Lake Balaton (German: Plattensee) is a freshwater lake in the Transdanubian region of Hungary. It is the largest lake in Central Europe, and one of the region’s foremost tourist destinations. The Zala River provides the largest inflow of water to the lake, and the canalised Sió is the only outflow. The mountainous region of the northern shore is known both for its historic character and as a major wine region, while the flat southern shore is known for its resort towns. Balatonfüred and Hévíz developed early as resorts for the wealthy, but it was not until the late 19th century when landowners, ruined by Phylloxera attacking their grape vines, began building summer homes to rent out to the burgeoning middle classes.
Lake Balaton affects the local area precipitation every year. The area receives approximately 5–7 cm (2–3 in) more precipitation than most of Hungary, resulting in more cloudy days and less extreme temperatures. The lake’s surface freezes during winters. The microclimate around Lake Balaton has also made the region ideal for viticulture. The lake, acting as a mirror, greatly increases the amount of sunlight that the grapevines of the region receive. The Mediterranean-like climate, combined with the soil (containing volcanic rock), has made the region notable for its production of wines since the Roman period two thousand years ago.
While a few settlements on Lake Balaton, including Balatonfüred and Hévíz, have long been resort centres for the Hungarian aristocracy, it was only in the late 19th century that the Hungarian middle class began to visit the lake. The construction of railways in 1861 and 1909 increased tourism substantially, but the post-war boom of the 1950s was much larger. The last major German offensive of World War II, Operation Frühlingserwachen, was conducted in the region of Lake Balaton in March 1945, being referred to as “the Lake Balaton Offensive” in many British histories of the war. The battle was a German attack by Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army and the Hungarian Third Army between 6 March and 16 March 1945, and in the end, resulted in a Red Army victory. Several Ilyushin Il-2 wrecks have been pulled out of the lake after having been shot down during the later months of the war.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Balaton became a major tourist destination for ordinary working Hungarians and especially for subsidised holiday excursions for union members. It also attracted many East Germans and other residents of the Eastern Bloc. West Germans could also visit, making Balaton a common meeting place for families and friends separated by the Berlin Wall until 1989. The collapse of Communism after 1991 and the dismantling of the unions saw the gradual but steady reduction in numbers of lower-paid Hungarian visitors.
The major resorts around the lake are Siófok, Keszthely, and Balatonfüred. Zamárdi, another resort town on the southern shore, has been the site of Balaton Sound, a notable electronic music festival since 2007. Balatonkenese has hosted numerous traditional gastronomic events. Siófok is known for attracting young people to it because of its large clubs. Keszthely is the site of the Festetics Palace and Balatonfüred is a historical bathing town which hosts the annual Anna Ball.
The peak tourist season extends from June until the end of August. The average water temperature during the summer is 25 °C (77 °F), which makes bathing and swimming popular on the lake. Most of the beaches consist of either grass, rocks, or the silty sand that also makes up most of the bottom of the lake. Many resorts have artificial sandy beaches and all beaches have step access to the water. Other tourist attractions include sailing, fishing, and other water sports, as well as visiting the countryside and hills, wineries on the north coast, and nightlife on the south shore. The Tihany Peninsula is a historical district. Badacsony is a volcanic mountain and wine-growing region as well as a lakeside resort. The lake is almost completely surrounded by separated bike lanes to facilitate bicycle tourism. Although the peak season at the lake is the summer, Balaton is also frequented during the winter, when visitors go ice-fishing or even skate, sledge, or ice-sail on the lake if it freezes over.