Looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination in the South of France? Then, you should consider Narbonne. With its historic centre, its vineyards, its Canal de la Robine with a picturesque promenade and its sandy beach, Narbonne is a destination that has a lot to offer to visitors. The town’s beautiful landmarks include a cathedral and a former archbishop’s palace. Let’s explore the best things to do in Narbonne.
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What is Narbonne known for?
“Narbo”, as it was once called, is an ancient port city dating back to 118 AD (BCE) and was the first Roman town established in Gaul. Rich in history, Narbonne offers a variety of things to do and see no matter the weather. Museums and historical and religious monuments are some of the few things you will see and discover in Narbonne. If the city has not retained its medieval fortified walls, you can still admire some of the artefacts at the Narbo Via Museum.
The charming city is also the birthplace of the iconic French singer Charles Trénet.
Narbonne, France: Is it worth visiting?
Narbonne is situated in the Aude department in the Occitanie region of southern France. Located 50 minutes from Carcassonne and Perpignan, the city is at the crossroads of the sea, the Corbières and the Catalan Pyrenees. International tourists overlook Narbonne in favour of the hilltop fortress town of Carcassonne, which is a shame. Narbonne is in the heart of the Narbonnaise Regional Nature Park and is just 20 minutes drive from some of France’s best and quietest beaches.
Furthermore, the region of Languedoc-Roussillon produces some of the world’s best wines; therefore, you can visit some vineyards.
Top things to do in Narbonne in 24 Hours
If you are looking for a little gem of a city with plenty of history, architecture, good food and a South of France vibe without the price tag, add Narbonne to your French itinerary. It is an ideal day trip option from Montpellier, Carcassonne, Toulouse or Béziers. In fact, if you wish to explore another side of France, that is, neither the French Riviera nor Provence. I urge you to explore the lovely towns in Occitanie.
In this day trip itinerary, I will list some of the top things to do in Narbonne, and the majority could be done within a day. However, spending two days is better for exploring areas a little further.
Stroll along the Canal de la Robine
The UNESCO-classified Canal de la Robine is the first thing you will discover when in Narbonne. At 32 kilometres long, the Canal de la Robine, a branch of the Canal du Midi, divides the city in two (the Cité to the north and the Bourg to the south).
The banks of the Canal are a wonderful place to stroll, thanks to the wide promenades. You won’t know where to look with flower beds on one side and lovely boats on the other.
Admire the Pont des Marchands (The Merchant’s Bridge)
Walking along the banks will bring you to the Pont des Marchands. This historic bridge is one of Narbonne’s most beautiful sights and one of the few bridges in the world lined with shops (like the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England). The bridge is lined with houses with pretty colourful facades dating back to Roman times.
Visit the Saint-Just and Saint Pasteur Cathedral
Like many cathedrals in France (Reims, Amiens, Rouen), the Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur Cathedral dominate Narbonne. But contrary to many of them, it is unfinished. Construction on the cathedral, dedicated to the Saints Justus and Pastor, began in the latter half of the 13th century. However, it was stopped in the 14th century. It was discovered that continuing the construction would mean knocking down the ramparts (which are now nowhere to be seen!)
Nonetheless, at 41 metres, it is one of the tallest cathedrals in France and a beautiful medieval building. Entry to the religious site is free. You can admire the Treasure Room’s stunning collection of precious liturgical objects made of ivory or silverware.
Get lost in the streets of the city
One of the best things to do in Narbonne is, of course, to walk around its historical centre. What better way to discover a city than to let your feet take you to some of the best places and attractions? Forgetting the map and going to places that catch your eye may allow you to discover the city’s gems. Narbonne has not only lots of beautiful and historical sites but also lovely cobblestone streets lined with cafes and boutiques, charming, quiet streets and big squares perfect for relaxing on the terrace of a café.
