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Balaton basics: 5-minute guide to Hungary’s Lake Balaton
Where to stay and how to play in Hungary’s most popular outdoor destination
So, you’re in Budapest, Hungary’s cosmopolitan cultural capital, a place with more cathedrals, palaces, Gothic gargoyles and goulash-stained tablecloths than you ever thought you’d see in one place.
Now it’s time for a break from city drama.
When the mood strikes for a long weekend in the gorgeous countryside, every Hungarian knows where to go: Lake Balaton.
Central Europe’s largest lake is two hours by car from Budapest, but the dramatic change in scenery occurs almost as soon as you get on highway M7.
Farewell, St. Stephen’s Basilica. Hello, trees, fields, lakes, birds and deer.
Lake Balaton is huge -- it’s colloquially known in landlocked Hungary as the “Hungarian Sea” -- and surrounded with vacation houses, hotels and apartments. All have paths or roads heading toward the lake’s lovely beaches and promenades.
Popular activities include wine tasting, thermal spas, music festivals, water sports and other action-oriented activities. Want to jump out of a helicopter? Read on.
This is the place “where East and West met throughout history,” according to Ádám Kiss, journalist at We Love Balaton (www.welovabalaton.hu/en). “Now, it’s a place where all Hungarians are gathering to enjoy.”
Here’s a quick guide to the Balaton basics.
Anna Grand Hotel
This historic hotel hosts the annual Anna Ball, the only beauty pageant held during communist rule.
In addition to some of the nicest rooms in the Lake Balaton area, it has a superb restaurant, spa and bowling alley, and organizes horseback riding, sailing and wine tasting.
Anna Grand Hotel, 8230 Balatonfüred, Gyógy tér 1; +36 (1) 87 581 200; expensive
With only 12 rooms, the Chateau Visz is a place to cozy up and enjoy exclusive services, such as an award-winning prix fixe menu, prepared differently every day.
Chateau Visz, 8681 Visz, Berencsepuszta; +36 85 710 003; expensive
Káli Art Inn
Artful living in the countryside? This is it.
In a wooded countryside location, Káli Art Inn’s facilities are all modern yet specializes in rustic, Old World appeal
A former casino, the inn arranges horseback riding and rents bicycles, and has art supplies for those inspired by the surroundings to create masterpieces for the living room wall -- or basement corner.
Káli Art Inn, 8274 Köveskál, Fő utca 8; +36 30 922 8715; moderate
Apartments and pensions dot the Lake Balaton area.
Surrounded by vineyards and walnut trees and set back off the lake, Óbester Pension is typical -- and good.
The family-run B&B in a 200-year-old building has rooms for singles and more spacious apartments for families.
Óbester Pension, 8261 Badacsonytomaj, Római út 203; +36 30 213 0225; moderate
Kertem Camping Site
Kertem Camping Site brings the colorful spirit of Budapest’s ruin pubs to Lake Balaton.
It’s a short walk to beaches and sites for music festivals; the campground has the casual vibe you’d expect though in crowded summer it can feel more urban than rural.
Kertem Camping Site, 8621 Zamárdi, Panoráma utca 12; +36 20 248 4417; budget
Balatontourist Camping offers sites in different locations, with varying levels of services -- holiday bungalows, sports facilities, grocery stores, a clubhouse.
Balatontourist Camping, 8636 Balatonszemes, Lellei utca 1-2; +36 84 360 114; budget
Most restaurants around Lake Balaton offer Hungarian specialties at reasonable prices. Some serve pre-arranged, three-course meals. Beware: some restaurants accept only cash -- no credit cards.
Chateau Visz Gourmet Restaurant
Run by Michelin-starred chef Erik Schröter, this fine-dining restaurant has a list of medals and awards, including Restaurant of the Year for 2010 from a local dining guide and a Top 20 Restaurants in Central Europe 2012 nod from “Food & Wine” magazine.
It serves traditional Hungarian dishes with a sophisticated overhaul.
Chateau Visz, 8681 Visz, Berencsepuszta; +36 85 710 003; expensive
Karolina Kávéház és Koktélbár
Located next to the port and a park, Karolina is a coffee and cocktails place known for ciabattas, cakes and breakfast menus.
