Istanbul’s historic Sirkeci railway station (also known as Istanbul Gar) was officially opened on 3 November 1890.
The station was designed by a German architect August Jachmund who incorporated oriental elements into his blueprint.
The station is located in the Sirkeci district in the heart of the old part of the city on the European side of the Bosphorus. In order for the railway line to reach Sirkeci, the railway line runs along the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara and the Sultan allowed a stretch of track to be built through the gardens skirting his Topkapi Palace. There used to be a large beer garden and outdoor restaurants in front of the station on terraces leading down to the sea but now a petrol station and a busy highway block direct access to the waterfront.
The terminal connects Turkey to the rest of the European rail network as well as being the terminus for various suburban and local routes. However, if you want the train to Ankara or all points east you need to cross to the Asian shore of the Bosphorus and catch a train from Haydarpaşa, Istanbul’s other main station.
Sirkeci is a fairly quiet station these days but still has a popular restaurant, the Orient Express. During the 1950’s and 60’s the restaurant was the favourite haunt for journalists, writers and intellectuals but nowadays is more likely to be filled with tourists trying to imagine how this place must have been during the golden age of rail travel.
Talking of the Orient Express, Sirkeci was, and still is occasionally, the terminus for the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express.
The first Orient Express left Paris on 4 October 1883 bound for Istanbul (the old Sirkeci station) via Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Rousse and Varna. The journey covered 3094km and took 80 hours. This service stopped running in 1977.
Confusingly, there is another luxury train service with a similar name, the Venice Simplon Orient Express which runs mainly between Calais and Venice but does do periodic side trips to Istanbul by a more southerly route than the original.
This route map might help to clarify (or perhaps not!).
This train of course was the setting for one of Agatha Christie’s most famous Poirot novels, Murder on the Orient Express.
In the book, Poirot was staying at the Tokatlian Hotel in Constantinople before catching the Orient Express back to London. That hotel burnt down in 1954.
While writing Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie stayed at another nearby hotel, the Pera Palace.
The Pera Palace’s Orient Bar is said to have been a popular hangout for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway (is there any famous bar in the world where Hemingway did not drink?). My parents and sister stayed at the Pera Palace back in the early 1970’s while they were driving back to England from Pakistan. I considered staying there on my recent trip to Istanbul but following the hotel’s multi-million dollar refit and acquisition by Dubai’s upmarket Jumeirah Group, it is sadly beyond the Thrifty Traveller’s usual budget.
Next to the waiting room at Sirkeci station is a small railway museum which is open from Tuesday to Saturday and is free admission.
Its exhibits include crockery and cutlery used on the Orient Express, the driver’s cab of an electric train, a rather modest Hornby model train layout, the station master’s desk and chair, an Austrian tile stove dating from 1890 used for heating the waiting room, signage and other ‘railwayana’.
International Train Travel from Turkey
Sirkeci station has a ticket counter for international trains. It is still possible to retrace the route of the Orient Express on regular trains. The first leg of the journey might be Istanbul – Bucharest. Ticket prices range from €38.30 for 2nd class to €112.10 for 1st Class including a sleeping car supplement. If you wanted to go all the way to Paris it would probably be cheaper to purchase an Interail Global Pass Card.
For the more adventurous traveller, how about travelling from Istanbul (Haydarpaşa station) to Teheran by train? The 58 hour journey costs just €33 1st class.
For more details on fares and timetables you can refer to the official Turkish State Railways website.
1890 Tile Stove at Sirkeci Railway Museum