An Eastern European Escapade - From Bar to Budapest via Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest

Do you want to experience some of Europe's most spectacular railway lines? Would you like to get caught up in the romance of long-distance train travel? Is seeing more of the stunning Eastern European countryside on comfortable trains appealing to you? How about learning more about accommodation, things to do, and restaurants in Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest? If so, look no further than this easy to follow guide to travelling by train from Bar to Budapest, via Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest; the final part of our five-country Eastern European summer escapade!

The Final Part of a Family Train Adventure

Often families consider long train journeys inappropriate for young children, but we decided the opposite. Our family journey across Eastern Europe had begun a couple of weeks earlier when we caught the overnight train from Budapest Kelati to Belgrade, Serbia. Then we rode Europe's most spectacular train from Belgrade, Serbia to Bar, Montenegro. Next, we enjoyed a family foray to Kotor, exploring the old town of Kotor and its surroundings. While the journey had already been fairly demanding for a six-year-old, the really grueling part of our family train adventure was still ahead of us: from Bar to Budapest via Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest; three day-long journeys and one all nighter. It really was an Eastern European Escapade!

Bar to Belgrade

Originally, we had planned to take the overnight train from Belgrade to Bar (and sleep the whole way), and then return on the day train after a week in Kotor. Unfortunately, the overnight train wasn't running in the summer months, so we got to experience the scenery on Europe's most spectacular train journey twice. Once again the scenery blew us away, especially for the opening few hours suspended high above the mountains beyond Podgorica. My brother Colin, his wife Miriam, and their three young girls had flown into Montenegro a couple of days before and joined us for the journey to Belgrade onto Sofia. Passengers looked on with shock at four young kids enjoying the train ride at such a young age. Thankfully, there were no meltdowns just periods of activity, scenic appreciation and lengthy sleeping sessions. Twelve hours later we pulled into Belgrade and temporarily went our separate ways: my brother and his family to a downtown hostel by taxi and us on foot to a nearby apartment called Dok. 

The World's Best Value Apartment: Apartment Dok, Belgrade

Although the external appearance of Apartment Dok was disappointingly down market, once inside we quickly concluded this was the best value apartment in the world. Little more than thirty euros had secured us an amazingly upmarket place. Unbelievably, it came complete with chandeliers, other beautiful fittings, a fully functional kitchen, two bedrooms, widescreen TV with multiple channels and a homely feel. The super fast wifi enabled us to contact my brother and tell him that we'd decided to stay in, prepare a snack at home rather than find a restaurant in the dark, and sleep early.

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Belgrade Whistle-stop Tour

By 6am the following day, our tired bodies were striding towards the waterfront area of Belgrade. The city has come a long way since the troubles of the 1990's. Developers have already begun to transform Serbia's vibrant capital, especially where the Sava meets the Danube River, and we hiked along a beautiful riverside path before heading up into the older part of the city. A few monuments and several steps later and Kalemegdan Citadel's entrance suddenly appeared. While time was short, we managed to wander around its extensive grounds and take in a contemplative view over the entire city. An early morning taxi got us back to Apartment Dok just in time to shower, eat some snacks and pack up for the long train ride which lied ahead of us.

The Never-ending Journey - Belgrade to Sofia

It all started out pretty well. My brother, his wife, his three girls, my wife Miras and our son Raf all scrambled onto a reasonable-looking intercity train. Critically, it wasn't that crowded so we moved down the train to an almost completely empty carriage in anticipation of a few meltdowns. Although we had managed to buy some supplies, we weren't quite as prepared as on the Belgrade to Bar segment. Far worse than limited snacks lied ahead. A couple of hours outside Belgrade, the train grinded to a stop due to power issues. What was supposed to be a lengthy journey, morphed into something far more challenging. A two-hour delay in the middle of nowhere and another delay at a station further along the line, made it difficult for any of us to really love the trip. Of course the scenic vistas, especially through a tight valley pass just before sunset, and ice cream treat courtesy of one of the delays, enabled us all to get through our sixteen hours on board. Eventually our seemingly never-ending journey finished at Sofia's pristine central station and we shuffled into taxis to our respective hotels.

Lion Hotel, Sofia

Hotel Lion's night time receptionist could probably see the tiredness all over our faces. It was way beyond midnight after all. Thankfully, we were all checked in within a couple of minutes, and soon after collapsed onto our respective beds for some much needed rest. The following morning we arose to find strong sunlight filtering into our large, comfortable room. One by one, we took long showers to wash away the memories of the never ending train journey from the day before. Then we headed downstairs for the free breakfast at the adjoining cafe. Overall, the Lion Hotel served us very well for our three nights in Sofia's capital. Ideally located at the edge of the city, Lion Hotel is less than 1km from the central train station in one direction and the key city attractions in the other. Quite the bargain for just 39 Euros a night, you get a lovely balcony view, heaps of space in the generously sized rooms, a super clean bathroom, and an adequate breakfast thrown in too.

