My favorite place in Balaton: Keszthely

Away from the fashionable parts of the lake, Keszthely is the cultural capital of Balaton and packed with treasures.

Often referred to as the “Hungarian sea,” Balaton is Central Europe’s biggest lake and the number one summer destination for people in Hungary. Most of its 200-kilometer (125-mile) shoreline is dotted with vacation homes and beaches today, but before Balaton turned into a mass resort starting in the late 19th century, it was a sleepy region blanketed with vineyards and fishing villages.

Keszthely and its Very Special Church

Historically, Balaton's one sizable town was Keszthely, at the westernmost end of the lake cradled by the Keszthely Hills. The city's downtown is still anchored by a vast 14th-century church decorated with the biggest Gothic fresco cycle in all of Hungary. The adorably clumsy scenes of the life of Jesus and the Virgin were discovered in 1974 during a routine renovation. 19th-century additions include the Gothic Revival tower and the stained glass windows made in the renowned Budapest atelier of Miksa Róth (find his signature on the bottom of the panes). The church can be accessed for free.

The main square of Keszthely is still anchored by a 14th-century church. The walls behind the altar contain the remains of the biggest Gothic fresco cycle in all of Hungary. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The main square of Keszthely is still anchored by a 14th-century church. The walls behind the altar contain the remains of the biggest Gothic fresco cycle in all of Hungary. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

To the right of the altar is the red marble wall tomb of Keszthely's (and Hungary's) most powerful medieval feudal landlord: István Lackfi. When Lackfi's wealth and power started to rival that of the King of Hungary – Sigismund, later also Holy Roman Emperor – he thought it prudent to get rid of Lackfi, doing it in characteristically medieval fashion in 1397.

The Festetics Legacy

The church has another important tomb to the left of the altar: the marble Rococo pyramid attached to the wall contains the remains of the first major member of the family whose name has become synonymous with Keszthely – the Festetics. It was a turning point for the city when in 1739 Kristóf Festetics became the feudal landlord and established Keszthely as the center of his dominions.

The Festetics family's 101-room Baroque Revival estate in Keszthely was one of the largest palaces in Hungary. The building functions as a museum today. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Festetics family's 101-room Baroque Revival estate in Keszthely was one of the largest palaces in Hungary. The building functions as a museum today. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Enjoying the patronage of the Habsburg court, the Festetics dynasty, originally from Croatia, were among the wealthiest families in Hungary with 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of land across western Hungary. Naturally, they were also the biggest employer and patron of Keszthely. György Festetics (1755-1819), for example, who came of age during the Enlightenment, built schools, a library, a printing press, and supported local artists and businesses. He funded countless scholarships and research studies. The poet Dániel Berzsenyi called Keszthely a "Weimar of Hungary" in 1817.

Festetics also commissioned the biggest ever sailing boat of Balaton, the Phoenix, and was the first to develop nearby Hévíz, a large thermal lake available for swimming and a popular healing resort today. He founded Georgikon, the first academy of agriculture in Europe. The immense original training facilities house the Georgikon Museum currently with a charmingly obsolete but rich collection ranging from the world’s first tractors to artifacts about winemaking, animal farming, and village life.

It’s worth remembering though – as the museum also shows – that some of the Festeticses, including György himself, were less than benevolent landlords and local serfs and peasants lived in abject poverty. The Revolution of 1848 wiped out the institution, which started anew in 1865 and continues to be an important university today for agricultural sciences.

Founded by György Festetics in 1797, the Georgikon was the first college of agriculture in Europe. Today, the original training facilities house an exhibition about winemaking, peasant life, farming technologies, and husbandry, as well as a model farm in its garden. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Founded by György Festetics in 1797, the Georgikon was the first college of agriculture in Europe. Today, the original training facilities house an exhibition about winemaking, peasant life, farming technologies, and husbandry, as well as a model farm in its garden. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Presiding over Keszthely, the enormous, 101-room Festetics palace functions as a museum currently. In its heyday, the European high society gathered here, including the Prince of Wales, Crown Prince Rudolf, and Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose later assassination triggered World War I). The truly jaw-dropping halls were decorated with David Teniers's goblins, Antonio Canova's statuettes, oversized Meissen porcelain vases, and paintings by Hubert Robert, Peter Krafft, and Gyula Benczúr. Furniture and lighting fixtures were sourced from leading Parisian and Viennese manufacturers.

