Rail Journeys

Classic Bulgaria and the Cherry Festival

Tour Date: 23 June to 2 July 2024
Location: Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a Balkan country with spectacular mountains and a coastline on the Black Sea. For around 500 years it was part of the Ottoman Empire, although the Orthodox tradition remained strong, and today has ancient history, a favourable climate, varied cuisine and hospitable people.

Join us on a rail-based tour around the central region visiting the best of the ancient and cultural sites. You will see wonderful monasteries, Thracian tombs, the ancient capital of Bulgaria, Europe’s oldest inhabited city and much more, as well as travelling on some very fine railway lines, including the “Alpine railway in the Balkans”. From the lively capital city of Sofia, to small remote picturesque villages, known for superb folk art, we guarantee that Bulgaria will entrance you.

Tour Highlights

  • Narrow gauge train Septemvri – Dobrinishte
  • UNESCO sites, museum towns and villages
  • Plovdiv (European capital of culture in 2019)
  • The Black sea coast
  • Annual Festival of Cherry
  • Wine tastings in Varna
  • 9 dinners and 1 lunch included

Tour Itinerary

Breakfast and morning train to Gorna Oriahovitsa. Arrival in Gorna Oriahovitsa railway station.

In many of the trains in Bulgaria you can still have the pleasure of opening window to get your photos

From Gorna Oriahovitsa we transfer to Veliko Turnovo – the medieval capital city of Bulgaria, which is built on four hills above the Yantra River.

Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko

Tour of Tsarevets Royal Hill with the fortress, Baldwin tower (the leader of the 4th Crusade), visit Samovodska Charshia (the street of crafts in the old part of Veliko Turnovo). There is a variety of craftsmen’s workshops in the Samovodska Charshia today: potter, armourer, coppersmith, carver, confectioner, weaver, icon-painter’s studio, photographer, café, a workshop where kadaif is made (kadaif is a classic Middle Eastern pastry), and a bakery.

Samovodska Charshia

The centre recreates the atmosphere of the first decades of the 20th century. Late afternoon to Arbanassi Museum Village, located on a hill above Veliko Turnovo, where we will visit Nativity Church.

Nativity Church fresco paintings, Arbanasi

The village is mentioned for the first time in documents from 1538. The village was so scenic that Greek bishops from Mount Athos and from as far as Jerusalem went to spend the summer there. Dinner and overnight in Veliko Turnovo.

Breakfast and departure by train to Shumen and Varna, joining the first Bulgarian railway line Ruse – Varna ( 1866, commissioned to an English company managed by William Gladstone, a politician, and the Barkley brothers, civil engineers ).

Loco hauled train running through typical Bulgarian scenery

Arrival in Varna – the marine capital city of Bulgaria and largest Bulgarian port on the Black Sea. Varna railway station is one of the oldest in Bulgaria and was one of the stations where the Orient Express used to stop between 1883 and 1885.

City tour of Varna with lunch and tasting of local wines. In the afternoon we will visit the regional museum, which displays the oldest gold treasure in the world, belonging to the Varna culture, was discovered in the Varna Necropolis and dates to 4200–4600 BC. Check in, dinner and overnight at the hotel.

Gold grave items from 4200 BC

Breakfast and departure by train to Karnobat, crossing beautiful nature sites – Chudnite skali rock formations, Kamchiya river valley, Tsonevo water reserve and the eastern slopes of Stara Planina mountain ( Balkan Range ).

The railway line crossing the Tsonevo water reserve

Arrival in Karnobat railway station and transfer by coach to Nesebur UNESCO town.

Nesebur UNESCO town

According to Strabo, the town was named Messambria (later altered to the Slavonic Nessebur), after the legendary founder – a Thracian by the name of Melsa and the Thracian name for city “bria”. It exists since the 2nd millennium BC, the Hellenic colony on this site was founded in 510 BC by Dorian settlers. Having captured Messambria in 72 – 71 BC, the Romans preserved the city intact, leaving there a permanent garrison. During the Roman epoch, new temples dedicated to Demeter, Asclepiad, Hecate, Isis, etc. were erected. On the northern shore of the peninsula rose the Temple of Zeus. At the big local theatre, drama, music performances and poetry readings were arranged. Since the 4th c AD, Messambria maintained close links with Constantinople, during the 7th c it became one of the “special” locations where out of favour politicians and courtiers were exiled from Constantinople.

