Taking the Train from Thessaloniki (Greece) to Sofia (Bulgaria)
Update February 2024: the Thessaloniki – Sofia route seems to be temporarily suspended.
Looking at the official Greek railway site, you’d think this train trip between these two cities would be pretty straightforward. According to the schedule you leave Thessaloniki at 6:55 am and arrive in Sofia at 14:22 pm. They’ll tell you that you have to change trains at the Bulgarian border. Sounds simple. But there’s a bit more to all that. I wrote this post to help those that might be making this trip by train.
Buying your train ticket
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a way to buy tickets online. We walked to the Thessaloniki train station (20 minutes from the center) and had no problems buying tickets for the next day. The level of English in Greece is very good (this would not be the case when buying tickets in Bulgaria…)
The train experience
We arrived at the train station early the next morning. The train was departing from track 2. There was a security guard manning the platform and several train employees. No issues getting on the right train. There are no assigned seats so we just sat where we wanted. The train pulled out of the station a few minutes after the 6:55 scheduled departure.
We were told pretty early on by the inspector that the connecting train (in Bulgaria) would be at 9 am.
Initially the geography was mostly hilly. As we neared the border we saw snow-capped mountains looming ahead. We reached them, the train skirting an impressive wall of mountains on the left side.
By this time we had passed 9 am and I was wondering what would happen with our connection.
About 10 minutes later the ticket inspector came into carriage and told us – and two British guys sitting close by – that we would be getting out at the next station.
The next station was Strymonas. About 15 people got off the train, most scattering off in different directions. We were left alone with the 2 British guys. We seemed to be the only people continuing on to Bulgaria.
The 4 of us, along with a few friendly stray dogs, stood in front in the train station waiting for the shuttle bus to take us across to Bulgaria. It took about 25 minutes before a bus pulled up. By then we were a bit past 10 am.
We got into the bus, joined by a few locals who apparently had been waiting in the train station waiting room. We were about 10 people.
At the border, border guards checked everyone’s passports/ID cards. We then continued on.
It had taken us about 20 minutes to get to the train station of Kulata on the Bulgarian side. There we boarded the typical East European train that we were so used to: old, with 6-person compartments and a window which everyone seems keen on keeping shut (horrible in the summer when combined with smelly people and their favorite meat-filled sandwiches). Luckily this was March and we were the only people in the compartment and felt pretty comfortable.
About 20 minutes later, while going through a tunnel, there was a huge BANG. The train came to a squealing stop outside the tunnel.
The conductor came off the train, looking around, looking behind…a few other train employees soon joined him. After a while it seemed that the huge metal apparatus on the top of the train (attached to the electrical lines?) had suffered some kind of mishap (recounting this later to our Bulgarian Airbnb host he sighed “this is Bulgaria!”).
For an hour several of the train staff were on the roof while all the passengers looked out the window at what was going on. And then we saw a large locomotive coming from the other direction…
We were hooked up and soon after moving again.
20 minutes later we arrived at another station in a large town. We were told to get off the train onto a bus.
Another 15 minutes later we arrived at another town…there we got back on a modern commuter train. This train ended up being our last train. By this time we had left Bulgaria’s impressive southern mountains behind, most of the landscape turning hilly. That changed approaching Sofia, Vitosha mountain welcoming us into the city. We pulled into Sofia’s sparkling new train station, marking the end of a long travel day.
So the Thessaloniki – Sofia trip for us consisted of 3 trains (4 if you include the locomotive that came to save us) and 2 buses. And in the end we arrived at around 4pm which is not bad considering everything that went wrong. Also worth noting is that the staff from the 1st Bulgarian train were a constant from the border, changing trains and buses with us all the way to Sofia.
Some might say it isn’t worth taking the train between Thessaloniki and Sofia. Taking a bus is probably simpler. But we always love taking the train and despite all the things that went wrong on this journey we think it’s still the most comfortable way to travel. And taking the train allows you to meet nice people along the way – we met those interesting British guys and as well as a few friendly Bulgarians. Taking the train will always be our favorite mode of transport.
Related: Our worst ever Train experiences
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