How to plan the ultimate European rail adventure, from London to Istanbul by train (2023)

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There are few trips more romantic than crossing a continent by rail, as landscapes and cultures change outside the windows, and new adventures beckon at every station. Here’s how to plan the ultimate route.

ByBen Lerwill andMonisha Rajesh

Published August 25, 2023

15 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Standing under the iron ribcage of London’s St Pancras station, it’s impossible not to feel a thrill as Eurostar trains whisk passengers away from the city and under the sea. In just two-and-a-half hours, travellers can step out into the French capital, where one of the greatest railway journeys truly begins.

Launched in 1883 by the fabulously named Georges Nagelmackers, the Express d’Orient was, at first, a regular passenger service rather than a luxury train. Initially, it took a combination of trains and ferries to complete the journey from Paris to Istanbul: trains departed Paris for Vienna, then travelled through Budapest and Bucharest to the southern Romanian city of Giurgiu. Passengers transferred to a ferry across the Danube to Bulgaria before boarding another train to the Black Sea coast, where a steamer tied up the journey to Istanbul. However, in 1889 the line was completed, and that June the first direct train departed Paris, taking passengers to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station over three nights.

With night trains enjoying a resurgence and climate change at the forefront of our minds, now is the time to embrace the joys of slow travel by rail. Even though the service was discontinued in 2009, it’s perfectly possible to follow the same route, with Munich wound in. A direct flight from London to Istanbul costs from £100 and takes four hours, but there’s no charm in lifting out of one city and dropping into another. On a train, passengers can press up to the window, watching French farms and villages whizz by, lakes sparkling in the sunshine. German towns rise up on grassy slopes where cows graze in meadows deep with purple asters, snow-capped peaks in the distance. Fortified towns roll by in Romania, ducks and geese waddling around allotments as the train clanks through the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Raging sunsets may light up the final ride through Bulgaria.

And within the walls of the carriage, friendships will form, food will be shared, secrets divulged and cultures examined. There will be talk of politics, cards will be dealt, drinks cracked open, and all the while towns and cities pass, their people coming and going, the journey your ultimate destination.

1. London to Paris

Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes

In November 1994, the first Eurostar passenger train rumbled below the Channel, inaugurating a direct link between London and Paris. Services initially ran from Waterloo, until St Pancras International’s soaring, cathedral-sized train shed took over duties in 2007. Today, the journey to Gare du Nord is a quick, uneventful one, with little in the way of scenic highlights, but the expeditious leap from the Borough of Camden to the cobbles and bistros of the 10th arrondissement opens up endless onward rail options.

Another key Paris terminus, Gare de l’Est, where trains head east towards Germany and Switzerland, is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Gare du Nord. Call in for an espresso en route at Café les Deux Gares, or extend your time in Paris to soak up other parts of the city. The hilltop district of Montmartre, the thronged streets of Le Marais and the galleries of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are all easily reached by Métro or taxi from the Eurostar terminal.

Stay:Near Gare du Nord, Hoy is a 22-room wellness hotel with a restaurant serving plant-based cuisine.

Top tip: Head to the Eurostar site for a handy overview of cut-price ticket prices in the coming months.

2. Paris to Munich

Duration: 5 hours 40 minutes

Au revoir, Paris. A direct, high-speed, double-decker service covers the 425 miles to Munich every afternoon, departing Gare de l’Est at 3.55pm (5.55pm on Saturdays) and reaching Bavaria’s self-confident capital at 9.36pm (11.29pm on Saturdays). Should you wish to arrive earlier in the day, various services travel the route with a change in either Mannheim or Stuttgart. Regardless of your itinerary, you’ll cross both the Moselle and the Rhine rivers, with belts of wooded hills marking your passage.

Once in Munich, you can dive into the city’s stock-in-trade: traditional beer halls such as Augustiner-Keller and Hofbräuhaus, which close at midnight and serve hearty food, as well as frothing steins. Alternatively, make a stay of it and explore the centre. The spectacular main square of Marienplatz and centuries-old food market of Viktualienmarkt are both big historical draws, and there’s world-class art aplenty at both the Alte Pinakothek gallery and its neighbour, the Pinakothek der Moderne.

Stay:Eden Hotel Wolff is a smart option just steps away from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (central station) and 15 minutes’ walk from the Old Town.

Top tip: Munich bills itself as Germany’s bike capital — there are plenty of cycle routes and rental outlets dotted around the city.

3. Munich to Vienna

Duration: 4 hours

The journey from Munich to Vienna meanders across almost the entire breadth of Austria. Highlights include Salzburg, where you’ll be treated to views of medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress, as well as a shifting spread of lakes, onion-domed churches and distant mountains. Trains run every couple of hours from Munich, so you can time your arrival to your choosing. The Austrian capital was recently named the best city to live in worldwide, and offers plenty for visitors, too.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of its hosting of the 1873 World’s Fair, and many of the city’s key sights were present back then. Prime examples are the 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace — a baroque behemoth and once the summer residence of the Habsburg rulers — and the opulent Vienna State Opera, which stages performances throughout most of the year. More contemporary attractions include the fascinating museum of sound, House of Music, and the shrine to modern art that is the Heidi Horten Collection.

Stay:The recently opened Almanac Palais Vienna is an upscale property close to the House of Music.

Top tip:For proper coffee and cake, try Café Schwarzenberg, in situ since 1861.

