Train travel Europe: Exciting Balkan Trip by train

After we stayed 2 whole months (March-April)  in Zadar, Croatia, we decided to go explore a little more of the Balkans.

We took a bus to Zagreb where we stayed for two nights and decided to take the train from there all the way to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The train is not only more sustainable than flying, it is also a beautiful way to see more of a country. 

I found a great website called “the man on seat 61” where you can get all the informations you can think about when it comes to train travel. Thanks from here to Mark, the man in seat 61 🙂

I have been a little nervous because I am used to buy tickets in advance. In a lot of countries you need to do so, to get cheaper tickets, to get seats if you like to reserve seats, or you need to buy in advance to make actually sure to get the train because it could be booked out eventually.

But not here, it says: there are tickets and seats available at all times, just go to the ticket counter and get a ticket the day you travel or maybe one day in advance. You can not buy them online mostly (yet) so this was the only option. We booked accommodations already, so I was quite excited if we would make it from stop to stop and get to our destinations right in time 🙂

One of the many trains in the Balkans
Belgrade early in the morning

City hopping from Zagreb (Croatia) to Plovdiv (Bulgaria)


So we went to the train station in Zagreb and it was no problems to get tickets to Belgrade for the next day. I can’t remember if we could pay by card or not. In some cities (like Sofia) this is not possible, so always be prepared and have some cash on you,  just in case.

It was a whole day trip and there is no service wagon so be prepared and bring enough water and food with you. This is anyway the way to do it if you like to avoid single use plastic and unhealthy food;)

When we arrived in Belgrade there was some confusion. The old train station is closed and the new one is not ready yet. We had no chance to change our Croatian money (the cash exchange machine only took Euros, as well as many smaller exchange offices too).

Some very grumpy train station staff totally ignored us when we wanted to get some informations, but luckily we met some younger locals that could talk english and they helped us to buy the tickets to Nis (we could pay by card luckily) for the next day and even brought us to our bus station.

Nis is a small serbian town and we needed to stay there one night because the through train to Sofia (Bulgaria) only goes in summer season (starting somewhen in June).

We stayed one night in Belgrade and I did some running-sightseeing in the morning to get a tiny taste of the city.

Next day we were off to Nis, a small town in Serbia with an old fortress.

(Tickets per person: Zagreb-Belgrade 28,5Euros, Belgrade-Nis 7,20Euro) 

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Train station in Nis, Serbia
In Nis on the way to the train station

From Nis to Sofia

When we arrived in Nis we bought the tickets for the next day. It went well, the guy at the ticket counter talked very good english (as many people in Serbia did, not only the young generation).

We walked to our Hotel and had an evening stroll around the small fortress. We had Pizza for dinner 😉 and went to bed early. 

When I checked the tickets that evening, I was surprised. One ticket was for next week, and not for the next day. Damn I thought. I read a sign at the Ticket counter in Belgrade saying: “Please check your ticket right away, as we can not change it afterwards.” And I didn’t check it… 

But when we arrived there next day, my boyfriend went to the counter and talked to the guy who sold us the tickets and after 15 Minutes of back and forth we got a new ticket for exactly this day 😉

We had to change the train at the Bulgarian border and after 30 minutes of passport control and a check of the train we were on our way to Sofia.

Again, the trains don’t have a service car, so please think about enough water and food. 

(Train Ticke per person:Nis-Sofia 9Euros)

Sofia: Aleksander Nevski Church
The scenic train through Serbia


Sofia has a big train station with international and national ticket counters.

To Plovdiv it was easy to get tickets and again no need to buy in advance.

A short ride of 2h 30min and we arrived to one of the oldest towns of Europe. Plovdiv, capital of culture 2019.

(Train ticket per person: 4,70Euros)

Beautiful architecture inPlovdivs Old Town
No AC but open windows on the train to Belgrade

From Plovdiv back to Belgrade and all the way to Austria

Yes you are reading right, we went all the way back, from Plovdiv to Sofia, then to Belgrade. 
We stayed a whole weekend in Sofia this time and enjoyed a hike on Vitosha mountain, just a 30 min tram trip from the city center.

We took the summer season train that goes all the way from Sofia to Belgrade. It was 33 degrees, the train is slow and has no AirCon so you can imagine 😀 We were 1.5 hours late. But it was fun, it is easy to get contact to the other travelers if you like. If you don’t just sit down and relax and enjoy the view.

The train goes through very nice green parts of Serbia, along a river, it is beautiful to see the local houses in small towns and relieving to see we do have some parts of the world where industrial agriculture didn’t take over (yet). A lot of birds to be watched and a lot of bees and other insects cross your path, flying through the train windows.

This train even stopped at a trainstation further away from the city center (as I mentioned before the new train station is not ready yet). So again no money exchange and we needed to take the bus without having tickets……. lucky us, nobody controlled tickets…

We decided to stay and explore Belgrade for a week and then we will make our way to Zagreb.

