Not well known but described by some as the best train trip in Europe, the 11-hour Balkan Express, a Bar to Belgrade train, passes through some of the best scenery in the Balkans on its way from Montenegro to Serbia. It is a great example of Soviet era technology, features some fascinating history and the relaxed comfort that trains offer over somewhat quicker buses and cars. This train ride is a highlight for a trip to the Balkans along with Lake Bled in Slovenia, the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dubrovnik in Croatia. We actually planned this part of our trip through the Balkans specifically around this train ride.
This travel guide post is all about the details and how to best take this train; for a more personal story of our journey you should check out My Day on the Balkan Express.
Balkan Express Facts and Figures
Construction started shortly after WWII, but it was only completed and opened in 1976 (in person, by President Tito himself whose famed private Blue Train regularly used the route).
It is 470 kilometres long.
It includes an amazing 254 tunnels. The Zlatibor Tunnel is the longest at 6 kilometres.
There are also a somewhat hard-to-believe 435 bridges. Almost 1 bridge per kilometre? All my sources agree, though, so…
The Mala Rijeka Viaduct is 200 metres above the river, which made it the highest railway bridge in the world up until 2001.
The train actually crosses into Bosnia for about 9 kilometres, although there are no signs and no border stop.
We started at sea level in Bar and at the summit of Kolasin it reaches more than 1,000 metres.
While crossing the narrow land bridge across Lake Skadar (shared with Albania) watch for the remains of the Lesendro fortress. Before the lake was created by a dam the fort was on a small elongated island at the mouth of the Crnoevic River. It is believed to have been built by Peter II Petrovic-Njegus in 1832 in defense against Turkish troops and to ensure safe trade and fishing on the river. It is now abandoned but is very noticeable as you pass by.
The Bar to Belgrade Train Journey
This is a spectacular trip and as comfortable as can be expected considering it takes over 11 hours. Trains are always less exhausting than buses since it is so easy to walk around, stretch your legs, use the WC, etc. And the scenery is particularly incredible for at least half the journey (from north of Podgorica up to maybe an hour or so into Serbia), so I would highly recommend taking the day train if this will be your only visit.
Bar to Belgrade Train Tickets and Seat Options
There is also night train with couchettes and sleepers but you would miss all the best views. The day train that we took was entirely 2nd class, leaves Bar daily at 9:00 and arrives in Belgrade at 20:05 (and roughly the same times in reverse). As far as I can tell, there is still no way to book tickets online but you can check the most current information at https://zcg-prevoz.me/ (there is an English button in the top right). You can also find a lot more info at The Man in Seat 61, generally the first place to look for any train details. If you know someone who speaks the language you could try calling, although on our trip the train was only about 1/3 full so I don’t think tickets in advance are really necessary. We went to the Bar train station the day before and paid €22 each. We asked if we could choose our seats but she just shook her head, and our tickets ended up with assigned seat numbers. Even though I’m pretty sure all the tickets were sold as 2nd class, there were three very different cars. The one we were assigned to (#469) had 2 seats on each side, was faintly air-conditioned and the windows were pretty dirty. The car in front of that one (#470) was a definite step up (2 + 1 seats, better windows and more air-conditioning) and since it didn’t seem like people were really paying attention to seat numbers we moved into that car. Nobody ever tried to claim those seats and our tickets were checked by multiple attendants who never suggested we move, so it seems fine to just sit anywhere that’s open. Also, we arrived about half an hour early and there were quite a few people there already. The train was already there (platform 2) and the attendants were just hanging around outside (smoking, of course) and they let us go straight on and grab spots so it is probably a good idea to get there early to get the seats you want.
The third car had cabins of 6 seats (3 on each side facing each other) with a single aisle down the other side. From Bar to Kolasin (roughly 2 hours) these were completely filled with members of a tour group. Those windows were much cleaner than the others and could actually be opened for better photos. Definitely the best spot if you can get them, although not long after the tour group got off (they must have had a bus waiting for them) we reached the Serbian border and that entire car was removed from the train. I don’t know if they do that every day or if it depends how full the train is.
There was also a dining car where you could buy drinks and snacks. There were a handful of booths and windows that could be opened. It was pretty reasonably priced, although I heard someone say that they eventually ran out of sandwiches so you may not want to rely on it fully. You could also run out and grab drinks and snacks at some of the stations but it rarely stopped for long. We brought our own food (2 lunches worth) and water just in case.
We had heard that people smoked inside the cars but thankfully that doesn’t seem to be allowed any more. Everyone smoked in between the cars, though, which meant a fair bit of smoke still came in when the doors opened, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as having someone smoking right next to you.
