Carcassonne has been at the top of our travel bucket list for some time and we finally had the opportunity to tick it off. You are probably here because you are wondering if Carcassonne is worth visiting and we are here to tell you that it is. A visit to this fairytale city in the South of France is like stepping back in time, with its cobbled streets and centuries-old architecture. It is hard to believe that places as magical as this exist in the modern world and every time we go to France we fall in love with it a little more.
The charming castle and fortifications of the UNESCO-listed Cité de Carcassonne make it a worthwhile visit. For those who adore French châteaux and want to learn about French history while appreciating medieval architecture, this beautiful city in southern France is a great choice.
Is Carcassonne worth visiting?
The answer is a resounding yes! Apart from just visiting the fortifications and castle of the medieval Old Town, the city has a bustling market and a large number of interesting museums to visit. Best of all the city centre is relatively small so it is easy to get around by foot and there are lots of historic sights to visit for free. La Cité has an impressive 52 turrets and 3km of ramparts to explore. This guide will show you the best things to see and do in Carcassonne and show you why Carcassonne is worth visiting.
Romans laid the initial foundation for Carcassonne in about 100 BC. They constructed the fort on the hillside of the river bank to guard a vital trading route. The fortified walls are based on earlier Roman fortifications, but the architects who built them also incorporated their own architectural designs. The stronghold underwent numerous modifications and additions throughout the medieval era and still stands strong today.
Where is Carcassonne?
Carcassonne is located in the Occitanie region of Southern France, southeast of Toulouse. The city is divided in two by the meandering Aude River. On a hilltop overlooking the Aude River and the Ville Basse (Lower Town) is Cité, one of the most exceptional examples of medieval fortifications in Europe. A beautiful view of the Lower Town and Aude Valley can be enjoyed while strolling along the ramparts there. At night, the illumination of the ramparts and the castle is really magical.
Are you ready to visit Carcassonne?
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How long do you need to visit Carcassonne?
In all honesty you can see most of what needs to be seen in Carcassonne in half a day, especially if you just want to see medieval Carcassonne. However, while you can see Carcassonne in a day trip we recommend spending at least 1-2 days here to really soak up the magic of this fairytale city.
Top things to do in Carcassonne
As we previously mentioned the city of Carcassonne is divided into two parts. The Ville Basse or Lower Town located outside the city’s defences and the Cité or Upper Town. Although most tourists come to see the medieval citadel, the lower and more modern part of the city is not without its charms.
Cross the medieval drawbridge at Narbonne Gate
The Cité of Carcassonne has two main gates: The Narbonne Gate (Porte Narbonnaise) on its eastern side and the Aude Gate (Porte Aude) below the castle on its western side. In fact, the inner medieval old town of Carcassonne can be accessed by 4 gates which are located on each of the 4 cardinal compass points.
At the Narbonne Gate you can cross the medieval drawbridge into the city which instantly transports you back in time. If you are travelling with kids they are going to love using their imaginations and getting to play knights for the day. They may even love playing this Medieval Citadel Exploration Game that you can download on your phone giving you clues to solve and unlocking stories about the city as you explore. Take the time to admire the fairytale turrets of the city walls before crossing into the city.
Explore medieval Cité de Carcassonne
One wonderful aspect of Carcassonne is that you can freely enter the fortified Old Town and stroll around this architectural marvel at your own pace. However, it is important to be aware that the Château Comtal serves as the entrance to the ramparts of Carcassonne, and that there is an admission charge.
Walking through the medieval streets of the Cité is like travelling back in time. The majority of the structures have been conserved, and the charming cobblestone streets still exist. There are numerous quaint shops, cafes, and eateries to enjoy. There are also many gift shops selling medieval souvenirs. The majority of which are stocked with daggers and silver plastic helmets.
You can also enjoy a 2-hour private walking tour of the magnificent fortified town of Carcassonne. Stroll down medieval streets and explore the superb castle, city ramparts and romantic buildings with your own private guided tour.
One of the most important buildings in Cité de Carcassonne is the fairy-tale looking castle nestled against the protective ramparts of the city walls. It is called Château Comtal (Count’s Castle), a 12th-century castle that overlooks the lower town to the west. It is the heart of the defence system of the city of Carcassonne.
Visiting the castle is one of the best things to do in Carcassonne to discover the history of the city. Here you can learn about its restoration by architect Viollet-le-Duc, understand its interior and exterior defense system, visit the keep, admire its Roman frescoes and its treasures of Roman architecture. You will also learn about the legend of Dame Carcas, the Cité’s archaeological collections, investigate over 2,500 years of history, watch a presentation film and enjoy a completely renovated shop in one of the most beautiful rooms in the château.
The admission fee to enter the castle includes:
- Privileged access to the upper part of the ramparts where you can enjoy 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding area. From the castle you have a beautiful panorama of the Pyrenees and the Bastide Saint-Louis (Lower Town).
- The rampart walk and access to the hoards.
- A visit to the dungeon (donjon).
- Access to rooms in the castle and interior courtyards.
- A short film on the history of the city.
- A visit to the Musée Lapidaire which is full of sculptures.
Visit Musée de L’École
Unexpectedly, there is a school museum tucked away in the centre of Carcassonne. Explore the five rooms, which are filled with teaching aids and resources from the 1880s to the 1960s. It is a fascinating place to visit if you’re curious about what French schools were like during that time. There is a small entrance fee to visit.
