A RIOT of gothic spires, crowned with an enormous dome, Hungary's Parliament building is among Europe's most beautiful structures.

On a warm day it appears to hover, dreamlike, above the River Danube in the heart of Budapest. By night it becomes a fairytale castle, its golden illuminated stonework – a mass of arches and pinnacles – reflected in the rippling water.

It took an army of 100,000 people to build what the Hungarians refer to as their Országház – or House of the Nation. They used more than 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40kg of gold. Tragically, its architect went blind before it was finished at the dawn of the 20th century – unable to gaze upon his fantasy of stone and glass.

Gazing upon the structure as we floated down the river on a dinner cruise, drinking strong local wine and feasting on rich goulash laced with paprika, it was impossible not to be moved by the majesty of this most striking of capital cities. Actually, it is two cities – buzzing, cosmopolitan Pest and, facing it across the Danube, romantic old Buda, crowned by its castle and another fairytale structure which looks like it has been created out of icing, the 14th century Matthias Church.

As we sailed past this treasure house of architecture, spanning at least 700 years, a familiar tune came over the boat's speakers – the Blue Danube.

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The river which so charmed Johann Strauss remains as lovely now as when he penned his famous waltz in the mid-19th century.

Of course, Hungary, and indeed all of Central Europe, has had a tumultuous time since those days when the Habsburg emperors held sway, with war, revolution, totalitarianism and occupation wreaking havoc. But its great imperial cities remain as treasure houses of history – gorgeous, bustling and heart-meltingly romantic. And there is only really one way to travel between them – by rail.

Great Rail Journeys, who organise escorted trips by train around some of the loveliest corners of the planet, run a 13 day-trip between central Europe's must-see Grand Imperial Cities: Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin – the old Prussian capital of course, being the capital of the German Empire and home to Kaiser.

Unlike air travel, the 'getting there' is as enjoyable as the arrival. To glide across the plains of Hungary, through the forests of Slovakia, on to rolling Moravia and Bohemia and north into the heart of Saxony and Brandenburg, is to take a living lesson in European history and geography.

The trains are modern but retain flourishes of a more civilized age which will delight passengers more used to packed British commuter services. Meals are served in restaurant cars with crisp linen tablecloths, and is cheap and delicious. There is a steady supply of excellent beer (of course) and wines from the vineyards of Hungary and Franconia. From the windows, we spied castles and churches atop craggy hills, passed through thick dark forests and villages seemingly lost in time.

In keeping with the romance of travel, the great railway stations of central Europe, with their high glass canopies, frescoes, statues, are cathedrals to the golden age of travel and the romance of rail.

While airports, built with pure efficiency in mind, are places to rush through, stations like Budapest's Keleti terminus – crowned with statues of two familiar figures, our own James Watt and George Stephenson – are buildings to savour; monumental gateways and heavy with the promise of delights to come.

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And the delights were many – not least our hotel. Located in Budapest's Jewish Quarter, the Continental is a gem. A former spa – the city is full of fine bathing spots dating back to the Ottomans – it had been left to ruin until being restored, opening to guests with a six-story building incorporating its original art nouveau features in 2010. It is a triumph of restoration; a true labour of love.

It is also within a quick stroll of some of the city's best sights, not least Europe's tallest synagogue, a soaring wrought-iron market hall, and a sprinkling of stylish cafes and hip air bars, including the best of its unique so-called ruin bars – built into atmospheric abandoned buildings and courtyards.

A more sobering period of Hungarian history is laid bare in the House of Terror, a former prison and interrogation centre during fascist then communist rule.

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There's a lot to take in, but as a crash course in 20th century history, it is essential.

The underground dungeons, complete with execution cell, still cast a chill and it was a relief to emerge into the sunlight, head across the river and take the narrow gauge Children's Railway through the woods. The name is apt, it being staffed almost entirely by children – pupils from city schools who volunteer to run this working railway

 A throwback to Hungary's Cold War era, it is one socialist project which remains extremely popular, and is thoroughly charming.

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It was hard to leave Budapest, but Prague was equally beautiful and even more historic.

We explored the city on foot, enjoying the sublime views of its riot of spires and turrets from the banks of the Vltava, joined the crowds on Charles Bridge gazing up at the castle, soaked up the atmosphere of the Old Town Square with its wedding cake architecture, and wandered through medieval cloisters and art nouveau shopping arcades, roofed with stain glass. History seeps from the stones from which it is built.

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The same can be said for Berlin, but in a very different sense.

Few European cities have lived through as much upheaval as Berlin – nor carry the scars of their past so openly.

Arriving at the gleaming, ultra-modern Hauptbahnhof – barely two years old – we explored those layers of history: its imperial past reflected in its old churches and the iconic Brandenburg Gate; the dark days of national socialism represented by the ruins of the SS and Gestapo headquarters and Hermann Göring's hulking Aviation Ministry building, and the Cold War immortalised in its most enduring image – the remains of the Berlin Wall.

While history is everywhere, Berlin is a fresh, modern capital, and very green. It's uncongested, friendly and a great place to walk.

We stayed at the luxurious Maritim Hotel in the diplomatic quarter, from which it's an easy walk to modern Potsdammer Platz and the glitzy shopping district of Kurfürstendamm.

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In a journey which would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, I wandered past Checkpoint Charlie (reconstructed for tourists), along what is left of the wall, zig-zagging in and out of the old East and West.

Back on the train and heading west to Cologne, with its achingly beautiful black, twin-spired cathedral, I tried to make sense of the tides of history which have shaped the heartland of Europe. In the end I gave up, had another beer and watched the sun-lit countryside fly by.

Now that's travel.

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The facts

  • Experience Grand Imperial Cities on an escorted group tour with Great Rail Journeys. From £1,895pp, the 13-day trip, which departs London St Pancras, includes guided tours of Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin, and excursions on the Danube and Budapest's Children’s Railway.
  • W: greatrail.com
  • T: 01904 527 180
  • Tim travelled to Budapest, Prague and Berlin for a six-day trip with GRJ Independent, from £875pp. The price includes five-nights four-star hotel accommodation, all internal rail and selected meals and excursions. Flights were provided by WizzAir, who fly to the region from £24.95 one-way.
  • W: greatrail.com/grj-independent
  • T: 01904 527 181
  • W: wizzair.com