The Summer and Winter Looks of Lake Balaton

Being the biggest lake in Central Europe and also one of the most important natural treasures of Hungary, the “Hungarian sea” offers an opportunity for a fantastic recreation every season of the year. The lake impresses the visitors with both its beauty and atmosphere, it is a locale of unforgettable summer and winter memories alike, where not only beach life and holiday culture are flourishing but it is also a place which is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the arts.

Lake Balaton was first named the “Hungarian sea” in the poems of the first Balaton poet, Ádám Horváth Pálóczi who in his three volume work entitled “Hol-mi,” written between 1788 and 1793, calls Lake Balaton a sea a number of times (Hol-mi is a pun in Hungarian, the expression written with a dash means “where and what,” but written in one word it means “whatnot”). That is the time when vacationers at Balaton began exploring the sandy plains of the Southern shore and mentioning the lake as “our sea”. The name “Hungarian sea” is an expression every Hungarian is familiar with and associates to Lake Balaton, and this name brings up at least a couple of nice, old memories.

Lake Balaton in summer

The number of sunny days at Lake Balaton is on average 2,000 hours a year, the same as at the French Riviera, and the sunshine is complemented with especially pleasant climatic conditions. The flora and fauna of Lake Balaton is also impressive and the first landscape protection area of the country, Tihany Peninsula Conservation Area was created here in 1952.

Lively crowds have always characterised Lake Balaton and its region. The spa life and tourism started to develop in the 18th century but first it was not based on the water of the lake but on the sparkling springs of the shore. First the turn of the 19th – 20th century, and later the years following World War II have brought a significant growth in tourism. A number of Hungarian historical figures and artists had been inspired over the years at the shores of the lake. Accordingly, at the beginning of the 19th century, in the Reform Era, which was the most successful era in the history of Hungary, Lake Balaton had become the centre of social life. Dominant personalities, like Lajos Kossuth, István Széchenyi, Miklós Wesselényi and Ferenc Deák turned up at the lake, just like a number of great artists of the Hungarian literature, among them Ferenc Kazinczy, Dániel Berzsenyi, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz and Mihály Vörösmarty. They mostly visited Balatonfüred, which has become the first important bath, and many of these personalities had decided to settle down there, among them one of the greatest of the Hungarian romantic literature Mór Jókai, who bought a villa in Balatonfüred. Resorts have been developing one after the other and first the construction of Budapest-Nagykanizsa railway in 1861, and later the construction of motorways in the 20th century had given a big boost to the accessibility of the lake. Lake Balaton is still a popular destination and the region itself is the most attractive in Hungary, alone providing 22 % of the tourism income of the country.

Lake Balaton had witnessed a number of events of paramount importance, for example it is tied to the emergence of the world famous Hungarian swimming sports. Kálmán Szekrényessy (1846-1923) was the “apostle of swimming” as his plaque in Budapest confirms, he is remembered as the person who besides introducing a number of different sports in Hungary was the creator of Hungarian sports literature and the first swimmer to cross the lake. And by the way, we owe the words “kerékpár” and “görkorcsolya” to him, which are the Hungarian words for bicycle and roller skates. The Hungarian swimming sport was born exactly on the 29th of August, 1880 when Mr. Szekrényessy swam the 14 km distance between Siófok and Balatonfüred in 6 hours and 40 minutes. This performance was amazing at that time and it brought not only recognition in and outside Hungary but also made swimming popular in Hungary. The success of the new sport can be demonstrated with the fact that the following year the first international swimming competition was organised in Hungary, on the Danube between Vác and Pest. His achievement is best characterized by the fact that no one except him could repeat it for 16 years as during that period he swam again four times across the lake. To increase the popularity of the swim across the lake and also the number of participants, the distance had been later gradually decreased. Cross-Balaton swimming has become a popular event attracting masses, it is organised annually between Révfülöp and Balatonboglár, i.e. a distance of 5,200 meters. Participants complete this distance on an average of under three hours.