From there we will take the train to Ljubljana stay for one night and then all the way to Austria (Zell am See). Looking forward to a few hiking days there.
The ticket to Austria is booked online already, because Austria is one of those countries where it can be way cheaper to buy in advance (like in Germany) and it is easy to buy online. If you don’t travel across borders you can mostly show the online tickets on your phone, but please always double check as this is different from country to country.

Train ticket per person from Plovdiv-Sofia: 4,70Euros, Sofia-Belgrade 22Euros, Zagreb-Ljubljana approx. 22Euros, Ljubljana-Zell am See: 17,70 Euros)

Low waste travel food
Vegan Banitsa in Bulgaria

Low-Waste Train Travel (and bus travel)

This is possible everywhere. Just prepare enough food, and water. There are lots of options to buy bread package free, nuts in bulk in paper bags or your own bags (just ask nicely) and fruits in your own bags on markets all around the Balkans. In the stores called DM you can find vegan spread in glass jars. (Get some travel snack inspirations here)
If you accidentally get a plastic bag because they don’t understand and wrap it too quickly, just reuse the plastic bag. I still carry one plastic bag with me that I got on a farmers market in Plovdiv where an old lady didn’t understand. Bulgarian friends explained that it is meant to be an extra service for some people to actually give plastic bags to customers, that explained why some older people looked very grumpy when we said “ne mersi” to the bags. So I wash the bag and reuse it for bulk nuts or bread rolls and now it is not single used anymore, a few tiny holes in there already but I keep it until the nuts fall through 😀

I saw landfills and dumps at river fronts and outside of towns along the way. Reminded me why I do what I do. Why I refuse what I can. Also, many of us think (because the news tell us) that we mostly have this problem in Asia (I read all the articles about the most polluted rivers that are in Asia) we do have these problems in Europe and parts of America too!! In most countries you just won’t see it! If you arrive by plane you won’t drive by these places, but by bus or train yes, you see the beauty and the ugly… So be aware when traveling through Europe, not all the European countries have a “safer” waste management. Not all of them a proper recycling management. A lot of the countries still have landfills and illegal or “legal” dump sites… All of our rivers end up in the ocean too!

I actually carry some plastic waste (the only oats we could find in Belgrade was organic, but plastic packaged) with me until I am in Austria where I find it a little bit more responsible to discard it than to know it will end up on a landfill here in Serbia. Crazy? Maybe for some, but I feel better this way, and that is what matters 😉

(Get your zero waste travel essential inspirations here)

Drinking tap water?

We drank tap water all the way. We started in Krakow (Poland), drank from tap in Hungary and Slovakia, in Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. Most of these countries also have drinking fountains everywhere in the cities. Also at the trainstation in Nis, where we had a 10minute stop on our way from Sofia to Belgrade, there was a tap to refill (I asked the train staff if it was drinking water).

So no problems to refill your bottles. If you are afraid of tap water or unsure if it is good to drink, get a filter bottle (check my posts about how to refuse plastic bottles when traveling, about different water treatment and the best travel filter bottle), bring a charcoal stick or buy the biggest bottle/container available.

I always ask my hosts or ask around in zero waste facebook groups. If they say they drink the water I drink it too. If you have a sensitive stomach, boil the water and drink tea, or get one of my recommended filter bottles. If you don’t like any of these buy the biggest container available.

We do had to buy one plastic container of water once in Plovdiv because there was no water in the Apartment on two nights in a row, so we bought a 11L water container… 

Water refill in Belgrade
A local refilling her bottles in Sofia
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Is train travel a solution for everyone to travel more sustainable?

I honestly don’t think so. It takes more time to travel by train. So if you only have a week and don’t want to be on the road all the time this is not the way of traveling for you.  And sadly not every country has a good train system…

Also, train travel can be more expensive than flying in some countries. Cheap airlines with extra cheap plane trips make it hard to say no for many. Yes, bus and train can be cheaper depending on the country or buying tickets in advance, but also takes longer. (it is so worth it though to take the slow path!)

So not everyone wants or can afford it. We need changes in the travel sector. We need plane travel to be more expensive than bus or train travel. Until then most people will take the plane. If you must take the plane think about offsetting your carbon footprint, and think about if you can take the train, bus or a car to travel in the country you are visiting. (Get more tips about responsible travel in my blog post here: Responsible travel guide)

Luckily some countries like Thailand, Malaysia, some eastern European countries still have very affordable train prices, so if you can, do it! Go by train! Go the slow way! See more of a country this way.

Have you been traveling by train to some interesting places, or had some very beautiful train rides already? Or could you imagine traveling the Balkans by train one day?

Please share with us in the comments 🙂

Happy travel.

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