Situated in the Transdanubian region of Hungary, Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and one of the most famous tourist attractions in the country.
Geography and Hydrology
Lake Balaton was formed less than 1,000,000 years ago, through the unification of five smaller lakes that were lying in the basin.
The Northern shores of the freshwater lake are a bit mountainous, having a historic character with plenty of medieval ruins, as well as the perfect climate for growing grapevines, making it a very popular wine region. The Southern banks of the lake are flat, mostly known for their resort-towns.
The freshwater lake, often referred to as “The Hungarian Sea”, has one main inflow, the Zala River, which has a drainage area that occupies nearly half of the total catchment area. Its only outflow is the canalized Sió River, which eventually makes its way to the Danube.
The shallow lake is popular amongst travelers seeking improvement in their health, because the Balaton’s water and the sleek mud found at its bottom serve as a remedy for many types of joint problems.
Lake Balaton affects the climate of the Western part of Hungary, since the area gets 5-7 centimeters extra precipitation than any other part of the country. The lake basin doesn’t usually witness extreme temperatures, although the waters freeze in the winter months. The thickness of the ice can even reach 20 centimeters.
The peak season is between the months of June and August, when the water temperatures can reach up to 25OC. The weather is generally warm from May until October. The lake’s Southern shores are shallower, therefor can warm up quicker, and can even reach temperatures of 27-28OC.
The microclimate around the Balaton is quintessential for viticulture, because the lake serves like somewhat of a mirror, reflecting and enhancing the sunlight on the grapevines. The Mediterranean-like climate, as well as the special soil that contains volcanic rock, contribute to ideal conditions for wine production.
Origins of the Name and Local History
The lake was referred to by the Romans as “Pelso Lake”, which is considered to be of Indo-European origin. It was later influenced by the Slavic word “blato”, which means swamp or mud. During the 9th century a Slavic ruler by the name Pribina built a castle on the shores of the lake, in a swampy area close to Zala River which was named “Swamp Fortress” and served as the perfect defense agains Bulgarian and Moravian troops.
The German name for Balaton was “Plattensee”, referring to the flatness of the lake.
Lake Balaton has always been a holiday destination for the aristocracy. The middle class only began visiting it in the late 19th century. . Between 1861 and 1909 new railroads were built, contributing to an impressive increase in tourism.
During World War II, a bloody battle took place on the shores of the lake in March of 1945, between the Germans and the Hungarian Third Army, which ended in the victory of the former. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the country was under communist rule, Lake Balaton served as a holiday destination for ordinary working Hungarians and union members. It was also a place of meeting between those living in the Western Bloc and residents of the Eastern Bloc, especially among Germans. After the collapse of the communism, the lake still continued to be a popular site among Hungarians and residents of neighboring countries.
Tourism and Resorts
The lake’s coastline is very well developed in terms of tourism. There are tens of resort towns welcoming tourists from all over Hungary and Europe. The lake’s beaches are mainly covered by grass and rocks; however, there are some artificial sandy beaches for the comfort of visitors.
The town of Zamárdi is famous among youngsters, since it is home to one of the largest Electronic Music Festivals in Eastern Europe, the Balaton Sound. Balatonkenese is famous for hosting traditional gastronomic and culinary events.
Siófok is one of the biggest towns around the lake, also famous for its rich nightlife. It also has some of the best, artificial sandy beaches on the lakeshore.
The renowned Festetics Castle, a beautiful Baroque edifice constructed in the 18th century, is situated in Keszthely. One of the oldest and best-known settlements of the area is Tihany, known for its lavender fields and museum, as well as the Biological Station.
Among other notable resorts we can ennumerate Balatonalmádi, Fonyód, Vonyarcvashegy, Balatonboglár and Balatonlelle.
Attractions and Activities
There are plenty of accommodation sites ranging from campsites and apartment houses to hotels and pensions.
Lake Balaton and its coastline have an impressive list of activities to offer to visitors. It has some of the best cycling paths in the country, with over 200 kilometers of paved roads. Plenty of medieval ruins and old remains of churches stand out from the grapevines, creating a memorable sight.
The Káli Basin has plenty of visually appealing geological formations, such as basalt columns, which mix with peaceful villages and green forests. This particular area is popular among hikers. HegyestÃ…Â± is a similarly beloved place by nature-fans, a basalt volcano which offers a stunning panorama over the lake and its surroundings.
One of the most precious wetlands of Eastern Europe, the Kis Balaton National Park, situated on the Eastern shore of the lake, is the ideal place for fishing and bird-watching.
The Lake Cave of Tapolca also attracts many tourists, because there is a possibility of rowing, boating underground. Another impressive natural wonder is the Csodabogyós Cave.
Animal-lovers can also find plenty to do on the lakeshores. In the Kápolnapuszta Buffalo Reserve one can admire a herd of 200 buffalos, whilst at the Balatonederics Africca Museum and Safari Park tourists can even ride camels.
Other popular summer activities are sailing, fishing and various watersports. People also visit the area for its active nightlife, lovely countryside and great wineries. There are plenty of horse-riding activities visitors can participate in, located in various resort towns along the shoreline. One can also bungee jump or go water skiing in Siófok or Balatonfüred, and there are even sightseeing flights which start from the local airport, that take you on a tour to see the lake from above.
Many tourists also visit the Balaton precinct for ice-fishing, sledging on the surrounding hills and even ice-skating on the frozen lake.
Wine, Dine, Relax
There are four main wine regions, which owe their success to the microclimate around Lake Balaton. Balatonfelvidék has almost exlusively fine white wines, whilst in the Badacsony region they produce Italian Riesling and Pinot Gris. Balatonboglár-KÃ…â€˜röshegy has light and fruity wines, while Csopák-Balatonfüred makes mainly Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Besides the traditional Hungarian gastronomical elements (goulash and paprika chicken), the area’s special culinary delicacy consists in pike perch (usually roasted) and fisherman’s soup.
Hévíz lies on the lakeshore, and it is the World’s second largest hot water lake, attracting thousands of tourists yearly because of its healing benefits. Zalakaros has similar healing thermal baths, whilst Alsópatak is considered a true haven for families with children.