Ancient Orthodox Church in Nessebur

Walking tour of the old peninsula and free time to enjoy the place. Transfer by coach to Stara Zagora and take the train to Plovdiv. Evening arrival, dinner and check in at the hotel.

After breakfast we have a walking tour along the longest pedestrian street in the world and the remains of the Roman forum and stadium to Djumaya Mosque Square and the Old Plovdiv architectural reserve:

Roman theatre of Philoppoliss

Plovdiv has 6,000 years of history and was once the capital city of Philip the 2nd of Macedonia (the father of Alexander the Great). With its innumerable art galleries, winding cobbled streets and bohemian cafés, it would be no exaggeration to call today’s Plovdiv the Paris of the Balkans. Plovdiv’s appeal derives mainly from its lovely old town, the Stariat Grad, largely restored to its mid-19th century appearance and full of winding cobblestone streets. It is literally packed with atmospheric house-museums and art galleries and, unlike many other cities with ‘old towns’, has eminent artists still living and working within its tranquil confines. During the tour you will see the Ancient Amphitheatre, St. Constantine and Helena Church, the Ethnographic Museum (the so-called `Royal House`).

Afternoon visit of the 11th c Bachkovo Monastery – the 2nd largest monastery in Bulgaria, connected with the history of the 3rd Crusade. Back to Plovdiv and some free time. Dinner and overnight.

Ethnographic Museum in old town of city of Plovdiv

After breakfast, transfer from Plovdiv to Septemvri train station. Take the narrow gauge line to Dobrinishte (4 h 25 min). The only operating narrow gauge (760 mm) line in Bulgaria nowadays, was built in the period 1921-1945 till Dobrinishte. The journey takes some 3,5 hours and passes through valleys and gorges. The route leaves Velingrad, passing Avramovo, Yakoruda, Razlog and Bansko, linking the western part of the Upper Thracian Plain with the Western Rhodopes, Rila and Pirin mountains.

There are still, comfortable, locomotive hauled trains on the wonderful Septembri to Dobrinishte narrow-gauge railway. One of the highlights of this holiday.

Due to the characteristics of the route through the mountains, the narrow gauge line is also known as the Alpine railway in the Balkans. Avramovo station, situated at 1267 meters above the sea, is the highest station in the Balkans. Along the route there are 35 tunnels, 11 stations and 10 stops.

Arrival in Dobrinishte and transfer to Bansko museum town. In the afternoon, you will have the opportunity to explore the area of Bansko and Pirin Mountain ( National Park, UNESCO site ).


The eco paths and trails near the town, the numerous lakes and the old pine woods make it a popular site for recreation. In winter, Bansko is a host of many world cup alpine ski races, while in summer time international jazz, opera and theatre festivals are organized. We will have a walking tour of the Old Bansko to see St. Trinity Church and the complex of National Revival houses with their typical architecture – thick stone walls, narrow and dark loop-holes, iron wires on the windows and the heavy doors. If not too tired ( just 15 km from Bansko ) – stop at Bunderitsa hut and walk to Baikusheva mura ( 10-15 min walk ) – the oldest tree in Bulgaria ( 1300+ years, 1930 m above sea level ). Dinner at a traditional restaurant in Bansko and overnight.

St. Trinity Church, Bansko

Breakfast and morning transfer to Rila Monastery UNESCO site – the largest monastery in Bulgaria, located at an altitude of 1147 m above sea level in Rila Mountain National Park.  Admire wooden balconies, azure fretwork, collonades, facades and colourful frescoes, silhouetted against a fantastic panorama of mountain peaks. The monastery has been founded in the 10th century.  It is a National Historical Reserve since 1976 and part of UNESCO list since 1983.

Rila Monastery

Depending on the train schedules, you will have a train ride from Blagoevgrad to Kjustendil via Radomir. Afternoon arrival in Kjustendil, join the Festival of Cherry or relax at the mineral water pool of your spa hotel.

