The major tourist attraction to the west of the capital is Lake Balaton, dubbed the “Hungarian sea”, and all that remains of the Pannonian Sea which once covered this part of Europe. Its built-up southern shore features loud resorts such as Siófok, which brands itself as the “Capital of Summer”, while gentler Keszthelyperches on the western tip. Worth a visit if you fancy a spot of swimming, windsurfing or sailing while in Hungary, Siófok in particular is perhaps better avoided if you are looking for a restful or scenic break.By contrast, the four villages that cluster around the Badacsony, a hulk of volcanic rock on the northern shore of the lake, are very charming indeed and the perfect starting point for walks and wine-tasting tours in the Balaton region. Being flat, the lakeshore lends itself to cycling and there are plenty of places where you can rent bikes for around 1500Ft a day.
The western region of Transdanubia,of which Lake Balaton and Badacsony are part – is the most ethnically diverse in the country. Its valleys and hills, forests and mud flats have been settled by Magyars, Serbs, Slovaks and Germans and occupied by Romans, Ottomans and Habsburgs. Its towns have been through multiple evolutions and it shows: the delightful Sopron has a gorgeous medieval centre, Roman ruins and Baroque finery to its name, while Pécs boasts the country’s best-preserved Ottoman mosque as well as some fascinating early Christian excavated finds.
Top image: Keszthely © hofhauser/Shutterstock
The Badacsony – a hefty hunk of volcanic rock, forming a plateau visible from many kilometres around – is the iconic centre-point of the beautiful wine-growing region that is named after it. Four villages nestle at its feet, and Badacsony village (technically Badacsonytomaj, but often known in the short form) is a lovely base for walks, wine tasting and visiting the lake.
The table-top peak of the Badacsony rock draws the eye from the vineyard-strewn hills all around it, and is the heart of this undeniably pretty area – best visited out of the high season when, like all of Balaton, it tends to get overrun by visitors. Badacsony village has a small-scale charm, being easily navigable on foot, and its charms are only enhanced by sampling a glass of local wine – never hard to come by given the abundance of small cellars and roadside bars (borozó) hereabouts. Its cultural sights include the Rósa Szegedy House and Rose Rock among the vineyards uphill from the village. You can rent bikes at various points along Park utca, the main road by the lake. There is also a clean, paying beach (Strandfürdő May & Sept 9am–5pm; June–Aug 8am–7pm; 700Ft).
The Baroque Róza Szegedy House (March–May Wed–Mon 10am–5pm; June–Aug daily 10am–7pm; Sept–Oct Wed–Mon 10am–6pm; Nov–Feb Fri–Sun 11am–5pm; 800Ft) is on Kisfaludy utca, the only road going uphill from Római utca. The walk is a steep but picturesque 2.5km through the Badacsony vineyards. A little further up stands Rose Rock (Rózsa kő), where local legend has it that if a man and woman sit together with their backs facing Lake Balaton and think about each other, they will marry within a year. The Rose Rock is a good starting point for an invigorating hike to the Kisfaludy lookout tower (437m) and, twenty minutes further north, the Stone Gate (Kőkapu), formed by two great basalt towers. Both points offer splendid views of the lake and the patchwork of Badacsony’s vineyards. Several wineries in the area offer wine tasting, including Laposa at Káptalantóti Bogyai L. utca 1, Szási, at Szentgyörgy-hegy Hegymagas, and Istvándy Winery at Káptalantóti, Rózsadomb 121.
The Rose Rock is a great starting point for an invigorating hike to the Kisfaludy lookout tower (437m) and, twenty minutes further north, the Stone Gate formed from two great basalt towers. Both points offer splendid views of the lake and the patchwork of Badacsony’s vineyards. If you fancy a plunge in the lake afterwards, it’s a 20-minute walk downhill. Badacsony has clean, paying beaches – cross the railway tracks and Park utca to reach them.
The Róza Szegedy House is on Kisfaludy utca, reached by turning right from Római utca. The walk is a reasonably steep 2.5km through the vineyards, or an easy ride in an open-top jeep taxi from Park utca – the main street by the lake. Róza Szegedy met her future husband, the poet Sándor Kisfaludy, here in 1795, and he wrote some of his most beautiful works from the house, which contains some of his work and their original furniture. Up a path a little further is Rose Rock (Rókzako), where it’s said that if a man and woman sit together with their backs facing Lake Balaton and think about each other, they will marry within a year.
Badacsony village is a superb base for wine tasting and walking up onto, and around, the Badacsony rock. Simply get the walking-route map from the helpful TourInform in the village, which shows the various colour-coded walking routes in the area. They are also marked well on the route, with painted arrows on trees and rocks. To scale the hill itself, take a right from Római utca, which cuts through Badacsony village, onto Kisfaludy utca, then ascend first on a sloped road, then a path, and finally stone steps (or a smaller path, depending on your route). Once on top of the Badacsony plateau, you can meander through the woods, which are strewn with wild flowers and popular with butterflies, and eventually descend along a number of routes cutting back down through the vineyards.
Keszthely is a gentler counterpart to brash Siófok, with a pleasant waterfront with two bays (one for swimming, the other for ferries). There are stretches of grass and small paying beaches (June–Aug 8am–7pm; Városi Strand 1000Ft; Helikon Strand and Libás Strand 500Ft) that give peaceful views over the seemingly never-ending lake.
