Train Travel in Bulgaria: A Guide
About as east in the European Union as you can go, Bulgaria has a little bit of everything for everyone. From its lush mountain scenery in the north and south, to beautiful sandy beaches on the famed Black Sea coast. Train travel in Bulgaria also gives you access to some of the oldest history in Europe, with archaeological sites dating back to as early as 4900 BC. As one of the most budget-friendly countries to travel around on the continent, it’s definitely a destination to consider heading to with your Eurail Pass if getting more bang for your buck sounds appealing and you’re looking for some attractions a bit off the beaten path.
Over 2,658 miles of track (4,278 km) sets up Bulgaria well for exploration by train. Though the trains are a little dated and travel speeds much slower than those that you will find elsewhere in Europe, traversing the country via locomotive is an unforgettable experience – a wild adventure even. It’s one of the best ways to see some of the most beautiful scenery that the country has to offer.
Types of trains in Bulgaria
Trains in Bulgaria are operated by BDZ (Български държавни железници – БДЖ), the Bulgarian State Railways Company. They are classified as either ekspresen vlak (express trains), bârz vlak (fast trains), or pâtnicheski vlak (slow passenger trains).
Bârz vlak are local ‘rapid’ trains with the same conditions as the express trains. They are just slower due to the fact that they stop at more stations. Ekspresen vlak are the fastest of Bulgaria’s domestic trains. They generally run between the capital of Sofia and Plovdiv, Varna, or Burgas. You’ll need reservation on these journeys, though the cost is pretty minimal at around €0.25.
Pâtnicheski vlak are the slowest and cheapest trains. You probably don’t need to consider using them unless you’re trying to reach a small village not serviced by ekspresen or bârz.
The only real difference between first and second class is the amount of space you get. Conditions are pretty similar regardless of which class you choose.
Making reservations in Bulgaria
Aside from the fast trains and international connections, no reservations are required with your Eurail Pass. Zapazena myasto (“reservations” in Bulgarian) can be made at the Rila travel agencies, one of which can be found in the Sofia train station.
Getting to other countries
There are several international train connections to Bulgaria. The most popular are to and from Budapest (Hungary), Bucharest (Romania), Belgrade (Serbia), Thessaloniki (Greece), and Istanbul (Turkey) via Sofia. From Burgas and Varna, there is also a direct connection to Budapest. Until further notice, there are no trains from the Bulgarian border to Istanbul due to engineering works. However, replacement buses are available and still covered by your Eurail Pass.
Popular routes by train
One of the most scenic train rides in Southeast Europe is between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo, particularly between Sofia and Mezdra as the train meanders through the stunning Iskâr Gorge. Also popular is heading north from Sofia to Dabova or in the south between Bansko and Septemvri on the famous 760 mm narrow gauge line running between the Rila and Rhodope mountain ranges.
Practical tips for train travel in Bulgaria
Don’t let Sofia’s train station scare you. Admittedly it’s a little cold, dingy, and in need of some serious renovations, but it functions just fine. Its design in many ways is a throwback to Communism for the history buffs out there.
If you’re traveling on a Eurail Global Pass, you might want to use your days for the international and long distance journeys only. Domestic fares are dirt cheap in comparison to trains in Western Europe. The same very much goes for the trains themselves. This means you shouldn’t expect five-star conditions, but rather prepare for a travel experience that is getting harder to find as former Eastern Bloc countries slowly but surely update their railway technology.
With that said, we recommend you bring everything you might want for a more comfortable journey in the way of food, drinks, and personal hygiene. Restaurant cars are rare and restroom supplies are not always available.
Want more tips for traveling the Balkans? Check out 9 tips for exploring the Balkans by rail.