4. Vienna to Budapest

Duration: 2 hours 35 minutes

There’s little in the way of grandstand scenery between Vienna and Budapest, but you’ll find lots once you leave the train. The Hungarian capital famously straddles the Danube — hilly Buda to the west, flat Pest to the east — and the riverside panorama ranks as one of the most impressive in Europe. The Fisherman’s Bastion, perched high in Buda, offers the perfect vantage point and is only seconds from Matthias Church, with its golden interior. It’s not the biggest building in the city, but it’s arguably the most eye-popping.

Budapest’s truest joys, however, are more down to earth. This is a city of thermal baths and ruin pubs, street-art murals and wine bars, a place where Michelin-starred restaurants — such as Salt, where traditional Hungarian flavours are given a fine-dining overhaul — stand cheek-by-jowl with old canteens. It’s a fantastic city to spend time in, with history at every turn and avenues filled with life.

Stay:For a splurge, try the five-star Corinthia Budapest, reportedly one of filmmaker Wes Anderson’s sources of inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Top tip: Pack your swimming costume to make the most of the art deco Gellért Thermal Baths, best visited before the afternoon rush.

5. Budapest to Bucharest

Duration: 15 hours 40 minutes

You’ve got a number of options for the journey east to Romania. A couple of daytime trains trundle slowly through the Eastern European countryside, with two daily sleeper services offering further possibilities. The trains you’ll be catching are a far cry from the sleek expresses of France and Germany, but they have a charm all of their own. The most appealing choice is the daily 7.10pm departure from Budapest which rolls into Bucharest at 11.19am the next day, treating you to rampant Transylvanian mountain scenery as you wake.

Sprawling Bucharest gets few plaudits for its beauty, but there’s plenty to enjoy here once you scratch beneath the surface. The city’s Gara de Nord station, where you’ll arrive, is close to the centre, leaving you well placed to visit attractions such as the Old Town, which is brimming with cafes and bars, and the far starker Centrul Civic district, where the mammoth Palace of Parliament gives absorbing insights into the communist era.

Stay: Opened in mid-2022, the funky, four-star La Bohème Hotel is on the fringes of the Old Town.

Top tip: Head to Herăstrău Park to enjoy the city’s largest, leafiest green space.

6. Bucharest to Sofia

Duration: 9 hours 30 minutes

From early June until mid-July, a direct train travels from Bucharest to Sofia, leaving at 10.55am, crossing the Danube and snaking through the Balkan Mountains on its way down to the Bulgarian capital. Outside of summer, the journey requires a change in Ruse, although it arrives into Sofia at the same time, shortly after 8.20pm. Once here, grant yourself at least a day to explore what is one of Europe’s more underrated cities, shaped by everyone from the Romans to the Red Army.

Start your wanderings at the enormous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, then dig deeper into the country’s past at the National Museum of History. For something more current, bag a table at Cosmos for some Bulgarian-style fine dining, or head to craft beer bar Kanaal.

Stay:Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel is on Vitosha Boulevard, the city’s main shopping artery.

Top tip:There’s no dining car on the train, so stock up on food and drink before you leave Bucharest.

7. Sofia to Istanbul

Duration: 11 hours 55 minutes

Onwards, to the edge of Europe. The Sofia-Istanbul Express is a night train that heads south into Turkey. Leaving Sofia in the early evening, you’ll reach the waterside city of Istanbul shortly after 6.30am the next day. Wake yourself up with a potent coffee at Evvelâ cafe, then plan the day ahead.

Must-see sights for your list include the minaret-studded marvels of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia — the latter originally a cathedral — and the spice-laden alleys of the Grand Bazaar, but Istanbul is at its best when you lose yourself in daily life. Wander bohemian Beyoğlu, where Istiklal Street is a hive of activity day and night, or take a ferry across the Bosphorus strait to reach the busy Asian side of the city.

Stay: The newly opened Blu Ma’Cel occupies a historic home close to the big sights of the Sultanahmet district.

Top tip: The sleeper train terminates at Halkali station, on the western fringe of the city. From here, hop on the Marmaray line for the short ride to Sirkeci station, in central Istanbul.

How to travel: a practical guide

Do I need to book train travel in advance?

For long-distance journeys, it’s not obligatory but always advisable. The further in advance you book, the more likely you are to find cheaper fares. This can get slightly complicated, as different routes and rail operators have different booking windows. Eurostar tickets, for example, can usually be booked 330 days before your return rail journey, whereas SNCF (France’s national rail operator) usually allows bookings only up to four months ahead. For multistage journeys, it’s generally best to wait until you can book all journeys at the same time.

Where should I book my journey?

The most useful booking tools for independent travellers are the websites Rail Europe and Trainline. Alternatively, head to The Man in Seat 61 for reliable, up-to-date advice on virtually any European rail route imaginable; it’s particularly strong on travel from the UK.Interrail passes are well worth investigating, as they can often save you a considerable sum.There’s no upper age limit on who can buy them.

Are there tour operators that can help me plan and book?

Yes. Many operators now offer train-based itineraries as part of their international services. These include Original Travel — which has rail options to the likes of San Sebastián, Zermatt, Gothenburg and Transylvania — and Inntravel, which travels to destinations such as France, Germany and Switzerland. Specialist operator Byway Travel deals purely in overland travel. These companies, and others, can take care of the entire booking and journey-planning process for you.

What’s the best time of year to travel?

For the London-to-Istanbul trip, the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are preferable to the peak summer season, when popular cities such as Paris and Budapest can become hot and overcrowded and accommodation is harder to secure. You’ll find little difference in rail timetables and train frequencies across the year, so there’s real benefit to be had in waiting for a quieter travel period if you can.

Published in the September 2023 issue ofNational Geographic Traveller (UK).

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