Festival of Cherry: In Kyustendil the cherry is grafted into the life and culture of the population, it is protected and cared for with love, with hope for well-being, it is surrounded by rituals and native poetry. Dozens  of  producers  exhibit  all  kinds  of  cherries  in  the  town  square,  and  in  addition to certificates and names and plates of origin, everyone tries to present the cherries under a variety of interesting arrangements. Visitors can see works of art dedicated to the cherry – dolls, jewelry, plastics, icons and various authentic works, masterfully crafted by the skillful hands of artists and craftsmen.  In  the  hard-working  hands  of Kyustendil  chefs,  the  cherry  is  widely  used  -beautiful  cakes,  jams,  compotes  and  cherry syrups  adorn  the  competition  tables,  and Kyustendil residents and guests of the city are amazed to discover the diversity of the cherry world.  There  is  also  a  competition  for  the most beautifully arranged cherry stand. In 2023, the biggest cherry had 4 cm in diameter.

Festival of Cherries, Kyustendil,,Bulgaria.

Did  you  know:  In  Bulgaria,  cherries  are  a symbol  of  good,  they  are  harbingers  of summer,  the  door  through  which  the prosperity  opens  to  all  fruit-producing regions.

Morning to visit the Festival of Cherries closing day or relax at the hotel. Transfer from Kjustendil to Sofia. Afternoon tour of Sofia: the capital city of Bulgaria is one of the most ancient cities in Europe, which Constantine the Great once called “My Rome”. See Sofia University, the National Library, the Parliament Square, St. Sofia 6th century basilica, Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, the National Theatre and the City Garden, the Presidency, St. George 4th century Rotunda, the ruins of Ancient Serdica.

Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral
The National Library, Sofia

Sofia is a great place for tram enthusiasts with a large network and many different types, quite a lot are of a certain vintage.

Day tour to Koprivshtitsa museum town. Take the picturesque slow railroad, which goes to the east of Sofia, parallel to the Balkan mountains and passes via the small towns and villages of Musachevo, Sarantsi, Makotsevo, Mikovo ( the highest railways bridge on the Balkans, 30 m ), Zlatitsa and Pirdop.

Arrival at the train station of Koprivshtitsa, situated some 9 km away from the town. Transfer by our coach to discover one of the most famous museum-towns in Bulgaria, declared national historical and architectural reserve, where one can still feel the spirit of the Bulgarian National revival. Narrow cobbled streets, arch-like bridges, stone fountains, high-stone walls with big gates, leading to picturesque houses create an inimitable romantic atmosphere. Walking tour and free time for lunch. Afternoon transfer back to Sofia. Farewell dinner with folklore performance.

Free time and transfer to the airport.

Return Along the Oriente Express Route

Or why not treat yourself to a rail journey from history as you return home along the route of the original and legendary Oriente Express with 2 nights in Bucharest, 2 in Budapest, 2 nights in Munich and 2 in Strasbourg. All travel in daylight with no overnight trains.

Orient Express 1883 1914

Prices & Options

Prices (per person)

  • From Heathrow: £1,675
  • From Gatwick: £1,650
  • From Stansted: £1,575
  • From Luton: £1,575
  • From Manchester: £1,725 (includes pre-tour night in Sofia)
  • From Sofia: £1,375
  • Return by rail on Oriente Express Route (8 nights): add £1,380 to flight prices or £1,480 to from Sofia price. Based in double/twin room (add £470 for single use room.


  • Single use room supplement: £195


  • £300 (own flights), £600 (with flights)

Holiday Includes

  • 9 nights with breakfast and city tax at 4* hotels
  • 9 dinners. 5 dinners at hotels, 1 dinner with wine tasting in Veliko Turnovo, 1 dinner at a central restaurant in Plovdiv, 1 dinner at traditional restaurant in Bansko, 1 dinner at a traditional restaurant in Sofia with live music
  • 1 lunch with wine tasting at Villa Wisteria near Varna
  • Train tickets in Bulgaria (1st class wherever possible)
  • Entrances for the visited sites
  • Demonstration of traditional crafts in Koprivshtitsa
  • Visit of the Festival of the Cherry
  • Arrival and departure transfers