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Turkish railways: guide for foreigners

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Rail transport in Turkey has become increasingly attractive in recent years due to well-developed infrastructure and high-speed trains.

Experienced travellers usually combine trains and buses in their travels, saving on rental housing and spending the night in comfortable sleeping cars that take them to various tourist attractions quickly. Another reason to choose trains is because this type of transport is actively developing in Turkey at the moment. In 2023, it is planned to build about 10,000 kilometres of railways, most of which will be high-speed.

Train types in Turkey

There are more than 10 long-distance trains running in different parts of Turkey. On the country map, the railways stretch from east to north and west. The southwestern part of the Mediterranean coast (from Bodrum to Silifke) and the northeastern Black Sea part of the country (near the cities of Ordu, Trabzon and Rize) remain very popular among tourists. The country’s southernmost railway is located near the cities of Mersin and Antakya.

transport map
Maximilian Dörrbecker / wikimedia

Most of the rail network in Turkey was built by the Germans. The locals joke that they must have been paid for mileage, which is why the railways in Turkey are so winding. Of course, the real reason for this is the rugged mountainous terrain.

Railway carriages types by comfort level

Most trains in Turkey offer:

  • Sleeping cars (Yatakli) with compartments for 1 or 2 people with a sink, refrigerator and shower; these are perfect for spending the night on the train.

Sleeping compartments are private: when booking for 1 person, you still have to pay for the entire compartment, as the price is for both berths. When booking for 2 people, the price is per berth.

  • Economy class couchettes (Kusetli) for 4 people with folding shelf-like beds on which you can both sit and lay down.
  • Passenger cars (Pullman), similar to the European compartment cars with reclining seats. They can be either economy class (designated as 2+2 Pullman) or business class (2+1 Pullman). The difference in cost is about 1.5 times.

There are dining cars on main line and international trains; on high-speed trains, there is usually a buffet available.

Main line and regional trains

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Main line railways connect cities with each other. Also, many cities in the country have regional trains running between urban centres and rural areas.

Many of these trains have their own unique names:

  • Izmir Blue Train (Izmir Mavi Treni): Izmir — Ankara; the route takes approx. 13.5 hours;
  • Taurus Express (Toros Ekspresi): Adana — Konya; approx. 6.5 hours. The Taurus Express runs along a very picturesque mountain route. The railway was built at the beginning of the 20th century; it includes the famous Varda Viaduct shown in the photo at the beginning of this article;
  • Blue train (Konya Mavi Treni): Konya — Izmir; approx. 12.5 hours;
  • Lake Van Express (Vangolu Ekspresi): Ankara — Tatvan; approx. 25 hours. This express takes tourists to Lake Van;
  • Aegean Express (Ege Ekspresi): Eskisehir — Balikesir (Basmane station); approx. 11.5 hours;
  • Euphrates Express (Firat Ekspresi): Adana — Elazig; approx. 10 hours;
  • Ankara Express (Ankara Ekspresi): Ankara — Istanbul (Halkali station); approx. 8.5 hours.

A rich network of regional railways surrounds Izmir, Balikesir, Manisa, Mersin, Eskisehir, Istanbul, and Zonguldak.

The famous Marmaray train near Istanbul connects Europe and Asia under the Bosporus, as well as the centre and distant areas. The proximity of neighbourhoods to its stations significantly increases the cost of housing in the area.

Apartments for sale in Istanbul 2,761 listings on Tranio

International trains in Turkey

You can depart from Turkey by train in two directions: to Bulgaria (Halkali — Istanbul — Sofia) and to Iran (Ankara — Tehran; also known as the Transasia Express). From Sofia you can get to Hungary, Romania and other European countries. But be aware that the Turkish railways website (TCDD) only sells tickets to Sofia or Tehran.

High-speed trains in Turkey

The «bullet trains» of Turkey transport passengers in the railway carriages manufactured by the Spanish CAF and the German Siemens Velaro companies. These carriages provide only sitting accommodation, but the compartments themselves are spacious, comfortable, and have air-conditioning; there are electrical sockets next to some seats. High-speed trains connect:

  • Istanbul with Ankara in 4 hours 15 minutes;
  • Istanbul with Konya in 4 hours 40 minutes;
  • Ankara with Konya in 1 hour 44 minutes.

Travel gurus advise combining high-speed trains with buses in order to get to Cappadocia, Pamukkale or the resorts on the south coast.

Turkish rail transport peculiarities

Some foreigners may find it unusual that sometimes train stations are located on the outskirts of the city, much like airports. Keep in mind that often in such cases a free shuttle runs from these stations to the city, so before calling a taxi, it is worth taking a closer look at where the locals go from the station.