Most of the furniture of the Festetics Palace, today a museum, survived thanks to a small miracle. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Most of the furniture of the Festetics Palace, today a museum, survived thanks to a small miracle. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Together with the palace’s stunning Neoclassical library (1801), most of these items escaped WWII looting thanks to a small miracle. The General of the invading Soviet army, the Ukrainian Ilja Illarinovics Sevcsenko, understood the immense cultural value of the palace and its contents and prevented his troops from ravaging the building. The most precious objects he walled off and emblazoned with a “contagious diseases” sign.

Built in 1801, the library of the Festetics Palace is carved from Slavonian oak in classical style and contains 80,000 volumes. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Built in 1801, the library of the Festetics Palace is carved from Slavonian oak in classical style and contains 80,000 volumes. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

As in the case of other aristocratic families after WWII, the Hungarian state confiscated and nationalized all Festetics property in 1945 and the family fled from Hungary before the Communist takeover. Today, the palace's manicured park is open for all to explore. In addition to the palace museum, the estate grounds also house the wonderul horse carriage museum, the model railway exhibition, and the hunting museum with a wide array of taxidermied animals.

One of the last patriarchs of the Festetics clan was Tasziló II (1850-1933), a cartoonish figure in his reverence of the Habsburgs and fondness for horse racing. After the 1918 collapse of Austria-Hungary, he made a point of snubbing Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s longtime leader between the world wars (Horthy wasn’t allowed to take the grand mahogany staircase of the palace, being too lowly of birth). Tasziló married Princess Mary Victoria Hamilton, the ex-wife of Albert I, the Prince of Monaco. The couple’s exuberant mausoleum hides in the back of Keszthely’s St. Nicolaus cemetery.

Tasziló’s lavish cattle barn and horse breeding farm in Fenékpuszta, outside Keszthely, was home to a collection of renowned thoroughbreds and the wonder of foreign visitors. Today, the restored facilities feature exhibitions about horse races and breeding, albeit without any horses at the moment. Across from the Neoclassical manor house are the remains of Valcum, the ancient Roman fortification built in the 4th century CE.

A six-kilometer long allée of black pines connected the Festetics Palace in Keszthely with the family's manor house and horse breeding farm in Fenékpuszta. Today, it's mainly a hangout of dog owners. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
A six-kilometer long allée of black pines connected the Festetics Palace in Keszthely with the family's manor house and horse breeding farm in Fenékpuszta. Today, it's mainly a hangout of dog owners. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

No one can blame Tasziló and Princess Mary for lacking good taste: they commuted between the palace and the horse farm through a hauntingly beautiful, six-kilometer (four-mile) pathway (allée) lined with black pines, today a popular hangout for dog owners.

More Things to Do in Keszthely

Keszthely takes two hours to reach by car from Budapest. It's far from the well-off Budapest crowd, which prefers nearer parts of the Balaton. In fact, Keszthely’s post-Communist history – after 1990 – hasn’t been a success story. The city used to be a bustling summer destination for East German tourists, but today affordable vacation resorts in Spain or Italy offer more allure. Unattractive storefronts accost strollers of Kossuth Lajos utca in downtown, and the two historic 19th century hotels facing the lake, Hullám and Balaton, are in an embarrassing state of disrepair.

The farmers' market of Keszthely gets lively on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The farmers' market of Keszthely gets lively on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Despite Keszthely's challenges, I’m still drawn to this beautiful and culturally rich city. There’s much to explore even beyond the Festetics legacy: The Balaton Museum, with an engaging exhibition about the lake’s folk art, nature, wildlife, and recent history. The mysterious Helikon Park, always dim and melancholic because of the towering chestnut trees and ringed by the handsome villas of Keszthely's upper-middle class from long ago. The farmers' market on Saturday mornings, which hasn't yet morphed into a hipster apocalypse.

The incredible views from the Szent Mihály chapel atop a small hill flanking the lake, approached through village houses with thatched roofs. The house, overgrown by ivy, where Béla Bartók stayed in 1906 while collecting folk songs. The list goes on. For better or worse, most places don’t come with conspicuous signs, but a sense of discovery is part of the fun (this map will help you find the places featured in this article).

Keszthely's Jewish Past

Keszthely had a thriving Jewish community before the Holocaust, accounting for ten percent of the population. One of its most prominent members was the composer Károly Goldmark. The house where he was born still stands. Interestingly, his brother, Joseph, who emigrated to the United States, became a famous physician and his daughter married Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court. Keszthely's synagogue still hides in the courtyard of the Goldmark-house, a charming medieval residential building along the main Kossuth Lajos utca.

