Last Updated on 25/07/2022 by secretmoona
Are you planning to spend a weekend in Carcassonne, France? The UNESCO-listed Cité de Carcassonne is a worthwhile town thanks to its quaint castle and ramparts overlooking the Aude River and the Ville Basse. The city in southern France is an excellent destination for French châteaux lovers and anyone looking to discover the history of France while admiring the medieval architecture.
As a lover of medieval architecture, I had to make it to Carcassonne.
In this guide, you will have the opportunity to discover the famous city of Dame Carcas, sheltered by its ramparts and castle. Exploring this city is an opportunity to enjoy pleasant temperatures and the sun. Here are some ideas for must-do visits.
- 1 Let’s explore the best things to do in Carcassonne.
- 2 Best thing to do in Carcassonne during a weekend trip
- 3 The Upper Town: Cité de Carcassonne
- 4 The Lower Town: Bastide Saint Louis – ville basse
- 5 Other attractions and places to visit near Carcassonne
- 6 Practical information
Let’s explore the best things to do in Carcassonne.
A Brief History of Carcassonne
The historic town of Carcassonne has more than 5,000 years of history. The citadel perched on top of a hill and surrounded by double ramparts dotted with 52 pointed turrets seems like the location of a Disney scene. The Romans first fortified Carcasso, and due to its essential position, the town fell into the hands of various invaders, including Visigoths, Saracens and Franks.
Carcassonne was an important location for the Cathars. During Pope Innocent III’s crusade against the Albigenses (Cathars) in the 13th century, Carcassonne was captured by Simon de Montfort. He decided to construct the outer wall to strengthen its position. Carcassonne’s fortifications were abandoned around 1600.
Finally, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the City in the 19th century. The government, under Napoleon, initially wanted the citadel to be demolished but instead reclassified the Cité de Carcassonne as a historical monument and commissioned a restoration. Although the restoration by Viollet-le-Duc was not true to the original structures, the citadel still maintained a medieval feel.
Best thing to do in Carcassonne during a weekend trip
The city is divided into the fortified Cité de Carcassonne and the Ville base located in the lower part, outside of the defensive walls. Although most tourists are interested in the citadel, the lower part also has charms. Here’s what to do and see in Carcassonne.
Cross the Vieux Pont
Your visit to the citadel will start by crossing the Vieux Pont (Old Bridge). In the 14th century, 210 metres bridge crossed the River Aude and was previously the only entry road to the fortified city. Crossing the bridge also gives one of the best views of the citadel.
The Upper Town: Cité de Carcassonne
Visiting the medieval city is undoubtedly THE top thing to do during your weekend in Carcassonne. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of France’s most impressive walled towns. After all, it attracts millions of visitors each year. Wandering the winding alleys and passageways of the old town is one of the best things to do in Carcassonne.
Enter the city via one of the main gates
Entry to the old city is done via the gates. There are four gates, the main gates being Narbonne Gate in the east and Aude Gate in the west. Both gates were considerably embellished during the resurrection in the 19th century. The Jacobin Gate, located on the south side, is the only one which survived to this date.
Entry to the Cité de Carcassonne is done via the imposing Narbonne Gate. It’s made of two twin towers and a drawbridge.
Say “Hello” to Lady Carcas
Located by the Cité de Carcassonne entrance, in front of the Narbonne Gate’s drawbridge, you will see the statue of Lady Carcas. The bust is a replica. The original from the 16th century is kept in the castle.
According to the legend, she gave her name to the city. In the 8th century, Charlemagne was at the gates of Carcassonne to conquer it from the Saracens who occupied the town. After the death of the Saracen king Balaak, his wife, Lady Carcas, decided to organise the defence. After five years of siege, the city started to run out of food. All that was left was a lean piglet and a handful of wheat. Lady Carcas then had the idea of feeding the wheat to the piglet and throwing it from one of the city’s towers. When Charlemagne sees that, he lifts the siege, thinking that the city has so much food that they were able to waste them. As Lady Carcas watches the king leave, she decides to ring the bells of victory.
One of Charlemagne’s men then goes: “Sire, listen, Dame Carcas sonne!” (which means “Carcas sounds”); hence the name of the city. Whether this is true or not, it makes a good story!
