Hungary, as you might know, is entirely landlocked. In fact, positioned as it is in the center of Europe, it couldn’t be more landlocked if it tried. But does that worry Hungarians who fancy a day at the beach? Not at all, because they have Lake Balaton.
At one time Hungary’s best-kept secret, Lake Balaton is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. Known to the locals as the “Hungarian Sea,” Balaton stretches for over 50 miles, complete with sandy beaches, a series of underwater lake caves, and plenty of beachside water sports.
Nestled amongst extinct volcanos, award-winning vineyards, and thermal spas, Lake Balaton attracts sun-seekers, swimmers, foodies, wine connoisseurs, and music lovers from all parts of Hungary and her neighboring countries.
But, being an inland lake, there are some special, unique reasons that make Balaton worth visiting. We’ve asked some Hungarian friends to give us their honest views and so, with their help, we present seven great reasons that make Lake Balaton worth visiting – and we reveal one place that you might want to avoid.
“We’re very proud of Balaton; we even have a chocolate bar called Balaton! When we’re in kindergarten, they teach us a song called “Nekem a Balaton a Riveria” which in English means “For me, Balaton is the Riviera” – Kicsi Csillag, Gyömrő, Hungary
Table of Contents
1. Balaton is Seriously Beautiful!
To the north, the landscape presents gentle rolling hills — well worth exploring for some “time stood still” photos. In particular, our friends recommend Badacsony Hill, which at 438 meters is the highest point of Balaton and offers some stunning panoramic views. We’ll tell you a bit more about Badascony Hill later on, but for now, it’s worth noting that, as well as being a well-known beauty spot, it’s also one of Hungary’s premier wine regions.
Near to Badascony, you’ll find the Tapolca Basin, where you can climb an extinct volcano and get some fantastic and unique photos (it’s a pretty gentle climb, so there’s no need for hiking boots!) And nature-lovers shouldn’t miss the beautiful lavender fields of Tihany, or the Balaton Uplands National Park, where you’ll likely spot some stag, wild boar, and even the occasional lynx.
2. It’s The Place to Party in Hungary
Well, that’s not strictly true, because if you’ve ever hung out in Budapest, then you’ll know that there’s some sort of cool party happening on just about every street. But, when Hungarians want to mark a special occasion (such as “it’s my birthday!”, “it’s our anniversary,” or maybe just “it’s Tuesday!”), they take a trip to Balaton. And, more often than not, they head for Siófok.
“My favourite place to go in Balaton is Siófok. It’s like a small Las Vegas.” – Noemi R, Székesfehérvár
Siófok, unofficially known as the capital city of Balaton, is Hungary’s second-most popular holiday destination – the first being Budapest. Originally a small trading settlement, Siófok was awarded the rank of “market town” back in 1865, meaning it was allowed to host a national fair. These fairs attracted more and more visitors every year, which cemented Siofok’s popularity as a holiday destination.
Today, the area boasts over 1,000 hotels and guest houses, stretched along a 17 km (11 mile) coast, including the Azur Premium: one of Balaton’s few 5-star hotels. In addition, many of the beaches have been “upgraded” with imported sand, and to all intents and purposes, a family holiday in Siófok feels just like a real seaside vacation.
But it’s at night that the town really comes alive. The number one nightspot is probably the Palace Dance Club on Vecsey Karoly Utca (about 4km away from the center), although Zsuzsanna P, one of our Hungarian friends, says she can’t stand the place as it’s too expensive and too full of tourists! The ‘main drag’ in Siófok is the pedestrianized Petőfi Sétány, which is practically wall-to-wall nightclubs and bars. Zsuzsanna’s favorites are the Tesók Cafe and the Renegade Bar, or for something a little different, she suggests the Captain Morgan Bulihajó (Party Boat).
But with so many spots given over to pure hedonism, you’re sure to find your personal favorite. And once you’ve had your fill of the clubs, grab a few beers and follow the crowd to Plázs Beach, where you can carry on partying until the sun comes up, or find a shady nook and just relax.
3. If Nothing Else, Go for the Wine!
Due to the volcanic rock on Balaton’s northern shore, the soil is rich in minerals and extremely fertile. This makes it ideal wine-growing territory, and some vineyards have been around for 500 years or more. In particular, you should try the Szürkebarát (“Grey Monk”) wine, named after the Cisterian monks who planted Badacsony’s first vines, way back in the 14th century.
