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If, like me, you have an endless list of places that you want to visit but don’t fancy travelling long term and can’t take every other week off work, this itinerary is for you! I visited 6 countries in 17 days and managed to not feel rushed, tired or burnt out – although I did need to have a couple of early nights towards the end of the trip.
It took a fair amount of planning but it all paid off and it didn’t cost the earth either. Starting in Istanbul, my boyfriend Billy and I headed across the Balkans and into Italy before flying back home. This post will explain our Istanbul to Venice itinerary, and how much it cost – oh and I’ve put a lovely pin-able summary of the itinerary at the end because it’s quite a heavy post!
Istanbul to Venice Itinerary
Day 1 – 3: Istanbul (Plus Travel to Sofia)
Even though it was late by the time we arrived in Istanbul, I’m going to count our travel day as day one of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary so that you can see how many days you’d need to take off work if you were to do this – although if you take an afternoon flight like we did, you could work half a day in the morning! We flew into Sabiha Gokcen (SAW) airport: I flew from London as I was there for a conference and Billy flew from Manchester, meeting me at the airport. From SAW airport we took a bus to Istanbul: it cost less than £2.50, tickets could be bought on the bus and it took about an hour and a half.
After a quick kebab, bought about five steps away from where we got off the bus, we headed to our air BnB in the area of Beyoğlu on the European side of Istanbul, which would be our home for two nights. I highly recommend staying in Beyoğlu as it’s close to a lot of the main attractions, close to a tram line and walking distance to Taksim Square, Karaköy and Eminönü.
The next two days were spent exploring Istanbul, mostly with our taste buds. On our first full day (day two) we took a food tour with Istanbul on Food, took a boat to one of the Princes Islands and enjoyed some hookah with the locals in the evening. The next day (day three) was spent admiring the blue mosque and Haiga Sofia (from the outside as we didn’t have time to spend queueing), strolling through Gülhane park and getting lost in the Grand Baazar. You can read in more detail what we got up to in Istanbul here, and if you’re into your food this post about 30 foods to try in Istanbul will definitely make you hungry.
Day 4 – 6: Sofia (Plus Travel to Belgrade)
“How did you manage to do so much on your second day in Istanbul AND travel to Sofia?” I hear you ask. We took the overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia which was not only a great experience in itself, but meant that we saved a precious day of our holiday by travelling whilst we were sleeping. I’ve written about the overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia in detail here, including how much it costs, how long it takes, how to get to the station and what to expect.
So what did we get up to in Sofia? Lots of eating, drinking and whizzing around on electric scooters! We began day four with a bath in our HUGE double width bath tub, which was complete with two headrests, a TV in one wall and fireplace in the other, to freshen up after our overnight train. This was followed by a slow morning of wandering around, followed by a free (yes free!) food tour, followed by several hours of educating ourselves on Bulgarian wine.
Day five of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary, was when we discovered the joy of electric scooters, and spent the day sightseeing partly on foot but mostly on scooter. Sofia isn’t huge so we managed to see pretty much everything that we wanted to, making it a perfect city if you’re visiting for just a weekend! Again I have a detailed post here about what it’s like to visit Sofia and what to do whilst you’re there (and where to stay!).
Travelling from Sofia to Belgrade
The original plan was to take the train from Sofia to Belgrade, but we discovered that it was much easier to travel by coach. Whereas the train would have taken a full day 9.30am – 6.30pm, the bus meant that we didn’t have to leave Sofia until 2.30pm. This meant that we could have a lazy morning on day six of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary, taking our time to enjoy breakfast in a cute cafe before seeing some final sights that we hadn’t yet made it too.
We used a coach company called Florentia, which was fairly simple. We walked to the main bus station to find out that it was actually the smaller bus station we would depart from, but luckily this was only a minute or so walk away. We went into the Florentia office within the bus station to get luggage tags for our bags, and then boarded the coach and settled down for a nap.
The journey took around seven hours but I know it can vary significantly (it’s listed online as taking five hours). You’ll stop at the border which can take a long time – it took about two hours in total for us – and immediately after the border there’s a 30 minute break at a cafe where you can use the toilet (squat toilets but clean) and buy a sandwich, an ice cream or even a beer. You’ll then stop again a couple of hours later at a service station featuring a small shop and a restaurant. There’s a toilet which you have to pay for, but if you buy a drink in the restaurant you can use their toilet for free.
We arrived in Belgrade around 10pm and headed to our Air BnB which was conveniently just across the road. Hungry, we ventured out to a sushi restaurant for a late night dinner, where we had great sushi in a restaurant where the lights were a bit too bright and the music a bit too loud for our tired selves. I had a great time though!
Day 7 – 8: Belgrade (plus travel to Zagreb)
We woke up on day seven of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary feeling fresh and ready to explore Belgrade. This started with a visit to the market to buy some goodies for breakfast, which we then enjoyed sat on a bench admiring the Terazije fountain and Moskva hotel. I can’t tell you exactly what our breakfast was because the vendor didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Serbian, but it was pastry based and delicious!
