Travelling from Lviv to Budapest with Ukraine Railways is a real pleasure. The international train and carriage itself carries a fine sense of romance and intrigue from a bygone era with its graceful, old-fashioned décor and charm. This daytime venture takes you through two contrasting lands – the spectacular Carpathians hills and valleys of Ukraine and the majestic Puszta flatlands of Hungary – before arriving at Budapest approximately 14 hours later. It is worth noting that in either direction the service no longer operates overnight, unless one travels to or from Kyiv.
There is generally no need to purchase tickets in advance, as it is usually sufficient to buy a ticket close to departure. The early morning Lviv to Budapest train service departs at 6:30am. After showing documents to the officials, you’ll be shown to your compartment. Tickets are available in three classes: 1st-class is called Deluxe (Liuks), which has larger beds and bathrooms with all the fixings; 2nd-class is called Coupe (Kupe), and features four beds in a lockable compartment; and 3rd-class is called Platzkart and features an open compartment with 6 beds, with two located separately across from the others. Fresh linen and blankets are provided, and you can stretch out on the makeshift beds. Teas and coffees are also served, for a nominal price, by the hospitable cabin crew throughout the journey.
Carpathian Mountains: The Ukrainian Route
Travelling southward through the Carpathians is an event at any time of year. The scenery is most spectacular as the sun rises over the gracious valleys and the incredibly tall alpine trees. Alongside the wooden houses and churches that dot the landscape from Skole to Volovets, locals work the land in more traditional ways, giving a traveller the sense of stepping back in time. The train continues this venture along the cool and calm of the valleys, before arriving onto the Mukachevo flatlands with the picturesque Palanok Castle in full view. The train chugs into the Chop border near 11:00am. In terms of distance, one is about half way with the journey. In terms with the schedule, this is not so! As one must contend with the border.
The Border: The Journey within the Journey
The Chop border guards and customs authorities will step on board and take your passport away for inspection. There is no need to get off the train – or even leave your compartment – as they will return your documents before the train embarks further south. The international carriages are disconnected and moved away from the station platform to go through a rigorous procedure of changing wheels to adapt to the narrower CET railway lines. For train enthusiasts this is fascinating, as one can see all from the window, as each carriage is lifted separately. This, understandably, takes time. Be aware that for safety and security reasons, passengers are not allowed to disembark the carriage. Be sure to bring enough food and water for the journey as this is a great time to have your lunch!
The Puszta Flatlands: The Hungarian Route
The train finally begins rolling out of the station to leave Ukraine and proceed toward the majestic River Tsva into Hungary at approximately 14:20. At this point, be sure to set your watches back one hour as you move into the Central European time zone. After about 15 minutes, the train arrives at the Hungarian border town of Zahony. After a quick check of your documents by the Hungarian authorities, and after connecting the local carriages, the train departs around 14:00. There are further stops along the way at Nyiregyhaza, Debrecen, and Szolnok before sauntering toward the Budapest sunset. A few local suburban stops later and you should arrive at the Budapest Nyugati train station a little more than four hours later at 18:37.
Sightseeing Tip: Cycling the Carpthians
For those independent-minded travellers looking for an excellent sightseeing detour, I recommend exiting the train at Volovets and cycling 70 kilometres eastward to Lake Synevyr. Travelling deep into the quiet wilderness along meandering roads, you’ll arrive at this mystical wonder, steeped in history and atmosphere. Be sure to discover the Syn and Evyr legends that were once so familiar to Shakespeare – they will live with you forever! Three days should be budged to complete this tour round-trip. Accommodation is available by the lake, but reservations should be made beforehand. Careful planning, nice weather, and a good bicycle are also must-dos. Should the hills and valleys be too demanding, the Mukachevo to Debrecen flatland route, via the bicycle-friendly Berehovo border, is a fine replacement. The roads are rather quiet and it is great fun to cycle alongside the storks! If cycling is not your thing, you can always book a package tour to Lake Synevyr, or any of the Carpathians’ many other highlights, at any of Lviv’s tourist agencies.
For more adventurous travellers…
For those that are looking to save a little money, or are not interested in spending a few hours at the border, I suggest travelling from Lviv to Budapest with a series of local trains. Get a ticket from Lviv to Chop and, after arriving, purchase a border-crossing ticket to Hungary (Zahony). You’ll then go through customs before getting on the train to the Hungarian border, where the Hungarian authorities will check your documents while still on the train. Once the procedure is finished, pick up a Zahony to Budapest ticket and you’ll be on your way. It can be tricky to change Ukrainian hryvnias at the Zahony station, so try to bring some local currency (Hungarian forints), a credit card, or dollars or euros.
Whether it’s Lviv’s distinguished architecture, the inspiring Carpathian mountains, the rolling Puszta flatlands, or the river city of Budapest, fine cultural wonders abound on this classic, fairy-tale journey. A trip from Lviv to Budapest makes for the perfect weekend getaway at any time of year.