What Side Has the Best Views
The most important thing to know, as a tourist, is that you want to sit on the west side of the train (left starting in Bar, right starting in Belgrade). 90% of the time the best scenery is on this side. The scenery was also unquestionably better in the Montenegrin section, although even as the sheer cliffs and steep gorges transformed into rolling hills and farmland as we got closer to Belgrade, the view was always pretty good.
There was lots of room for luggage to be placed on the rack above the seats and some space at the beginning of the car if you have heavier luggage.
Each car had a bathroom. They were pretty unremarkable, just your normal train toilets but sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
You will face two passport checks, although you don’t have to get off as the border agents come on the train and go from person to person. On the Montenegrin side we stopped at Bijelo Polje, then the Serbian check was right at the border (not sure of the name) even though we had read it wouldn’t be until Prijepolje. Either way, it was quick and easy.
All trains to the vibrant Serbian capital of Belgrade now go into and out of Topcider Station, a few kilometres south of the city. There isn’t much out there, just a little shop and no ATM that we saw so you may want to try to get some Serbian dinar in advance. Our AirBnB in Kotor sold us €10 worth, so we had enough to take the tram into the city. It costs 150 dinar per person (roughly €1.25) and you can pay the driver. However, our driver just said, “machine broken, free ride!”. No idea if that is normal or not.
Overall, I would highly recommend using this train to get between Serbia and Montenegro. It makes for a pretty long day but it is rare to get that much time to enjoy such tremendous scenery in such a relaxed mode of transport. And it’s also hard to beat that price.
Bar isn’t a particularly popular tourist destination, with most people just staying a night either before or after taking the train. But it does boast the impressive Stari Bar (Old Bar), an extensive set of ruins just up the hill out of the modern part of the city. The entrance fee to the ruins is just €2 per person and there is plenty to explore, some fascinating history and great views back down over the city. While we had fun climbing around all the nooks and crannies, a woman in extremely high heels also managed to make her way through, so I guess it’s accessible to all?
Just outside the old walls is a street full of shops and restaurants serving local specialties (i.e. beer and pomegranate juice) for pretty reasonable prices.
Other than a bit of a beach, the only other tourist attraction we read about was a 2,240-year-old olive tree. We chose not to go because 1) it was quite out of the way and 2) because of this quote on Trip Advisor – “I love trees, really. I do. It’s not quite worth it, especially given that there’s an entrance fee of 1 euro.” I always take reviews with a grain of salt but when someone says it isn’t worth a euro, well, it seems reasonable not to expect much.
Where to Stay in Bar
All of Montenegro has good value accommodation but we found the Bar was particularly impressive.
We wanted to be within walking distance to the Bar railway station, which is also near that bus station where we got dropped off after our bus from Kotor, and since we were only staying one night we picked the budget option of Guest House Lalic. They were very friendly and we liked our room which included a kitchenette for only €15 but it is not close to the downtown and beach area. However, we ended up appreciating that it was close enough to walk back from the Stari Bar since we weren’t able to find a taxi. There was also a Idea grocery store within walking distance where we stocked up on food for the train.
A good budget choice near the beach is Castello Hotel. It has a really nice terrace and a good breakfast.
And if you feel like relaxing before your train ride, the Stara Čaršija Resort & Spa is a good option. It is best if you have your own car or plan to take taxis as it is not located in the centre but the views and amenities more than make up for this.
Unlike Bar, the Serbian capital is a big city and there is a lot to see and do in Belgrade, a place regularly found on best of the Balkans lists. It has a really young feel to it, with lots of teens and twenty-somethings walking all over the place, so it isn’t surprising that it’s known for its serious night life (although we never actually made it past 10:30). The fortress is worth some time, it’s mostly a park but also has some museums and other sights, and the promenade is really just a street of restaurants along the rather non-descript river, but a few of those have pretty good reputations. Other than that, there is the famous scientific Nikola Tesla museum, lots of nice parks and churches, plenty of bakeries and kebab shops and a pretty nice downtown pedestrian area. One of the bakeries very close to our classic old AirBnB (which has featured in movies) was constantly lined up with locals, always a great sign (see photo). Laynni loaded up on cheese burek for our bus trip to Sofia and can vouch for their skills.
Starting the train journey in Belgrade, you might reach some of the best parts near Podgorica in the dark, so if it’s all the same to your travel schedule I would choose Bar as your starting point. It is also popular to take the night train Belgrade to Bar direction using the Serbian Railways but this also means that you will miss most of the scenery. You can buy the Montenegro Express Belgrade to Bar train tickets ahead through a travel agent unlike in the other direction. However, regardless of which direction you choose, spending the day on the Balkan Express is sure to be a unique and memorable experience. Feel free to contact us directly if you’ve got any questions.
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