Traveling by train is the most affordable way to explore the country. A train ticket from Sofia to Plovdiv costs just US$5 (BGN9) for a two-hour train ride, for example. Although the trains are sometimes old and slow, traveling in compartments gives you the opportunity to socialize with other passengers and mingle with the locals.
The railroad system in Bulgaria has several main routes where the biggest number of trains run: Sofia – Plovdiv – Burgas, Sofia – Varna, Sofia – Ruse, Sofia – Vidin, Sofia – Blagoevgrad. It’s good to know that if you want to get to the southern Black Sea Coast (Burgas), there are two routes: one is passing through Plovdiv, and the other through Kazanlak and the Rose Valley. The two routes don’t differ much in travel time, only in the towns they pass by. The main above-mentioned routes are served by fast trains and ordinary trains, while the side routes that usually connect major cities with small towns and villages are only served by ordinary trains. If you buy a ticket for a long route on a ordinary train, be advised that the ride will last much longer and you will stop at every single little train station.
If you simply want to spend an hour or two on board a train and marvel at the landscape outside the window not really caring about the final destination, hop on a train that passes through the Iskar River Gorge (search for the route Sofia – Vratsa on the railway’s website and choose a station before Vratsa). The train is winding, following the curves of the Iskar River, with tiny villages perched on the hills that can be seen on both sides. For a truly unique experience, head to the town of Septemvri, from where you can take the last narrow-gauge train known for its incredibly slow speed and scenic route across three mountains.
All trains are run by the Bulgarian State Railroad Company. You can buy train tickets online, but only for a few rides served by the fast trains. It’s also good to know that once you’ve purchased the e-ticket, you will have to find somewhere to print it, so in many cases it’s easier to buy a ticket from a ticket office. The small town and village stations often have no ticket offices. If this is the case, you can buy a ticket from the ticket inspector on the train.
Most train stations are closed at night unless there is a train arriving, so spending the night in the waiting hall is usually impossible. The language barrier might be another problem, even at big train stations like Sofia where the workers behind the glass of the ticket office rarely speak English. While communicating with them, keep in mind the fact that Bulgarians shake their heads for ‘yes’ and nod for ‘no’. All the information on the ticket itself is only in Bulgarian as well, so if you feel perplexed, ask a young person (they are the most likely to speak English) to help you.