Top Capital Tour
Spending two to three days per capital will give you a great overview of the region. Start your trip in the dynamic, delightfully idiosyncratic Berlin. The history-filled capital of reunited Germany is also something of a party place. Then ride the rails to sprawling Warsaw, with a reconstructed Old Town that became the capital of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania back in the mid-16th century. After a few days, continue south to mystical Prague. The Czech seat of power is famous for its fantasyland of Gothic architecture – and for great beer. Next? Slovakia's Bratislava is a fascinating mix of Old Town charm and new development. The imperial opulence of the long-reigning Habsburg empire is still evident in Austria's capital, Vienna. Just don't satiate yourself on coffee-house culture there; you have more cafes to visit in one-time cocapital Budapest. Today Hungary's main city is abuzz, a mix of the modern and the historic. If you have time, detour to Ljubljana in Slovenia and tiny Vaduz in Liechtenstein; otherwise World Heritage–listed Bern, the Swiss capital fought over by Holy Roman and Habsburg Empires alike, is your final stop. It's so beautiful, it's no wonder everyone wanted a piece of it.
Central Europe In-Depth
With two months, you can cover the entire region, but it will still be a bit of a 'Best of' trip. Skyscraper-filled Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, is most useful as an air hub, but you may want to spend a night. From there, shake off jet lag at the chi-chi spa centre Baden-Baden before exploring the bucolic towns of the Black Forest. Just across the Swiss border, the cobblestone streets and cafes of Basel await. Move on to the modern art and ancient architecture of the capital, Bern.
Soon the Alps beckon: Interlaken and the Jungfrau region have some of the most extreme mountain scenery around. Check out the cafe scene of Zürich before crossing the spine of the Alps and getting ready to imbibe in the beer halls of Munich. Spend a few days, so you can bus it along the Romantic Road and see the fantasyland-like Schloss Neuschwanstein in Füssen. Next stop is the baroque, music-filled city of Salzburg. Then it's south into the Julian Alps and picture-postcard, lakeside Bled, Slovenia.
The lovely little capital of Ljubljana is also worth a stop before you ride the rails on to impressively imperial Vienna, Austria, for a couple of nights. A riverboat ride along the vineyard-laden Danube Valley is a worthy detour before travelling downstream to the bathhouses and bars of Budapest, Hungary. To the south, the architecture in Pécs retains some remarkable Turkish relics.
Heading north again, myriad Old Town cafes in Bratislava, Slovakia, make a good pit stop en route to the Tatra Mountains. On the Slovak side, the most atmospheric midmountain village is Ždiar, in Poland, it's Zakopane. Hike rugged area trails before you continue to Kraków, one of Europe's prettiest Old Towns, near the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. A local favourite and another lively Old Town, Wrocław is next, then Dresden, Germany, a restored city that exhibits some impressive art.
The whole of Czech captial Prague is like a museum, so you'll want to take several days wandering its neighbourhoods, or side trip to spend a night in even more medieval Český Krumlov. From Prague, you can return to catch a flight in Frankfurt-am-Main (7½ hours by train), or exciting and edgy Berlin is only three hours north by fast train.
Mild weather makes summer the best time for seeing the northernmost reaches of Germany and Poland. Start by spending a few nights in multicultural Cologne. Pass two days touring the country's most massive cathedral and several small museums. By evening heft a glass of locally brewed Kölsch beer in one of the town's lively beer halls and bars. From there day-trip over to character-filled Aachen, where you can float in bubbling thermal baths before wandering the quirky cobblestone streets. Moving on to charming Bremen for a night or two, you'll explore art nouveau alleyways and an ornate market hall before winding up at a cafe on the waterfront promenade.
Next, Germany's most energetic port town, Hamburg, will keep you entertained for at least three days. You'll enjoy the maritime history, the old brick warehouse district and the new glass-encased philharmonic hall. Take the ferry out to the windswept beaches and seafood restaurants of Germany's northernmost point, the North Frisian Islands.
Back on the mainland, Lübeck is a 12th-century, Unesco-recognised townscape of medieval merchants' houses and towers that is well worth a stopover. Save at least three days – and nights – for the rich history, museums, bars and clubs of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, Holocaust Memorial and East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall are must-sees. In the evening you have your choice of subdued-but-happening nightlife in Prenzlauer Berg, the hipster havens in Friedrichshain or alternative clubs in slightly grungy Kreuzberg.
Entering Poland, make the Old Town of Poznań, where the lively university population keeps the ancient centre buzzing, the first overnight stop. Two days in the impressively Gothic, church-filled Toruń has a much slower pace. To the north, Gdańsk is Poland's largest Baltic Sea port town. You can easily spend a few days wandering the waterfront, taking boat excursions and exploring resorts like Sopot.
Five hours or so south, Warsaw may not be the prettiest city, but it has loads of history hidden among the big-city sprawl. Take two days exploring the Old Town and war monuments. End your tour with an outing to Białowieża National Park, a biosphere reserve where the once nearly extinct European bison roams. The small village has plenty of places to stay overnight before your journey onward.
Getting up close and personal with the Alps takes time; connections are almost never direct. Allow at least three to four days per region.
Starting out in Geneva, take a day and night to enjoy the city's cosmopolitan lakefront, cafes and fountains. If you want to gain altitude immediately, transfer on to quainter, also-lakeside Lausanne – part former fishing village with a summer beach-resort feel, part upscale, elegant shopping and dining town.
