Lake Balaton has long been a favourite among those looking for an alternative beach holiday. It’s a huge lake, covering 372 square miles, and offers a varied range of activities for couples and families alike. Here are my top 10 things to do in the region.
Get cultured - Keszthely is the capital of Balaton, a graceful university town at the western end of the lake. A highlight is the 18th-century Festetics Palace, one of the country’s finest aristocratic mansions. The furnishings are stunning, but don’t overlook the beautiful grounds outside.
Try some wine - Balaton is a proud wine-producing region, and you’ll find local cellars all around the lake. I’ve enjoyed many a meander up Badacsony Hill, which has a series of little wine shacks dotted along the way.
Party time - Night owls love Balaton because it has a pocket of the best clubs and bars outside Budapest. The leading light is Siófok, the lake’s largest resort, which has open-fronted drinking spots, themed parties and big-name DJs.
On your bike - If you want to get active, hire a bike and take to the marked cycle trail that runs all around the lake. The really committed can attempt the whole route, which runs for almost 155 miles, but you can of course do as little or as much as you like. Alternatively, cycle out to the Balaton Uplands beyond the northern shore, a place of meadows and hills and unusual volcanic rock formations.
We are sailing - most of the beaches have dinghies for hire, but to get right out into the lake it’s best to board something bigger. Sightseeing cruises - including those offering dinner, music and dancing - depart from the piers at resorts like Siófok and Balatonfüred, but a cheaper option is simply to take the public ferry that stops at the main settlements around the lake.
Going wild - Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) to the west has become a haven for egrets, herons and bitterns. In autumn, 20,000 bean geese rest in the reed beds during their migration, and some rare migrant species like Arctic tern have also been sighted. The lake is protected, and you’ll need to visit with a guide. If you have kids, make a visit to the Kápolnapuszta Buffalo Reserve near Balatonmagyaród, which has ancient buffalo species brought to Hungary by Asiatic tribes over 1,000 years ago.
Abbey hour - The volcanic peninsula of Tihany juts into the lake from the northern shore, and has a lovely village of quaint peasant houses. Its main attraction, though, is the two-towered Benedictine Abbey, which has an extravagant 18th-century interior and a crypt dating back to the 11th century.
In hot water - Around five miles northwest of Balaton is Hévíz, a place that has become legendary for the healing powers of its waters. Lake Hévíz is Europe’s biggest thermal lake, a crater nearly 130-feet deep and fed by hot springs that gush 60 million litres of water a day. It’s warm all year, so you can bathe in deepest winter if you wish, and the minerals in the water and mud are said to do wonders for the skin and rheumatic disorders.
Spa town - Arguably the most elegant spot on the lake is the spa town of Balatonfüred. In the 19th century, this was where the country’s great and good came to take the waters, and it has an atmospheric promenade and a park filled with lime trees planted by the 'bigwigs' from the worlds of politics and the arts.
Life’s a beach - But ultimately, for all its culture and wildlife and wine, Balaton is best known as a place to relax on a beach in the sun. There are beaches of all sizes, from peaceful areas of grass away from the hullabaloo, to crowded stretches of sand with bars and playgrounds, as well as a host of water craft to rent.
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