Visit the Halles de Narbonne
What better way to soak up a destination than to visit its local food market? Whether hungry or not, a visit to the Halles, one of France’s top food markets, is a must. (It turns out, on the day of my trip, Les Halles came first in a national competition for the most beautiful market in France! The stunning steel-and-glass-covered market was built near the canal at the beginning of the 20th century. The Baltard-style Pavillion is famous throughout the South of France.
Meeting place for locals, gastronomy lovers or simply architecture fans, visiting the market is one of the things to do in Narbonne. From the fishmongers to the butcher’s via the cheese maker, people come to Les Halls of Narbonne market to shop at one of the 70 local stands but also sit down and grab a bite at the counter. You will find all the region’s local food (oysters, olive, honey, goat’s cheese, wines, etc.).
Archbishop’s Palace (Archaeological Museum & Art History)
A stone’s throw from the Canal de la Robine, the Palace of the Archevêques (Archbishop’s Palace) is among the must-see attractions in the city. The Archbishop’s Palace consists of an old Romanesque palace with Gothic alterations. Built between the 13th and 14th centuries, the palace now hosts the City Hall, a museum of art and history, and an archeological museum.
The Old Palace (Vieux Palais) houses the Museum of Archaeology. It allows visitors to discover prehistoric and medieval archaeology collections and ancient frescoes.
The New Palace (Palais Neuf) hosts the Museum of Art and History of Narbonne, which contains a collection of paintings, sculptures, and china from the Middle Ages onwards. Be sure to visit the modern North African art on the top floor.
Adjoining the palace is the Jardin de l’Archevêché, a French-style garden with an extensive collection of century-old citrus fruits and cedar trees and a vast sundial serving as a fountain. You can enjoy a break in the shade and then go to the Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur cathedral.
Climb the Donjon Gilles Aycelin
Narbonne is a pretty town best seen strolling the streets but also from above. And the best way to see a panoramic view of the city is by climbing the 64 steps of the Gilles Aycelin Donjon. The square-shaped donjon was built around the 14th century under archbishop Gilles Aycelin. From the top of the tower, you can look down on the city and admire the breathtaking views. You can see the Canal de la Robine passing through Pont des Marchands as well as the Corbières Massif and the Pyrenees in the distance.
Visit the Roman Horreum
Via Domitia, the antique Roman route that connected Rome to the Spanish peninsula, is among some of the few remains of Narbonne’s Roman past. Those interested in Roman history will find it worthwhile to explore the Horreum Museum. The Gallo-Roman underground galleries served as a food warehouse in the 1st century B.C. Once located under the market buildings, these galleries served as warehouses to store goods such as grain, oil and wine.
Strolling in the museum is one of the most unusual things to do in Narbonne. There are more than 1,300 objects on display.
Visit the Maison Natale Charles Trenet
Many would not know this, but Narbonne is the birthplace of Charles Trenet. The poet/singer was born in Narbonne in 1913. His home has been transformed into a museum: The Maison Natale de Charles Trenet. A visit to the museum takes people on a musically interactive journey through numerous photos, posters and nods to the poet. You wlll also get to hear some of Trenet’s music including “La Mer”, “Boum!” and “Y’a d’la joie”.
Relax in the town’s squares
You will not see a town in France without a square, and Narbonne is no exception. The Place de l’Hôtel de Ville is the most important square in the city, and most of the main attractions will be centred around it. People like to sit there, admire the impressive buildings and people watch. The other notable square is the charming Place des 4 Fontaines, surrounded by restaurants and shops.
Explore the area around Narbonne
Ideally located, Narbonne makes an ideal base if you want to explore a little bit of the surrounding areas. Thanks to the excellent transport links, you relax by the beach, explore a fishing village or even venture into the Spanish border.
Go swimming in Narbonne-Plage
Just 15 kilometres east of Narbonne, at the foot of the Clape mountain, in the Regional Natural Park of Narbonne in the Mediterranean, you will find Narbonne-Plage. The sandy beach is perfect for relaxing, swimming, or sports activities.