Strolling Sofia's Streets

With no particular agenda to follow, Sofia's highlights just crept up on us as we wandered around its beautifully-paved streets. First up was Sofia's only mosque Banya Bashi, where the faithful spilled out all over the street for the end of Ramadan prayers. Just beyond the mosque Miras spotted some beautifully preserved Roman ruins at Complex Ancient Serdica, which we enjoyed learning more about on the array of information posts positioned across the site. Next stop was both the meeting point with my brother and Raf's request: the National Museum of Natural History. Home to over a million species of animals, plants and minerals, it was a great place for Raf and his cousins to spend an educational few hours. Conveniently located on the opposite side of the street, Corso Restaurant provided everything necessary for the rest of the afternoon: smoothies, traditional cuisine, wine, desserts and comfortable seating. Sofia's iconic orthodox church, Hram-Pametnik CV. Aleksandar Nevski, was top of the photography agenda for day two, alongside enjoying the gorgeous fountains, architecture and delightful atmosphere of city park. Raf loved dancing along to a group of buskers and cooling himself off in the water of the fountain ensemble. After a great morning together, we sent Raf off with my brother and his cousins for an afternoon swim at their five-star palace.

Capo Mediterranean Restaurant, Sofia

Blessed with trustworthy babysitters, Miras and I returned to Lion Hotel to freshen up and get changed. Soon after we hit Sofia's streets to check out some thrift stores and shoot some portraits. Wearing sky-high heels and tight jeans, Miras did her best fashion blogger impression for an hour or so before requesting refreshments. Conveniently behind our primary shoot location, the Church of St George Rotunda, lied a wonderfully romantic restaurant called Capo Mediterranean. Tucked away on a leafy side street, Capo served us crisp white wine, healthy vegetables and delicious pasta and risotto dishes. An hour of quiet reminiscing, hand-holding and gazing into each other's eyes allowed us to become Miras and Mart once again; an unlikely couple from other ends of the world.


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The Sofia to Bucharest Day Train

After a swift breakfast at the Lion, we purchased sufficient food for the journey ahead at a local store, checked out and grabbed a taxi to the station. As soon as we entered a scammer, pretending to be an official, offered to show us to the right platform. He just wouldn't take no for an answer, so I allowed him to show the way then offloaded my last few Bulgarian coins in his hand as full and final payment. Fortunately, we had arrived early enough to grab a private six-seater cabin with adjustable windows. In stark contrast to the Belgrade to Sofia experience, this segment went super smoothly. The first two hours offered stunning river and mountainside scenery as the train lurched out of Bulgaria. While the vistas never got better than that, the entire journey felt like a trip back in time rolling through the plains of Eastern Europe. A couple of hours before Bucharest, the fields turned a sea of yellow with heaps of sunflowers lit up by the slowly setting sun. The train arrived more or less on time and a friendly taxi driver delivered us to our next hotel: the Carpati.

When in Bucharest

A trending hashtag in the Philippines involves putting "when in" in front of wherever you are. So we'll call this paragraph "when in Bucharest" and tell you all about how you should eat a lot of meat, check out its wonderful architecture and breathe in its history. We did all that by, once again, just wandering around without any particular schedule apart from a date at the Grigore Antipa Natural History Museum. Passing by Revolution Square helped us imagine the history-changing events that took place here a couple of decades ago. About two kilometers further on, past more wonderful architecture, Raf was blown away by the interactive displays on offer at Grigore, so much so that he wouldn't leave the museum for four hours. That was day one all but over when we got outside and strong rain showers sent us into a taxi for a late afternoon meat feast at Caru’ cu Bere Restaurant (more below). The sun returned with a vengeance on day two allowing us to explore nearby Cismigiu Gardens, where Miras rowed us around the lake using her island-life skills. Then we packed up again, found some appropriate clothes for a few family photographs, and hailed a taxi to central station.

