Istanbul shot to fame after being named Capital of Culture 2010 and a number of festivals around Belgrade are opening people’s eyes to this city, virtually empty of tourist traps and buzzing with energetic nightlife. We leave you in the quaint Slovenian town of Ljubljana, ideal for exploring by bike and enjoying waterside dining beside the Ljubljanica river.
Journey details: Istanbul | Belgrade | Sofia | Zagreb | Ljubljana. Do use the sleeper services, but the scenery en route is particularly beautiful as you travel along the Sava river, through deep gorges and into the Slovenian mountains. Breathtaking.
Our journey begins in…
Things to do: Istanbul is a must visit destination. The city caters for all budgets whether you can afford a night at some of the super clubs along the Bosphorus or prefer filling up on kebabs, flatbreads and other fantastic Turkish street food.
No doubt you’ll want to experience the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world oozing aromatic spices, sweet-scented Turkish delight and tinkling with antiques and trinkets. A good scrub at a Turkish bath will be an authentic experience and will sooth the senses before climbing back aboard the train.
Alternatively, a bubbling fruity hookah pipe from a cafe is another good way to relax and watch the world go by. In this part of the world you can savour a beautiful coming together of cultures and styles such as the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church which was later adapted by the Ottomans who added a mihrab and minarets to their new mosque. It’s now a dazzling museum and well worth a visit. Read more things to do in Istanbul.
Istanbul Hostel: The big draw at the Agora Guesthouse is the rooftop bar serving cheap drinks and overlooking the Bosphorus. It’s also close to the station, all the sights and as cheap as a hostel. Private and dorm rooms from €13pppn.
Depart Istanbul (Sirkeci): Suggest 20:35 service with an extra €10 for a couchette
Arrive Sofia (central station): 10:35
Duration: 14 hours
Things to do: Sofia has some fantastic bars and clubs to explore and architectural features as diverse as Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and mosques. The Aleksandar Nevski Memorial Church is particularly dramatic so attend one of the daily services to experience the billowing incense and ominous chanting.
Climb up or picnic on Mt. Vitosha, try the locals at a game of chess in the City Garden or lose yourself in the wonderfully wild Yuzhen Park.
Catch a show at the Kuklen Teatar which produces fantastical displays of puppet wizardry. Their repertoire extends to both children and adults with performances of Hans Christian Andersen, Tolstoy, The Brothers Grimm and Moliere in satire, pantomime, grotesque and comical theatre. Alcohol (ul Rakovski 127) is a giant underground barn with a lively dancefloor. There’s also a chill out room where you can idle on an oriental divan and puff away on a bubbling hookah pipe. You won’t need more than a day or two in this young and vibrant city but we recommend you explore the surrounding countryside including the mountainous inner regions for some fantastic hiking.
Sofia Hostel: Hop in a taxi (€3) at the train station for a short cheap ride to Hostel Mostel. The glowing reviews rave about the friendly staff and a long list of freebies including breakfast, dinner (pasta and a beer) and internet. Your secure keycard means you can come and go as you please. Private and dorm rooms from €10pppn.
Around Sofia: Travel east and into the hills surrounding Plovdiv [duration 2 hours 30 minutes], a beautiful and ancient town with lovely cobbled streets to explore and a number of Roman remains, including a wonderful amphitheatre in the centre. As Bulgaria’s cultural capital it has plenty to keep you occupied with galleries and museums lovingly installed in the many churches and merchant houses, 200 of which have been declared UNESCO Monuments of Culture. The small city is steeped in history and folklore which is fast disappearing in the area and is, for now, off the usual tourist path.
Depart Sofia: 11:40 (day) or 20:40 (overnight)
Arrive Belgrade: 19:21 or 04:25
Duration: 9 hours
Things to do: A cheap ride on tram no. 2 is a good way to introduce yourself to the city. Or stretch your legs in Kalemegdan park with a walk up the hill for fantastic views of Belgrade and the River Danube. It’s hard to stumble into many tourist traps here, activities, attractions and cafes appeal to tourists and locals a like.
The city’s charm is perhaps not comparable to Prague or Budapest, but Belgrade comes out on top with night-time merriment especially due to the lack of boozy stag and 30th birthday parties.
The stylish crowd at Ana 4 Pistols is not dissimilar to the Shoreditch vibe in London. DJs play until 3am and you’ll enjoy swigging a €1.8o beer or €3 cocktail. The Serbs like to party and some of the coolest venues are on rafts called splavovi on the Danube and Sava River.
