Balaton Uplands National Park is our favorite in Hungary, and a lot of fellow Hungarians can relate to this. Amazing lake views? Check. Lush green forests? Check. Scenic trails? Check. Beaches? Of course, the northern shore of Lake Balaton! Culture? Food? Check, check. What else can you think of?
Balaton Uplands is a region that attracts hikers, sunbathers, wine lovers, families – or pretty girls who wish to take their Insta profile picture in a pretty dress with a lavender field (more on that later). Whether it’s nature, culture, food, wine or lazy beach time you’re after, you can find it here. So let’s start with this ridiculously long guide, and to help you navigate, here’s a content summary:
Balaton is uniquely Hungarian
If you ask us to tell you 10 typical Hungarian things to do, one will surely be “eat lángos at Lake Balaton in the summer”. Lángos is a very Hungarian food in the first place, it’s somewhat like donut, but it’s salty and usually topped with cheese and sour cream. Spending time on the beaches of Lake Balaton in the summer is also a very typical Hungarian thing to do.
Balaton is our largest lake (actually, the largest one in Central Europe, too), and it’s just as iconic and uniquely Hungarian as red wine, goulash, palinka or paprika (or lángos for that matter). Sailing on the lake is a tradition. Just like fishing or swimming. The shallow water warms up easily during hot summer months, and the beaches of Lake Balaton get very crowded!
The small village of Tihany with its iconic two-towered Benedictine Abbey is an important part of our cultural heritage. The mountainous region of the northern shore is a famous wine region – oh, wait! This northern shoreland is what is called Balaton Uplands National Park, the one we want to introduce to you today.
Why will you love Balaton Uplands National Park?
Balaton Uplands National Park is quite young, it was established in 1997. But the treasures it protects – both natural and cultural – have a rich history. Its basalt mountains and rock formations are relics of the volcanic activities in the Quaternary. You quite often find castle ruins on the top of these hilltops, and vineyards on their foothills.
Bakony Mountains tempt with forest trails and caves. Its highest peak is only 709 meters, but Bakony gives home to some very pretty natural attractions that often even Hungarians don’t know about.
Tihany Peninsula is a historical district. The Benedictine Abbey of Tihany was founded in 1055, and its founding charter is the very first extant record of Hungarian language. But Tihany will also impress with its lavender fields and Lavender Festival in the summer.
Keszthely is a lovely historical town with one of the most beautiful, fully furnished Hungarian castles. Badacsony Wine Region has a special, Mediterranean vibe. Balatonfüred has a nice, long lakefront promenade.
And our favorite Lake Balaton beaches are also in the Balaton Uplands. Whether beaches on the southern or the northern shore are the best at Lake Balaton is an undecidable debate (kind of like the East Coast vs. West Coast debate in the USA). Personally, we prefer the northern shore, because the water is deeper and clearer, but we admit that it’s also colder than on the shallow southern shore. However, Lake Balaton is not a deep lake, and it gets warm in the summer, anyway.
First of all, Tihany is one of the loveliest towns in Hungary. Its Benedictine Abbey is iconic, just like the lake views from the terrace next to it. The Benedictine church of the abbey is open to the public (if you buy the entrance ticket), and you can also visit the new abbey museum.
Take those lavender pictures – but arrive at the right time!
But Tihany Peninsula offers even more than Tihany. It’s home to Hungary’s first industrial lavender plantation which was established in the 1920s. The first plants were brought from France, and today we can’t only see lavender on plantations but also in the town, as a special decor of the gardens and the streets.
Late June or early July is the time for lavender blooming. The Lavender Festival of Tihany is organized each year, and you can even sign up for harvesting lavender. But lavender is not the only natural attraction of Tihany Peninsula.
Hike around the peninsula on Lóczy Lajos Educational Trail
There’s a loop trail around the peninsula that’s one of the most scenic trails in Hungary! It’s a place to find lakes and marshlands, unique postvolcanic landscapes with rock formations that were once geyser cones, or monk dwellings carved into the rock. It’s also the best place to enjoy stunning 360 degrees panoramic views of Lake Balaton and Tihany Peninsula from the newly built Őrtorony-kilátó viewing tower.
