If you’re in Budapest during warm weather, the only true way to act like a local is leave.
Yes, I’m saying to get out of the city and go to Lake Balaton. The shores of the lake have the quaint, charming feel of a Hungarian Cape Cod or the shores of Lake Michigan, with neatly-kept pink, orange, yellow and cream cottages and two-story vacation homes nestled into little neighborhoods and towns strung like a necklace around the pale blue lake water. It’s recommended by the locals as the place to visit outside of Budapest.
Best of all, you don’t need to rent a car to enjoy it! The train from Budapest services all the towns on both sides of the lake, and tickets are less than USD $14.
But we arrived to this conclusion rather late, unfortunately. We had already booked and paid for our AirBnB in Budapest, and we only had one, two days at the most free before we moved on to Bucharest. So, we decided to do a day trip. And I got to work researching. As I do.
What Towns to Visit on Lake Balaton?
Lake Balaton is long and thin, running from east to west. It is very large (the largest lake in Central Europe) and while the towns are connected by train service, the trains run every one to three hours, and it takes more than an hour to go from one end of the lake to the other. So as much as I personally understand the desire to do everything, and take a tour of all the towns, you’ll probably want to choose one destination, unless you’re going for more than a few days and traveling light.
So, which to visit?
This is on the southeast shore of the lake, and is closest to Budapest. Many of Budapest’s clubs close during the summer (air conditioning isn’t a thing here, so club basements can get stifling) and everyone migrates to Siófok, Hungary’s answer to Ibiza, for some open-air dancing. I can’t tell you how good the music is, you’ll have to research that yourself!
Balatonfüred, on the northeast side of the lake, is also very close to Budapest. It’s the more high-class, historical town that boasts grand villas, wellness centers, sailing regattas, a stately tree-lined promenade, and 761 hectares of protected woodland for hiking. This is where you’ll find the upscale restaurants as well — the wonderful AirBnB host who rented us her apartment in Budapest recommended the restaurant Neked Foztem. Oh, and there’s a water park!
Right next to Balatonfüred, so close that you could hike to the town in an hour and a half, or take a 15-minute car ride, is Tihany. This peninsula has more wetland hiking trails and abundant wildlife, plus the famous lavender all over the peninsula that bursts into flower in the springtime. Tihany town is perched on a bluff with fantastic views over the lake. Not surprisingly, it can get crowded during peak season.
Past that on the northwest shore, there is Badacsony, where wine lovers should go for days spent outdoors mountain biking and hiking, capped off with local wine in a wine cellar.
That all sounded lovely and romantic, of course. But having recently visited Brno and Bratislava, two under-touristed and quirky Central European cities, we had developed a taste for the weird, off-the-beaten-path activities. That led us to Keszthely.
Fewer people bother to travel the length of the lake to its westernmost tip, so this town is more affordable and tranquil. The town center is charming, with a late-Baroque Town Hall and a Gothic church. Right nearby is the world-renowned spa town of Hévíz, which boasts the world’s second-largest thermal lake (and the largest fit for bathing), and there’s also a boardwalk-style beachfront. But what clinched it for us was its collection of tiny weird museums. I love tiny weird museums.
I also had my heart set on paddling through the transparent mineral waters of an underground cave lake that is a half hour train ride from Keleszthy, in a place called Tapolca. (Tapolca isn’t so far from Badacsony, by the way. So if you have a week, you could probably enjoy all three towns: Keszthely, Badacsony, and Tapolca.)
Our AirBnB host gently warned us that Keszthely was a bit too far for a day trip. And maybe she’s right. But when that message pinged into our inbox, we were at that very moment stepping off the train in Keszthely.
So I want to report back on the feasibility of a day trip to Lake Balaton — and more specifically Keszthely — from our own experience.
What a Day Trip to Lake Balaton is Like
The website We Love Lake Balaton is in English and was actually quite helpful in planning our trip.
My first tip is that, while I love traveling with just my husband, the lake has so many charming/cheesy attractions, we agreed that it would be even better with a few friends to share laughs with. Just imagine visiting some weird museums, spending a day at the water park, and having some beers at the beach! But it could qualify as romantic as well, with the right attitude and planning. You could either treat it like a day at the carnival, getting in touch with your inner child, or choose to drink wine and go hiking.
The Cave Lake
I was bored of cathedrals and lookout towers and beaches. I wanted something different. So when I read about this particular attraction, I decided that we had to do it. It’s a pure, clear, quiet lake that flows through a network of caves. And you can get in a boat and paddle through them.
Now, you have to really want to do this, because getting to this town from Budapest takes three total hours, whether you take a train on the north side of the lake or the south. We went on the south side of the lake all the way to Keszthely, then changed to another train for the last half hour. But if you look up other trains that go on the north side of the lake and change in Balatonfüred, it also takes three hours from Budapest.