The run-down funeral home of the Jewish cemetery hides on the outskirts of town. Almost all of Keszthely's Jews, 829 people, were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and killed. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The run-down funeral home of the Jewish cemetery hides on the outskirts of town. Almost all of Keszthely's Jews, 829 people, were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and killed. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Tragically, nearly all of Keszthely’s Jews were deported in 1944 and killed in Auschwitz, a total of 829 people. The dilapidated tombstones and crumbling yellow funeral home of the Jewish cemetery, on the outskirts of town, is a poignant reminder.

A Folk Art Store Worth Visiting

The little shopping I do is at the craft potter in Gyenesdiás, J&A Kerámiaház. Operating out of three old peasant houses, the family sells folklore-themed vases, bowls, mugs and such things since the early 1990s. Best of all is the small exhibition of miskakancsó, 19th-century jars resembling a Hungarian Hussar, complete with conical hat and handlebar moustache. (They also sell them.)

The craft pottery in Gyenesdiás, J&A Kerámiaház, sells miskakancsó, traditional jars which resemble a Hungarian Hussar. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The craft pottery in Gyenesdiás, J&A Kerámiaház, sells miskakancsó, traditional jars which resemble a Hungarian Hussar. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Restaurants, Cafes, and Wineries in Keszthely

While you can find a few new-wave establishments such as Pajti for special coffee and Madárlátta Pékség for sourdough bread and morning pastries, Keszthely is largely devoid of the trendy places that crowd hotspots like Balatonfüred, Tihany, and the Káli-medence.

Madárlátta is a new-wave bakery in Keszthely's city center. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Madárlátta is a new-wave bakery in Keszthely's city center. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

When I’m at Balaton in the summer, I like to dine at unpretentious food vendors called büfé, which line the beaches – strand in Hungarian – of each resort and serve food from flimsy wooden sheds and people sit elbow-to-elbow with fellow diners. I often go to the Libás or the Gyenesi Lidóstrand and my go-to orders are lángos, a flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese, and palacsinta, crepes filled with fruit preserves or túró. Occasionally, I order a hekk, a popular fried fish made, ironically, from a saltwater species imported from the Mediterranean (large-scale fishing in Balaton is banned).

For traditional Hungarian dishes, I go to Tompos Étterem or to Öregház Vendégudvar in the nearby village of Vonyarcvashegy where they serve especially tasty fogas (pike-perch), dödölle (a gnocchi-like dish), and Kaiserschmarren out of an updated farmhouse with cane roof (open in the summer only). For a well-made halászlé, the local paprika-laced fish soup, I head to Halászcsárda, a long-standing sitdown restaurant on the south side. For Naples-style pizza: Piccola Napoli. Tasty traditional Hungarian pastries can be had at Tulipán Kávéház.

For a more celebratory meal, I visit Zenit Balaton, the gleaming white Neoclassical estate that was the Festetics winery building (in Vonyarcvashegy). If it isn't too cold outside, ask for a table under the columnar porch and take full advantage of the open Balaton vistas.

The Festetics family's Neoclassical winery, built in the 1820s, is home to the panoramic Zenit Balaton restaurant currently. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Festetics family's Neoclassical winery, built in the 1820s, is home to the panoramic Zenit Balaton restaurant currently. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Near the entrance of Keszthely's main strand is Csaba Borozó, my go-to joint for a fröccs, the local wine spritzer in Hungary. It's a modest tavern patronized by locals, many academics, in search of low-priced alcohol (open for most of the year).

Csaba Borozó is a low-priced wine tavern in Keszthely drawing a mixed local crowd. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Csaba Borozó is a low-priced wine tavern in Keszthely drawing a mixed local crowd. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

A fifteen-minute drive will get you to Szent György-hill, one of the most fashionable white wine regions in Hungary currently. On the volcanic hillside nestle prominent family wineries such as Szászi, Gilvesy, and 2HA (Szászi has a very pricey and very beautiful panoramic terrace and restaurant). From there, another ten minutes away is the Folly Arborétum (Botanic Garden) in Badacsonytomaj. A magical place with magical views, and its own very good restaurant.

An Iconic Hotel

The monumental Helikon Hotel has been a pride and an icon of Keszthely since its opening in 1971. In days of yore, the hotel drew Communist party elites and Western tourists with its private beach-island, panoramic lake-views, and TV-equipped rooms. Today, after a recent gut renovation, the four-star superior hotel is once again Keszthely's most upscale accommodation with astonishing vistas.

The Hotel Helikon has been a pride of Keszthely since its opening in 1971. Each room provides Balaton-facing views. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Hotel Helikon has been a pride of Keszthely since its opening in 1971. Each room provides Balaton-facing views. Photo: Tas Tóbiás