The trail gives you an insight into everything that’s worth seeing on the peninsula, as it starts in front of the Benedictine Abbey, and then continues to Levendula House Visitor Center. As you leave the town behind, you’ll get to the old geyser field and its rock formations, then to Csúcs-hegy peak. This peak is only 232 meters high, but it’s high enough so that you have a fabulous view of the baby blue bays of Lake Balaton below you. (The color is baby blue only in sunny weather if you look at the lake from above.) And Őrtorony viewing tower is the icing on the cake!
From there, you can hike back directly to Tihany Abbey, but we recommend doing a detour to the monk dwellings (Barátlakások in Hungarian) nearby. Russian monks lived in these man-made caves more than a thousand years ago. Most of the cells were buried in a rockfall in 1952, but three groups of cells are visible and can be visited today.
The full loop requires about 5-6 hours, so you can do it before or after sightseeing, lavender harvesting or whatever else you planned to do in Tihany.
Pro tip if you arrive by car: don’t park near Tihany Abbey or in Tihany, because it’s expensive. Drive past the town, and park at a pullout by the road. It’s free, and it’s a loop trail, anyway, it doesn’t matter where you start it.
|The great loop trail around Tihany Peninsula:|
Bakony Mountains, a getaway for hikers’
If you long for some solitude after the crowds on the shore, Bakony is the perfect getaway. Bakony Mountains spoil hikers. Like all the mountains in Hungary, it’s not high and can be explored in every season. But it’s not as crowded as some other Hungarian mountains, and it has gems that even Hungarians aren’t usually aware of. Let’s see them:
Hungary doesn’t have many gorges with waterfalls. The famous one near Budapest (called Rám-szakadék and located in the Pilis Mountains) is very popular which means that it’s jam-packed with hikers on any weekend when the weather is acceptable. It’s lovely, but too busy. Not like its sibling in the Bakony Mountains: Ördög-árok gorge.
The loop trail starts at the ruins of Csesznek Castle, and you can take a short detour to visit the ruins before or after the hike. The beginning of the trail also offers pretty views of the ruins, but you then soon descend into the first gorge called Kőmosó-szurdok. It cools you down even on a hot summer day as the gorge is in the shade of mossy rocks, and the trail runs along a stream. You find some small cascades and also some chain-secured sections. It’s pleasantly adventurous and still very safe.
The same holds true for the next gorge: Ördög-árok. Even though its name means the Devil’s Gorge, it’s not a scary place but an exciting one. Keep your eyes open for caves and holes along the way.
This is a unique lake filled with dead tree trunks which make it kind of the little brother of Transylvania’s famous Red Lake. They also make it a beloved spot for photographers in any season. Lake Hubertlaki can be accessed by a short hike from Hotel Odvaskő, past the village of Bakonybél. By the way, Bakonybél is a cute and neat little village, it makes for a great base for your Bakony hikes.
If you like bumping into caves while hiking, Bakony is for you. It has lots of caves and holes, and the ones that can be visited are also accessible by footpaths. Like Odvaskő Cave that is along the Boroszlán Educational Trail. This trail also starts from the parking lot at Hotel Odvaskő, but it’s not the same path that takes you to Lake Hubertlaki. Odvaskő cave is about 20 metres long and is open to the public. Have a flashlight so that you can actually see it. 🙂
Badacsony, a hill and a wine region
Badacsony is one of the lonely basalt hills of Balaton Uplands, and it’s also the name of the town located at its foothills. Moreover, it’s the center of one of the most famous wine regions in Hungary which dates back to the Roman times. Vintages were community forming events for centuries, and vintage festivals are still organized each year.
Today 24 kinds of grapes are cultivated in the region, and the vineyards on the sunny slopes have somewhat of a Mediterranean vibe. So I guess you already suspect the highlight of a trip to Badacsony: wine tasting! Szürkebarát, Kéknyelű and Olaszrizling are probably the most famous wines here, and you find countless wineries, many of them owned by local families.
