Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and the most popular vacation region in Hungary. Lining both shores of its 48-mile (77km) stretch are many towns and resorts, and the north and south shores are distinctly different in character, offering something for everyone.
The south shore is thronged by a string of largely uniform holiday resorts and high-rise buildings where crowds of young people congregate for hedonistic holidays. Besides the pretty beaches and good swimming options, there are numerous land and water-based activities while at night the discos pulse until the early hours. Siófok is the largest and busiest resort and it dominates the southern shore during the summer months, but it is almost completely dead in winter.
By contrast, the northern shore has limited waterfront development due to its deeper, colder waters and reed beds. Its attractions are more historical and cultural in nature. Although there are resorts here, it is generally a destination embraced by travellers looking for picturesque scenery, interesting towns, and mineral spas, complemented by the fine wines from the nearby hills of Badacsony, rather than a party scene. Many of the villages on the shores of the lake are home to a number of medieval ruins and fortresses to explore.
Lake Balaton has been a popular recreation area since the Roman times when the aristocracy built villas and set up health spas here. It was also a famous winegrowing region and the graceful rolling hills, cool water, and warm sunshine still provide the perfect setting and climate for both vacations and vineyards.
Hévíz is the site of world's largest thermal lake: Gyógytó. It is the most extraordinary sight with its huge milky blue surface covered in water lilies and steam. The warm water wells up from a volcanic crater spring about 40 metres (128ft) below the surface and provides year round swimming, although the recommended maximum time in the water during any one session is one hour. The mud on the bottom and edges is said to be slightly radioactive which is good for various medical conditions but only in small doses. A pavilion in the centre of the lake is reached by a covered bridge and indoor swimming takes place in an area enclosed with Plexiglas. Gaps in the plastic lead to the rest of the lake where swimmers can float among the water lilies and swim between the platforms bobbing on the surface. There are also various other spa and health treatments that can be enjoyed.
Keszthely is a university town with trendy cafes, tree-lined streets, and busy market areas. Modern history shows Kesthely dating back some 760 years, inhabited since the Roman Empire. Its most import sight is the Festetics Palace, with the Helikon Palace Museum and Library both in one of its baroque wings. Varosi Strand is great for travelling families, with its beach and amusement area. It has water slides, a big pool, and various play spaces, as well as nice lawns, a beach, and loungers. Keszthely likes to describe itself as the capital of Lake Balaton and it is the best town from which to explore the surrounding lakeside area, including the nearby Kis-Balaton nature reserve (excellent for bird watching) and the thermal lake at Hévíz.
Balatonfüred has been the most fashionable resort on the Lake Balaton since the 18th century when the medicinal centre was established, and people are still drawn here on holiday because of its healing thermal waters. While the mineral baths are reserved for patients, the Balatonfüred resort area remains popular with tourists as there are three good beaches for swimming. The shores of the lake are great for all manner of water activities, from sunbathing to yachting, and there are also a number of cycle tracks along the lake and through the surrounding region. A wine tasting festival is held in August annually and the famous Anna Ball takes place on the weekend closest to the 26 July (Anna Day) at the Anna Grand Hotel.
Lake Balaton is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Hungary and the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe. The south banks are full of modern beach resorts for those who desire nothing more than fun in the sun and a rollicking nightlife.
The northern banks still boast some picturesque old villages and historical sites, as well as some great wineries. Although the lake is less sandy and not as good for swimming as in the north, the scenery is arguably more beautiful.
When it comes to the south, things to see and do in Lake Balaton revolve mainly around water sports and partying. Apart from the popular beach resorts, the southern edges of the lake include the Golden and Silver Shore beaches (Aranypart and Ezüstpart).
Breaking away from beach life, tourists can take a walk down either the Beszédes or Petõfi promenades. The Lutheran Church in Oulu Park is also a notable attraction. A quick excursion to the nearby town of Zamárdi and a visit to the town's Ethnographic Museum are also worth the time.
The oldest and most popular spa resort on the scenic northern banks is Balantonfüred, which has an easy-going sophistication and relaxed atmosphere. Jutting out into the lake and almost joining the northern and southern shores is the Tihany Peninsula, which has an old Benedictine Abbey in the quaint town and is surrounded by a nature reserve that many consider to be the most beautiful place on the lake.
To the west and marking the end of the northern shore is the interesting town of Keszthely with its Baroque Festetics Palace. Close to Keszthely, just removed from the banks of Lake Balaton, is Europe's largest thermal lake, Heviz, which is also a very popular attraction in the area and offers spa treatments as well as swimming in the steam-shrouded lake.
With over 120 miles (200km) of cycle tracks around the villages and shores of Lake Balaton, cycling is a popular way to get around. Visitors to Balaton between May and September can make use of the Balaton ferry to cross between the lake's southern and northern shores (Tihany and Szántód), while excursion boats cruise between a number of ports along the shores of the lake. Local buses are also available and it is possible to drive between different towns surrounding the lake.
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