Caru' cu bere, Bucharest

Caru’ cu bere is a Bucharest classic and you really shouldn't miss it if you visit the city. Established way back in 1879, its stunning interior décor is a visual feast. The combination of original wood, high ceilings and gilt elements brings back memories of the city’s golden age. The restaurant's menu features many traditional dishes and meat certainly dominates the starter and main courses. We loved our traditional feast here ordering a selection of Caru' cu bere's recommended dishes. While Raf ordered meat balls and rice, he decided Miras' ribs and my confit pork were better suited to his palet. That's quite a normal occurrence for us, but usually it's Miras who decides she prefers my order.

The Bucharest to Budapest All Nighter

Ahead of a sixteen-hour overnight journey to Budapest, we decided to go early to shoot some family portraits using a tripod and timer. Appropriately overdressed for the occasion, we used our luggage as seats and tried to capture a family in the midst of an Eastern European escapade. Did we succeed? Well it's always hard to get the right angle with a tripod, but the images we got will definitely form part of a cool future photo book. Left with just an hour or so, we indulged in a KFC for dinner and stocked up on last minute supplies.

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Unfortunately, the sleeper train turned up late making boarding a somewhat hurried affair. However, once the kind conductor showed us to our relatively luxurious private compartment, life slowed down. Blessed with three separate beds, air-conditioning, and a super clean communal bath and shower room at both ends of the carriage, we had everything we needed to get to Budapest. In travelling it always seems like you get what you pay for. Unlike on our first overnight sleeper experience from Budapest to Belgrade, we slept soundly through much of the night as the train roared through Transylvania. The region might be well known for vampires, but nothing disturbed us until a glorious sunrise starting lighting up the compartment. A few hours later and Budapest's Kelati station came into view. A circle now complete: from Budapest to Budapest via Belgrade, Bar, Sofia and Bucharest.

A Budapest Surprise

The person waiting for us at Budapest station, my old university friend Rob, had meticulously planned this final segment of our Eastern European Escapade with just one cavaet: Raf's input. As usual Raf wanted to see Hungary's take on a natural history museum but that would follow the next day. First things first though, we needed to find our hotel. While Rob was holed up in some fancy chain hotel, we were more than happy when we saw the large room reserved for us at Fanni Guesthouse. It wasn't like we planned to stay in a lot, and Rob's schedule found us buying two-day tickets for a city bus tour minutes after check in, boarding a bus soon after, and surveying the beautiful city skyline from a hilltop about thirty minutes later.

What surprised me the most was where we went next. Situated on an island in the middle of the Danube River, a ferry deposited us (all included as part of the two-day tour) on Margaret Island. It was another scorcher and Palatinus proved the ideal destination with its combination of traditional baths and modern slides, wave machines and swimming pools. Raf loved the place so much he suggested we move to Margaret Island forever! Getting back to central Budapest wasn't so hard and we dined at a local pizzeria before heading home to sleep.

On our last day in Budapest and Eastern Europe, we marched across to Budapest's natural history museum: Magyar Termeszettudomanyi. The Noah's Ark exhibition particularly caught Raf's eye as he wandered around another wonderful place to learn about the natural world. After that, we decided to make the most of our bus tickets and hop on for a thorough tour of the city. Although this isn't our usual style of travel, it made a change and reduced tiredness levels a lot. Late afternoon a taxi picked us up and headed to the airport. Sadly, our Eastern European escapade was over, but will live on forever through the pictures and film that we captured along the way.

Follow in our footsteps

- For the Bucharest - Budapest sleeper train use Trip Tickets online, who will buy your tickets and deliver them to your Bucharest Hotel for a small commission. The air-conditioned sleeper carriage cost approximately 280 Euros for three of us in a private compartment, including commission. 

- Usually tickets for Eastern European day trains will be available on the day at the station.

- Alternatively, contact Mr Popovic from Putovanja Wasteels in Belgrade (email [email protected] / telephone +381 11 265 8868). Mr Popovic can arrange tickets for Bulgarian, Serbian and Romania trains. He arranged all our tickets from Belgrade - Bar, Bar - Belgrade, Belgrade to Sofia and Sofia to Bucharest. We met him at Belgrade Station from the Budapest Beograd overnight train and paid him in Serbian Dinars, having earlier sent him a deposit via Western Union.

- For all Eastern European trains, bring enough food, water, and wine to relax your way through the day-long journeys. You cannot rely on the dining cart for anything, even water.

- The toilets are not particularly nice (Bucharest-Budapest sleeper excepted). Therefore bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you.

- To follow our guest house/apartment/hotel choices click on Fanni Budapest Guest House (Budapest), Apartment Dok (Belgrade), Hotel Carpati (Bucharest) and make a reservation on Booking.com

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for additional accommodation options in Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia and Budapest. It makes sense to book ahead using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) to ensure you get the right place for the right price.

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