Walking up from the train station along Martírok útja, you’ll pass the Balaton Museum on your left at Muzeum utca 2 (Jan–April & Oct–Dec Tues–Sat 9am–4pm; May & Sept Tues–Sat 9am–5pm; June–Aug daily 9am–6pm; t83 312 351), hosting exhibits on the region’s history and wildlife. Kossuth utca, swarming with cafés and shops, leads up towards the beige, Baroque Festetics Palace, which also houses hunting, coach and model railway museums (July–Aug daily 9am–6pm; May, June & Sept daily 10am–5pm; Oct–April Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; palace & coach museum 2500Ft, all museums 4200Ft; t83 314 194). The third-largest palace in Hungary, it was built in 1745 by Count György Festetics, who attracted the leading lights of the eighteenth-century literary and high society scenes. Highlights include the mirrored ballroom, but, given the entry fee, those on a budget may prefer to admire the exterior and pretty surrounding gardens. The palace stages regular summer concerts, and in its cellars you can find the Wines of Balaton museum exhibiting 1500 wines (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; entrance 600Ft or 1500Ft including three tastings; 2500Ft including five tastings).
Pécs is everyone's second favourite town after Budapest, with a strong religious and scholarly heritage (Hungary’s first university was founded here in 1367). It's remarkable history, is summarised by its landmark mosque, synagogue and cathedral and clutch of fascinating Roman-era finds. The surrounding Mecsek hills help create a warm microclimate in the Pécs basin where vineyards thrive.
Pécs is a small and navigable town, its cultural attractions concentrated in the Belváros (Old Town), radiating outwards from Széchenyi tér: start with the synagogue by Kossuth tér, then head through charming Jokai tér towards the leafy western side, where you’ll find the magnificent Peter and Paul cathedral.
From the centre of town, follow either Káptalan or Janus Pannonius utca towards the pristine Art Nouveau Peter and Paul Basilica (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; 1200Ft includes Crypt; T72 513 080): topped with all twelve Apostles, it is built on an epic scale. Next door, you can visit the Episcopal Palace, whose interior styles span four centuries providing a veritable history of European design (guided tours only daily 9am–4pm; 2000Ft). Nearby at Szent Istvan tér 17 (in the gardens just below the steps to the cathedral), the Cella Septichora visitor centre gives access to a wealth of Roman and early Christian archeological remains (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; Nov–March Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; 1700Ft; T72 224 755). Pécs fell under Roman rule as the empire expanded into the Balkans in the second century, and became Christian with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. The excavated rooms include the Peter and Paul burial chamber and a Christian cemetery site. Visitors can get a 360-degree view through glass panels placed above, below or on the side of the chambers.
Heading up Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca from the bus terminal you’ll pass the imposing synagogue, which dominates Kossuth tér (April–Oct Mon–Fri & Sun 10am–4pm; 500Ft; t 72 315 881). Its beautiful nineteenth-century interior is hauntingly impressive; over 4000 Pécs Jews died in the Holocaust and only a tenth of that number live in Pécs today. During the Ottoman occupation (1543–1686), Pécs’ chief church, in a commanding position on Széchenyi tér, was converted into the Mosque of Gázi Kászim Pasha, (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; 1000Ft; t 30 373 8900), which now stands as the last remaining of seventeen mosques the Ottomans built in Pécs. The building has again been converted to serve as a church – and a cross placed atop the crescent on its roof – but the underlying design is unmistakably Islamic.
Pécs was the headquarters of the Zsolnay family, producers of unique Hungarian pottery and pyrogranite tiles. One of the highlights of the town is a stroll through the historic city, known as the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter, where fifteen historic buildings have been renovated, and whose parks and promenades feature 88 Zsolnay statues.
The biggest, trashiest resort on Balaton, in summer Siófok throbs with crowds intent on sunbathing, boozing and clubbing. The two main resort areas are Aranypart (Gold Shore) to the east of the Sió Canal, and Ezüstpart (Silver Shore) to the west. Though the central stretch of shoreline consists of a paying beach (daily mid-May to mid-Sept 7am–7pm; 600Ft), there are free beaches 1km further along at both resort areas (the Hungarian for beach is strand). You can rent windsurfing equipment and wakeboards from 3000Ft per hour at most beaches.
A captivating town close to the Austrian border, Sopron retains its original medieval layout, as well as no fewer than 240 listed buildings. From its fourth-century Roman-era town walls to its Baroque central squares, it is steeped in history, and its proximity to Vienna makes it a perfect day-trip from the Austrian capital.
The horseshoe-shaped Belváros (inner town) is north of Széchenyi tér and the main train station. At its southern end, beautiful Orsolya tér (Bear Square) features Renaissance edifices and the yellow and cream Gothic church. Heading north towards the main square, Új utca (New Street – actually one of the town’s oldest thoroughfares) is a gentle curve of perfectly preserved homes painted in red, yellow and pink. At no. 22 stands a medieval synagogue (April–Sept daily 10am–6pm; Oct Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; 800Ft; T99 311 327) that flourished when the street was Zsidó utca (Jewish Street).
Fő tér features an exquisite assembly of Gothic and Baroque architecture. Its centrepiece is the Goat Church (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; Nov–March 10am–4pm; 900Ft), so called because, according to legend, its construction in the thirteenth century was financed by a goatherd whose flock unearthed a cache of gold coins. The attached Chapter house (same hours & ticket), which served as a prayer house and burial chapel, is considered one of Hungary’s best examples of Gothic architecture. The Renaissance Storno House, at Fő tér 8, has a good exhibition on the colourful history of Sopron county (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; 700Ft; T99 311 327), but its highlight is the Storno family apartment on the second floor, a superb example of nineteenth-century bourgeois living quarters (1000Ft extra).
North of Storno House rises Sopron’s symbol, the Firewatch Tower (Jan–March Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; April–Sept daily 10am–8pm; Oct–Dec daily 10am–6pm; 1150Ft), founded upon the stones of a fortress originally laid out by the Romans. The Gate of Loyalty at the base of the tower commemorates the townsfolk’s decision to remain part of Hungary when offered the choice of annexation to Austria in 1921.