After breakfast we walked towards the House of the National Assembly of Serbia where there happened to be a military award ceremony going on, and then walked along the beautiful Skadarlija street and stopped for an iced coffee which should have been described as iced indulgence…. there was more ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate than there was coffee!
Next was Kalemegdan park where we hopped on the land train for a tour of the park including the Belgrade Fortress and the beautiful views over the river Danube and the river Sava. We filled up on smoked sausages and chips in the park before continuing our day of exploration, at which point the day slowly turned from sensible to very boozy. An afternoon of wine bars turned into an evening of pizza and beer, followed by a tipsy decision to try out some fine dining at Enso.
Day eight began with a hangover and a late breakfast at Zavičaj (I’d recommend for a traditional Serbian breakfast, and it’s close to the bus station too!) whilst we decided how to spend our day before travelling on to Zagreb. We decided to walk over to New Belgrade and had a lovely (still slightly hungover) walk over the bridge and along the river, before settling down at a waterfront bar to enjoy the sunshine and views from the comfort of a couple of deck chairs.
Travelling from Belgrade to Zagreb
As with our journey from Sofia to Belgrade, we had originally planned to travel by train and spend pretty much all day (10.30am until 6pm) travelling. As we’d had such a good experience on the coach from Sofia, we decided to look into travelling to from Belgrade to Zagreb in the same way and once again found that it was a much better option! This was when we discovered *FlixBus, which would be our go-to transportation for the rest of the trip.
There were multiple coaches running from Belgrade to Zagreb, so we chose a 5.30pm coach to give us some extra time in Belgrade. Something that we learnt the hard way though, is that you don’t board the bus in the same spot that you alight! And actually getting on the bus isn’t all that easy. You’ll need to enter the main bus terminal and buy an additional ticket at the far left ticket window, which will let you through a barrier to board the bus.
They don’t accept card either, which meant that after realising last minute that we were in the wrong place we had to frantically run to the ticket office, then to a cash machine, then back to the ticket office! We arrived in Zagreb at midnight and took a taxi to our hostel, before wandering the empty Sunday night streets in search of food – which we found in the form of delicious street corner pizza!
Day 9 – 10: Zagreb
I loved Zagreb, what a beautifully city! After a bit of a lie in after our late night arrival, we set out in search of breakfast and succeeded in our mission in the form of pancakes! Nutelino specialised in fried pancakes, sweet and savoury, and you could build your own. Full of pancakes we walked around the city and, when it was an appropriate time to start drinking wine, we headed to Bornstein winery (still in the old town!) and spent an hour or so tasting different Croatian wines in a sunny courtyard.
We planned to spend the rest of the day sightseeing, but instead we ended up enjoying the afternoon and evening at a Burger Festival, enjoying the late sunshine, live DJ, several Aperol Spritz’s and the best burger I’ve ever consumed – you can read about it on this Instagram post. Starting to feel a bit drained from nine days of travel, we opted for a drink at our hostel bar (we stayed at Swanky Mint Hostel which I’ve written all about here and if you’d like to book your can do so *here) and an early night.
Day ten was spent exploring the upper town of Zagreb in the morning, a fantastic visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships, lunch with a view and a trip to Zagreb zoo. There were plenty more things that I wanted to do, but despite the previous early night, this was the point in the holiday where I was feeling really exhausted so we had some dinner and then spent the evening watching Netflix in bed. Sometimes you just need to slow down!
Day 11 – 13: Maribor, Chateau Ramsak and Kamnik (plus travel to Ljubljana)
This bit of the trip was additional to our original itinerary, as the original plan was to travel from Zagreb to Ljubljana. If you’re short on time, you could miss out these days, but actually they were some of my favourite days of the whole trip! Maribor became part of the itinerary when I came across Chateau Ramsak online (which I’ve reviewed here and you can book *here) and fell in love with it so much that missing out simply wasn’t an option. A glamping resort situated on a vineyard, each luxury tent with it’s own terrace and hot tub, Chateau Ramsak looked like heaven! Kamnik became part of the itinerary when Visit Ljubljana kindly offered me a trip there, and I’m so glad I accepted!
So day eleven of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary began with a 9am coach from Zagreb to Maribor, again using *FlixBus. It was a much shorter bus trip than what we’d been used to, at just two hours, which is why I haven’t included a section on it. This meant that we were in Maribor by 11am, in time for a coffee, a wander around and then lunch. We actually had lunch at a steak restaurant called Steakhouse (very inventive!) which isn’t something we’d usually do, but I’m glad we did because it was an excellent steak, with equally excellent sauces, sides and service.
After some more exploring by foot (with backpacks in tow) we got a taxi to our accommodation for the night, Chateau Ramsak. The taxi took about 15 minutes and cost us 6€ so it was definitely the easiest way to travel on this occasion. An afternoon was spent relaxing with sparkling wine in our private jacuzzi, followed by a wine tasting and an evening relaxing around the fire pit with, you’ve guessed it, more wine.