The Épicerie de la Cité shop in the citadel sells “Friandises de Dame Carcas”, shortbread biscuits in honor of the heroine. Be sure to get some as a souvenir.
Stroll through the cobblestone streets
Wandering the streets of Cité Mediévale is like walking in medieval times. Most buildings have been preserved, and the cobblestone streets retained their charm. The town has lots of little shops, cafes and restaurants. You can find lots of souvenirs shops which will appeal especially to fans of the knights. Most of the shops are packed with silver plastic helmets and daggers.
Some secret spots are waiting to be explored from the tourist streets. The old town is a place worth visiting with a camera fully charged.
Walk along the Cité de Carcassonne ramparts
The old city of Carcassonne is one of the largest medieval walled cities in Europe. Its 3 kilometres of defensive ramparts were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The walk on the ramparts takes you from towers to gates: the Porte d’Aube and its battlements, the Bishop’s square tower with a lovely panorama view to the west, the gate tower of Saint-Nazaire and its well, the impressive Narbonnaise gate… and everywhere views of the surroundings.
The western ramparts have more of a medieval feel with a view of the Pyrenees, the lower town, the cathedral, and the Inquisition tower. The ramparts to the north are Gallo-Roman and offer views of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain) and the Aude valley.
Walking along the ramparts at night is the best experience since most tourists will be gone. Also, as the citadel is illuminated, you will feel like you are in a magical place. Take your time exploring and admiring the stone walls and the towers. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes due to the cobblestones and uneven pavement.
Visit the Chateau Comtal (Count’s Castle)
Château Comtal dominates the city and its surroundings. As the most popular spot in Carcassonne, it is a must-see. The count’s castle of the lords of Trencavel (masters of Nîmes, Albi and Béziers), from the 12th century, was the seat of all the city’s defences and commanded the Aude Valley.
Visiting the castle allows visitors to enter the dungeon and admire the beautiful bastions and 31 towers.
The film “In the footsteps of the city” is projected to tell the city’s story. In the rooms, you will notice the altarpiece of the Passion, the statue of a knight, paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries representing the fights between Christians and Saracens, and many other things.
I highly recommend that you buy a skip-the-line ticket in advance. It is not very expensive and will save you lots of time.
Admire the Basilica of Saint Nazaire
Do not miss the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, nicknamed the “jewel of the city”. The basilica built in the 12th century is of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The magnificent building is worth visiting, especially to admire the medieval stained-glass and rose windows. The facade of the basilica was restored during the extensive restoration by Viollet-le-Doc.
The Lower Town: Bastide Saint Louis – ville basse
Carcassonne is not only the Cité Medievale but also the modern part of the town known as Ville Basse. The lower city of Saint-Louis, on the other side of the Aude River, should also be explored.
Check out the markets
France is known for its fresh produce; therefore, when visiting a french town, hitting the markets is a must. In Carcassonne, you will find the market in Place Carnot. The market is open most days of the week, with stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, and delicacies like pastries, cheese and sweets. The display of fruits and treats was too good to resist. I got some bread, cheese, olives and strawberry tartlets and headed to the Aude riverbank for a picnic. The market runs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning.
Other attractions and places to visit near Carcassonne
Take a cruise along the Canal du Midi
One thing to do in Carcassonne is to cruise along the Canal du Midi. After exploring the Cité and the ramparts, head over to the lower town to the Canal du Midi. The UNESCO Heritage Site runs from Toulouse to Agde on the Mediterranean coast. Pierre-Paul Riquet of Béziers built it in the 17th century. You can stroll along the banks, hire a bike or take guided boat tours. You can also take an 8 km circular walk of the River Aude from the Vieux Pont.
Explore the countryside and go wine tasting
One of the popular activities to do in Carcassonne is touring vineyards and wineries. Carcassonne is located only a few kilometres from some of the significant Languedoc appellations such as Cabarbès, Minervois and Corbières. You can meet with local winemakers or spend time in famous wineries.
