Lake Balaton, known as the "Sea of Hungary", draws holiday-makers from far and wide in the summertime. With some of the bluest water you've ever seen and personality-filled towns dotted around the coastline, it's no wonder that the largest lake in central Europe is a popular spot.
The best part? Hungary’s Lake Balaton is easily accessible by train from Budapest. That means, you don’t even need to spend a night away from your cozy vacation rental in Budapest to also be able to enjoy a day at the lake.
Budapest is located perfectly for day trips around Hungary, whether you're going to the medieval village of Szentendre to the north, or vineyard hopping in Etyek in the south.
But one of the most unmissable Budapest day trips on our list is Lake Balaton.
Of course, the lake is the most popular in the summertime when Hungarians are eager to escape the heat. We love a long, lazy summer day at the lake as much as the next person, but don’t be fooled into thinking that’s the only time you can visit Lake Balaton.
Autumn brings wine and harvest festivals, and a wintertime visit will show you the lake’s tranquil beauty.
While it's technically possible to drive around the whole of Lake Balaton in a day, we'd suggest choosing only one or two destinations for a day trip. Of course, it depends on what you want to get out of your time there.
If you want a beach day, then any of the towns will do, especially along the southern shore. Pick your favorite town and make a day of it! More notable destinations to structure your trip around are the large thermal springs of Héviz, the storybook town of Tihany, or the old-world boulevard of Balatonfüred. More on these below.
Of course, the biggest draw of Lake Balaton is its public beaches. The number of free lakeside beaches has shrunk over the years, but the paid beach areas have a minimal entry fee and are well manicured and maintained. Make sure to bring your swimsuit, towel, and cash, just in case!
If you choose to rent a car, you'll have more flexibility, but then you leave yourself vulnerable to the famously stagnant Balaton Traffic (especially during the summertime on Friday/Sunday afternoons).
Also, there's mostly only a single road that borders the lake, so if there's an accident, you'll be vulnerable to being stuck on the road for an indefinite period.
Many Hungarians use the Waze app to find the best routes and avoid obstructions.
Luckily, Lake Balaton is quite accessible from Budapest by train, mostly leaving from Déli Palyaudvar. You can make it to the northern tip of Balaton by train in as little as 50 minutes!
Make sure to book ahead, especially if you're traveling during the high months of summertime.
In our opinion, it's definitely worth it to spend a little extra on a seat reservation so that you can sit in a train car with air conditioning. Standing in a stifling hot train for an hour is not a fun way to start your beach day. You can book tickets online here.
If you speak to locals about Lake Balaton, it won't be long before the distinction between the north and south shore comes up. All it comes down to is what kind of vacation you want.
Located in Western Hungary, this freshwater lake certainly has a lot to offer locals and tourists alike.
The northern shore, with its rolling hills and wealth of vineyards, lends itself to a quieter and more mature crowd. This is also where you’ll find Balaton Uplands National Park. The southern shore, with its shallow waters and nightclub strips, is a favorite of par
tiers. Of course, this is just a rule of thumb.
Balatonfüred used to be the prime resort town on the shores of Lake Balaton for the nobility and high society of Budapest. That class and elegance is still detectable in the town today, from the yacht-filled marinas to the sweeping wide promenade. Summer keeps the town busy with festivals, sailing regattas, and other water activities. Grab a heaping scoop of gelato and sailboat-watch from the promenade for an enjoyable afternoon.
The Tihany Peninsula holds one of the most charming towns of Lake Balaton. The thatched roof cottages and artisan goods make it feel like a walk through history--not to mention the absolutely picturesque views afforded from the peninsula's lookout next to the enedictine Tihany Abbey.
Make sure to pack comfortable shoes as Tihany is effectively split into two parts: the old down up on top of the peninsula and the beach on the waterfront below. It's about a 25-minute walk between the two.
As you walk through town, you'll notice a recurring theme: lavender. You can find lavender-flavored or -scented almost everywhere in Tihany. In fact, in the summer, the hills of Tihany are an explosion of purple--strolling through the fields during the lavender festival is something you cannot miss! And don't forget to stop for lavender-flavor ice cream or to buy a bottle of lavender syrup while you're there!
If taking public transport, remember that there's no direct train to Tihany--you'll need to transfer to a bus in Balatonfüred.
Known as the "Tuscany of Hungary'', the rolling hills of Badacsony are a wine lover's dream. Dotted with local wineries of varying size and fame, gastronomic delights await in this popular wine region.
