If you’re like me, you appreciate a good public transport system. I know, I know - it’s a little nerdy. But I’m not the only one…right?!
Never have I been so grateful for a decent bus and train network than when I travelled non-stop for a week, overland, across Europe. In the height of summer. With a time crunch. Yeah, now I know you’re interested.
There’s nothing quite like throwing caution to the wind and putting it all on the tracks, hoping that the train you’re on will arrive on time for you to make a very short connection. Otherwise, you won’t get to where you’re supposed to be sleeping that night.
And rinse, and repeat.
This is how the JFC team lived while racing across Europe from London to Istanbul. We quite literally journeyed to the end of the continent without catching one plane (well, most of us…). Unsurprisingly, during that time, we collected our fair share of visits to train and bus stations, often in towns or cities we hadn’t heard of before setting off.
So I thought I’d take my first-hand experience—from some of the largest hubs to the smallest country towns—to give you my honest review of which were the best, and which were…not.
Oh, but this won’t be your usual listicle. No, no. There’ll be awards to spice things up! Read on to find out how I found your favourite station, y’know, if that’s what you’re into. *Cue the video*
The “we’re not in Kansas anymore” award: Jesenice Train Station
Now, I didn’t know what to expect when we rolled into Slovenia. I’d never stepped foot in the country before, and knew very little about it. Coming from the efficiency of Austria, we were expecting to see a marked difference, and we did. But not in the way you’d expect.
This very small station (2 lonely platforms) at the base of the huge mountain we’d just tunnelled through, felt like a true shift from Western Europe and…set the scene for whatever lay before us in the Balkans. Given Slovenia’s sorta still recent history of being part of the former Yugoslavia, it’s not a surprise that this station felt like it had been frozen in time.
The tracks were literal centimetres away from the platform edge and overgrown with grass, the timetable was still paper, printed and stuck up (and, as it turned out, inaccurate). Locals were walking their dogs along the train tracks, and would just casually walk across them while out strolling.
According to Wikipedia (always a credible source), there are bathrooms, a restaurant and other facilities tucked away in the small station building, but we didn’t see any. Honestly, it seems like the type of place where you’d be lucky to get a ticket office.
But you don’t really need them - Jesenice isn’t a huge transport hub, it’s a tiny ‘first port of call’ in Slovenia, where frequent trains come through to whisk you off to Ljubljana or Lake Bled.
And that’s what I really liked about it. It truly felt like a relic to the way things worked over 30 years ago in this region, and it was so juxtaposed from Austria and Germany, the two countries we’d just travelled through. In other words, it was really cool.
- Platforms: 2, connected by an underground tunnel
- Bathrooms: they do apparently exist, but I can’t personally vouch for that
- Food and amenities: judging by the size of the station building, very basic—apparently there is a restaurant or a café, or at least somewhere where you can get food
Final rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The ‘my worst enemy award’: Zagreb Train Station
It was late at night when our train pulled into Zagreb train station with a 40-minute delay, and the flickering platform sign greeted us ominously. Like the start of any good horror film, we were fighting for our lives the minute we stepped off the train.
OK, not literally. But, we were ready to wave goodbye to Zagreb as soon as we arrived.
It didn’t help that we were coming off the back of a long train journey and a last-minute decision to jump on a night bus onto Serbia. In other words, we were overtired, frazzled, and rushing.
Still, Zagreb train station didn’t deliver on location, lighting, station signage, or facilities. And it was mobbed with 20-somethings heading down south to Split to go party.
Two things that really stood out for the worse: the train station is deceptively far away from the bus station (even though they seem to be right next to each other on Google Maps). And, they have truly terrible bathrooms with very few stalls.
The only positive thing I can say is that even though the bathrooms were awful (and they are: the only accessible toilets in the lady’s bathroom didn’t have a wall all the way up to the ceiling. Instead, they opened…to the men’s bathroom. Ideal!), it doesn’t cost you anything to use them. A rare treat when travelling around Europe.
Before I move on, I need to point out that the bus station in Zagreb also leaves a lot to be desired. After the terrible walk, we rushed in through the door, only to realise that we weren’t at the right entrance. It turns out the actual entrance to the bus station looks exactly the same as the other shopfronts nearby. Handy…
On the bus from Zagreb - grateful to be on the way to Sofia!