You should buy your tickets online for the cave lake ahead of time, because they sell out, and you’ll have to coordinate your arrival time with your train ticket. We took the first train at 6:30 am to use a 10:20 cave ticket. Yes, I was committed.
And since it was summer break and this is vacationland, going on a weekday didn’t save us from crowds. We paused at a bakery on the way from the station for a little snack, then to take pictures, and when we arrived we were behind a group of 20 kids. We followed them into the museum portion for a half hour, until Illich wisely suggested we go down to the cave first. When we got down there, there was a short line… that turned into a half hour line in the 10 minutes we explored other passages. Furthermore, after we had seen and done all there was, the next train back to Keszthely wasn’t until 2:20 pm, so we had to kill two hours by having a truly forgettable lunch at the highest rated restaurant in this tiny town, which, by the way, is not anywhere near the water.
You know, though, I’ve learned that it’s all part of the journey, so I wasn’t bothered. And I might be justifying, but when we finally climbed in our own aluminum boat and were pushed gently into a silent cave of white walls and crystal-clear topaz waters, with no sound except our own voices echoing back to us, I decided it was worth it. There was a whiff of danger — the ceilings are super low, and another boat capsized while we were waiting in line (a larger women shifted her weight too much to the side. Don’t worry, it’s standing depth, so all she got was soaked and embarrassed). We paddled past the sunken boat, like a pirate’s treasure. This happens a couple times a week we were told, and yet there are no warnings or caution signs or orange tape. Hungary!
If, despite all these obstacles, the cave tour sounds appealing, I recommend you take the first train from Budapest and briskly walk from the station straight to the cave museum, go straight down into the cave to grab a boat, then save exploring the passages and going through the museum for after. The audio guide only narrated what is already on the plaques, so you can save your money there.
What to Do in Keszthely
If you decided to skip the caves, which I totally understand, you could easily fill your extra five hours in Keszthely. You could wander through the 101 rooms of Festetics Palace and then taste Hungarian wine in the basement, swim in the cool waters of the lake and sunbathe on the beach, and visit a selection of bitty museums according to your tastes.
We did not visit the Marzipan Museum (I don’t like marzipan, the almond-flavored past used to mold little figurines) or the House of Stoves. We popped our head in the Nostalgia Museum of Curiosities and Kitsch, which basically looks like a particularly charming vintage store. We tried the Museum of Erotic Wax Figurines and were thoroughly freaked out by the wax dolls with cheap wigs (I really don’t want to think about the inner life of the person who founded this museum) though the reproductions of 19th century pornographic drawings was interesting. I would only go with a group of open-minded friends and after a couple beers if you go at all— it’s a bit of a rip-off and you’ll need a good laugh to make it worth it.
But the most magical part of our day was by far the Museum of Automatic Musical Instruments and Phonographs, which houses the extensive personal collection of a retired Swiss enthusiast inside a traditional Hungarian home. He’ll give you a private tour, cranking exquisitely crafted instruments that are up to 150 years old. I wouldn’t go here if you have ADD —there are about 25 minute-and-half tinkling songs to listen to, mechanical birds to marvel at, along with an entire miniature fairground in the basement, foot pedal organs, and large outdoor organs. To cut off such a devoted collector to leave early would be the height of rudeness. But it’s a whole lot of magic stored inside that house if you’re a music or antiques lover. It’s my husband’s favorite museum of the year, and we’ve been to more than 20 on our travels.
After our two hours there, we had a quick dinner at Sailing Bistro – an ever so slightly elevated take on Hungarian boardwalk food, where I enjoyed chilled strawberry soup and rosé and my husband got chicken pasta topped with rocket salad.
There were some stores selling cheap tourist items, and cheap kebab restaurants and other boardwalk fare. But the vibe was quiet and relaxed and family-friendly. Again, it reminded me of Cape Code or other small East Coast beach towns, or more accurately, the shores of Lake Michigan. There was nothing trashy or loud about it.
We caught the last 7:45 pm train back to Budapest.
So: Is Keszthely Good for a Day Trip?
I can say with confidence we had a perfectly wonderful day, and would absolutely recommend it.
Would we have enjoyed ourselves more if we had chosen another town? Perhaps! Maybe a day revisiting my childhood at the water park in Balatonfüred, enjoying the natural scenery by hiking some trails in Tihany, or relaxing at a spa or in the thermal lake (though we were quite thermal-ed out at this point from or time in Budapest). And we would have spent at least two fewer hours on the train if we had chosen literally any other town to visit, an important consideration. I recommend you look up to the train time tables for arriving and leaving before making your final decision.
More importantly: Would I have liked to stay longer? Yes! I think you could fill a whole week with outdoor activities, spa time, kitschy diversions, and a bit of beachside clubbing, if that is your style. Even just one or two nights there would be wonderful.
But if you’re like us and can’t afford the time or money of staying overnight, I still think you should take the first train out to Balaton and explore for a day. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on some Hungarian magic.