Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia.
Bulgaria on Track
Bulgaria’s incredible scenery, from its mighty mountains to the breathtaking beaches of the Black Sea, is a persuasive reason to choose train travel over bus (at times faster, but cramped and less spectacular), or car (a precarious choice considering the unmarked lanes and speedy drivers).
As in most Eastern European countries, Bulgaria’s rail network has been upgraded, though only the major routes have really improved. Many InterCity rails feature brand new, sleek electric trains built in Germany. They’re fast, comfortable and viewer-friendly, with large panoramic windows. But don’t expect clockwork service. We recommend travel on Express (Ekspresen) or Fast trains (Brzi or Bârz depending on the translation). Definitely avoid local trains (Pâtnicheski/Putnichki). Not only are they slow, but they tend to be crowded and uncomfortable. And always travel first class. (Only InterCity and international trains feature a buffet car.)
Popular journeys include a relatively short ride (2 ½ hours) from glamorous Sofia to the cultural capital of Plovdiv. Or travel six hours across the country through sublime landscapes to the Black Sea in Bourgas, or, as many prefer, the seaside resort, Varna. The Varna line also offers an interesting sidetrack: hop off in Gorna Orjahovica (about four hours from Sofia with an Express) and connect on the local service to Veliko Tarnovo. Once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (before the Ottoman invasion in 1396), this city’s unique architecture alone is worth the trip.
We highly recommend the convenient Balkan Pass, as purchasing a ticket is often only possible from the departure station—and involves serious wait. Note that Express trains have pre-assigned seating so travelers must have reservations. Reservations can be purchased in the departure station, in Sofia Central Station, or at some local agencies. But pay particular attention to the spelling of city names; the Cyrillic alphabet is not as difficult as it looks, but translations can vary.
Wherever you go, remember: this is Bulgaria, where railways rarely emulate Western standards. Yes, trains are safe, but you may encounter delays and some interesting events. Consider it a part of the journey’s charm, experiencing history in the making, just like thousands of fellow travelers have done before.
For more information on Bulgaria contact the Bulgaria Tourist Board.