Day twelve began with an incredible breakfast and a walk around the vineyard before heading back to Maribor. We decided to hire a car for the next couple of days, although this itinerary would be possible (albeit not as simple) without one. We drove from Maribor to Kamnik which took around an hour and 20 minutes, checked into our hotel and went exploring. You can read all about Kamnik here, including the hotel we stayed at, the best places to eat and our trip from Kamnik to Velika planina. As Kamnik is rather small, we decided late afternoon to drive to Lake Bled (about 40 minutes away) and catch the sunset there.
Day thirteen was one of my favourites, if not my favourite, of the whole trip. After a hotel breakfast we headed in the car to Velika planina, a herdsman settlement reached by cable car and chair lift. It’s absolutely stunning and unlike anywhere I’ve been before, and I’d highly recommend visiting for the day if you’re staying in Kamnik or Ljubljana. From here, we drove to Ljubljana to drop back our car and enjoy some dinner at Open Kitchen street food market.
Day 14 – 15: Ljubljana (Plus Travel to Venice)
As we only had one full day in Ljubljana we were determined to make the most of it by eating and drinking as much of the local food and drink as we could! The day therefore started with a food tour, which was followed by a funicular up to the castle, wine tasting, and then more food and wine. I’ve written a full blog post about it here, which is definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of food and wine!
Travelling from Ljubljana to Venice
Day fifteen was an early start to catch a coach to Venice, once again with *Flix Bus. As we were staying on the island of Murano rather than in Venice itself, by the time we made it to our apartment it was a pretty lengthy journey! The coach went from Ljubljana bus station at 7.40am (there are several throughout the day though) to Venice Mestre station, arriving there at 11.40am. There was also a stop about half way through the trip, but be warned that the toilets weren’t very nice! There are several ways to get into Venice from here, depending on where you are staying. As we were heading to Murano we took the 4L bus to Venezia and then hopped on the water bus which was the perfect first experience of Venice.
Day 16 – 17: Venice (Plus Travel to UK)
Day sixteen of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary was our one full day in Venice, and also the one day of our trip that it rained – and it really, really rained. We started with an early trip to Burano by water bus for some exploring and breakfast, and then headed to Venice where we spend the entire day hopping between cicchetti bars, eating and drinking. This was mainly because of the rain, but it turned out to be the perfect way to immerse ourselves in the culture of Venice, mingle with the locals and avoid the crowds of tourists.
We did of course briefly visit some of the major sights such as St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, but it was the back streets and the cicchetti bars that really made our day. If you’d like to read all about the cicchetti bars we visited you can do so here, and I’ve also written a post about how to avoid the crowds and fall in love with Venice, which you can read here.
Istanbul to Venice Budget
So how much did it cost? I’m going to separate out travel, accommodation and spending during the trip, and of course you could spend significantly more or less than what I did depending on what you can afford. You might choose to stay in 5 star hotels every night, or you might want to save money by staying in hostel dorms. When it came to spending money during our trip, the majority of this went on food and drink because this is what we enjoy spending money on, but of course you could save significantly by cooking in your apartment or hostel if you wish. So let’s get on with it – all spending I’ve converted to GBP at the current exchange rate
- Flights = £137.26 each
- Overnight train = £30.24 each including reservation of two-bed compartment
- Buses (Florentina Bus and FlixBus) = £72.72 each
- Car hire = £24.15 each
- Taxis = £5 each
- Venice transport pass = £26.55 each
- Airport transfers (Istanbul and Venice) = £9 each
Total cost per person = £304.92
Please note that four nights of accommodation were gifted: three nights at Swanky Mint Hostel and one night at MD Hotel in Kamnik.
- AirBnBs (11 nights, 2 of which were in expensive Venice) = £539.30 (£269.64 each)
- Glamping (1 night) = £154.30 (£77.15 each)
Total cost per person = £346.79
I didn’t really want to look at this given the ridiculous amount of food and drink we consumed and how much fun we had! As there were two of us and we didn’t want to worry about constantly splitting the bill, we both transferred an equal amount of money onto my Monzo card and used that to pay for everything – with no international charges!
We paid almost exclusively with card rather than cash, with the exception of £20 equivalent in each currency (Turkish Lira, Bulgarian Lev, Serbian Dinar, Croatian Kuna and Euros) which we took with us for emergencies. Please also don’t forget that we saved hard for this trip so that we wouldn’t have to worry about money whilst away. So the final number was £1,456. Considering we ate out for three meals a day, drank alcohol almost every day, did a little bit of shopping and were away for seventeen days, I don’t think that’s too bad!
Total cost per person = £728
Total Spend Per Person = £1,379.71
Istanbul to Venice Itinerary Summary
Here’s a quick summary of our Istanbul to Venice itinerary as described in more detail above, which you can hover over to pin for later!