Other than wine tasting, there’s only one thing to do in Badacsony: hike the mountain! Its highest point being 438 metres, it’s a pleasant hike with views of Lake Balaton and a 360 degrees panorama from Kisfaludy viewing tower (Kisfaludy-kilátó). Most of the trail is shaded and runs in the forest, but there are sections with views of the vineyards, the surrounding hills and Lake Balaton.
There are also several dedicated viewpoints along the loop trail. Our favorite is at Ranolder-kereszt, but the Egri József viewpoint is very close to that, as well. Kisfaludy-kilátó is a 18 metres high viewing tower at the top with a spiral staircase, and it can be visited year-round.
|Loop trail around Badacsony:|
Hegyestű, the most scenic basalt rock formation in Hungary
Balaton Uplands is home to several natural highlights of our country. Like the prettiest basalt rock formation called Hegyestű. This protected site was once home to a mine, and the basalt columns of Hegyestű were quarried by hand. The basalt cone is 337 meters high, and it offers great views of Lake Balaton, Tihany Peninsula, Káli and Tapolca Basins from the top.
The Hegyestű Geological Visitor Site is easily accessible from the road between the towns of Monoszló and Zánka. There’s an admission fee to enter, then you can visit the exhibition, and walk to the top of the basalt rock formation on a well established path. It’s really only a walk, not a hike, but wear comfortable shoes as the terrain is a bit rough at places.
Cave Lake of Tapolca
Another unique natural attraction of this park is an underground lake: the Cave Lake of Tapolca. It was formed about 12 million years ago, yet it was only discovered in the 1900s – and by accident, because someone was digging a well right there.
You can explore this crystal clear lake on a 20 minutes boat ride in the limestone cave system. The ride starts from the visitor center that has exhibitions in 10 rooms.
The beaches on the northern shore of Lake Balaton
Lake Balaton is a shallow lake, with an average depth of 3-4 metres. It means that the water gets warm quickly if the weather is hot enough, and it also means that on some beaches the water is too shallow to swim. We like the beaches of the northern shore not only because hiking opportunities are also close there, but because the water is deeper on the northern shore, and we can actually swim on most beaches.
While there are free beaches at Lake Balaton, a lot of beaches are fenced, and you have to pay entrance fee to use them. They offer lots of facilities in exchange, and the beaches themselves have to be maintained. Reeds line the shores of Balaton, hence they need to be cleared at the beaches so that people can access the water.
Balatonfüred is the oldest resort town at Lake Balaton, and Kisfaludy Beach is among the best ones today, as well. Its climate is as close to Mediterranean as you find in Hungary. The town has a pretty waterfront promenade (Tagore promenade) and some historical buildings, too.
The small towns of Balatongyörök, Gyenesdiás and Balatonalmádi have lovely beaches, too. But our personal favorite is Lido Beach in Vonyarcvashegy, a short drive from Keszthely. It’s an organized beach with large trees and all the facilities (toilets, restaurants, shops, water equipment rentals). It’s also very family-friendly, with plenty of shade and a dedicated sandy entrance area to the water for small kids, several playgrounds and water toys.
Lake Hévíz, the largest thermal lake in Europe
If you think that the water temperature of Lake Balaton is not warm enough, visit Lake Hévíz. Any time of the year. Hungary is full of thermal baths, but this one is special, because it’s created by nature. It’s a thermal lake, the largest one in Europe, and its water temperature is about 23-25 °C in winter and 33-36 °C in summer.
Castle ruins in the Balaton Uplands
Most of Hungary’s castles are in ruins. They were either destroyed in wars and uprisings, or after the uprising so that such a thing can never happen again. Yet the ruins stand proud on top of the mountains, and you can find several of them in the Balaton Uplands.
Medieval Hungary was conquered and ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Balaton Uplands was part of the border. The castles in this region were important, because they gave protection to the remaining territory of the Kingdom of Hungary. Some are abandoned ruins today, some are renovated and offer exhibitions about the history of the region and its castles. And all offer fabulous views!