Head to Badacsonytomaj to walk Roman's Road, a lazy path punctuated by tiny wine bars and local wineries. After an afternoon in Badascony, you'll learn more about Hungarian wine than you'd have thought possible. Grab a glass of local wine and enjoy!
One of the largest natural thermal lakes in the area, Héviz has long been a center for healing and relaxation (think: what Bath is to England, Héviz is to Balaton). Spend an afternoon soaking in the medicinal water of Héviz lake and leave feeling stronger and healthier than ever.
The long, shallow shelf of the south shore makes it an ideal choice for splashing and swimming.
Siófok is at the top of our Lake Balaton day trip list simply because it's so easy to get to! It only takes a little under 90 minutes on a direct train from Déli Station, meaning you can leave and return to Budapest early.
Spend the day in Siofók's shallow waters soaking up the sun. What really draws people though, is its long strip of clubs and bars that come to life as soon as evening falls. Remember that Siófok is known as the party capital of Lake Balaton--don't be surprised if you end up staying the night!
One town down, Zamárdi is known as a 'little Siofók', also good for parties. Notably, it's just a quick drive from Szantód, from where you can take a ferry across the lake to historic Tihany.
This tranquil town doesn't receive a lot of daytrippers from Budapest as it's around 3 hours by train one way. Also in close proximity to Héviz, you can spend the afternoon walking around Keszthely's charming town center before taking a thermal dip.
If the goal of your Balaton day trip is to cover as much ground as possible and you have your own car, here's our suggested itinerary.
Important Note: If you're limited to public transportation, we'd strongly suggest just choosing one town for your day trip instead of navigating bus/train schedules all day.
Start in Balatonfüred with some sightseeing before the day gets too hot. Walk along the gorgeous promenade with a luscious ice cream in hand (yes, ice cream for breakfast. Don't worry-- you're on vacation!)
Afterward, continue down the lake to the Tihany peninsula. Wind around the tiny streets and pop your head into the artisan shops before snapping a photo of all of Lake Balaton at the lookout point.
Stop for lunch at one of the traditional Hungarian restaurants before heading down to the public beach for a splash in the lake.
Finish with a pick-me-up coffee at the famous Apátsági Rege Cukrászda for an espresso and one of their delicious lavender confections. Save time to pick up some lavender souvenirs as the day cools before you pack up and head back to Budapest!
A day at Lake Balaton can really work up an appetite. After an exhausting day of swimming and sunbathing..all of these foods really hit the spot!
Eating a lángos during a lake day at Balaton is a tradition you can't miss. This filling Hungarian snack is a disc of fried dough with toppings (traditionally sour cream and soft white cheese).
You can't spend a day at the lake without eating fish! Hekk, a mild-tasting, cod-like fish, is fried whole and normally served with a side of fries. Bring your appetite!
You'll find this refreshing spritzer all over Hungary in the warmer months. Depending on the type you order, this spritz is made with sparkling water and either white or rosé wine. There are quite a few options, but to start with, get familiar with:
Similar to a crepe, these thin Hungarian pancakes are filled with sweet fillings such as Nutella or lemon sugar and then rolled up tight. It's easier than you'd think to make a whole plate of them disappear!
Why not plan your Lake Balaton day trip around one of the many Hungarian festivals that take place there?
Did you know it's possible to party at the lake? Now that we're thinking about it, what better place for a music festival? Splash during the day and then experience international and local artists at night.
While the lineups lean toward techno, you can find multiple genres at these festivals.
Enjoy the beach, sunshine, and music at Balaton Sound in late June/early July or Strand Festival in mid-to-late August. For a more intimate festival, head to neighboring Veszprém for the Veszprém Street Music Festival: Bands of all genres occupy streets and stages all around the city--making sure there's new music around every corner!
Head to Balatonalmádi in October for the Pumpkin Festival, where you can taste all things pumpkin. Balatonfüred hosts a Harvest Festival in October as well.
To pair Hungary's finest food and wines together, don't miss the Balaton Wine and Gourmet Festival in September in the Veszprém valley. During the summer, Tihany hosts lavender weeks, where you can taste lavender-infused food and drink while enjoying the beautiful countryside.
Lake Balaton has something for everyone, whether you're looking for wine tasting, bike riding, or sunbathing. Thanks to its close proximity to Budapest, you can take a day trip to explore some of what the Hungarian Sea has to offer. Although, of course, we hope you can take the time to stay longer.
Choose your route, buy your train ticket, and plan your ultimate day trip to Lake Balaton now!