Planning a trip to Lake Balaton

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Lake Balaton is a favourite summer retreat for Hungarians and expats alike. Known for great wine and stunning scenery on the north shore, and for the lively resort towns on the south, most people aim to get down there at least once per year.

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For those living in Budapest it can be a welcome retreat from the stifling heat that often descends on the city during July and August.

How to get to Lake Balaton

Travelling around Hungary is easy and a trip to Lake Balaton is no exception. Most people travel there from Budapest by train. They leave frequently from Deli and Keleti station, with express services stopping at the major towns of Siófok, Balatonföldvár and Fonyód and local services stopping at other places in between. Allow about 1.5 hours for the journey and if you’re a student, show your ISIC card for a discount.

If you prefer the bus then Volanbusz run fairly frequent routes to the major towns with a travel time of 2 hours or so. It’s also possible to book a ticket on a private coach, but for a short journey the extra comfort comes at a hefty price.

Finally, if you drive then it’s quite easy to get out to Lake Balaton. An hour or so down highway M7 will take you directly to Siófok. Remember you’ll need to pay a toll and get a vignette to go on the highway in Hungary.

Where to go in Lake Balaton

The lake and the surrounding beaches are of course the main attractions. Most beaches have the usual facilities and places to buy food and drinks. Some are free access while others charge around 500 HUF for the day. Here is a handy map of some of the best ones.

There are 3 major towns that serve as focus points for visitors:

Balatonfüred

Balatonfüred is the biggest town on the north shore. A spa-lovers heaven with a beautiful old town and tree-lined promenades by the lake. It’s third-largest town on the lake and has a very relaxed atmosphere. It also hosts the yearly Anna Ball, a very unique event that’s been around since 1825. The water here is cooler and deeper than on the south shore and you can take a walk in the surrounding hills and discover a few wineries if that’s your thing.

Siófok

Siófok is the undisputed capital of Balaton, especially when it comes to partying. It’s a small town of 25,000 that can easily swell to 200,000 at the height of summer.

From June until September hedonism rules, while in off season it’s possible to have a more relaxed time. There are plenty of free access beaches to enjoy, some busier than others, and you can go wakeboarding and kitesurfing if you’re feeling adventurous. When it comes to exploring the nightlife there are plenty of bars and clubs to visit.

The nearby town of Zamárdi hosts the annual Balaton Sound festival in early July and the Strand and B.my.Lake festival held at the end of August right after Sziget festival as a sort of afterparty.

Keszthely

Keszthely is located on the western shore of the lake and Festetics Palace is its main attraction. It’s a Baroque-style building built in 1745 by Count György Festetics. After this, you can spend your afternoon roaming the main square and the adjacent Kossuth Lajos Utca. There are churches to look at and cafes to drink in.

Finding accommodation in Balaton

There are plenty of hotels in all the major towns. During peak time (June - September) it’s advisable to book in advance to get the place you want. Outside of peak months you should be able to walk up to a place once you’ve arrived.

Another popular option is to rent a holiday home. Various tourist agencies can assist you with this and you’ll find plenty advertised if you arrive on a whim (again not advisable during peak season). People also list accommodation on rental websites such as VRBO, Airbnb and Wimdu. Via these websites, you can see photos, read reviews and book instantly.

Finally, keep in mind that many Hungarians have holiday homes in and around the lake, so befriending locals may well lead to a holiday invite if you’re lucky.