The first important momentum of the history of shipping on Balaton was the appearance of sailing vessels, the first having been built by the Hungarian noble family, family Festetics at the end of the 18th century. The biggest of their sailboats was Főnix (meaning in Hungarian phoenix) which was launched on the 15th of July, 1797. The boat was 16 fathom long, 3 fathom wide with 16 rowers. As its speciality, it was not only used for freight service but also carried passengers, moreover different celebrations and festivities were also held on board. But the real breakthrough in organised passenger shipping was the foundation of the Balaton Steamship Company initiated by Earl István Széchenyi and its first paddle boat, the Kisfaludy steamboat. Following that passenger shipping has boomed and by 1910 four steamboats carried the passengers on the lake.

Mr. Szekrényessy in addition regularly organised swimming competitions, kayak races and regattas on the Hungarian sea, and these had become ever more popular. In 1933 the European sailing championship was also organised on the lake. Balaton became the locale of the most prestigious first-class sailing regatta, the Blue Ribbon Regatta, which was first organised in 1934. The length of the route covering Balatonfüred – Balatonkenese – Tihany – Keszthely - Balatonfüred is 160 km. Today there is every year an enormous interest in the regatta, and while only 21 boats participated in the first regatta, nowadays it is really impressive to see how the crew – numbering a few thousand – of the more than 500 sailing boats strives for victory. The legendary record of the regatta was achieved by István Németh, who, in 1955 completed the route in 10 hours and 40 minutes on his boat, Nemere II. This fantastic record was cut only 57 years later, in 2012 by the twin rig catamaran, Fifty-Fifty, steered by Márton Józsa who could shave off 6 minutes from the legendary record crossing the finish line in 10 hours and 34 minutes. The most successful navigator of the regatta was Farkas Litkey, who between 2001 and 2009could win ten times in a row.

An interesting fact about Balaton is that there is another Balaton in the country: it is also the name of a village in Heves County, moreover, there is a settlement in Minnesota, USA, called the same. A destroyer was also named Balaton in World War I as well as a Hungarian pop group founded in 1979, a Hungarian mini automobile and medical equipment developed especially for the spaceflight of the Hungarian astronomer, Bertalan Farkas, but there also are 2,242 asteroids called Balaton. And then there is the world famous group specialising in sustainable development connected to Lake Balaton, Balaton Group, which was founded in 1982 in Csopak (a settlement on the Northern shore of the lake) by Dennis and Donella Meadows. Along with Jørgen Randers, they were the authors of the high-impact book, “The Limits to Growth” published in 1972, which contains the first scientific modelling of the limits of economic and social growth and their future effects.

Lake Balaton in winter

Lake Balaton offers superb experiences in winter too, when lovers of winter sports can have great fun. It is a must to go skating on the lake in winter but those who are braver can try ice sailing and ice surfing, too. True enough the ice has to become so-called “steel-like”, which generally means a thickness of 10 cm.

Water is the thickest at 4 ℃ and that also plays a key role in the ecological balance of Lake Balaton. The temperature of the surface of the water cools to 4 ℃ in winter, then it descends to the bottom of the lake and its place is taken over by warmer, i.e. lighter water. These kinds of currents continue till the average temperature of the whole water drops to 4℃. As the outside temperature drops further, the upper layer of the water freezes while underneath the temperature of the water remains 4℃ and that ensures the hibernation of the fish without any problems.


The ice covering the lake develops gradually. First, fragile cat-ice forms in the shallower water near the shore, then with the ice-cold temperatures the ice easily gains 1-2 cm daily. The lake developed its thickest ice in 1929, when they measured it to be 70 cm. Though there is no doubt that such an extremely thick ice is good for the lovers of winter sports, yet it is very dangerous for the fauna of the lake: it not only decreases the amount of water in which the fish can hibernate, but also prevents the water from coming into contact with fresh oxygen.

During winter interesting noises often break the silence of the ice-field: since the upper layer cools down, it should bend and then curl upwards. But it is not able to do so because of its weight and thus it is cracking, quite often causing roaring similar to the noise caused by a thunder.  This is called in Hungarian “rianás” (crevasses).

With spring coming, the melting of the ice also starts. This is the moment when deep in our hearts we all wait for life to return to the unique, incomparable Balaton summer atmosphere, which attracts millions to the shore of the Hungarian sea.

We would like to express our gratitude to the National Institute for Environment and to the Hungarian Museum of Environment and Hydrology for their help in preparing this article.