March 10, 2015
Tucked down in the southeastern part of Europe is a region you may have heard of before, but might not have considered including in your travel plans for a variety of reasons: the Balkans. While many of the countries found here are admittedly not the easiest to get around by train if you are judging by the frequency of international connections and slower travel times, they are certainly some of the most beautiful, lesser-traveled, and budget-friendly on the entire continent and well worth the extra effort it might take to arrive. Now with the recent inclusion of Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro to the Eurail Global Pass, it is easier than ever to reach some of its best cities from the rest of Europe and should not be missed.
Perfectly petite Ljubljana is an easy choice for a quick stop on any trip to the Balkans or as a base for exploring the rest of stunning Slovenia. Though heavier on Central European influences, Ljubljana’s location and direct international connections from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Hungary make it a perfect starting or ending point in the Balkan region. From there you can easily catch a train to/from Croatia (2-3 hours from Zagreb) or Serbia (8-9 hours from Belgrade and Novi Sad).
Zagreb may be Croatia’s capital, but taking the train down as far south as you can go to Split may be a better choice in order to explore one of the country’s greatest assets – its sparkling Adriatic coastline. As the informal capital of the Dalmatian Coast, Split serves as an excellent gateway to the Dalmation islands and one of the easiest places to catch a bus or ferry to Dubrovnik. Once taking over 9 hours, you can now get down to Split from Zagreb on one of the newer trains in just 5.5 hours.
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
One of the most enchanting cities in Europe, Sarajevo is sure to steal your heart with its ever-present warmth, eclectic mix of Eastern and Western influences, and ironic sense of peace in light of war scars still visibly present from the not so distant past. Currently the only international connections that will bring you to Sarajevo by train come from Croatia. From Zagreb, there is one journey a day that takes just under nine hours leaving at 9:18am and arriving at 6:17pm.
The nightlife in Belgrade (Beograd) is frequently touted as one of the best in Europe and definitely a place to go if you are looking for a good time; however, Serbia’s capital is so much more than just a banging party scene. A stroll around its grand Kalamegdon Fortress where the Sava meets the Danube River is an excellent introduction to the “White City’s” incredibly rich history while hanging in and around its main pedestrian street of Knez Mihailova will confirm that Belgrade is indeed one of the more energetic cities on the continent. Several direct trains from Ljubljana, Zagreb and Budapest will get you there in nine hours or less.
Podgorica is not Montenegro’s most attractive city, but as its capital, it has a bit of a buzz and is the best place to start your exploration of the rest of this country roughly the size of Connecticut as it’s on the main (and one of the only) rail lines. Getting there is especially easy and incredibly scenic via Belgrade, and once you arrive there are plenty of bus connections that will bring you to where you want to go for cheap such as the coastal cities of Kotor, Budva, and Bar, Lake Skadar, or a mountainous getaway to Žabljak in Durmitor National Park.
Bucharest (Bucuresti) is a quintessential Eastern European capital with a slight Balkan twist. It can definitely seem too concrete and a bit overwhelming at first, but give it some time and you will see there is also quite a bit of culture to be found alongside its interesting Communist history. From the cozy and historical Lipscani district to its beautiful parks and gardens, there is plenty to keep you occupied for a few days. Bucharest can be reached easily via direct trains from Budapest and Sofia.
Sofia is another concrete capital that may surprise you upon further exploration with its lovely parks (many of which offer free wifi), trendy cafes, interesting museums, close proximity to magnificent Vitosha Mountain, and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, second largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans. From Belgrade, there is an easy overnight train leaving at 10:05pm and arriving at 8:13am. Unfortunately the Russian-operated overnight train between Sofia and Bucharest which terminated in Moscow was recently suspended in December 2014. For now, there is only one daytime train running between the two that leaves at 7:55am and arrives at 5:15pm.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
One of the most scenic train rides in Southeast Europe lies between Sofia, current capital of Bulgaria, and Veliko Tarnovo, its historical capital. This hillside dwelling is a gorgeous place to spend a few days or even just a 24 hour stopover en route to/from Bucharest with its windy streets and impressive Tsarevets Fortress which contains a lovely Orthodox church with one of the most unique interiors you will ever see. From Veliko Tarnovo, you can also travel easily east and reach Bulgaria’s coast in just under 4 hours.
While Turkey isn’t “Balkan” per se, part of the country and half of its capital does lie on the Balkan Peninsula which is why Istanbul has made the list – that and because it is one of the most fascinating and famous cities on the planet so therefore needs no introduction. From Bucharest or Sofia you can catch an overnight train of Orient Express fame. Until further notice, there is a bus replacement covered by your Eurail pass for the final leg of the journey into Istanbul due to the Marmaray tunnel project which will link the rail networks in Europe to Asia.
For being such a world-famous capital, Athens sure has a raw, gritty vibe that you will be hard pressed to find in Europe’s other biggies like Rome or Paris. Thanks to the recent revival of its international train connections and discounted ferry lines (check here to learn more about your Eurail pass benefits in Greece), travelling south from Belgrade or Sofia is a breeze as is getting out and exploring some of its 6,000+ beautiful islands.