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Paris - Istanbul by scheduled train : in the footsteps of the Orient Express

Saturday 26 August 2023 | Orient-Express train | Rail travel in Europe

In 1883, the Orient-Express linked Paris to Istanbul. How can this legendary journey be reproduced on a regular train? By night train? Via Bucharest or Sofia?

The route of the Orient-Express train has changed many times. Between its creation in 1883 and the end of its operation in 1977, numerous routes were tested and many parallel lines were operated. But if we look at the first map of the original Orient-Express route, the one that ran from its launch by Georges Nagelmackers until the First World War, its line (blue below) is quite clear.

Trajet Orient-Express 1883-1915 © Wagons-Lits Diffusion

Orient-Express journey 1883-1915 © Wagons-Lits Diffusion

As can be seen on this map, the route taken by the various variants of the legendary train from Paris in the first period of its history is unique as far as Budapest. After Strasbourg, it passes through Germany (Stuttgart, Munich) then Austria (Salzburg, Vienna), with a stop in Bratislava (Slovakia) before reaching Budapest.

Palais de Shonnebrunn à Vienne

Shönbrunn Palace, Vienna

From the Hungarian capital, there are two routes to Istanbul: one via Romania (Bucharest) and by boat to Turkey, the other via Serbia (Belgrade) and Bulgaria (Sofia).

The Orient-Express stages to Istanbul

Today, more and more travellers are planning to experience the Orient-Express adventure in their own way. Either because they prefer to travel by train on their own, or because they want to stay within a reasonable budget, these travellers are not looking to board the prestigious trains inherited from the original Orient-Express, such as the Golden Eagle or the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul.

Instead, they choose to travel on regular trains, while reproducing the original European itinerary of the legendary train. So they have plenty of freedom to choose their own route and decide between the possible stops. So how do you get to Istanbul? Via Bucharest? Via Sofia?

Paul Barboosa, a young Instagrammer and video maker, has embarked on a three-week train journey along the legendary rails of the Orient Express. On his Instagram page (@paulbarboosa), he describes his Paris - Istanbul journey as "the greatest experience of (his) life".

He chose an itinerary linking Istanbul via Sofia. After boarding at the Gare de l'Est in Paris, he woke up in Munich, where "everything is grandiose". In Vienna, he visited Schönbrunn "a monstrous castle". In Budapest, he went on a series of cultural visits ("In one week, I feel like I've grown a year") and tried out the thermal baths "a giant Jacuzzi that lets you bathe in the heart of the architecture"

Les bains de BudapestThe Budapest baths


Choosing the right night trains

His night train journey between Budapest and Bucharest seemed like an ordeal (he opted for a sleeper compartment, which was a bit rough. The sleeper, booked as part of our "Rails of legend" tour, would have been more comfortable!), but a few days later he followed up with a day trip from Bucharest to Sofia, which gave him 10 hours to reflect on the meaning of life. Green and charming Sofia is also a pleasant surprise.

Palais des Arts de SofiaPalace of Arts in Sofia

After three weeks on the road, he finally arrived in Istanbul: "I feel totally out of place here. It's probably my favourite city". Then he takes the boat: "I'm going to Asia. I'll be there in 10 minutes. I'll show you". And finally, "Right now, I'm eating a sandwich in Asia". Paul's journey to Istanbul is punctuated by local breaks: schnitzel in Germany, sachertorte in Austria, goulash in Hungary and a cherry covrig in Romania.

In a different vein, Figaro journalist Jean-Marc de Jaeger also tested the route of the Orient-Express Paris-Istanbul train. He was travelling to prepare an article on the 140th anniversary of this legendary train and tried out the two night train journeys: Bucharest (Romania) - Istanbul and Istanbul - Sofia (Bulgaria). He says: "The Bucharest - Istanbul night train is clean, but it's a 4-seater sleeper with no private compartment and no shower".


Kapitule Jean Marc de JaegerTrain stop at Kapitule, Turkish border at night © Jean-Marc de Jaeger


The Turkish border crossing, an adventure

Crossing the Romanian-Turkish border was one of the highlights of his journey. "In the middle of the night, everyone got off the train to get their passports stamped. It was nothing like crossing the border at night between Hungary and Romania: there, the customs officers had boarded the train and collected the passports themselves to check them. In Turkey, at the Kapitule post, you have to cross the border on foot".

On the return leg of his trip, Jean-Marc de Jaeger tried the night train from Istanbul to Sofia: "This train is more comfortable. It has 1 or 2 person compartments, with a washbasin in the cabin and a shared shower in the carriage. The compartment is well soundproofed".

Train de nuit Istanbul Sofia Jean Marc de JaegerIstanbul - Sofia night train and private compartment © Jean-Marc de Jaeger

Some online bookings impossible

An obstacle on his itinerary? The Figaro journalist reports that he was faced with a rather uncomfortable situation: he was unable to book his night trains to and from Istanbul online. These are "paper" tickets, not sold on the Internet, but only available at stations: "I had to queue at the ticket offices to buy my Bucharest / Istanbul and Istanbul / Sofia tickets, running the risk that the train would be full or that only the worst seats would remain available".

If you too dream of following in the footsteps of the Orient Express, you'll certainly appreciate our "Paris - Istanbul: Rails of Legend" tour. It follows the route of the Orient-Express train as closely as possible, taking into account the current situation of rail traffic and the tourist interest of the towns it passes through.

Istanbul Jean Marc de JaegerIstanbul © Jean-Marc de Jaeger


The Discovery Trains production team has chosen an itinerary of Paris > Munich > Vienna > Budapest > Bucharest > Sofia > Istanbul, including two night train sections, between Budapest and Bucharest (16 hrs) and Sofia - Istanbul (11 hrs). Please note that our train + hotel package includes all tickets. Including Sofia - Istanbul train tickets not available online.




orient express train itinerary (ref.)

istanbul to paris train (ref.)


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