- Number of platforms: 7 platforms, 3 accessible from the street
- Bathrooms: at least one female and one male bathroom—even though to say they’re separated would be a stretch
- Food and amenities: No restaurants in the station, but there are storage lockers (they only take coins)
Final rating: ⭐
The ‘tin of sardines’ award: Eurostar platforms at St. Pancras International
Now, I’m not here to question the logic of the great Eurostar gods, because in general, they do a lot of good stuff. They provide a pleasant, superfast service between London and Europe by train, and the novelty of going under the English Channel will never really wear off.
That being said, the holding pen they call a ‘departure lounge’ leaves a lot to be desired in terms of seating. It’s very clear that the capacity of a full Eurostar train goes way beyond what that small section can handle (even post-Brexit, with way fewer passengers than previous years!). And there are normally 2-3 different trains leaving within an hour or so, meaning even more squishing.
Every time I’ve been waiting for a train here, I’ve felt I have to fight for a seat. Or fight for my place in line at the Pret. Or just fight for my life when I’ve woken up at the crack of dawn to get to St. Pancras for the recommended 90 MINUTES before the train leaves. Meaning more time to just…wait in that cramped space.
Since it’s on the other side of immigration, you really can’t leave once you’re through. So, in the future, I’d wait until the last possible moment to wander through those ticket gates (given it’ll take at least 10-ish minutes to get through security/immigration). At least then you’ve got the minimum amount of time possible to be cooped up with your fellow passengers.
I haven’t even gone into the fact that the volume of the announcements is sooooo soft you really can’t hear it. The only way we found out our train to Paris was ready to board was to follow the mob rushing to the correct platform.
- Number of platforms: 5, but you can’t actually access them until very near to your train’s departure
- Bathrooms: one in the departure lounge, but a few more in the main part of the station, all free
- Food and amenities: 2 shops selling food/drink (including a Pret), bureau de change, and ATMs with cash in £ and €
Final rating: ⭐⭐⭐
The ‘most croissants’ award: Gare de l’Est
This might seem like a strange award, but even stranger was the fact that Gare de l’Est had 2 different Paul bakeries within a 1-minute walk. It was notable to us because we were starving when we raced there to catch our train to Strasbourg, and we were at the mercy of whatever we could find at the station.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of ordering a sandwich or croissant at Paul, I sincerely hope you have the chance in the future. Seriously tasty stuff. Does having two of the same (albeit delicious) bakeries in one space feel a little excessive? Yes, but France runs on its own rules. Heaven forbid we run out of macarons—there’s got to be another for back up.
Also, worth mentioning is the little supermarket at what I think is the Rue du Faubourg St-Martin entrance. It has surprisingly good Asian food bowls which are very travel-friendly. They also had a couple of sushi stands on the concourse.
Honestly, I can’t speak much about the rest of the station, since we very literally zoomed in and out of Gare de l’Est. Even so, it’s way better than Gare du Nord. Sorry!
Richard was very happy with his Asian food bowl
- Number of platforms: 30
- Bathrooms: 3, with a big one below on the ‘Metro’ level of the station—cost may be only 50c, but we used our cards, so it’s difficult to remember
- Food and amenities: Alongside the numerous Pauls and other kiosks, they also have a couple of restaurants/bars in the station itself. And everything else you’d expect from a major European railway station: bureau de change, luggage lockers, left luggage…
Final rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The ‘still has me guessing’ award: Belgrade Central Bus Station
The Race Across Europe crew on the bus from Belgrade - we all had to go through the confusing bus station to get here!
This has honestly still left me with questions, months on. We turned up to Belgrade Central Bus Station through the main entrance, and were greeted by several ticket counters and long lines. Lucky for us, we’d already pre-booked our seats on the bus to Sofia, so we weren’t put off by that. Instead, we had a little walk around to check out the baked goods in the kiosk, and to see where we accessed the buses.
We saw a turnstile with a man checking tickets, so we assumed we were fine to go through. But we were wrong. Once we were at the front of the line, he shook his head and, in broken English, told us he wasn’t checking bus tickets - he was checking tickets to access the bus platforms.
Yep, in Belgrade, you need a ticket to enter the bus station platforms. In addition to, you know, your actual bus ticket.
Still extremely confused, we walked to the ticket counter we were pointed to. The ticket officer then explained that we needed to pay for these platform tickets with cash. Extremely inconvenient for travellers who are about to leave Serbia, and therefore won’t have any need for extra dinar.
Luckily, there is an ATM at the bus station, so you don’t have to go far. And the bus platform tickets are less than £2/€2 pp, so it’s not going to break the bank.
