Budapest is kinda stealing the Hungarian thunder. Don’t get me wrong, I love Budapest! Really, if you’re going to Hungary, it’ll be a carnal sin to miss out on this spectacular city (get some ideas here), but, believe it or not, there’s life outside of the architecturally ornate, romantically lit up Hungarian capital.
Besides spending one really unique week in Debrecen (as a member of a children’s choir at a international choir competition), I’ve never been to other parts of Hungary and have actually not even considered visiting. Until Joel did some research and suggested we head out to some natural hot springs west of Budapest. And what followed was a perfect weekend exploring a peaceful (and cheap!) corner of the world that we’ve never considered before but would now absolutely recommend.
THE HUNGARIAN SEA
We hopped into a rental car on Friday afternoon, trying to miss traffic as best we can, and headed out of the city towards Kezsthely – a small town on the southwestern shore of Lake Balaton. The drive to Kezsthely is about two hours, and a full HALF of it is along this lake, because it is GINORMOUS. It’s very long (77km) and skinny, and is the largest lake in Central Europe – it’s can’t-see-the-opposite-shore kind of big. We heard from our local Budapest walking tour guide that locals call it the Hungarian Sea.
We headed out to eat the best meal of our Hungary trip (read on!) and settled into our perfectly cozy Airbnb (you have to stay here…), before we fell asleep watching Australia’s Next Top Model (the best way to fall asleep?).
What followed was a Saturday of doing exactly what you’d want to do in a sleepy little ‘seaside’ town – whatever it is you want at whatever pace you feel like. We hopped on our blue cruiser bikes, and cycled the town silly – along the shore, around the village, through the foresty parks, stopping here and there to take in the spots of sunshine, the sound of swans paddling around, and just that quiet and peaceful weekend feeling. It was the perfect antecedent to a day in Budapest, which was buzzing with the electricity of Christmas markets and a Chinese delegation (weird, I know, but people were a bit hyped up about this).
We were there in November, so although the lake wasn’t frozen over yet, we did not brave the water…But it is a super popular local summer holiday destination, when the average water temperature is 25°C, so we may have to come back for a dip in summertime.
THINGS YOU DIDN’T EXPECT
WINE! Lake Balaton has kind of a Mediterranean micro-climate, so it’s actually a wine region also. The winery near us was closed, so we didn’t get to go wine tasting, but maybe you could go out there and let us know what it’s like??
After getting our fill of countryside-cycling, we hopped in the car and drove the 15 minutes to Héviz, the teeny tiny town that gets its name from…wait for it…the world’s largest active geothermal lake! Lake Héviz is naturally replenished with hot and cold water from underwater springs every 72 hours, so the water is always fresh and never drops drops below 22°C. The temperature was around 25°C when we visited (but can get up to almost 40°C in summer), but I have to be honest and say that that doesn’t feel super warm when you have to go outside in your bathing suit when it’s like 10°C. However, the building is on stilts, so even though the water flows freely around and under the building, there are sections underneath that are insulated and actually nice and hot (think bathwater warm). But if you buy a combined ticket you can go in between the lake and the saunas and hot tubs in the attached spa area, which is kind of the ideal situation.
All in all, it was a pretty awesome, wonderfully unique, very eastern-european Saturday afternoon for the books! Really…get out of Budapest, and go to Lake Héviz! It is unlike any place we’ve ever been, in the best, coziest, most unfamiliar way possible.
BEFORE YOU GO
Remember your sandals! It’s not required, but just like the Budapest baths, it’s way more convenient if you have some!
Lake Héviz is perfect for swimming around lap-style. It’s very big and very deep (almost 40 meters!), there’s very little restriction concerning where you’re allowed to swim, and it’s not crowded.
BUT, if you’re feeling like floating around, it might be nice to bring a floaty of some sort – a tube or a pool noodle or something like that, to make your lake paddling a bit less tiring. There are wooden beams here and there that you can swim out to and hold on to, but they are a bit slippery.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Tickets are 2400 HUF for three hours (that’s almost €8), OR
2 600 HUF for four hours (almost €8.50), OR
3 700 HUF for the whole day (almost €12).
This is for the lake entry only, and does not include the Sauna World, which we’d recommend getting since it’s only a couple euros more. We had a three-hour ticket, and after figuring stuff out and changing and renting our towels and everything, we felt a bit rushed. Four hours would be ideal.
It’s a bit inconvenient, but the towel rentals are way out in the main building over the lake (a bit of a walk from the changing room, so we recommend bringing your own towel if possible). It’s 1000 HUF (plus 1000 HUF deposit). CASH ONLY! We did not have enough money but the poor towel girl allowed us to rent a towel with the random amount of money we could scrape together.
Do not expect the same English-speaking tourist friendly, decadently designed setting as the Budapest baths! Things are a bit more local, and the clientele is 80% 70-year-olds – there’s a rheumatic live-in clinic or something on site.
Co-ed locker rooms! This was confusing at first, but men and women all use one big locker room. Look for the changing cubicles staggered in between the lockers.
You need to validate your bracelet in order to get your locker. Ons you validate it, your timer is activated. You will then see similar little boxes against walls and pillars everywhere against which you can check your remaining time. We did not have to check out with our bracelets or anything, so the jury is out whether anyone is actually keeping track of your time.
Expect some nudity! Some seniors don’t really bother with the private changing cubicles, so you’re in for a treat.
HOW TO GET THERE
We rented a car from Budapest, but you don’t have to. There’s also a bus service to Heviz, which takes just over 4 hours. Since we don’t ever drive in London, it’s always a treat for us to get out on the open road in a foreign place.
WHEN TO GO
We visited mid-November, and we were probably just on the edge of it being too cold and too quiet. Any of the other seasons would be a great time to go – the colours in autumn, the blooms in spring, and the festivities and swimming in summer.
WHERE TO EAT
We made a huge mistake.
And we are here to let you know not to make that same mistake.
Basically the biggest fail of our entire trip to Hungary, was NOT going to Jóbarát Vendéglö for dinner for BOTH of our nights in Kezsthely. Because DAYUM IT IS GOOD.
Don’t be fooled by the alluring ‘international cuisine’ or ‘BBQ nights’ of John’s Pub. Don’t even bother. Just spend all your time and money at Jóbarát Vendéglö.
Try some Hungarian wines and beers, the roast carp, the stuffed turkey, but most of all try the goulash with beans. OMG. Thank us later.
WHERE TO STAY
Keszthely is the perfect base for exploring the area and visiting Heviz. We sort of ended up here because the hotels in Heviz were disproportionately expensive and the Airbnbs were slim pickings. Lucky for us, because it lead us to Dora Holiday House – a super affordable Airbnb managed by Melinda, who is just one of the sweetest, most thoughtful Airbnb hosts out there. The apartment came with two bikes, and is just 2 minutes’ cycle away from the shore of the lake and the town market and coffee shop (very NB). Follow this link for a sweet discount on us! 🙂
WHAT TO DO
Whatever your heart desires. Cycle, stroll, and bring your euros to dispense some duck feed by the lake. Go wine tasting, go souvenir shopping, go geothermal lake dipping. Eat and drink and take it easy. And if you’ve had enough relaxing and unwinding and unplugging, go check out the local 18th-century palace, because, you know, Europe.