Gaping at the Matterhorn

Sure, it graces Toblerone packages and evokes stereotypical 'Heidi' scenes, but nothing prepares you for the allure of the Matterhorn. As soon as you step into the timber-chalet-filled village of Zermatt, this loner looms above you, mesmerising with its chiselled, majestic peak. Gaze at it from a tranquil sidewalk cafe, hike in its shadow along the tangle of Alpine paths above town, with cowbells clinking in the distance, or pause on a ski slope and admire its magnetic stance.

Singing in Salzburg

A fortress on a hill, 17th-century cobbled streets, Mozart, the ultimate singalong: if Salzburg didn't exist, someone would have to invent it just to keep all the acolytes who visit each year happy. It's hard to say what's more popular, but you just have to see all the kitsch for sale to know that this is Sound of Music country. Faster than you can say 'Do-Re-Mi' you can be whisked into the gorgeous steep hills that are alive with tour groups year-round.

Beer-Drinking in Munich

It's not just the idea that you can drink beer in Munich – everybody knows you can. It's the variety of places where you can drink that astounds and makes this a must-stop. There's Oktoberfest, of course, and then there are the famous beer halls, from the huge and infamous (Hofbräuhaus) to the huge and merely wonderful (Augustiner Bräustuben). And why stay inside for your frothy, refreshing litre of lager? You can drink it in a park (Chinesischer Turm) or in the city centre (Viktualienmarkt) – or really just about anywhere.

Exploring Prague

Prague Castle and Old Town Square are highlights of the Czech capital, but for a more insightful look at life two decades after the Velvet Revolution, head to local neighbourhoods around the centre. Working-class Žižkov and energetic Smíchov are crammed with pubs, while elegant, tree-lined Vinohrady features a diverse menu of cosmopolitan restaurants. Gritty Holešovice showcases many forms of art, from iconic works from the last century to more recent but equally challenging pieces.

Discovering Kraków

As popular as it is, Poland's former royal capital never disappoints. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why it's so special, but there's a satisfying aura of history radiating from the sloping stone buttresses of the medieval buildings in the Old Town that makes its streets seem, well, just right. Add to that the extremes of a spectacular castle and the low-key, oh-so-cool bar scene situated within the tiny worn buildings of the Kazimierz backstreets, and it's a city you want to seriously get to know.

Admiring Imperial Vienna

Imagine having unlimited riches and top architects at your hands for 640 years – that's the Vienna of the Habsburgs. The monumentally graceful Hofburg whisks you back to the age of empires as you marvel at the treasury's imperial crowns, the equine ballet of the Spanish Riding School and the chandelier-lit apartments fit for Empress Elisabeth. The palace is rivalled in grandeur only by the 1441-room Schloss Schönbrunn, a Unesco World Heritage site, and the baroque Schloss Belvedere, both set in exquisite landscaped gardens.

Climbing Mt Triglav & Vršič Pass

They say you're not really a Slovene until you've climbed Mt Triglav. There's no rule about which particular route to take – there are around 20 ways up – but if you're a novice, ascend with a guide from the Pokljuka plateau north of Lake Bohinj. If time is an issue and you're driving, head for the Vršič Pass, which stands (literally) head and shoulders above the rest. It leads from Alpine Gorenjska, past Mt Triglav itself and down to sunny Primorska and the bluer-than-blue Soča River in one hair-raising, spine-tingling hour.

Checking out Český Krumlov

Showcasing quite possibly Europe's most glorious Old Town, Český Krumlov is, for many travellers, a popular day trip from Prague. But a rushed few hours navigating the town's meandering lanes and clifftop castle sells the CK experience short. Stay at least one night to lose yourself in the Old Town's after-dark shadows, and get cosy in riverside restaurants, cafes and pubs. The following morning go rafting or canoeing on the Vltava River before exploring the nearby Newcastle Mountains by horse or mountain bike.

Remembering the Wall, Berlin

It's hard to believe, 25 years on, that the Berlin Wall really cut through this ever-surprising city. The best way to examine its role in Berlin is to make your way – on foot or by bike – along the Berlin Wall Trail. Passing the Brandenburg Gate, analysing graffiti at the East Side Gallery or learning about its history at the Documentation Centre: the path brings it all into context. It's heartbreaking, hopeful and sombre, and integral to trying to understand Germany's capital.

Appreciating Budapest

Hungary's capital has cleaned up its act in recent years. Gone are those old Soviet-era cars that used to spew their choking blue haze over the flat landscape of Pest. Now, the hills on the Buda side of the city are gleaming, and Pest itself is teeming with energy and life. It's no stretch to say that these days Budapest combines the beauty of Prague and buzz of Berlin into something that's uniquely Hungarian.

Viewing Visegrád

A lonely, abandoned fortress high atop the Danube River marks what was once the northern border of the Roman Empire. Long after the Romans decamped, the ancient Hungarian kings, the Ottoman Turks and the Austrian Habsburgs in turn all marked this turf as their own. Climb to the top for some soul-stirring vistas over the surrounding countryside and ponder for a moment the kingdoms and peoples who have come and gone over 16 centuries of history.

Hiking the High Tatras

The rocky, alpine peaks of the High Tatras in Slovakia are the highest in the Carpathians, with 25 peaks soaring over 2500m. But hiking this impressive little range needn’t require an Olympian effort. In the morning, ride a cable car up to 1800m and you can hike along mid-elevation trails, stopping at a log cabin hikers’ hut with a restaurant for lunch. A few hours more and you’re at the Hrebienok funicular terminus that will take you down to turn-of-the-20th-century Starý Smokovec below, well in time for dinner.

Touring Toruń

This beautiful Gothic city has just the right balance between sightseeing and relaxing. Grab a zapiekanka (toasted roll with cheese, mushrooms and tomato sauce) from the window of the milk bar just off the main square, then saunter past the locals to check out the curious statuary around the square's edge, including a monument to local hero Copernicus. Finish the day at one of the fancy beer-garden decks perched on the cobblestones.

Visiting Jungfrau Villages

Three of Europe's most impressive, glacier-encrusted peaks form the backdrop to the quaint towns and ski villages throughout Switzerland's Jungfrau region. By day, take advantage of 200km of ski and snowboard pistes (and hundreds more kilometres of hiking trails). By night, return to an atmospheric chalet in resort towns like bustling Grindelwald or car-free Mürren. Here every home and hostel has a postcard-worthy view, and cowbells echo in the valleys. This is storybook Switzerland at its best.