Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, is in the west of Hungary about 60 miles from Budapest. To travel right round the lake is a distance of about 120 miles with some stunning scenery and interesting towns and villages along the way. It is also a major wine producing area with plenty of opportunities to taste the local wines.
There are three ways to undertake this circumnavigation.
Firstly by car – there are good quality roads all the way around the lake and these roads are relatively traffic-free, other than during the busy July and August tourist season. I have just driven around in April when it was pleasantly quiet.
Secondly, you can travel around the lake using the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) and, if you are over 65, this will be free of charge – see Rail Travel Discounts. You can travel around quite close to the lake, except an inland deviation to the town of Tapolca. But that is a good place to visit anyway, and one of my highlights.
A third possibility that might appeal to more active Seniors is to cycle around the lake on the largely purpose built cycle route. I’ve covered about half of the route in two or three separate trips. Even when the cycle route is shared with vehicles, the roads are usually relatively traffic-free with low speed restrictions. Cycle hire is available in many places around the lake for about 2000 forint (£6) a day.
Of course there is nothing to stop you combining different means of transport according to your mood or the weather. To do the tour justice, you should allow at least 4 or 5 days whatever means of transport you choose.
Lake Balaton itself is the major attraction of this tour. As you travel around you will have many different views of the lake in many different lights. Sometimes the lake is grey, but often it is green or an intense blue. Sometimes it is as calm as a mill pond, at other times waves can crash on the shores. Sunsets over the lake can be stunning.
Whilst travelling around the lake these were my ten highlights. They are listed starting from Siófok at the eastern end of the lake travelling around clockwise. If you are travelling from Budapest, then Siófok is where you’ll first meet Lake Balaton.
• Siófok is the most popular resort on the lake, particularly for younger people, with lots of restaurant and outside bars during the summer season. There are pleasant walks on the banks of the Balaton and along the Sió River – the only outlet from the Balaton, leading eventually to the Danube.
• Kishegy is a small hill about half way along the southern side of the Lake. What makes it one of my highlights are the panoramic views covering almost the full length of the lake. Watch dazzling sunsets over the lake whilst enjoying a meal at the not very originally named Panorama Restaurant. The famous Chapel Hill wine gets its name from the little St Donatus Chapel at Kishegy. Sample the wines at the Garamvári vineyard halfway up the hill.
• Fonyód is a typical small resort town on the southern shore of the lake. There are several similar attractive resorts nearby such as Balatonlelle, Balatonboglár and Balatonfenyves all with good safe bathing and lake-side bars and restaurants. I include Fonyód in my highlights because of its great views across the lake to various extinct volcanic peaks on the northern shores.
• Keszthely is a university town at the western end of Lake Balaton. There are several hotels there and a good central shopping area. Make a point of having a coffee at the upstairs viewing area of the jetty bar and maybe go for a short boat ride. The Festetics Palace, built in Baroque style, and gardens are well worth a visit – see portraits of the family wearing Scottish kilts.
• Hévíz is famous for its Spa, a large, deep open air pool which is supposed to cure a wide range of ailments. The town itself is an attractive place to stroll around with good restaurants and well laid out gardens.
• Tapolca is a few miles north of the Lake. If travelling by rail then you will have to go through Tapolca, but it is worth the deviation if travelling by car or cycle. Enjoy the mill pond surrounded by colourful buildings then visit the caves under the town. You can take a short boat trip in the caves along the river which flows into the mill pond.
• Badascony is round-topped extinct volcanic hill which can be seen from almost the full length of the lake. Take a jeep ride up the hill, then slowly saunter down sampling the local wines along the way. Probably it is a good idea to spend the night then in Badacsony town before driving on.
• Tihany is an attractive town built on a hilly peninsula sticking out into Lake Balaton. Narrow streets lead up to the impressive Abbey, dating from 1055 but rebuilt in 1754 in Baroque style. There are panoramic views of the eastern part of the lake from the pathways by the abbey. You can take a ferry ride across the lake from the Tihany peninsula and this is free of charge for those over 65.
• Balatonfüred is an upmarket, spa resort and an internationally famous cardiac centre. When I first visited fifteen years ago, the town had a faded 1930s feel to it. Now it has many modern, stylish bars and restaurants leading down to the marina.
• Veszprém is one of the oldest towns in Hungary situated nine miles north of the lake. It is worth the detour to see the old town perched on a hill with winding medieval streets, quaint houses and grand palaces. Stop along the way and climb the Fire Tower for some great views before continuing into the old town via the grand entrance, the Heroes’ Gate.
How to get there
Several budget airlines fly from the UK to Budapest including Jet2 from East Midlands, Edinburgh and Manchester. Then cars can be hired at good rates through Auto Europe or you could travel around the Lake by rail starting from the Budapest Déli station. I often drive to the Lake Balaton region using PO Ferries to travel from Hull to Europort (see my review of PO Ferries to Rotterdam) followed by a 900 mile drive, on motorways for almost the whole way. And I put my passport away once I’ve landed at Europort – all other borders are non-stop drive through.
Where to stay
Accommodation is straightforward outside the busy months of July and August; there are lots of inexpensive rooms and apartments to rent all around the lake, often indicated by the ubiquitous sign “Zimmer Frei”. For example in Balatonboglár, from personal experience I can recommend the self-catering apartments offered by Balaton Tourism. It is advisable to book accommodation in advance during the busy July/August period.
Where to eat
There are vast numbers of restaurants around Lake Balaton serving good local food and drink. I’ve already mentioned the Panorama Restaurant at Kishegy, but I also recommend the Anno Taverna at Balatonszárszó, the Kukorica Csárda at Balatonújlak, the Vadkert Restaurant in Keszthely which specialises in game meats and the Borsca Etterem in Balatonfüred where you can enjoy an excellent goulash by the lake shore.
Overall verdict on Lake Balaton tour
A very pleasant, relaxed touring holiday. Maybe a bit off the normal tourist route, but highly recommended. Don’t worry if you don’t know any Hungarian; you will get by with English and people are generally very helpful.