The bus ride from the city's airport into Prague could best be described as expectation-lowering. Unattractive high-rise blocks, industrial estates and a huge yellow store emblazoned with the word "Siko" do little to set the pulse racing.

There's no need to worry, though. As anyone familiar with former Soviet Europe knows, the uglier the suburbs, the more beautiful the historic centre. Before you reach the Old Town, however, there's the new town to negotiate. "New" is a relative term in Prague - Nové Mìsto was founded in 1348.

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More than five million people visited the Czech capital last year and the city attracts a diverse demographic. Dental tourism is flourishing, low-priced but high-quality beer lures stags and hens and mainland Chinese come in droves to have their pre-wedding photos taken against fairy-tale backdrops.

Sooner or later everyone gravitates to Charles Bridge, where there are more tourists than you can shake a selfie stick at. A caricaturist doodles in the shadow of Baroque religious sculptures and living statues try not to flinch as camera flashes go off in their faces. A man hawking watercolours slows the pedestrian traffic but when I see how much his paintings cost, I'm tempted to tell him that in the Middle Ages, unscrupulous traders were suspended from the bridge in wicker baskets.

Despite the international onslaught, sightseers tend to follow very similar itineraries, which means that just 200 metres from the 15th-century landmark, office workers enjoy a quiet coffee in a secluded park. Prague Castle, which is the world's largest, is inundated, yet a short walk away, at the Letna lookout point, a handful of us have lofty views of the city and Vltava River all to ourselves.

Until a tour group on Segway scooters appears.

The nimble two-wheelers are a popular vehicle on which to navigate the narrow and often hilly streets. I almost bump into some Hongkongers who are trundling tentatively across the cobbles in the direction of Old Town Square and the Jewish Quarter. I'm tempted to tag along with them - anything to avoid the more conventional forms of transport.

My attempts to explore by tram are thwarted by a bewildering array of pre-paid zone and transit tickets issued for varying durations, presumably to keep us tourists on our toes. My Rough Guide to Prague offers solidarity by referring to the ticket machines as "ridiculously complicated". No wonder the Segway tours have taken off.

Fortunately things are comparatively straightforward at the long-distance bus station, where I book a seat for the three-hour trip to Cesky Krumlov.

The photogenic settlement, known as Little Prague, turns out to be a cross between a holiday destination and a screensaver. Kids kayak along the benign waters of the upper Vltava River as it meanders around the enchanting medieval gem and hotel rooms fill up faster than you can say "Unesco World Heritage site".

The postcard photographers' favourite vista is from a Renaissance-style castle. I join a stream of tourists traipsing towards the battlements, intent on recreating the town's signature image. Ancient lanes take us past handsome buildings soiled with graffiti - it's as if local youths are determined to discourage tourists by making their city less attractive. We pass fancy-dress shops that do a roaring trade by persuading Chinese groups to don Czech costumes for a souvenir snap. And the bars seem rather busy - considering it's breakfast time.

Czechs are passionate about beer and drink more per capita than anyone else on the planet. "A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure," goes a Czech proverb. The amber stuff, jokingly referred to as "liquid bread", is downed at all hours. Municipal workers pause on park benches for a mid-morning pick-me-up and taxi drivers gather at filling station cafes for a quick pilsner between fares.

At Cesky Krumlov railway station, a few of my fellow passengers swig from bottles of lager as we wait for the 8.04am train to Brno. They must think I'm a bit odd, hands cupped around a steaming hot coffee.

It's mid-September and autumn has arrived in Bohemia. Wisps of mist cloak the thick forest and rain pelts against the carriage windows. The low temperatures and biting breeze would qualify as winter weather in Hong Kong but the Czechs are still in summer clothing.

We race through the rolling agricultural lands of Moravia, where terracotta-roofed farmhouses break the monotony of maize fields and cylindrical water towers perch atop long poles like giant lollipops. The clouds dissolve and the sun comes out as we near Brno. I consider a sightseeing stopover but can't bring myself to alight in a city with such a haphazard approach to vowels.

Instead I use the onboard Wi-fi to book a couple of nights in Olomouc, a university town with an agreeably surreal air.

When I arrive, a large crowd is engrossed in a high jump competition in the main square and, stranger still for a place of such beauty, there appear to be very few foreign visitors. So few, in fact, that on hearing that I live in Hong Kong, the girls in the tourist office ask if we can swap email addresses.

They explain that one of the high jumpers is Czech Olympic medallist Jaroslav Baba but if field events aren't my thing, tables are being laid out for a flea market; local wine producers are setting up their stalls and a band are due on stage. Well that's the afternoon organised. And not a Segway in sight.

There's just time to join a woman from Macau on a tour of the cavernous town hall. Hidden rooms are theatrically unlocked and we're invited to inspect a 14th-century mural and an astronomical clock, and get to climb the clock tower. Our guide is at pains to point out that she usually escorts more than two people at a time.

"In the high season I often have groups of 10," she boasts.

Groups of 10? In Prague the tour would be cancelled due to a lack of interest.