After spending two weeks in Turkey, it was time to head to Sofia. The problem? Bulgaria is still a bit off the beaten track for most travelers. This is great for discovery, but not so great when it comes to logistical foresight.
We were planning on taking a bus directly from Istanbul to Sofia. While some thorough Googling brought up an old blog post and a few Tripadvisor forum threads, there wasn’t a lot of helpful information out there about this particular journey. Where do you buy tickets? What station do you leave from? What are the buses like? I had a lot of questions and few answers.
With the help of our hostel reception and the limited online resources mentioned above, we did eventually make it to Sofia. But a lot of it was patchwork, and I wanted to write out a more detailed review of the process for anyone looking to travel this way in the future. After all, it’s always much better knowing what to expect ahead of time.
Buying Tickets from Istanbul to Sofia via Metro Buses
There are several bus companies that run this route, but Metro is one of the more reliable (yet still inexpensive) companies out there. I highly suggest riding with them. They know enough English to get you through the purchasing and boarding process. The same can’t necessarily be said for other companies.
Unfortunately, the Metro website doesn’t list Sofia as a destination, and the timetables aren’t available online.
The good news is that the buses are rarely full (ours was maybe 1/3 full), and if it is, you can always shop around at the other companies at the Istanbul bus station. If you really want to get your tickets ahead of time, head to the bus station a few days before and order from them directly.
Getting to the Metro Terminal at Istanbul’s Esenler Bus Station
Istanbul’s bus station is huge and chaotic. It resembles an outdoor shopping mall with various company logos sitting on the front of each building. Subway lines M1A/M1B feed directly into the station.
When you arrive, make sure to go to the correct reception office. There are multiple Metro signs, all leading to different destinations. You’ll be looking for room #126 for the Istanbul/Sofia route. The numbers appear in small text under each logo. The buses are parked behind each company’s entry point.
Waiting for the Bus
The bus leaves at 11pm, and you can buy your ticket right when you walk in. It should cost around 108 lira. If you fancy getting there early, there’s a small waiting room downstairs and a larger cafeteria area upstairs. The cafeteria sells tea, soda, water, fruit, snacks, bread, and what looked to be hot meals. There are also outlets here, as well as a machine already plugged in with various phone chargers if you need to charge your phone and don’t have the cable or Turkish adaptor for it. It costs 1 lira.
Boarding the Bus
You board the bus a little before the departure time and sit in the seat assigned to you on your ticket (the seat numbers are in tiny print on the bottom of each chair in the aisle). There are two seats on the right side and single seats on the left side, so you can probably request a single chair if you’re flying solo and feeling particularly anti-social that day. The seats are comfortable and new, but they only recline about as far as your average airplane seat. There are tray tables and a small TV in front of you for media. There’s no foreign pop music blaring like in SE Asia and the bus is very quiet and dark.
They give you sealed plastic water cups several times throughout the journey and a chocolate Twinkie thing for a snack.
There’s no bathroom on the bus, but they will stop a few times at roadside restrooms. Pro tip: wait for the border if you can, the buildings are brand new and the bathrooms are super clean and modern (read: no squatting required).
Crossing the Border
The helper will collect everyone’s passports and return them after a while. You’ll be woken up around 1am when you reach the border. First, you’ll get out and go through border control on the Turkish side to get your passport checked and your exit stamp (if you have a visa). Get back on the bus and drive over to the Bulgarian side to show your passport again.
Joel had a bit of extra scrutiny leaving Turkey and *extra, extra* scrutiny arriving over on the Bulgarian side (he was the only one to get questioned about where he was going and why, and they ended up taking his passport somewhere else while we all waited for forty minutes on the bus). Judging by the crowd (and by crowd I mean our bus, since the border was eerily empty besides), maybe they just don’t get many Korean Brazilians hopping over into the Balkans in the middle of the night.
Arriving in Sofia
The bus arrives sometime between 6-8am, depending on how speedy your driver is. You’ll get dropped off at the Sofia Central Bus Station. It will likely be dark outside if you arrive in winter, so make sure to have an exit plan when you get off the bus. There will be taxi drivers waiting across the street and public transport nearby.
Tip: If you decide on a cab, don’t just rely on a functioning meter. Ours was set at a ridiculously high “per km” and “per minute” rate, and doubled when we arrived, because of a bogus “late night” fee that our driver tried pushing on us. Needless to say, we got ripped off. Just know that an average ride to the city center shouldn’t cost more than 5-6 lev.
Departure Point: Esenler Bus Station (Istanbul, Turkey)
Departure Time: 23:00 (11pm) Istanbul Time
Arrival Point: Central Bus Station (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Arrival Time: 6:00-8:00 (6-8am) Sofia Time
Total DurationL 7-9 hours
Company: Metro (Office #126)
Cost: 108 Lira, or about $27 USD
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