I first visited Carcassonne France during my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi. That day, the skies opened up and it poured buckets of rain with a force I haven’t seen before. The streets were bare, save for the water gushing down the small alleyways. The gusts of wind were strong; sturdy golf umbrellas proved not up to the task. I took cover in churches, cafes and hotel lobbys; and popped in and out of shops.
Not exactly the ideal conditions to see it, but what I did see, I loved. I was charmed and enchanted and vowed to come back. I took advantage of a very short break in the storm. The sun appeared for 10-15 minutes, just enough time to snap some very dramatic photos.
Below are some my recommendations for what to do, see, and where to stay and eat in Carcassonne France; both the old city and lower town. And for those lucky enough to have more time to visit, ideas for a longer stay in the region.
Carcassonne is located in the Languedoc region in the South of France. There are actually two parts of the city. The old city, often referred to as La Cité is the small, fortified medieval walled city; and the lower city, known as St. Louis or La Bastide.
Most travelers visit La Cité, which really looks straight out of a fairly tale, thanks to its massive walls, castles and turreted rooftops. I fully expected to see Rapunzel’s hair cascading down the walls of the castle windows.
With its rich fascinating history, it should come as no surprise that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hiring a private tour guide would be my recommendation for history lovers wanting to learn more.
The old city can be a very touristy place, but if you do your best to avoid visiting in summer and steer clear of the ubiquitous souvenir shops, you can have a very pleasant visit. Staying over at least one night will afford you the best experience; an atmospheric flood-lit city all to yourself.
WHAT TO DO IN LA CITE, CARCASSONNE
Some of my recommendations:
- visit the Basilica Saint-Nazaire, a Romanesque/Gothic cathedral with stunning stained glass windows
- walk the ramparts, see watchtowers, bastions and secret passages at the Château Comtal
- wander around the tiny cobblestone streets and shops
- enjoy a few museums; There is a history museum and a torture museum!
- visit the Narbonne Gate, which is flanked by twin turreted towers
- stroll around the cemetery
- attend a performance at the open-air arena Theatré Jean Dechamps
WHAT TO DO IN ST. LOUIS – CARCASSONNE’S LOWER TOWN
If you have more than a day in Carcassonne make sure to explore St. Louis, La Bastide.
There you can:
- walk across the Pont Vieux bridge. Or take a bike tour!
- see the Jacobian Gate, the last remaining of four
- climb to the top of St. Vincents Church for amazing views; it’s the highest point in the area (bonus – it’s free!)
- visit the Chapel of Notre Dame and stroll along the Aude river
- enjoy drinks at a cafe on the Place Carnot, a pretty square with a fountain. It’s also home to a wonderful open-air food market (on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings)
- shop the Market Hall, a covered indoor food market (Tues-Sat)
- visit the Museum of Beaux Arts
WHAT TO DO NEAR CARCASSONNE
Carcassonne is ideally situated in the Languedoc wine region. The area is well-known for its diverse, value driven wines, but also for charming small villages and stunning countryside scenery.
To properly explore the area, rent a car to take advantage of popping into domaines for wine tours and tastings of Minervois or Corbières. It’s also close to the Canal du Midi; a scenic boat tour on the canal is a must (in season).
The nearby village of Limoux would be a perfect stop. Pézanas, Narbonne, and Marseillan are all a bit further, but recommended for a longer stay in the region.
HOW TO GET TO CARCASSONNE
Carcassonne does have a small airport, but most independent travelers will fly into a larger airport and drive or arrive by train. The station is located in the lower town and will require a taxi or shuttle bus to get into the walls.
If you drive in to visit for the day, parking shouldn’t be an issue. But get there early. There are three major lots, including a good sized lot at the lower entrance, just a short walk from the city walls. These are not free lots, so be prepared to pay.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re staying inside the city walls of Carcassonne, my fave hotel pick is the Hotel de la Cité. A beautiful, luxury four-star property with lovely outdoor gardens, amazing views, a pool, a spa and great restaurants. It’s very well located to much of most activities in town.
WHERE TO EAT IN LA CITE
I love a good wine bar and Le Comptoir des Vins e Terroirs (3 rue du Comté Roger) is the perfect spot to sample a wide selection of local wines by the glass and charcuterie plates to share.
La Table Ronde (30 rue du Plo) checks a lot of boxes; adorable casual setting, reasonably priced, great food and friendly service. The cassoulet here is a winner. Score an outdoor table on the lovely shaded tree-lined terrace in the nicer months.
Carcassonne is also home to a Michelin Stared restaurant right in the city walls – La Barbacane (Place Auguste Pierre Point) with wonderful views of the castle. Prix-fixe lunch is an excellent value or go for a tasting menu paired with wine. Make reservations in advance.