It’s so popular the owners opened a shop that sells the exact ingredients they use in their food.
Karolina Kávéház és Koktélbár, 8230 Balatonfüred, Zákonyi Ferenc utca 4; +36 87 583 098; moderate
While its menu describes the food as “traditional,” Kistücsök serves Hungarian dishes with a modern twist, playing with sauces, garnishes and presentation.
The service is impeccable; waiters are always on the watch in case your glass ever gets half-empty, whether water or wine.
Kistücsök Restaurant,8636 Balatonszemes, Bajcsy Zsilinszky út 25; +36 84 360 133; expensive
Old Bell Tavern and Restaurant
The family-run tavern offers interesting Hungarian game dishes that include water buffalo, Guinea fowl, rabbit and … donkey.
It uses ingredients from local farmers and hosts outdoor barbecues every Thursday and Friday night in spring and summer. The barbecues move indoors in winter.
Old Bell Tavern and Restaurant, 8380 Hévíz, 2830 hrsz; +36 30 927 9011; moderate
Teázó az erdő mélyén
The name literally means, “Teahouse deep in the forest.”
Although it’s tough to locate, and is open only on weekends, it’s worth the time and effort to seek out.
The owner is mesmerized by tea, and has traveled around the world for interesting selections. Her son is a pastry chef and together they make an impressive tea and cake combo.
The café also serves light, tasty meals.
Teázó az erdő mélyén, 8237 Tihany-Sajkod, Sajkodi aszfalt út vége; + 36 30 247 2260; moderate
Sightseeing and activities
Hungary is famous for spas and saunas and Lake Balaton offers a number of good ones. Most hotels offer some sort of spa, sauna and massage program. Other popular Lake Balaton activities include water sports and wine tasting.
Hévíz Lake Spa
This lake spa promotes wellness by promoting the healthy waters of Lake Balaton, which guests spend plenty of time in.
“The steady and constant water flow has a beneficial effect on the body as it keeps bathers lightly massaged during the whole time they spend in the lake,” say the spa’s website.
Since the lake is warm throughout the year, it’s possible to bathe in its waters even in winter.
The spa is a joint venture with Saint Andrew Rheumatology Hospital and offers medicinal treatments.
Hévíz Lake Spa, 8380 Hévíz, Dr. Schulhof Vilmos sétány 1; +36 83 501 700
Founded in 1055 under the reign of King Andrew I of Hungary, the abbey houses the only preserved tomb of a medieval Hungarian king.
The exterior is modest, with white walls and red brick towers; the interior is overwhelming and opulent.
The abbey houses an an impressive underground museum and art gallery.
Tihany Abbey, 8237 Tihany, I. András tér 1; +36 87 538 200
Füred Wakeboard Centrum
While biking, hiking and traveling by car around the Lake Balaton are the norms, there are other ways to take in the scenery: sailing and windsurfing.
Füred Wakeboard Centrum offers surf schools, sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing programs on the lake.
Füred Wakeboard Centrum, 8230 Balatonfüred Széchenyi u. 24; +36 70 6161 742; daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., March-September
The IKON Winery is located in Radpuszta, where for centuries the vineyards belonged to the Tihany Abbey.
It’s run by a restless winemaker, János Konyári, and his daughter Borbála, who is one of the few female winemakers in Hungary.
IKONs 39 hectares produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir.
IKON Winery, 8681 Látrány, 087/1/A Hrsz; +36 454 94 31
Sky-diving … from a helicopter
For a dramatic look at Lake Balaton, you can jump out of a plane. Or a helicopter.
The Siófok-Kiliti Airport’s M-8 Boogie program includes jumping from a helicopter from more than 4,000 meters or (snooze) simply bailing out of a plane.
As you float earthward over hills, vineyards and the lake, you’ll understand why this is a popular activity during peak season (meaning reservations are a must).
Siófok-Kiliti Airport, 8611 Siófok-Kiliti, Szekszárdi út 1; +36 84 522 011