In August (which is probably the best month to visit Balaton), the area hosts the “Balatonfüred Wine Weeks,” which showcases over 250 different local wines from the hillside vineyards. But even outside those dates, you’ll find many family-run wineries offering wine tastings and cellar tours.
On the other side of the lake is Balatonboglár, which locals refer to as “the town of grapes and wine.” Here again are many family-run wineries producing full-bodied wines with a hint of spice. We’ve been recommended a small restaurant called Majthényi Présház, which makes its own white wine and also offers one of the best scenic views of the lake.
Also, consider trying wines made from the kéknyelű grape (a unique smoky flavor) and the bakator grape (dark reds and whites). These varieties were nearly wiped out at one time, and now they’re a true Hungarian exclusive, only available from Balaton.
4. It’s a Great Place to Swim – And to skate!
One of the best things about Lake Balaton is that it’s a freshwater lake, so there’s no salt in the water. This, coupled with the gentle shallows close to the riverbank, make Balaton an ideal place for families with young children who just want to splash about and have a fun beach day. In fact, a recent survey by the World Open Water Swimming Association voted Balaton one of the world’s best swimming towns.
“I love the nightclubs, the lavender fields and Tihany Abbey, but my favorite thing to do in Balaton is swimming at Balatonboglár, especially as the water is fresh and not salty” – Sziszi S, Budapest
But Balaton is also for serious swimmers. Every year, thousands of open-water specialists convene for the Balaton Átúszás, which is a 5.2 km (3.2 miles) cross-lake competition, starting at the ancient ferry port of Révfülöp and finishing at Platan beach in Balatonboglár. At the most recent meet (August 2021), over 7,000 competitors swam the one-hour course, and the winner narrowly missed taking the record, held by a Hungarian swimmer called Kristóf Rasovszky. Amongst his other achievements, Rasovszky was a silver-medalist at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, but he tells his friends that he’s more proud of the record at Balaton!
Away from the competitive swimming areas, there are over 150 official places to bathe, and plenty of other free beaches and secluded nooks. The average depth of the water is about 3 meters (the deepest part, at Tihany Fountain, is 12 meters), and during the summer, the water temperature is a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius.
But what about the skating we mentioned? Well, during the cold winter months — November through January — parts of the lake always freeze over. Some years, the ice is thick enough for ice skating and even ice sailing. Of course, we can’t guarantee this will happen every year — the last big freeze was December 2019 — but if you’re in Hungary during the winter, then it’s worth checking the ice reports in the Daily News. And you can be sure that all the small local kiosks will instantly have ice skates for hire, so there’s no excuse for not perfecting your triple Salco and double Lutz!
5. It Hosts Balaton Sound: Europe’s Prestige EDM Festival
Lovers of EDM (Electronic Dance Music) will already know about Balaton Sound, referred to as the Gold Standard of Eastern Europe’s many music festivals. Run by the same team of promoters as Budapest’s legendary Sziget Festival, Balton Sound was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, so the anticipation for the 2022 event is at fever pitch!
Running for four (or sometimes even five) days in June, the festival is set in — and practically takes over — the small town of Zamárdi on Lake Balaton’s southern shore. With the lake being so close, there are plenty of floating bars within earshot of the main stage, ideal for cooling off. Alternatively, just use one of the many chill-out zones dotted with beanbags and hammocks, or go for the full festival experience and pitch a tent.
Although primarily known for EDM, the line-up covers hip-hop, house, drum and bass, techno, and reggae, set across nine massive stages. The full line-up has yet to be announced at the time of writing, but already confirmed are world-famous performers like Armin van Buuren, Rudimental, Denzel Curry, and Desiigner. But no matter which DJs play, Balaton Sound regularly attracts over 150,000 revelers, ready to party until they drop. So if you’re a fan of festivals, then Balaton Sound should be on your bucket list.
6. It’s One of Europe’s Top Sailing Destinations
Lake Balaton’s prestigious 93-mile Kékszalag (Blue Ribbon) is the longest round-the-lake sailing regatta in Europe, and it’s also the oldest, with the first race held in 1934. Today, it attracts more than 600 vessels in 30 different classes. In July of every year, the area around Balatonfüred —where the race starts and finishes — becomes a mecca for sailing enthusiasts. The most recent event, in July 2021, was won by the defending champion Róbert Vándor, who narrowly managed to hold off Fifty-Fifty, driven by Márton Józsa. Both are Hungarian nationals, but the 2022 regatta promises to be the most hotly-contended yet, with the Swiss team vowing to regain their title.
