Long, narrow Lake Balaton (45 mi/70 km by 5 mi/8 km) offers a variety of watersports, including sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and paddle-boating, as well as topless sunbathing. But even those who don't revel in the water will find things to see and do. Lake Balaton is a great place to meet people from throughout Europe. When eastern Europeans weren't permitted to travel freely, they used the lake as a substitute for the Mediterranean. Today, Germans visit in large numbers, especially around the town of Siofok, which serves as the area's unofficial nightlife capital during the summer. The tourist-centric southern shore of the lake is more popular with families, and the northern side has more hills and vineyards and is popular with individual tourists, wine enthusiasts and hikers. Balatonfured, on the northern side, is the lake's most elegant resort.
Summer is really Balaton's season—not only is the weather nicest then, but that's when the lake's cultural season is in full swing (beginning in May). We enjoyed renting a sailboat for a week; each night we berthed at a different port to attend the cultural or festive event featured in that town. One night, it was an organ recital in a baroque church; another night, lively folk dances; and yet another, a ballet.
Among the sights that can be seen around the lake are the 11th-century castle and well-preserved town of Veszprem (actually 20 mi/30 km inland); the "basalt organ" of Szentgyorgyhegy (rock formations that look like organ pipes); the baroque Festetics Mansion near Keszthely (one of the most opulent mansions in Hungary); the crisp white wines made in hilly Badacsony; and the 900-year-old Abbey Church commanding the summit of the peninsula of Tihany. In most of the lake's communities you'll find beautiful baroque architecture, wine cellars, vineyards and serene scenery. At the village of Heviz, a spa town known for its thermal lake near the western end of Lake Balaton, the water never falls below 75 F/24 C—you can swim among water lilies in the open air year-round.
An excursion to Lake Balaton can be made as a day trip from Budapest, but we prefer to spend at least one night in the area. Hotel accommodations around the lake vary from nicely modernized to fairly dated properties, and oddly enough, price doesn't always have much to do with quality. The best deal is usually a private room (szoba) in a family's home. The lake's northeastern tip lies about 60 mi/100 km southwest of Budapest.
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