Sometimes when buying tickets online, you need to select the railway station as the destination, not the city itself. For example, there are two stations in Istanbul: the Sirkeci Station on the European side and the Haydarpasa Station on the Asian side of the city. Izmir also has two stations — Basmane and Alsancak.

On high-speed railways, pick-up and drop-off zones at major stations are separated (similar to airports) and are marked with the letters A, B, C, D.

Tickets for international destinations, as well as suburban trains, are not sold on the Internet. You will need to go to the ticket office at the railway station in person.

Buying train tickets in Turkey

There is usually no shortage of tickets. But in the peak of the tourist season, it is better to book seats in sleeping cars a few days in advance. You can buy tickets for high-speed trains 10 days before departure, for intercity trains — 15–30 days before departure.

If you are over 60 years old, you can save up to 50% of the ticket price: ask for an elderly ticket (yaşlı bilet) at the ticket office. For people under 26 there is a 20% discount if you ask for a youth ticket (genç bilet). Additionally, round-trip tickets are usually about 20% cheaper.

There are several ways to buy a train ticket in Turkey:

  1. Buying tickets online. On the official Turkish railways website, select the E-ticket option, fill out the form and pay by card. The ticket must then be printed at the terminal at the station before boarding the train.
  2. Buying tickets at the station. You can buy a ticket at the ticket office or at the self-service terminal at the railway station. All kinds of tickets are available here: from local suburban to intercity trains. You can pay either by card or in cash.
  3. Buying tickets through a travel agency. Travel agencies can book your train tickets for you. To do this, you can write to them by email, leave a request on their website or simply call them. Such agencies are usually easy to find by typing «buy train ticket in turkey» in any search engine online. There are even tour programmes in Turkey exclusively by train.

Ticket prices

To compare train, bus and plane fares in Turkey, let’s look at the fares on specific routes. For example, on the Ankara — Istanbul route (which is about 450 kilometre-long), the corresponding tickets will cost:

  • bus — 6–12 $;
  • train — 11 $;
  • plane — about 25 $.

Is it expensive or cheap? In Germany, the distance between Frankfurt and Berlin is about 420 kilometres; the corresponding tickets will cost:

  • bus — 27 $;
  • train — from 29 $;
  • plane — from 174 $.

Train schedule in Turkey

It is best to look at the current train schedule on the Turkish railways website. Here you can select the type of train: from high-speed trains (on the website’s YHT tab) to intercity long-distance trains (Ana Hat) and regional trains (Bölgesel).

There are sites aggregating train schedules for independent travellers, such as the Seat61 portal.

Another popular route aggregator, Rome2Rio, helps you to plan complex trips with multiple transfers by displaying up-to-date prices in your chosen currency.

Tourist trains in Turkey

How to plan a trip combining both railway romance and popular tourist destinations?

Istanbul — Cappadocia (Goreme):

  • take high-speed train Istanbul — Ankara (4.5 hours) and then transfer to the bus to Goreme (5 hours);
  • take high-speed train Istanbul — Ankara (4.5 hours), transfer to the train to Kayseri (7.5 hours) and then — to the bus to Goreme (1.5 hours).

Istanbul — Pamukkale (Denizli):

  • take high-speed train Istanbul — Ankara (4.5 hours), get off at the Eskisehir station and transfer to the express train to Pamukkale (7.5 hours) or the bus to Denizli (6.5 hours).

Istanbul — Izmir:

  • take high-speed train Istanbul — Ankara (4.5 hours), get off at the Eskisehir station and transfer to the night train to Izmir (10.5 hours) or bus (6.5 hours).

Izmir — Isparta:

  • take the Lake Express (Göller Ekspresi), which transports tourists to the area of Isparta and Burdur, where Lake Salda is located, surrounded by rose and lavender fields.

The Orient Express in Istanbul

Orient Express
muratart / Shutterstock

The illustrious train, made famous by Agatha Christie, in which Hercule Poirot investigated the mysterious murder, ran from Istanbul to Paris. Unfortunately, there is no such train nowadays. You can still get from Istanbul to Paris, but you will have to make several transfers along the way, the first of which will be in Sofia (Bulgaria).

However, the train of the same name continues to run in Turkey. It still lives up to its name and follows due east from Ankara to the city of Kars near the Armenian border. This is a winter fairy tale with oriental charm: the most beautiful photos from this route are taken against the backdrop of snow.

The new Orient Express (also known as the Anatolian Tale) is a tourist train with couchettes and sleeping cars. The route takes about 31.5 hours and crosses 7 provinces of Turkey, occasionally making stops at scenic spots. A sleeping compartment for 2 people costs 1300 Turkish liras. The train runs twice a week in each direction. From Ankara, the express departs on Wednesdays and Fridays and from Kars — on Fridays and Sundays.

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