Visit the Lac de la Cavayère
The Lac de la Cavayère is a beautiful place to spend a warm afternoon. Located not far from Carcassonne, it’s a popular stop for locals and all nature lovers. Go there to admire the picturesque landscapes around the lake, take a walk in the woodland or enjoy some water activities. The beach area allows you to sit and relax or swim. It’s just a short 20-minute drive out to the lake. You can also take the bus 4 and 7.
Narbonne is a typical Mediterranean city. During the Roman Gaul, Narbonne was an important port town. Nowadays, it is a beautiful touristy town with beautiful quays beside the Canal du Midi, one of France’s most attractive markets and the Archbishop’s Palace.
Where is Carcassonne
The UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1997) is located in the Aude department, Occitanie region, in southwestern France. It is about 90 kilometres southeast of Toulouse. Carcassonne is crossed by the Aude River, which divides the town into Ville Basse and the Cité. Carcassonne is a great city to include in your trip through the south of France.
Getting to Carcassonne
Access to Carcassonne is accessible from anywhere in France or Europe.
France has one of the best rail networks in the world, so getting to Carcassonne by train is simple. You have direct high-speed TGV trains connecting to big cities like Marseille, Lyon, Narbonne, Montpellier or Bordeaux and slower Intercités and TER trains. A journey from Paris to Carcassonne will take on average 6 hrs 3 minutes with a change in Narbonne. The best fares can be found here.
Carcassonne Airport is located less than 5 kilometres from the city centre. The airport connects the city to many other towns in France or Europe. Ryanair operates flights from destinations like the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands. The bigger airport of Toulouse, which receives more flights, is only 1 hour away. Check here for flight options to Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is an essential stop during any trip in Occitanie. To reach Carcassonne by car, if you plan a road trip, take the motorway (A61) “Autoroute des Deux Mers” which runs from Narbonne to Bordeaux. Take exit 24 signposted “Cité médiévale”. Click here to compare car rental prices.
How to get around Carcassonne
Carcassonne is a small town, so it is easily visited on foot which is also the best way to get around. However, if you want to take public transport, then there are several buses available to use. There are, for example, buses which link the train station to the Cité. Tickets cost €1 for journeys valid for an hour or €3 for a day pass. Please be aware that these tickets are not valid on the little Tourist Train or the Airport Shuttle Bus.
Where to eat in Carcassonne
Some local dishes and wines to look for include Cassoulet, a bean and a meat dish. However, I did see some vegetarian versions on restaurant boards too. The town is also famous for its magret de canard (duck breast), foie gras and truffles. The Languedoc region is also renowned for its tapenade (and olives in general) and goat’s cheese!
- Meery Cake – Great coffee and cake selection
- Cafe Freaks – Nice cafe good for lunch or late afternoon snack with coffee
- Adélaïde – Offer set menu, lovely outdoor terrace, spectacular views of Château Comtal
- Auberge des Lices – Delicious French cuisine, fine dining experience
- Le Bar à Vins de la Cité – Nice place for drinks
- Au Jardin de la Tour – Traditional french food, go for goats cheese salad
- La Table d’Alaïs – Elegant decor and delicious food
- Restaurant Tribe – Modern French menu offers a panoramic view of the medieval city
- La Cure Gourmande – for delicious pastries
Where to stay in Carcassonne
Carcassonne is not a town for a day trip, although you could see most of the attractions. To get the most out of the citadel and explore all the best things to do in Carcassonne, it will be a good idea to spend at least one night. The reason is that the cité lights up during the evening, making it the perfect time to stroll along the ramparts. Most of the tourists will be gone by then; you will have the place yourself to wander.
I stayed at Tribe Carcassonne, a boutique hotel just at the foot of the Vieux Pont. The hotel has a lovely rooftop giving fantastic views of the citadel. Click here to book a stay at Tribe Carcassonne.
Here are some other examples:
- Hotel de la Cité & Spa MGallery – Luxury hotel located right in the centre of the old town
- Hotel Pont Levis – Franck Putelat – Lovely hotel situated close to the Narbonne gate – offers a nice view of the city.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the best things to do in Carcassonne. Have you ever heard of Carcassonne, maybe even been there? What other medieval cities do you know of that you recommend? Let me know in the comments.