The medieval city of Carcassonne is one of those places that seems almost unreal, but this 12th century castle is waiting to be explored and it can be done in 24 hours!
Reportedly the inspiration for the castle in Sleeping Beauty it is easy to make the comparison to a magical Disney-esque setting. It is France’s second most visited site outside of the Eiffel Tower which gives you an idea of the magnitude of tourists who swarm its streets.
For gaming aficionados and ‘meeples’ out there, you will also recognise it as being a tile based game where the most points win. This was actually developed by a German company, but you will still find it in the Carcassonne castle gift shop.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue with Carcassonne. It is touristy. So touristy.
Is being ‘touristy’ a bad thing?
We stayed in Montpellier and travelled out for the day and you can comfortably do what you want to do in this city in a day. You might be one of hundreds of people walking around on the tiny cobbled streets but there’s no doubting the beauty of Carcassonne.
If you are around for longer we suggest taking a walk around the rest of the city outside of the walls, doing a river walk/cycle (hire bikes from Generation VTT, by the bridge) or even take a guided boat tour down the Canal du Midi.
The aforementioned Canal du Midi is not to be confused with the River Aude which is the river that lies below the castle next to the citadel that surrounds it. The canal is beautiful with trees lining the sides of the water, we also recommend taking a picnic as a trip into the countryside we noted took a couple of hours.
A walk across the River Aude, up through the exquisite streets with quaint little homes, craft shops and lots of chic looking eateries that surround the walls and up into the cobbled citadel you will find the medieval part of the city.
It might be filled with tacky gift shops and you might also be faced with a barrage of cameras with inextricably long lenses, but there’s magic still to be found if you concentrate on the actual history, not the foam swords.
The Medieval City
We incidently arrived on time for an exhibition by Swiss artist Félice Varini. He has helped Carcassonne celebrate 20 years as a world UNESCO site with an impressive art installation! The concentric circles are on lightweight aluminium attached to the walls of Cité de Carcassonne and are peeled off later next month.
The massive fortifications that surround La Cité are double walled, so you can easily walk around the grassy lices between the walls. As we strolled around the castle walls we took in the views over the landscape around us, vineyards, church steeples and little houses. Nothing really beats the Languedoc countryside as spring turns into summer.
After walking through the city gates into the city itself the first things you notice are they cobbled streets and some marvellous examples of French medieval architecture – wooden beams and criss-cross patterns on houses is by the by here.
If you want to see the ramparts and the Château Comtal, the palace of the viscounts of Carcassonne you will have to take a guided tour or pay to get in to the castle and do a self-guided tour, but you can walk around most of the lices for free.
Château Comtal, the 12th century hilltop castle and museum is quite spectacular. You follow a route round, there’s lots of information dotted about and you can find out how they restored the city back to its former glory.
Take the time to look at the artefacts and art works inside the castle and marvel at the glorious views from the ramparts where you can see the castle, old city and the new city below from every angle.
Another stop should be the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass, it’s somewhere that feels peaceful outside the streams of tourists.
There are also a few museums and a haunted house dotted around the place – one interesting museum not for the faint hearted is the Musée de l’Inquisition. A more gruesome account of Carcassonne’s history in a 17th century building that also documents the French Revolution.
Eating in Carcassonne
Hungry after all that walking? Well you will probably have to indulge in a hearty cassoulet (for the non-vegetarians), the meaty stew made with white beans is said to originate here so of course you will find every restaurant serving up their own versions of the dish.
There are so many places to eat inside the old city walls it’s almost impossible to choose from. What we suggest is comparing prices of set menus and doing so according to your budget. There are places with beautiful gardens you can sit in and award-winning chefs that will cost more then the places in the main square, which all offer similar cheap prices from 10 euros per person for a two course meal.
What we truly recommend is walking outside of the city walls towards the River Aude and taking a wander down Rue Trivalle. Here you will find delightful craft shops, local wine bars and restaurants like Le Passage – Gîtes et Chambre d’Hôtes, FloridaBlanca and Barrière Truffes. This is modern French and world cuisine with wine bars showcasing the best of the local Languedoc region.
If you have space for pudding or want to stop for afternoon tea after the Canal du Midi we wholly recommend Meery Cake for sumptuous sweet cakes and pastries and a lovely tea or coffee!
Got 48 hours in Carcassonne?
If you are staying in the city then we suggest visiting Limoux, a small village south of the city. From January to March you will find the annual Carnivale here and it is home to some of the best wine in the region.
The carnival is the earliest and longest fête in the French calendar and features pierrots and accompanying musicians who walk around the cafes in beguiling and sometimes outrageously comic masks.
As for the wine, Limoux is the home of a Languedoc sparkling wine which is said to be the predecessor of champagne. Locals claim that Dom Perignon stole the idea and they are the true inventors of this sparkling variety of wine.
Whatever the history behind it be rest assured you can get a glass or bottle of French fizz which is remarkable like champagne for much less money. It’s a bargain really!
🚆 Getting here – Journey time is 28 minutes and you can take one of 6 daily trains to the village from Gare de Carcassonne.
If you are here for more than a day then we did do some hunting and you can stay in Air BnBs from 20 euros a night in the city as well as find some cheap hotels, as well as some very nice hotels if you’re looking for a special treat.
Inside the city walls is four-star Hôtel Donjon (2 Rue du Comté Roger; 0033 468 112300; www.hotel-donjon.fr). It is just a few minutes from the Basilica St Nazaire and the Château Comtal. It looks gorgeous but would be out of our price range!
Just outside of the city walls is a Bed and Breakfast called La Rapière a simple place but it has all you need for a relatively cheap price and it’s within walking distance of the old city.
Getting to Carcassonne
🚗 If you are driving these are the distances calculated by the local tourist office.
Autoroute A61: Exit Carcassonne Ouest (n°23) – Exit Carcassonne Est (n°24)
RD6113 ( Toulouse – Narbonne)
D118 ( Limoux – Mazamet)
D119 ( Pamiers)
- Toulouse : 90 km
- Montpellier : 150 km
- Bordeaux : 340 km
- Marseille : 320 km
- Lyon : 450 km
- Paris : 730 km
- Barcelone : 300 km
🚆 We got the train here from Montpellier which took roughly one and a half hours passing through Sete and Narbonne.
SNCF – Enquiries – 3635
Visit the website for timetable here: www.voyages-sncf.com
✈️ You can fly into Aéroport Sud de France Carcassonne with Ryanair – so it can be done cheaply!
Informations (+33) 04 68 71 96 46
For fights operated by Ryanair : www.ryanair.com
- Flights from England : Londres Stansted –Liverpool-Nottingham – Bournemouth
- Flights from Scotland : Glasgow
- Flights from Ireland : Dublin – Cork
- Flights from Belgium : Charlerok
- Flights from Denmark : Billund
- Flights from the Netherlands : Eindhoven
- Flights from Portugal : Porto
A shuttle service to the city centre is available, leaving 25 minutes after the arrival of each flight. It costs 6€ and comes with one hour’s use of the entire city urban transport network.
Flights to other destinations depart from
Bits and Bobs
ℹ️ Tourist information is at 28, Rue du Verdun in the ville basse, with another in the cité on Rue Cros Mayrevieille.
- Visit www.audetourisme.com for the full programme of events in the area.
Lastly you can check out our Languedoc wine guide and see how to turn this trip into a jaunt around the world-famous wine region. There’s lots of vineyards to be enjoyed!
Next up on the website is Perpignan, Ceret and Collioure as we finish exploring the South of France.
Au revoir! x