The Orient Express appeals to many. Famous books and movies like Murder on the Orient Express are bestsellers even in modern time. Throughout history, there are many referrals to train travel in Europe on the Orient Express. But what is it like to travel on the modern Orient Express? I took the train from the Netherlands to Istanbul to follow this famous historical train route across Europe. Here is my story.
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History of the Orient Express
Trains going from one end of Europe to the other have been running under the name of Orient Express since 1883. Just like Europe in those days, a lot changed. For more detailed history outline, please pay a visit to Wikipedia who have all the dates and routes lined up for you here.
As there are so many diversion, names, routes and start and stop stations, I’m just going to give the simple version:
1883 Start of the Orient Express train route by a private railway company, from Paris to Vienna.
1885 first connection from Vienna to Istanbul
1889 First direct train from Paris to Istanbul
1919 The route gets a branch via the Simplon Tunnel, opening stops in Milan, Venice and Trieste. The route is called Simplon Orient Express.
1930’s the height of the Orient Express routes with also stops in Budapest and Bucharest. The carriages are famous for their luxury and restaurant services.
1962 Only the route of the Simplon Orient Express remains via Paris, Belgrade and Istanbul.
1970’s The company who ran the services stops with the carriages and only sells tickets now. The last direct service from Paris to Istanbul ends on May 19th 1977.
Since 1977 different services kept running under the name of the Orient Express, with less direct routes and more stops and changes on the way. In the 1980’s and 90’s we see many companies using the historical carriage of the Simplon Orient Express and offering tours called the Orient Express. Luxury and comfort are still the key elements of the advertisements.
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What is in a name?
As you can see from above timeline, many things changed. The route, the stops, the companies running them and the services offered. What stands out is the name: Orient Express. As the name is now protected and cannot be used freely, variations popped up by modern companies (like the Belmont or Pullman Orient-Express) offering a service that equals the Orient Express in luxury and old world charm.
With high speed trains and low budget airlines, Europe is now connected in ways, that makes a non-stop train service from West-Europe to the eastern border of Europe impossible. But that doesn’t mean you cannot travel from London or Paris to Istanbul by train! As I followed the old route of the Orient Express, I call my journey a modern Orient Express. Because I love train travel and the Orient Express is on my train travel budget list, I wanted to take the train to Istanbul!
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Modern Orient Express
The most famous route that ran in the old days was from London to Paris and Strasbourg, Vienna and Belgrade to reach Istanbul. A modern day connection, with strong roots in the past is Paris to Munich, onwards to Budapest and Bucharest to reach Istanbul.
I looked at the map and decided to go with the last one. But I wouldn’t travel to Paris, but just hop on a train at the nearest train station. I included a stop in Vienna to soak up more old world charm. And I wanted to be one of the first to travel by train directly from Bucharest (Romania) to Istanbul (Turkey), as this final stretch had been under construction for many years.
It was more luck than wisdom, but I managed to leave Bucharest on the very first day the direct service from Romania to Istanbul by train was up and running again. To travel by train from one end of Europe to the next and trace the steps of the Orient Express was a unique experience. Stopping at some of the major cities of Europe and slowly making my way across the continent to Istanbul has been a dream come true.
Train to Munich
I hopped on the first train at the train station in the Netherlands. Although I like historical perspective and accuracy, I do not see the value of first travelling to London or Paris, to return again and take the same route. With local trains, I reached the border of the Netherlands. Via local trains and high speed trains, I arrived in Munich at the end of day 1.
Train to Vienna
On day 2, I continued towards Vienna. You can reach Budapest in the same day, but I decided to stop in Vienna to explore the capital of Austria and soak up some old world luxury. I went to the Opera in Vienna and felt like I was transported back in time before World War 1. I had opulent coffee in posh coffee shops, stuffed my face with cake that Empress Sissi or Emperor Franz Joseph would name their favorites and strolled around in the gorgeous city.
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Train to Budapest
Only a few hours by train, the train from Vienna to Budapest was a breeze. I got off the Budapest Keleti train station that charmed me off my socks. Big glass windows cover the domed shaped train station; this is what you imagine travel on the Orient Express will be like. The capital of Hungary is also packed to the brim with old world charm. I took a tour of the opera of Budapest and explored coffee houses and streets of the 1930’s.
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Train to Bucharest
If you’re on time restraint, or don’t like to get off the train as much as I did, you can leave Budapest on day 2 and arrive in Bucharest on day 3 of your modern Orient Express. This is an overnight train that leaves Budapest Keleti at 7 pm every day. This train has sleeper compartments and after a bit of a delay, I settled into my coupe for the night. It was already getting dark, so I couldn’t see much of the landscape around me but I actually had quite a good sleep on the train. I stopped in Brasov for the afternoon but you can arrive at Bucharest at noon on day 3 of your Orient Express.
Orient Express to Istanbul
The final stretch of the Orient Express in modern times has been subject to disruption for a long time. For years, the Turkish worked on the train route, making it impossible to travel by train direct from Bucharest. You take a train, a bus, a train and a long bus ride into Istanbul. I was very lucky as I left Bucharest on the first direct train to Istanbul since years! The Romanian media covered the departure and no more than 3 (!!) news networks interviewed me!
Because the connection is really tight, I wouldn’t recommend planning your Orient Express back to back. It is better to leave Bucharest on day 4 around noon, so you’ll arrive early morning in Istanbul on day 5.
The new carriage was one of the luxurious of the whole route along the Orient Express. Some coupes even have toilet facilities and the carriage has a shower present! Everything was brand spanking new with wooden interior and looked posh. The only thing missing from the old times was the extravagant dinning carriage but I hat snacks with me.
I was happy not to swap trains or take a bus. I got on the train in Bucharest and we travelled through Romania and Bulgaria. We got our passports stamped at the border and we were in Turkey!
Final call: Istanbul!
The final stretch of the route into Istanbul was not ready yet. We got off the train at Halkalı train station as we ran out of rails! A bus waited for us and brought us to the famous Orient Express Sirkeci train station near the Bosporus.
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My Modern Orient Express to Istanbul
In total, you can leave London or Paris on day 1 and arrive early morning in Istanbul on day 5. I took a few days to explore all the different cities and had a great time. If you look for a unique way to explore Europe, I can recommend to take the train. Follow the route of the Orient Express and experience the 1920’s European charm before you arrive in Istanbul, where west meets east. You can travel the same route with the easy Global Pass from Eurail (Global) or Interrail (EU).
Did you know about the Orient Express? Do you want to take the train to Istanbul? Have any questions for me? Leave them in the comment section below!
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