Beyond Budapest: Dispatches From Lake Balaton


Geza Kurka Photos / Shutterstock

In a recent interview, quoted on the Guardian website, Budapest city mayor Gergely Karácsony said, “We want to spread out the spots in the city that are touristically interesting, and change the type of people who come. It shouldn’t only be bachelor parties and booze – we want to rebrand ourselves a bit.”

Siófok lies on the southern shore of Lake Balaton. Photo by Geza Kurka Photos / Shutterstock.

I’ve just spent several days at Siófok on Lake Balaton, a tourist destination that’s easy to reach from Budapest and has an entire tourist infrastructure already in place.

With that in mind, I’d suggest that promoting awareness of “spots” right across Hungary that are touristically interesting could be stepped up a little.

Before I came to Hungary, I had no idea the Balaton even existed. A Hungarian friend of mine has met groups of British lads at the lake; they rent a car at Budapest Airport and head up for a short break. But they’re in the minority.

What struck me about my few days in Siófok (about 105 km southwest from central Budapest) was just how different the Balaton sun, lake and fun vacation experience is from the British seaside or Mediterranean equivalent.

We’ll get the lake bit out of the way first, shall we? I wasn’t quite prepared for how far I’d have to walk to get into comfortably swimmable water. It felt like I was in the middle of the lake before it was chest high. Apparently, the water’s much deeper on the less obviously touristic northern side of the lake.

This shallowness makes the lake pretty safe for children, I’d guess. It also means that there aren’t strong currents to whisk the SUP-pers (the increasingly numerous stand up paddle boarders) out into dangerous waters.

If a storm blows up, as it did on our last day, it’s easy to see it coming from across the lake, which leaves ample time to haul out your kids. But, even in the height of the storm, there were still people in the lake optimistically throwing balls to each other.

Wet or Warm

Although we’re having the wettest summer I’ve yet experienced in Hungary, the sun bit is normally a breeze. Hungary tends to get hot in May and, apart from summer storms, stay that way until October.

But, unlike the Med, there’s a strange softness to the Hungarian summer sun. Perhaps it’s because the landscape seems to remain green throughout and never really looks bone dry and parched.

Now to the fun, which is 100% Hungarian. Although I love Budapest, its center does have an air of “any-city-in-Europe” blandness about it. This isn’t just down to the Starbucks and McDonald’s joints. Or the retail brands being the same as those on any shopping street anywhere in the developed world.

It’s also to do with the fact that what passes for hipster in Budapest is a pale version of what you’d find in London, Berlin, Amsterdam or Madrid. If you really want to get a sense of what Budapest is about, you have to head away from the area around Király utca and pretty much the entire District VII.

Cross a bridge over to the Buda side and the streets immediately feel more authentically Hungarian. Or head out to a district like the 10th, home of Budapest’s Chinatown at the Monori Center in Kőbánya, about 30 minutes by bus from Deák Ferenc tér, and you are really in another world.

But unless, like me, you like to drift aimlessly around cities and, ideally, get lost, you really need a reason to visit off the beaten track Budapest. How many tourists are going to come to Budapest to taste authentic Chinese food, for instance?

Unless Karácsony is thinking about reviving long-lost secret Budapest attractions or creating them – a House of Terror theme park perhaps – it’s hard to know where he plans to direct tourists for wholesome family fun.

(Mind you, there is that bizarre structure you see to the right just before you enter Nyugati station which, I’m told, was once a zoo. That has potential, I’m sure.)

Fun for All

Fun on Siófok’s main drag, Petőfi sétány (promenade), is certainly nagyon Hungarian and pretty much for all the family. This is the case even after midnight, when the street is jumping and thronged with bronzed young Hungarians: men with arms the size of legs, and women spilling out of glittery handkerchiefs.

At this time of night, the atmosphere on a street in the United Kingdom or somewhere like Magaluf in Mallorca, where young Brits congregate, would, in my experience, be pretty tense.

If violence hasn’t already erupted, it’s a constant threat. People are staggering or passed out drunk and you’re in constant danger of stepping into pavement pizza.

On Petőfi stny at midnight, there was all the good stuff and none of the horror. Music blared out of bars, the bleep and whoosh of techno indistinguishable from the sounds made by the machines in the amusement arcades. The air was so thick with the aroma of frying food it was probably hardening our arteries without us eating a thing.

What was left of that atmosphere was good-humored and friendly, despite the colossal amounts of alcohol being consumed. I assume there was a Slow Screw On The Lake cocktail on offer somewhere but, sadly, I didn’t see it.

I must admit I was surprised to discover that some overseas “bachelor parties and booze” tourists do head for the Balaton. But, if they behave like decent young Hungarians, it’s a good sign.

Perhaps an enterprising tour operator could offer a bus service from Budapest Airport out to the Balaton. Such a service could also venture out to other places of interest in the Hungarian countryside.

Because, in my experience, one of the deterrents to traveling more widely in Hungary is navigating the rail network if you speak only a few words of the language. Something else for Hungary’s tourist experts to ponder.

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