But it’s a reminder to get there way earlier than you think you need to, so you can navigate the bus station before your bus drives off without you. Unless you’re like some of our team members, who bypassed this whole system by walking into the bus station from the on-street bus entrance. Not condoning this method, but it seems like a very easy “mistake” to make.
Aforementioned team members using their creativity to skip the bus station ticket
- Platforms: hard to say, since they are bus ‘platforms’. But there were at least 6-7 bus bays that I remember
- Bathrooms: 1 bathroom near the ticket counters, a good place to use up your extra dinar
- Food and amenities: a little bakery kiosk selling bread, pastries and drinks (unfortunately for us, these were priced slightly too expensive to use our extra coins)
Final rating: ⭐⭐
The ‘backpacker’s dream’ award: Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof
We hit a few stations on our journey through Austria, but two stick out in my mind: Innsbruck and Villach. While Villach is a pretty small place, it’s worth a shout-out because the station is super close to the main town, so really easy to access on foot (definitely wins points in my book!).
Innsbruck, though, absolutely deserves the handiest bag storage award. It’s also pretty centrally located, but the rows and rows of bag storage, of all different shapes and sizes, really aided in our quest to climb into the Alps during a 6-hour stop.
We honestly wouldn’t have been able to see snow in August, or experience just what it feels like to be in the Alps wearing sandals (shout out to Aileen!), without Innsbruck’s bag storage system. It was as easy as rocking up to the station with €3.50 in change, popping it into the machine and away you go to the mountains!
Other perks of the bag storage:
- It’s in the main part of the station, not a separate luggage room, meaning it’s accessible 24/7
- Prices vary by size, but the largest was less than €5/day
- If you have, say, 4 large backpacks and various other tote bags, jackets, laptops, etc. the largest is more than big enough to fit them all
Not that Innsbruck is the only station in Europe to have bag storage—it’s a pretty widespread concept. But we got the most out of not having our huge backpack when the Alps were right there. Love it.
- Number of platforms: 11 platforms
- Bathrooms: 1 bathroom with lots of stalls: 50c to use—again, can use card
- Food and amenities: bag storage, lots of kiosks and cafés, and McDonald's!
Final rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The ‘oh, you wanted to buy tickets at this ticket office? Too bad’ award: Sofia Central Train Station
Rolling into Sofia was a tense experience. Not because we had gone through anything particularly stressful, but because we had one mission once we arrived: book the night train from Bulgaria to Turkey.
It turns out, this was a lot more difficult than we’d imagined. We arrived at around 10pm, which meant that we were definitely out of normal ‘office hours’, but we still had high hopes. After a brief run from the bus station (where we arrived) to the train station (where the ticket offices are), our fearless leader, Katy, was bounced between 2 different ticket desks (on two different floors), before being told: “Sorry, no”.
It turns out, international and domestic tickets are sold from different ticket counters scattered throughout the station, and this isn’t obvious unless you ask someone.
Instead, we were told that to buy those particular tickets, we would have to come back at 6:30am the next morning and try our luck. The obvious question, “why couldn’t we just buy these tickets from you, right now?” was never answered. And such is life.
Luckily, our group had Richard, who was willing to sacrifice his sleep and make the early-morning trek back to the station. Where he was promptly told that the train was sold out. Boo! We had to pivot and book a 7-hour bus to Istanbul from our next stop, Plovdiv, instead.
So, be aware—Sofia’s train station ticket office may be ‘open’, but they may not be able to sell you tickets. And they might not tell you that your mission is futile because that train is sold out until the next day. In my research, I’ve also discovered that they have breaks when they close during their advertised ‘open hours’. Gotta love how they do it in the Balkans.
The ticket hall is nice and modern, though I can’t say the same for the trains that take you to Plovdiv. It was a true guessing game to figure out which train we needed to catch, since there are multiple trains on one platform! And the departure board won’t help you, unless you can read Cyrillic. Even then, the times weren’t entirely accurate.
- Platforms: According to Google, there were 11. But your guess is as good as mine
- Bathrooms: There is at least one big bathroom downstairs. It should be free to use, but in Bulgaria it’s common to have a toilet attendant who encourages tips, and that definitely was the case here
- Food and amenities: lots of kiosks (you need to pay in cash for all of these, despite what the shop attendants tell you), left luggage, an ATM and a supermarket
Final rating: ⭐⭐
The ‘you’ll never go hungry’ award: Ljubljana Train Station
Had to go straight to the food with this one
This one seems surprising, but hear me out. Were we also sceptical when we spotted an Asian restaurant literally on the station platform in Ljubljana? Yes. We’re in Slovenia, for one. And this is a restaurant in the station—surely it can’t be very good.
