First settled in the Iron Age, the Balaton region has been a recreation spot since at least Roman times. From the 18th century onward, the upper classes erected spas and villas along the shoreline. Not until the post-World War II communist era did the lake open up to a wider tourist base. Many large hotels along the lake are former trade union resorts built under the previous regime.
Lake Balaton may not be the Mediterranean, but it is the largest freshwater lake in Europe. For many years, it has attracted German and British tourists in droves as well as other European sun worshipers in smaller numbers, filling the lake's beaches. With each passing year, though, the love affair with the lake fades while the beauty of the Croatian beaches infiltrate the tourism market as the leading water-based destination in the region. Hungary has instituted a fierce marketing campaign to redevelop the lake's regional favor with tourists, since many of the small towns depend on tourism for their survival. Companies have developed watersports and wellness centers to revitalize the area with new offerings, but in spite of their efforts, foreign tourism is shrinking. In the past, the Balaton region was a Mecca for East Germans, before the wall came down, making German a common second language. English speakers who ventured here for vacations and reported back claimed to be inhibited by the inability to communicate in English. Natually, Hungarians are proud of their resort and will defend this spot as one of the best in Europe; many city dwellers own summer homes here. With that said, there are still many other places to see and enjoy, even if you are not a sun or water person. I do caution you to check the quality of the lake's waters near the time of your planned trip. Some years, the water level has been too low to support the many watersports it has become famous for and, at other times, there have been outbreaks of algae covering the water's surface in many tourist areas.
For the best of times, pick up a free copy of the Balaton Funzine available at Tourinform offices throughout the lake resorts. The seasonal Balaton issues are bilingual Hungarian/English and have all the latest information to enrich a visit to the lake region. Throughout the long summer, swimmers, windsurfers, sailboats, kayaks, and cruisers fill the warm and silky smooth lake. It is 80km (50 miles) long and 15km (9 miles) wide at its broadest stretch. Around the lake's 197km (122 miles) of shoreline, vacationers cast their reels for pike; play tennis, soccer, and volleyball; ride horses; and hike in the hills.
On the south shore, Siófok was established as a resort in 1891. It is considered one of the most important tourist centers in the region, and is frequented mostly by the youthful generation or those who love to party. Beachside hotels overflow all summer long with party people playing disco music that pulsates into the early morning hours. My students have warned me about having people stop here if they are post-college age. Even for some of them, it is too rowdy to be enjoyable. The most popular venue is the Coca-Cola House where there is nonstop music and dancing until dawn from the last week in June to the last week in August, making it the popular choice for the party animal that really doesn't care about the water adventures. According to my students, Budapest youth take the train to Siófok, party until the very wee hours, and then return to Budapest on the first train the next morning.
On a positive note, the town itself has an open-air exhibition with sculptures and monuments on public squares including the work of the contemporary Hungarian sculptor, Imre Varga, who was born here in 1923.
For those of us who are post college and post party until the morning light, and families, the better choice may be the graceful north shore, and it's the region we cover in this section. Note: Here and there you will find little villages neatly tucked away in the rolling countryside, where the grapes of the popular Balaton wines ripen in the strong sun. Due to the needs of tourism, the area is becoming more and more commercialized with the small food vendors being pushed aside by modern restaurants.
The best way to see the area is to move westward along the coast, passing from one lakeside settlement to the next, and making the occasional forays inland into the rolling hills of the Balaton wine country.
You'll discover the Tihany Peninsula, a protected area whose 12 sq. km (4 3/4 sq. miles) jut out into the lake like a protruding nose. The city of Keszthely, sitting at the lake's western edge, marks the end of the northern shore area.
An annual cultural event called the Valley of Arts (M?vészetek Völgye) is held on the northern side of the lake, near Kapolcs, attracting thousands of local and international artists and travelers. It was started as a local project by a handful of Hungarian contemporary artists who settled down in Kapolcs, the center of six little adjacent villages in the gorgeous Káli valley. The 10-day-long arts event includes film, music, theater, visual art exhibits, and literature readings, and is held at the end of July, running through the beginning of August. Visit www.kapolcs.hu for information on exact dates from year to year. For general information on programs and services of just about any area of Balaton, see www.balaton-tourism.hu.
Balaton has an airport called FlyBalaton; however, in 2009 it was closed due to lack of airlines utilizing the airport. Ryanair was the major carrier, but it pulled out, leaving Lufthansa's minimal weekend flights from limited German destinations. The airport is closed indefinitely.