But all this high-speed, cut-throat action is thankfully reserved solely for the regatta. During the rest of the year, visitors are free to explore the lake at a much more leisurely pace. There are plenty of options available: from renting a small rowboat or kayak to chartering a classic luxury yacht complete with skipper and crew. And there’s a rule on Lake Balaton that forbids motorized sports, so you won’t be plagued by noisy jet skis or banana boat rides. The absence of fast-moving motor vessels also makes Balaton an excellent lake for windsurfing and kitesurfing, and there are many qualified instructors available to get you started.
7. There’s a Set of Caves with Mysterious Underwater Lakes!
The little town of Tapolca, just to the northeast of Lake Balaton, holds a secret that’s yet another cool thing making Lake Balaton worth visiting. In 1903, well-diggers discovered a set of interconnecting caves that ran beneath the whole town. Formed millions of years ago by immense volcanic activity, the caves are filled with water kept warm by subterranean geysers. Opened to the public ten years later, visitors now get to paddle a three-person boat through the warm and crystal-clear underground lakes. It’s one of the best things to experience at Balaton, but only if you know about it!
The attraction is managed by the Tapolca Lake Cave Visitor Center. They charge a fee of 7,500 HUF (25 dollars) for a family ticket, which includes the 3-kilometer boat trip and a surprisingly interesting set of installations where you can learn more about how the caves were formed. Attractions include the dripstone room, a cave divers room, a climbing wall, and the bat room. But don’t worry: there are no bats in the caves the only living things in the water are tiny minnows called Phoxinus, and it’s said that if you actually manage to spot one, you are granted one wish.
What to Avoid at Lake Balaton.
We’ll admit it, not all of our friends are totally enamored with the southern shore of Lake Balaton, and we understand. Because even though it’s a popular destination, it’s been deliberately created for the tourist market — it’s not the real Balaton. As our world traveler Christopher puts it:
“I’m not a fan of Balaton’s southern shore, with its tacky lake houses, overpriced beer, and the too-long walk before you get to enjoy an actual swim. Southern lakeside resorts like Siofok are just there for tourists, and that’s not what Balaton’s about. In contrast, the northern shore is peaceful, untouched, and a place to be for lovers of the great outdoors who want to experience the best that Hungary has to offer.”
Christopher has a point, and there are plenty of natural wonders around Balaton that we haven’t mentioned in this article. As an example, at Hévíz at the far western peak of the lake, you’ll find the world’s largest source of natural thermal water, famed for its mineral-rich medicinal properties. The towns and villages around Balaton also hold many treasures, such as the magnificent Castle of Szigliget, the beautiful baroque Tihany Abbey, and the imposing Festetics Palace.
And that’s the true secret of Balaton: it’s so much more than just a big lake. It’s a part of Hungary that many people never see and even less know about. We’re lucky to have Hungarian friends who’ve visited the area many times and can offer their personal viewpoints. But don’t just take their word for it: if you’re planning a trip to Central Europe, then set aside some time to visit Balaton and experience it for yourself!
How To Get To Lake Balaton
Lake Balaton, at 231 square miles, is roughly three-quarters the size of New York City. So it’s big! Many guides give you traveling times by car (about an hour if the roads are clear, or two hours in traffic), but our recommendation is to forget about going by road, as the popular destinations around Balaton have tiny car parks (or none at all).
Instead, we suggest you take a train and either hire a taxi for the day, or rent a bike when you get there and use the cycle track that surrounds the lake — in total, there are 93 miles of coastal cycle path to choose from, and most of it is relatively flat.
How to get to Lake Balaton by Train
Both Buda (on the west bank of the Danube) and Pest (on the east) have central train stations that offer direct trains to Lake Balaton. The quickest route is from Budapest-Déli station (in Buda) to Zamárdi station (closest station to the popular Balaton Sounds area), which takes only 1 hour 28 minutes and is super cheap: just $7 per person.
If you want to start from Pest, you’ll need a train from Keleti Station which will take you directly to Balatonfüred station on the north side of the Lake in 2 hours and 28 minutes for about $10. But, to be honest, it’s far quicker to get a local bus or tram across the Danube from Pest to Buda, then take the train from Budapest-Déli station as described above. You’ll save an hour of rail travel by doing so.