Explore the seaside town of Gruissan
Located only 20 minutes from Narbonne, Gruissan is a small seaside town between the Massif de la Clape and the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounded by salt marshes and oyster farms, it is a perfect stop for seafood lovers. The town’s huge beach is ideal for swimming or relaxing. Don’t miss the famous wooden chalets on stilts. Thanks to the preserved natural park of Massif de la Clape, many hiking trails allow people to admire the beautiful fauna and flora.
Visit the Fontfroide Abbey
If you can spend more time around Narbonne, rent a car to explore the surroundings. Just 30 minutes by car to explore the Abbaye de Fontfroide. Founded in 1093, the former Cistercian abbey was an important place during the crusade against the Cathars back in the 13th century. Fontfroide Abbey is located in the Corbières Massif, well-known for its wine, which you can taste at the end of your visit.
Cruise along the Canal du Midi
The UNESCO World Heritage Canal du Midi flows through the heart of Narbonne. The 17th-century canal links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by running from Sète and Toulouse. You can either book a private cruise or rent a barge and tour the canal at your leisure. That way, you can disembark at any time to explore the small canal and villages within the canal’s boundaries.
Another way to explore the surroundings is by getting on a gabare. These traditional wooden boats can also be found in Albi. You can get the boats on the banks of the Canal de la Robine or Promenade des Barques.
Explore the vineyards
Narbonne is located in Occitanie which combines the older regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. The Languedoc region is home to various wines, so if you visit Narbonne, I recommend visiting the local producers. Most vineyards and wineries open their doors for guided tours where you can learn about the grape varieties and appellations such as Corbières, Collioure, Fitou, Minervois etc.
For more information on the city, do not hesitate to visit the website of the Narbonne Tourist Office.
Map of Narbonne
How to get to Narbonne
- By train:The best option to reach Narbonne from Paris or elsewhere in France is by train. SNCF connects the city: it takes 4.5 hours from Paris, 1 hour from Toulouse, 3 hours from Lyon and 3.5 hours from Bordeaux. The proximity to Spain also means that you can reach Narbonne from Barcelona.
- By air: There is no airport in Narbonne. However, the airports in Toulouse, Béziers and Carcassonne are very close. You can take the train to your final destination or rent a car. I recommend Rentalcars.com when hiring cars in Europe.
- By car: Driving to Narbonne is easy, and you will be able to find parking spaces. The city takes either exit #38 Narbonne Sud (South ) or #37 Narbonne Est (East).
The walk from the train station to the town centre is pretty straightforward, and you can quickly get around by walking. The attractions are clustered in the same area. Free shuttle buses are also available; they stop by most of the top attractions.
Finally, you can rent bikes to cycle along the canal banks and explore more surrounding areas.
Where to Eat
Where to have lunch/dinner in Narbonne?
- En Face – This small restaurant located in front of the canal is a lovely spot offering local cuisine. On sunny days, book in advance if you want a place on the terrace. The menu starts at €18
- Macar – This restaurant/bar offers a great tapas menu for light snacks. The outdoor space is ideal on a warm and sunny day.
- Les Halles de Narbonne – The covered market is a perfect place to taste the local cuisine. Several restaurants like Chez Babelle are within the market itself.
Where to stop for coffee?
- La Fabrique Torrefaction – This place is for you if you want a place to enjoy great coffee. Not only is the coffee great, but the service in this artisanal roasting shop is impeccable too.
Hotels in Narbonne
Narbonne is not very touristy compared to cities like Carcassonne and Toulouse. Therefore, you won’t see the major hotel chains or luxury accommodations. Having said that, there are still a good number of three-star accommodations. Check the best offer here.
Hotel Galla Placidia – This charming boutique hotel with only eight rooms is within walking distance of Narbonne station and the town centre. The hotel’s focus is on women- all the rooms bear the name of women native to Narbonne, and the art used for the room decorations is exclusively by female artists.
I hope you found this guide to the best things to do in Narbonne, France, practical. If you plan a trip to the south of France, particularly in the Occitanie region, add Narbonne to your plans. The city is not crowded with tourists but has cultural and historical landmarks to see.