Next, explore Valais and Switzerland's 10 tallest peaks. Don your stylish togs and base yourself beneath the Matterhorn in the ritzy 19th-century resort town of Zermatt. Nearby, cogwheel trains and cable cars provide access to amazing hiking, skiing and mountain-seeing.
From Zermatt take the 7½-hour Glacier Express train ride over high mountain passes to St Moritz. This region has 11,000km of hiking trails and incredible black diamond ski runs – and the town has fab nightlife to boot.
To the north, the Swiss National Park area is a quieter, more peaceful stop with rugged dolomite peaks, sprawling larch woodlands and untouched, topaz lakes. Stay in the village of Zernez or in the park itself.
Continuing on to the Liechtenstein Alps, you'll have to connect through Vaduz to get to the famous alpine hike, the thrilling Fürstensteig Trail. Don't forget to snap a shot of the town's famous hilltop castle.
Neighbouring Austria's wild and beautiful Arlberg region is home to St Anton am Arlberg, a huge draw for skiers and boarders, with an active party scene.
The Tyrolean Zillertal Valley is as much a summer playground as a winter one. Set off from the town of Mayrhofen to go cycling, hiking, rock climbing or rafting.
One of the best drives in the Alps awaits you in Hohe Tauern National Park, a nearly 1800-sq-km wilderness with 3000m peaks. You'll undoubtedly pass over Grossglockner Road, a 1930s engineering marvel with 36 switchbacks.
South in Slovenia, Triglav National Park encompasses almost all of the Julian Alps. A postcard-perfect mountain setting and cute village make Bled the most popular base. But you should also check out the larger, less-crowded lake at Bohinj or adventure-sports-oriented Bovec before connecting on from the capital, Ljubljana.
Only have a week to spend in Central Europe? You don't actually have to run far. The picture-perfect towns close to the borders of Switzerland, Austria and Germany are tailor-placed for a quick highlights tour. Fly into Zürich, and spend a night in the lively urban centre that retains an Old World heart; don't miss hip Züri-West. From there, head to the mountains to the ever-idyllic lakeside city of Lucerne, where iconic half-timbered bridges cross glacier-cold waters.
Leave Switzerland for its immediate neighbour to the east, Austria. Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and is a great mountain base; from there you can ski or hike, taking sustenance in mountain huts. The beer halls of Munich are a short hop away. This atmospheric Bavarian town with good museums is worth a couple of days; when it's clear, you can see the Alps. A short final jaunt brings you to the perfect combination of hills and music: Salzburg. Mozart's one-time home has an abundance of old architecture, including an impressive castle, surrounded by mountains and Alpine lakes.
Build on Johann Strauss' classical attempt to capture the mood of Central Europe by exploring the region around the 'Blue Danube' river. Start with a water-view meal in Germany's Regensburg, a city replete with historical constructions. Then visit Linz and its stunning riverside art gallery before boarding a tour boat. Cruises stop in pretty Melk, dominated by an intimidating Benedictine monastery. After that, head to the Danube Valley, crowded with castles and vineyards, and best seen by water. On the northern bank of the Danube, Krems an der Donau has a pretty cobblestone centre.
Meander on by train to Vienna. Take a couple of days to tour the city before going by boat, train or bus to spend a night in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, with its interesting mix of ancient Old Town and communist concrete. From there you can cruise along, following the Danube east into Hungary. Look up at Esztergom to see the awesome walled basilica high above. Finish with a few days in Budapest, where renting a bike and tootling around midriver Margaret Island caps off your Danube adventure.
Coast to Coast
From the Adriatic to the Baltic, going coast to coast takes you right up the centre of Central Europe. Connect to Slovenia through capital Ljubljana, and make your way to the water. Divide several days between the modern-day port of Koper and the old Venetian gem Piran. Backtracking north, a side trip to the colossal Škocjan Caves is in order before you head into Austria.
From Ljubljana, you go through Salzburg (and may want to stop) en route to boating, bobbing and nature walking in the Lake District, Salzkammergut. Next, it's avant-garde and arty Linz. North in Germany, medieval Regensburg lies on the Danube riverfront. From there head north to Würzburg to taste the wines of the valley (or to oh-so-cute Bamberg for smoked beer). Spend a couple of days of cultural pursuit in Weimar – like Goethe, Liszt and Nietzsche before you. You might detour to see Erfurt and the nearby castle, or Buchenwald concentration camp. Transferring on to happening Hamburg, you've reached the coast and a lively last port of call.
Taking an eastern tack you'll be travelling through former communist countries, but you'd hardly know it today. Start in Berlin, where, instead of a wall dividing the city, you'll find an art gallery and walking path. Then travel to the dynamic East German city of Leipzig, where Bach and Wagner once lived. Make a stop in reconstructed baroque Dresden before staying a few days in tourist-filled Prague. You'll have a more authentic experience in a smaller, Unesco-recognised town like Telč. Then see modern Moravian life in upbeat Brno, and head east for another astronomical clock in laid-back Olomouc. If you like medieval construction, you'll love Kraków, Poland. To get to Slovakia, you pass through the Tatra Mountains, so you may as well stop. Below the mountains, the walled city of Levoča is close to the impressive Spiš Castle ruins. A musical fountain and Gothic cathedral highlight Košice. Thirsty? Because little Tokaj, Hungary, has been producing great dessert wines for ages. Vineyards also cover the hills surrounding the old town of Eger and its walkable wine-tasting valley. From there Budapest – and your onward journey – are not far west.