point in one of the nearby parking lots.
Pro Tip: If you’ll be flying out of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport at the end of your trip, leave for the airport four or more hours ahead of your flight. My last trip there it took two hours just to get through check-in, security, and border control, plus there’s always a significant chance that traffic will be nuts.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Accommodations in Istanbul offer a great value compared to other cities in Europe. Here is a general range of what we mean by each budget category:
- Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $5-12 USD per night for a dorm bed or under $40 for a double.
- Mid-range: Around $40-80
- Luxury: Around $100 per night or more
Budget: For a great budget-friendly hotel, you can stay in the single or double rooms at the Dreamers B&B. Colorful and cozy, the B&B boasts a fabulous location in Beyoglu, less than a kilometer from Taksim Square. You can explore all of Beyoglu from here, and then head to Sultanahmet when you’re ready to see the old city. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Mid-Range: For an affordable, yet trendy boutique hotel, we recommend Peradays. It’s perfect for all Istanbul visitors, from first-timers to Istanbul veterans. The lofted rooms are generously large, so you can spread out and relax after a long day of sightseeing. They also have two cats that live here, Pera and Daisy, which you’ll be happy to greet after counting cats all day when out in the city. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Luxury: Istanbul has no shortage of fabulous hotels, but we love Hammamhane, a boutique apartment-hotel that was originally a hammam, and the sister hotel of Peradays. Built in a historic hammam (Turkish bath), the suites are spacious and luxurious. Located in the heart of Cukurcuma, the antiques district, Hammamhane is within walking distance to art galleries, design stores, antique shops, and chic cafés. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Where to Stay in Sofia
Unless you live in Sofia, you’re more than likely also going to need to book your accommodations here for your trip. Here are our best recommendations for Sofia accommodations, though if you’re looking for more options, you can check out our Sofia Hotel Guide.
Budget: For a hostel, we always recommend Hostel Mostel. I have never stayed at the Sofia location but several of my friends have and have always spoken highly of it. I stayed at the one in Veliko Tarnovo and it was excellent. Perks include a free vegetarian dinner in addition to breakfast included in your stay! Check rates and availability here. If you are traveling in peak season, be sure to book online, as Hostel Mostel is popular and tends to get booked up.
Mid-range: For a trendy new boutique hotel that is shockingly affordable, we recommend R34 Boutique Hotel. The location is fantastic, near the Ivan Vazov National Theater in central Sofia. It has gorgeous, loft-inspired details like exposed brick, giant windows, and streamlined but modern décor. It’s a great bargain, too – check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Luxury: As far as we see it, there’s only one option for the best hotel in town: Sense Hotel. We go to their upscale, beautiful rooftop bar all the time when we have guests in town – it has one of the best views in the entire city and they make fantastic cocktails. With beautiful views over Alexander Nevsky, Sofia’s most iconic landmark, the hotel couldn’t be in a better location. Sense Hotel also boasts a state-of-the-art fitness center, an art gallery in the lobby, an excellent spa with luxe treatments, and an indoor pool. It’s truly the best choice in town. Check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Istanbul Travel Resources
Istanbul is a truly amazing city to visit, and we have a few resources prepared to make your trip fabulous. Here are our recommendations for the best Istanbul Instagram spots for the photography enthusiast, plus our favorite Turkish souvenirs and Istanbul shopping tips.
If you’ll be visiting Istanbul during the off-season, you’ll want a guide on how to enjoy the city the cold weather. Here are our recommendations for things to do in Istanbul in winter (though nearly all of these activities are also great year-round).
Sofia Travel Resources
We’d be remiss not to share some of our favorite Sofia travel resources if you’ll be spending time here before heading to Istanbul. Make sure to check out our list of things to do in Sofia, our Sofia restaurant guide, and our list of the best bars in the city.
Don’t Leave without Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria, Turkey, or anywhere in Europe with a valid travel insurance policy. Both Sofia and Istanbul are very safe places to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
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Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.