Ruins of Csobánc castle
Our favorite abandoned ruin is the Csobánc castle ruins. Only few parts of the castle’s walls remained, but they’re on the top of Csobánc Hill, and the hike there is quite scenic all the way.
|Hike to Csobánc castle ruins:|
Ruins of Szigliget castle
Our favorite renovated ruin is the ruins of Szigliget castle that can be accessed on a paved walkway with stairs in the town of Szigliget. There’s a small entrance fee that you need to pay at the gate, and then you can climb some more stairs that give access to the ruins of the lower and the upper castles.
The upper castle is the more spectacular, because it offers a 360 degrees panorama of the area, and also some nice views of the castle from above. The exhibitions educated us about the history of the castle, and the lifestyle of the people who once lived here.
More castle ruins
The ruins of Tátika and Rezi castles are free to visit. Tátika ruins require hiking, Rezi ruins can be accessed by a 15 minutes walk. Both castles are small, and only pieces of the walls are visible today.
Sümeg Castle on the other hand is among the best preserved castle ruins in Hungary. It awaits visitors with exhibitions and knights games. 14th-century Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvázsony has been closed for renovation, but once it reopens again, we’re sure it would be worth a visit.
Keszthely & its fabulous Festetics Palace
Keszthely is home to one of the most spectacular palaces in Hungary: Festetics Palace. It was not built as a fortification like the castles we’ve mentioned in this post before, but as a luxurious Baroque home to a significant ducal family. You can visit most of its furnished rooms on a self-guided tour today as part of the permanent exhibition about the aristocratic lifestyle.
Festetics Palace has 34 rooms and a warm atmosphere. Our favorite places inside were the large wooden staircase and the old library room. The palace park with old trees, fountains, lakes and statues is free to visit, and it’s a lovely walk.
But what else is there to see in Keszthely? The most spectacular sight is undoubtedly Festetics Palace. However, located on the shore of Lake Balaton, Keszthely has a long beach with very shallow water, and a harbor where boat excursions start.
Kossuth Lajos street is the main walking street in Keszthely. It’s full of outdoor cafés and restaurants in the summer. The City Hall and the Holy Trinity Statue is on Fő tér (the main square), just like the Gothic church of Magyarok Nagyasszonya and the ruins of Saint Lőrinc Chapel.
Our favorite viewpoints in Balaton Uplands National Park
Getting to this point, you might already have some ideas where to go for great views. Here we list our favorites:
Terraces of Tihany Abbey
It’s not the most amazing viewpoint, but a pretty one and the most easily accessible. You just walk to Tihany Abbey and enjoy the views of Lake Balaton from the terrace next to the abbey.
Õrtorony-kilátó, Tihany Peninsula
This is the most amazing 360 degrees view in the area! This viewing tower can be reached on a trail from Tihany (see it here), or if you’d hike more, you can do the grand loop of Tihany Peninsula that also includes this viewpoint.
Csobánc castle ruins
The photogenic, abandoned ruins of Csobánc castle can be accessed by a hike, and it also offers a 360 degrees panorama with all the volcanic remnant hills (like Badacsony, Szent György Hill or Gulács) in the region.
Ranolder-kereszt, Badacsony Hill
Our favorite viewpoint on the loop trail around Badacsony Hill.
Kis-Balaton, an untouched wetland habitat
A unique place we must confess we haven’t explored yet is Kis-Balaton. But this list wouldn’t be complete without it because it’s one of the most untouched areas of Hungary: a unique wetland that is home to countless bird species. It’s definitely on the list for our next visit to Balaton Uplands!
Short hikes to impressive rock formations
We’re done with the most famous sights in the Balaton Uplands, but if you like hiking and getting off the beaten track, we have even more ideas for you.
Several viewing towers (kilátó in Hungarian) have been built or renovated in the national park lately, and we hiked to quite a few in the Keszthely Mountains: Festetics-kilátó in Gyenesdiás, Bél Mátyás-kilátó in Balatongyörök, Berzsenyi-kilátó and Kitaibel Pál-kilátó in Vonyarcvashegy. They offer panoramic views of Lake Balaton and the green hills and forests of Balaton Uplands, and they can be reached on lovely forest trails starting from the mentioned lakeside small towns.