You could also party in a fortress or in underground caverns where the music leaps from frantic gypsy folk fiddlers to banging techno. Try the club nights at the new Omladine arts centre or the 3-storey floating boat, Lucas. Couples will enjoy the area around Skadarska, Belgrade’s version of pretty Montmartre with cobbled streets and romantic restaurants. You’ll find plenty of great coffee houses and be sure to taste rakia (also spelt rakija), the rather strong local brandy. Kapana is the place for cheap and wholesome grub, something of a gastropub located in front of the cathedral.
Hostel Belgrade: The stylish and friendly Hostelche Hostel offers plenty of great design in the bedrooms, self-catering kitchen and lounge area. They even offer a free city tour. You’re 15 minutes from the station and 5 minutes from the Danube with Belgrade’s exciting nightlife.
Private and dorm rooms from €17pppn.
Depart Belgrade: 5 trains daily. The sleeper leaves at 21:40
Arrive Zagreb (Glavni Kolodvor): The sleeper arrives at 04:53
Duration: 7 hours 20 minutes
Things to do: A great and compact city to explore on foot. A recent opening in a former medical factory is the Autonomous Centre for Culture Medika. It’s the first legalised squat in Zagreb and initiates various artistic events such as workshops, flea markets, theatre and movies. There are club nights, parties and concerts with cheap servings of beer, brandy and wine.
Just 100m from the train station is Bacchus Jazz Bar, a trove of gramophones, vintage tellies and model cars. With a few books on the shelf it’s an ideal place to pass the time waiting for a train or even better, catch live jazz Wednesday-Saturday and sip berry, pear or sour cherry infused rakija. Locals love the outdoors come wintery wind, rain or shine so head to Maksimir Park or Jarun Lake for swimming, boating or lakeside discos. You can also reach Mt Medvednica by tram which offers great views of the city.
Private and dorm rooms from €18pppn.
Around Zagreb: Catch the bus from Autobusni Kolodvor in Zagreb for the 2-3 hour journey to the Plitvice Lakes, perhaps one of the most beautiful national parks in the world and protected as a UNESCO site. Stunning lagoons fed by cascading waterfalls and surrounded by lush forests. Sadly there’s no swimming in this idyllic spot, it really would spoil the magic of the place! Expect to pay about €10 but this excursion is not to be missed.
Ideally stay overnight at a guesthouse or hostel in Plitvice.
Depart Zagreb: 11 trains daily
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
Things to do: The castle really deserves two visits; one during the day and the other returning by way of the funicular railway at dusk to take in the panoramic views across to the Julian Alps. The Old Town on the right side of the Ljubljana is where most of the action is and where Jože Plečnik left behind a legacy of elegant townhouses, pathways and bridges.
Prešeren Square is the Slovenian capital’s central point. From here follow the river east to meet the infamous Dragon Bridge or Zmajski Most. The Trznica open market is across the Ljubljanica and a perfect spot to pick up local cheeses, meats and breads.
It’s not really the city for high fashion, and shopaholics might be a little disappointed unless you visit around Christmastime when the markets twinkle with lights and sell warming cups of mulled wine.
Try the puppet theatre on Lutkovno Gledališče, also very popular with wonderful sets and tricks up their sleeves. Take advantage of the flat landscape and the city cycle scheme which offers two hours free hire. You can arrange bike hire from the Slovenian tourist office.
Čajna Hiša (Stari trg 3 Bijou) is a cosy tea room popular with locals. For under €5 you can sample delicious and warming toasted sandwiches, cakes and a huge number of teas from all over the world. A couple of barges running alongside the Ljubljanica river, an area called Spica, are in fact bars. They serve simple drinks which you can enjoy on benches or deckchairs but also try the Balkan ceyapcici, grilled mince served with flatbread (lepinja), onion and relishes. Delicious.
Hostel Ljubljana: Housed in a former prison the cells at Hostel Celica have been creatively transformed into comfortable and stylish rooms. Just 5 minutes walk from the station, the hostel holds exhibitions, workshops, poetry readings and musical jam sessions. There’s also a free breakfast, guided city tour and their own bar and restaurant serving cocktails, snacks and hookah pipes. Private and small dorm rooms from €24pppn.
Continuing your journey from Ljubljana…
- Ljubljana – Munich [6 hours]: If you have time, we’ll be travelling to Munich and onto Prague in part 3/4. Why not join us there?
- Ljubljana – Vienna [6 hours]: Grand baroque architecture and an intriguing contemporary music and arts scene.
- Ljubljana – Venice [7 hours]: Read our guide to Italy by Train with stops in Venice, Florence and Milan.
- Ljubljana – Opatija [2 hours 30 minutes]: A beautiful coastal town with some of the most spectacular views in Croatia. An idyllic place to end your journey and relax for a few days by the ocean.