How You Can Travel the Original Orient Express Route

It’s one of the world’s most iconic train journeys: the Orient Express, the long distance passenger train service created in 1883 that connected London with Istanbul (then: Constantinople) through Paris.

Just the name evokes a sense of grandeur, adventure, and times long gone. Crystal glasses of champagne, crisp white tablecloths, and passengers dressed up for dinner with tiaras and bowties – that’s what first class rail travel once looked like.

In 1977, nearly 100 years after the first journey, the last direct train of the Orient Express left Paris for Istanbul. By then, the service had already lost most of its splendor.

Agatha Christie’s exciting detective novel Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, undoubtedly contributed to the legendary status of the train service. The story of detective Hercule Poirot solving a mysterious murder on the train never gets old.

In fact, the latest film adaptation (featuring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Penelope Cruz) opened this week: the perfect moment to look for ways to relive their route. Because even though the service itself doesn’t exist anymore, it’s still possible to travel from London to Istanbul with a Eurail Global Pass – hopefully without a murder happening on board.

How to Relive the Orient Express - Old advertisement for the Orient Express

Ride from London to Istanbul

Many train tracks lead to Istanbul, so you need to make some choices before you depart on your epic rail adventure. Departing from London, the choice typically comes down to traveling through Bucharest or through Belgrade and Sofia. Both routes are surprisingly straightforward and can be done in 3 or 4 days.

In this blog, we’re focusing on the route through Sofia, since that is the itinerary Agatha Christie depicted. Because it’s likely that London will be the starting point of your Eurail trip, we’ll travel the other way round than Hercule Poirot and his murder suspects, who started their suspenseful journey in Istanbul.

It goes without saying that it is up to you to decide if and how long you want to stay in the amazing cities and regions you come across during your journey. With flexible days of travel, a Eurail Pass makes it easy to break your journey up, linger in the places that intrigue you, and continue only when it feels necessary.

London – Paris

The first part of your journey involves boarding the Eurostar high-speed train from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. The trip can take as little as 2 hours and 15 minutes. You’re covered for travel on the Eurostar – you’ll just have to reserve a seat.

Paris – Munich

When you’ve seen enough of Paris (has anyone ever, by the way?), hop on the daily direct TGV service to Munich from Gare de L’est – it takes you there in just 5 and a half hours, arriving in Munich in the evening. Please note that also here, you’ll have to reserve a seat beforehand.

Before your departure, give yourself some time to look around the beautiful Parisian train station. It witnessed the very first departure of the Orient Express in 1883.

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Munich – Zagreb

Don’t let a visit to Munich – the capital city of the Bavaria region – pass by without visiting at least one of its famous Biergartens.

Ready to venture further east? Take the daily Euronight Lisinski train from Munich to Zagreb, passing through Austria and Slovenia. You’ll arrive in Zagreb in the morning.

Zagreb – Belgrade

In Zagreb, be sure to visit the historic luxury hotel Esplanade Zagreb Hotel. Built in 1925, it provided accommodation for the well-to-do passengers of the Orient Express.

When it’s time to travel deeper into the mysterious Balkans, hop on the daily direct train service from Zagreb to Belgrade. It takes 6 and a half hours, arriving in the Serbian capital at the beginning of the evening. Stay at least one night in Belgrade, either to see its beautiful fortress at night or to dance the night away in its many clubs.

Belgrade – Sofia

Now, get ready for some Eastern European realness. Up until recently, there used to be a daily service between Belgrade and Sofia, but it got canceled until at least September 2018. However, even though it’s a bit of a hassle, it’s still perfectly possible to get from A to B.

Remember, we are looking for an adventure into the unknown. So let’s keep an open mind and head off the beaten track.

First, take the train from Belgrade to Nis, Serbia’s second biggest city. This takes about 5 hours. From here, change trains and head to the Serbian border town of Dimitrovgrad. There are several bus companies here that take you across the border to the Bulgarian capital in about an hour for only a few euros.

Sofia – Istanbul

Take some time to relax in laid-back Sofia as you embark on the final part of your journey into the exotic: the Sofia-Istanbul Express. This new train service takes you from Bulgaria to Turkey overnight, arriving in Istanbul in the early morning.

As soon as you hear the call for prayer from the numerous mosques around the city, you know that you’ve made it to the Orient. You did it!

Want to know more about travel between London and Istanbul?
Paris To Belgrade By Train: 10 Highlights With Eurail
Top 10 Places To Visit In The Balkans By Train
24 Hours In Istanbul