Museum of the Inquistion
This is one of the darkest periods of the city of Carcassonne. In February 1231, Gregory IX published the constitution Excommunicamus, which prescribed life imprisonment for repentant heretics and the death penalty for obstinate ones. The Museum of the Inquisition is located in a large 17th century building. You will be able to see several instruments of torture from the 12th century to the French Revolution.
Visit the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus
The Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus is a stunning Roman Catholic minor basilica in the heart of medieval Carcassonne. It is built in the Gothic-Romanesque style and it is certainly worth a visit during your time in the city. The original church is thought to have been constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Visigoths.
The Church of Saints Nazarius and Celsus obtained the status of historical monument in 1840. Around this time, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc renovated the church along with the remainder of the citadel. In 1898, the church was elevated to a minor basilica. A vibrant rose window adorns the facade of this elegant basilica. The central stained glass window of the choir from 1280 is one of the oldest ones in the south of France.
Walk across Pont Vieux
This very old bridge stretches a whooping 200m across the River Aude and beyond its banks. Steeped in over 2000 years of history this beautiful stone bridge links the Cité to the lower town and offers one of the best views of the citadel. Exclusively reserved for pedestrians, it allows quick access to the Medieval City. The arches are illuminated different colours at night and if you get the chance to walk the bridge at sunset it really is a magical experience.
The chapel of Notre-Dame de la Santé, located at the bridge’s entry, is the last remaining piece of the city’s first hospital. Although the interior has been altered and the exterior restored, it is still a beautiful example of 15th century architecture.
Bastide Saint Louis
Today, the Lower Town and more modern part of Carcassonne is known as Bastide Saint Louis. Believe it or not, Bastide Saint Louis even had its own walls like Cité de Carcassonne but they have since been replaced by bustling boulevards. The only remaining portion of this wall is the Porte des Jacobins gate, which is located close to Carcassonne Cathedral.
Though less well known than the medieval citadel of Carcassonne, La Bastide Saint Louis offers many historic sights away from the the tourist trap of the La Cité. Built in the 13th century by Saint Louis, from whom it takes its name, it is a charming, walkable district of narrow, twisting cobbled streets built on a grid around the main square, Place Carnot. Grab a table in the square beside the neptune fountain, order a coffee and just people watch.
Every Saturday, Place Carnot is transformed into a bustling market selling local and organic produce. We highly recommend visiting to soak up the atmosphere and witness Occitan life happening in the heart of Bastide Saint Louis.
Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi is a navigable waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It stretches for 360 kilometers (224 miles), from Narbonne to Bordeaux, passing through Carcassonne and Toulouse. This famous French canal links Toulouse and Sète and was originally used to transport goods and people. The Canal du Midi winds itself through the vineyards to the centre of the town of Carcassonne. You can take a bike ride along the old towpaths, enjoy a walk or hire a boat and enjoy the scenery.
Parking at Carcassonne
Conveniently, there is a car park just outside the city walls close to the entrance of the Cité de Carcassonne which has plenty of spaces. However, be aware that there is a charge for parking your car.
Before heading into the Old City of Carcassonne, make sure you pick up a free map from the small Tourist Office which is located near the main entrance at Narbonne Gate (La Porte Narbonnaise).
What to eat in Carcassonne
Don’t pass up the opportunity to sample some local cuisine while you are visiting Carcassonne. Cassoulet is the local delicacy. White haricot beans, sausage, and duck or goose confit are combined to make this hearty casserole dish.
Pélardon des Corbières is a traditional French cheese hailing from Languedoc-Roussillon. The cheese is made from raw goat’s milk and it ripens in about one week. Pélardon des Corbières is shaped by hand into small disks. The texture is soft, creamy, and supple, while the flavour is slightly acidic, salty and nutty.
There are plenty of small restaurants within the Cité walls which serve delicious food and wine with stunning vistas of Carcassonne so be sure to check them out!
Where to stay in Carcassonne
Carcassonne Bed and Breakfast du Palais is a gem of a find. It is located in one of the premier residental areas of Carcassonne and each of the 5 en-suite bedrooms is individually decorated with an eclectic collection of artefacts. You will be served a delicious breakfast each morning of your stay and the hosts are really helpful and happy to recommend things to do during your stay in Carcassonne. The pool is heated from May to October and there is a beautiful garden terrace to enjoy.
If you would prefer to stay closer to the citadel of Carcassonne then we recommend Good Knight. It is a pretty basic accommodation to be honest but it is affordable and you just can’t beat the location! It is self check-in which is really handy and there is parking near by. If you do book, try to get a room with a view of the castle. We were given room 9 which was around the back of the property in a small room with no view. Having said that we would stay again for the convenience of the location. Breakfast can be pre-ordered through a local restaurant but it is worth noting that apart from coffee-making facilities there is nothing onsite.
We definitely think that Carcassonne is worth visiting and we are hoping that after this blog post it has made its way to your travel bucket list too.
We are Nicola and Ronan Lavin experts in finding unique accommodation all over the world. Nominated as top 6 travel bloggers in Ireland we are dedicated to helping you find authentic and immersive travel experiences to help you plan your perfect vacation.
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Until next time you crazy kids!