Explore: Hungary’s Great Lake

Baroque palaces and vineyards.

By Anja Mutić

Lake Balaton—Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake—spans 50 miles in western Hungary halfway between Budapest and the Austrian border. It’s been a popular vacation spot for Hungarians, Austrians and Germans for generations, but outside of central Europe it remains somewhat unknown. To explore its many riches, set your sights along its western shore, where you’ll find towns flush with history, sloping vineyards, thermal waters and other delights.

History Lesson

Keszthely, the largest and oldest city of the Balaton region, is also one of its most culturally impressive. The two-story, U-shaped Festetics Palace (1 Kastély St., Keszthely; 011-36-83-314-194; admission, from $2*) is a baroque beauty surrounded by an English-style park filled with bronze statues and trees that date back hundreds of years. The palace, Hungary’s most visited, houses the Helikon Palace Museum (1 Kastély St., Keszthely; 011-36-83-312-191; admission, from $12), where permanent exhibits are spread throughout a complex of five buildings and provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of 18th- and 19th-century aristocrats. Highlights include a grand ornamental staircase made of Slavonian oak; a collection of more than 86,000 books that line the library’s neoclassical bookshelves; and more than 50 coaches, carriages and sleighs in the former stable as well as the coach house next door. Be sure to also stop by the estate’s Palm House, where some of Europe’s largest collections of frangipani hybrids and tropical hibiscus bloom.

A 10-minute stroll through Keszthely’s town center brings you to the neo-baroque Balaton Museum (2 Múzeum St., Keszthely; 011-36-83-312-351; admission, $3), which turns a spotlight on the ecology and history of Lake Balaton. One exhibit focuses on the bathing culture of Balaton, showcasing century-old swimsuit styles, while another examines the region’s shipping trade and puts model vessels on display. You’ll also find archaeological pieces that date back as much as 7,000 years, including fishing tools from the Stone Age.

Wine and Waters

The quaint village of Cserszegtomaj is spread over vineyard-carpeted hills just north of Keszthely and is known for its cserszegi fuszeres wine, or the “woodcutter’s white.” A great place to sample this full-bodied vintage is the restaurant and wine bar Romai Pince (Dombföldi St., Hévíz; 011-36-83-340-593; lunch for two, $40; tastings, $8) on Egregy hill, a postcard-worthy area with a winemaking tradition that dates back to the Roman era. Egregy is just outside the spa town of Hévíz, a quick tourist tram ride away. Lake Hévíz (admission, from $8) is the world’s largest biologically active natural thermal lake, and its turquoise waters, filled with water lilies and fringed by cypress and sycamore trees, make it a peaceful place to relax. Depending on the time of year, up to 6,000 people a day flock to the warm lake and its facilities, which house four indoor pools. Treatments on offer range from mud packs to water-lily body scrubs.

Natural Wonders

Less than an hour’s drive northeast of Keszthely, near the village of Balatonederics, in Balaton Uplands Natural Park, you’ll find Csodabogyós Cave (16 Kossuth St., Csopak; 011-36-87-555-260; tours, from $20 a person), also known as Wonderberry Cave because of the shrubs that grow next to its entrance. This tectonic cave conceals three miles of paths that can be explored on a guided tour. To access the cave and see its impressive dripstones, you’ll need to first walk 40 minutes uphill through the forest. The standard tour takes one and a half to two hours; the more adventurous may prefer to sign up for the advanced four-hour excursion. Either way, you’ll be equipped with overalls, a helmet and a headlamp before getting started on your adventure.

South of Lake Balaton is the smaller lake Kis-Balaton (011-36-87-555-260), which literally translates as “small Balaton,” one of Europe’s most distinctive wetland habitats for waterfowl. This nature-conservation area can be accessed only with a certified guide and is home to more than 250 species of birds, as well as rare animal and plant species, such as the northern vole and a unique type of dragonfly. You can arrange for a tour in advance or opt to ascend one of two watchtowers on the reserve’s Kányavári Island (approach from the road between the towns of Zalavár and Balatonmagyaród; 011-36-30-664-0404; admission, free) for a bird’s-eye view over the wetlands. The island is also the setting for the mile-long Great Crested Grebe Nature Trail, where you can learn about songbirds and birds of prey through a series of 15 educational signs.

On the outskirts of the village of Kápolnapuszta, just a few miles east of Kis-Balaton’s southern tip, the Buffalo Reserve (011-36-70-236-7401; admission, $2.50; horse-carriage tours, $3.50 a person) teaches about the conservation of Hungary’s indigenous buffalo as visitors gaze upon the gentle giants from a lookout tower. And in the village of Zalavár, about a 15-minute drive from the lake’s northern tip, the Kis-Balaton House (Vársziget, Zalavár; 011-36-83-710-002; bike rentals, from $2.70 an hour; tours, from $9 a person) offers bike rentals and will guide you to lakeside trails where you can enjoy the landscape as it unspools before you.

RCI® affiliated resorts around Lake Balaton include:
Club Dobogomajor 4193

The on-site restaurant serves local fare and has a two-lane bowling alley. Hévízi út 1, Cserszegtomaj
Member Review: “Quiet and relaxing setting.”

Club Abbazia 2833

From here you can unwind at the nearby Hévíz thermal lake. Erzsebet kiralyne utca 23, Keszthely
Member Review: “Great staff!”

Holiday Club Hévíz 5980

Choose from studio and one-bedroom units with complimentary parking. Vaida Ákos utca 3, Hévíz
Member Review: “Close to shops and restaurants.”

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts around Lake Balaton include:
Hotel Spa Hévíz

This 54-room hotel is the closest to the lake in the area.
1 Dr. Schulhof Vilmos St., Hévíz; 011-36-83-501-708; hotelspaheviz.hu; doubles from $122 a night, including breakfast and dinner

Lotus Therme Hotel & Spa

Spa facilities and pools are available at this 232-room resort.
1 Lótuszvirág St., Hévíz; 011-36-83-500-500; lotustherme.net; doubles from $204 a night, including breakfast and dinner

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: February 2017