Well, it was! Shout out to Tasty Corner—a restaurant tucked away at the far end of the station, which actually looked closed when we were sussing out our food options. There were other options calling our name as we walked along the platform, including a very tempting Big Mac. But I’m very glad we took a chance on this one.
As is normal with Asian restaurants in Europe, the menu was more of a ‘pan-Asian’ flavour. E.g. a bit of Thai, a bit of Vietnamese, a lot of Chinese, etc. That being said, it was fantastic. And the speedy service made it possible for us to indulge in a sit-down meal before racing for our train to Zagreb—rolling in on a platform we could see from our table.
We met this lovely fellow on the same platform. ICYMI, there's a backstory behind this apple...
I should probably mention other features of Ljubljana before moving on—it’s helpful to know that at the ticket office here you can make bookings on international trains. This isn’t something you can do in all parts of Europe, especially when you’re buying tickets on short-notice (if you’re within 2 weeks of your journey, for example, you may not be able to buy your ticket online).
Luckily, we scored reservations on a very busy night train from Zagreb to Split, thanks to the helpful ticket officer. This was unlike in our previous stops (ahem, Austria, ahem), where we couldn’t organise our travel onwards from our next destination.
Of course, we weren’t to know that we actually didn’t need those tickets (see our Zagreb experience above), but that’s not Ljubljana’s fault.
- Platforms: 12
- Bathrooms: Yes! And they’re free :-)
- Food and amenities: Restaurants are top-notch. Also tried out the luggage lockers here, which were a little confusing to use, but fine once we figured it out. Similarly to Innsbruck, we were able to stick all our massive bags in one locker, which was great
The ‘honestly, just chaos’ award: Istanbul Otogar Bus Station
I don’t think I can fully describe what we experienced after getting off the (way too long) bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul. As it turns out, midnight on a Friday night is the peak time to be at Istanbul bus station. To be fair, though, I don’t think there’s such thing as an ‘off-peak’ in this city.
We stepped off the bus into a crowd of people—on the footpath, on the road, and everywhere in between. After grabbing our bags, we started the slow walk towards our hotel, which was very conveniently part of the station complex. Along the way, we saw:
- Random drivers shouting and haggling with travellers wanting to be taken to cities that are literal hours away, llike Bodrum and Izmir (5-8 hr drive with a random man, no, thanks!)
- Fireworks and flares being set off at random parts of the station
- Motorbikes being driven on the footpath, in between the crowds
- Lots of buses honking horns—if there’s one thing you should know about drivers in Istanbul, they love their horns
- Throngs of people—Istanbul is a city of 15.5 million, so it’s pretty expected. But wow
I want to remind you, this was at midnight on a Friday. Can’t imagine what it’s like during the day!
Apart from the hotel, there are a few other amenities at the station—lots of ticket offices from bus companies, and a very handy metro stop that connects you to the rest of the city quickly and easily. This isn’t a place where you really want to spend a lot of time—basically get in and out as quickly as you can, otherwise you’ll be enveloped in the chaos. Like we were in our hotel.
As you can imagine, staying at a hotel in the bus station is loud, smelly and just a little rundown, so it was really hard to recover from the long bus ride. 10/10 would not recommend.
- Platforms: not really a thing here—buses just pull up in the car park. I’m sure there’s some order to it, but my Turkish isn’t at that level yet
- Bathrooms: again, I’m sure there are some, but I couldn’t find much information about this online. Luckily, restaurants, cafés and other businesses usually let you use their toilets freely!
- Food and amenities: I can’t remember seeing any restaurants, but there will be kiosks around the station area. My recommendation is grabbing a simit from the little red food carts on the street—they’re like Turkey’s answer to a bagel, crossed with a pretzel. And they come with cheese!
Final rating: ⭐⭐
So, there you have it—my very honest experience and review of many of Europe’s train and bus stations. There were so many others we visited that I could have written about, but I wanted to give you a good cross-section of the different experiences we had transiting from west to east. As with any backpacking experience—some are good, some…aren’t so good. And that will be different for each person.
So, if you had the opposite experience than I did at one of these stations, I want to hear about it! Did you think that Zagreb’s poorly lit platforms and run-down bathrooms added to its charm? Did you hate Innsbruck’s bag storage because it was just too convenient?
I’m kidding, of course. But as you know, I am a bit of a transport nerd, so if you had a good (or bad) experience at any station, please send it my way.