But Balaton Uplands is also home to the most impressive rock formations in Hungary. Other than Hegyestű and the rock formations on the Tihany Peninsula, it has some lesser-known sights that are worth to explore.
The basalt columns of Szent György Hill
Badacsony is not the only remnant of a volcano in the Tapolca Basin, there are several more. One is the hill named after Saint George (Szent György in Hungarian) that’s right next to Badacsony, hence it gives a wonderful view of it. But the real highlight is the so-called basalt organs.
Part of this loop trail is the Basalt Organ Educational Trail. These basalt organs are actually basalt columns that are remnants of the lava lake that was formed in the crater of the volcano that once stood here. Like a few million years ago. So no worries about volcano eruptions anywhere in the Balaton Uplands. Its volcanic rock formations are old and eroded, and the columns of Szent György Hill are among the best preserved ones.
If you continue the loop after the educational trail, you’ll find yourself in the forest again, occasionally winding through vineyards and bumping into chapels. One of them is abandoned and almost in ruins: Ify Chapel. It’s still an interesting sight, but be careful, and don’t go into the building, as it can be dangerous.
The other chapel is the lovely Lengyel-kápolna among the vineyards that offers nice views of the surrounding landscape.
|Loop trail around Szent György Hill:|
Sea of Stones, Szentbékkálla
A very easy and scenic 1 kilometres long walk starts near the village of Szentbékkálla in the Káli Basin, and it takes you around the Sea of Stones. The name refers to the eroded rock formations which cover the area. Some of them look quite bizarre, and some are especially fun to explore. Like this stone tunnel Tomi walked through:
You can drive to the Sea of Stones on a dirt road from Szentbékkálla, and you already see the first few rock formations if you walk a few steps from the dirt parking lot. From there it’s a pleasant loop walk on a well-worn track.
The rock formations of Kű Valley (Kű-völgy)
This trail starts from Dörgicse, a lovely village with several ruined churches. It’s the ruins of Alsódörgicse medieval church where this hike starts, and we already fell for the views at the trailhead. The easy loop then took us to the mossy rock walls of Kű Valley. It’s a pleasant hike even on a hot summer day.
|Loop trail through Kű Valley:|
Catch a sunset!
Because castle ruins on hilltops are romantic at sunset, aren’t they?
The calm surface of Lake Balaton in the dim light is also an unforgettable sight. Swans are reflected in the water, and colors are dreamy pink and purple.
Is there a best season to visit?
“Any time of the year” is the standard answer to the “when to visit?” question. But it really depends on what you want to do. Spring and fall are great for hiking and sightseeing, because the weather is not too hot, and it’s far less crowded than summer. Most Hungarians visit Balaton in the summer though (hence the crowds…), and no doubt, that’s the best time for beach days.
Winter is always a tough question. When there’s no snow, trees are bald and the landscape is grey, it’s quite a depressing sight – not just Balaton Uplands, but the whole country. But once snow is involved, it makes everything magical.
Sometimes Lake Balaton is frozen, and it might even be possible to do some ice-skating on its surface. But be careful, and keep your eyes open for warning signs, as Hungarian winters have not been cold enough for a thick layer of ice lately.
Where to stay
We can usually choose from a variety of guest houses and hotels wherever we are in Hungary. It applies to Balaton, too, though prices are probably the highest around Balaton. Places to stay close to the main sights and trails of Balaton Uplands are Keszthely, Szigliget, Badacsonytomaj or Tapolca on the south, Tihany, Balatonfüred, Veszprém or Bakonybél on the north.
How to get there from Budapest
Balaton is a popular getaway, and it’s easily reachable by public transport. Though its southern shore can be accessed more easily by direct trains from Budapest, the northern shore has direct bus connection with the capital, and Keszthely even has direct train connection. Plenty of bus lines run quite frequently on the northern shore (like the ones from Budapest to Tihany or Keszthely), and they stop at most of the smaller towns on the way.
Are you ready to explore another face of Hungary? Would you visit Balaton Uplands?
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This post was updated in July 2021.
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