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Lake Balaton: Hungary’s iconic lake is also a food and wine lover’s paradise

The hilly surrounding area holds some of Hungary’s prime vineyards.

Photograph by Stephen Alvarez / Nat Geo Image Collection
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A sole sailboat glides on Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest lake, where Hungarians flock for fun on the water and wine tasting in the surrounding villages.
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez / Nat Geo Image Collection

Lake Balaton evokes vivid memories for Hungarians of all ages. During the communist era, travel options were limited, and this large lake in western Hungary was a popular annual vacation destination. German families and friends split by the Berlin Wall also vacationed here together, giving the area a distinct German flair that still persists.

Travel habits have changed, but Balaton hasn’t gotten stuck in the past. It draws numerous water sports enthusiasts and sunbathers, who come to wakeboard, kitesurf, or stand-up paddle. Beyond the water, Balaton is turning into an impressive destination for music and the arts, and is remaking itself into perhaps Hungary’s most exciting gourmet region outside of Budapest.

The shimmering, nearly 50-mile-long lake offers aquatic delights for all comers. Shallow depths on Balaton’s southern end make it an ideal spot for family vacations, while the annual 3.2-mile swim across the lake, with a course from Révfülöp on the north side to Balatonboglár on the south, attracts Olympians as well as local grandmothers. Others come to watch the Blue Ribbon Grand Prix sailing regatta, going strong since 1936. More than 500 boats compete in the 96-mile race as spectators enthusiastically cheer them on.

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At Lake Balaton, a lone fisherman’s boat is done for the day and docked by the reeds. There are plenty of fishing spots here, and the lake is known for its tasty pike perch.

Summer music festivals like Balaton Sound (one of Europe’s largest open-air music festivals, with bungee jumping and a party boat) and VeszprémFest (an open-air concert held at locations around the pretty cobblestoned town of Veszprém) draw international performers and big crowds. An annual festival in Kapolcs, Valley of Arts, is held at the end of July and transforms the normally sleepy village into a showcase for local artists. With 1,500 events over 10 days, it’s one of Balaton’s exceptional experiences.

Lángos (the quintessential Hungarian street food of fried bread topped with sour cream and cheese) is the snack of choice on the lake, and there’s almost certain agreement that there’s nowhere in the world it tastes better than here. Especially if it’s devoured alongside a fröccs (wine spritzer) made with Olaszrizling, the local favorite wine.

The hilly area surrounding Lake Balaton, which generates several different microclimates, holds some of Hungary’s prime vineyards. On the northern side, Badacsony and Somló are particularly distinct regions with volcanic soil that creates stony full-bodied white wines. Especially worth seeking out are the wines in Somló made with local grapes like Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Juhfark. Badacsony and Balatonfüred produce delicious Pinot Gris (known locally as Szürkebarát), Olaszrizling, and a unique hyper-local variety called Kéknyelű.

These wines were the catalyst for the new wave of restaurants around the lake that hone in on local ingredients, welcoming vibes, and great cooking. In the Balaton Uplands, the idyllic Káli Basin area is central to this new gourmet movement. In the small town, surrounded by fields of lavender, orchards, and vineyards, there is a concentration of wonderful farmhouse-style restaurants. They have deliciously simple food, sourced mostly from local ingredients and producers, and excellent local wines to match. While that lángos down at the lake was tasty, it’s these ambitious new restaurants and wineries scattered around the hills overlooking the water that are playing a role in creating a perfect balance between the Balaton of past memories and the revitalized Balaton of today.

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