Carcassonne perches in southern France’s Languedoc – a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. For a wider sense of geography, you’ll also find it in the middle of a triangle that has its points at Toulouse, Montpellier and Barcelona. Whilst not the biggest city, it will still delight with its share of history, gastronomy and wine offerings.
Its hilltop medieval citadel, La Cité, is the image conjured when one thinks about this part of France. And the citadel is France’s second most visited tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower. It has also provided the backdrop for various Hollywood swashbuckling movies including Labyrinth, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Les visiteurs.
Yet the citadel alone should only take up part of your stay here. Step outside of the old city walls and across the River Aude you’ll find Carcassonne’s new town or lower town (La Ville Basse) also known as Bastide Saint Louis. The ‘new’ town dates back to the Middle Ages and so is still packed with architectural delights and brimming with character. Although here is where you’ll find all the usual trappings of town life. So if you need a strong coffee or a cashpoint, look no further. Delightfully though, you’ll also find a batch of charming boutique stores complementing an authentic gallic setting as well as some fine eateries.
Most guides to visiting Carcassonne naturally imagine a tourist to have flown into town and jumped on a bus tour – the guide writers can be forgiven for this assumption given that the majority of the city’s four million annual visitors take this route. As such, the Canal du Midi is pitched as one of the greatest ‘sites’ or things to do while in town. In fact, the Canal du Midi was granted UNESCO world heritage status one year before La Cité. If, like us, you’re visiting en route along the Canal du Midi you may be interested in some of the other things to do in town while you’re there.
Here we’ve included the two fairly obvious ‘must-do’ attractions of old town and new, but ahead of those are some of our favourite Carcassonne alternatives. Whichever you choose, just pack your comfortable shoes!
Take or make a wine tour
The vineyards and the sunshine are plentiful in these parts and as such so is viticulture. If you’re familiar with Fitou and Corbières, Minervois, Limoux, Cabardès or Malepère you’ll be spoilt for choice whilst in Aude. If you’re not staying long, where do you start? If you have a car then obviously your wine drive can take you where you please. If you’re limited by bicycle then you’re options will be fewer but it’ll probably be easier to choose. The Carcassonne tourist office helpfully produces this guide and map to local cellars categorised by their wine production.
“This is the way to… Cassoulet”
If you like more than your fair share of authentic French cuisine then The Road of the Cassoulet, or at least part of it, could also be right up your street.. Cassoulet is said to have been created during the siege of Castelnaudary in the Hundred Years War and brought to Carcassonne in the 1920s by famous chef Prosper Montagné.
The Road of the Cassoulet takes in a 180km route that incorporates sites between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary where all of the ingredients and components of cassoulet are grown or produced. From farms, wineries and potteries (yes, the serving dish matters too) to cookery classes, wine tasting and guided walks, you’ll experience the most fascinating dip into local French life. Combine with your bespoke wine tour and you’ll be more than contently sated.
Dine in one of Carcassonne’s most loved restaurants
On this topic we’re taking a lead from fellow diners and have selected the two most and best reviewed restaurants on TripAdvisor. One is in town, one is out of town.
O’Vineyards Table d’Hote is a 15 minute drive north to the suburb of Villemoustaussou. It’s primarily a vineyard, but food is important here too and the two are developed to best suit each other. Run by an English family who are heartwarmingly renowned for offering vineyards tours either in English or Franglais and for presenting refined home cooking from a daily changing menu.
Le-Bis-troquet is just off Le Place Carnot on Rue Chartran. From the reviews it proffers some quiet time away from the hubbub of town and a menu with a twist that specialises in tartines. What’s more this won’t hurt your wallet. In fact, the reviews from patrons both French and English are overwhelmingly positive.
Take a day trip by train to…
Bram (10 minutes by train from Carcassonne) to wind your way around one of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of circular villages. Although its layout is best observed from the air, its history, for such a small place, is bloody and remarkable. From within the village, the church of St Julien and St Basilisse is worth a stop as is the parc des Essars – an arboretum in the grounds of a stately mansion. Whether you come by train or along the Canal du Midi, Bram’s port is a picturesque picnic spot.
The festival takes place annually through July and early August. Its continual success as a local event has been successfully steered to achieve regional acclaim in the last 10 years and is now proudly heralded as one of France’s top 10 festivals to visit. The scale of today’s event requires it to have ‘in festival’ and ‘off festival’ venues. So the sites you don’t have on your tourist site hit list may well come up amongst your festival event venues. Notably the Théâtre Jean-Deschamps and the Chateau Comtal (a fortress within a fortress) are both ‘in festival’ venues, while Place Carnot, Saint Nazaire Basilica, Beaux-Arts Museum and St Vincent Church are all ‘off festival’ venues.
Cycle to Lac de la Cavayere for a swim
Set in 40 hectares an artificial lake has been artfully placed amidst lush forest as part of the Raymond Chésa leisure complex. You’ll find beach, meets water, meets countryside and all the activities of each of those are on offer here. From beach volleyball to crazy golf and sailing, you won’t be disappointed. Hire a bike in Carcassonne and take a steady 30-45 minute cycle there or for the super-active it is walkable in a couple of hours.
Created and marked by 2,500 years of history, this is the fortification with more than a handful of stories to tell about Catharism and the Crusades.
Walk the fortified walls (all 3km of them if you feel so inclined) of the citadel for a stunning and defensive perspective of Aude. Walk “the lists”, which run between 1km of rampart walls and once housed the poorest inhabitants. The ramparts themselves include 52 towers.
Hang around until sunset for magical views, echoes of centuries past and a sense of calm captured by peaceful footsteps meandering the cobblestones – a sheer delight after the day’s crowds have departed.
During the summer months, you’ll be treated to jousting displays amidst the city walls. These take place twice a day and do require a small viewing fee, but are a spectacle worth a stop and far beyond the tourist pull they first suggest.
The Théâtre de la Cité sits on the former St Nazaire cloisters and has done so since 1908. Once upon a time it sat 6,000 guests though now only permits half that. It is also famous for being the home of the Festival de la Cité (see below). The festival was the brainchild of renowned actor and director Jean Deschamps, whose contribution to the city and the arts was recognised in 2006 when the theatre was renamed Théâtre Jean-Deschamps.
The St Nazaire Basilica was first completed in the 12th century although rebuilt and renovated many times over subsequent centuries. But the church’s presence is documented as existing there since 925. It was originally Carcassonne’s cathedral, though this accolade was passed to the church of Saint Michel in the Bastide at the turn of the 20th century.
Bastide St Louis
La ville basse is comparatively new and virtually modern in its grid-like layout. First built in the 13th century you’ll see an architectural evolution in the facades of its many mansions, monuments and churches. Of the four city gates that initially surrounded the new town just one, Portail des Jacobins, remain. And for quick hops from old city to new the Pont Vieux with its high vaulted arches will also delight anyone fascinated by eras past. It was once the only link between the two parts of Carcassonne, built in the 14th century and nowadays still open to pedestrians.
Place Carnot is the Bastide’s central point, meeting place, marketplace and home to a magnificent marble fountain of Neptune.
The cathedral of Saint Michel is unlikely to leave you speechless when surrounded by all of Carcassonne’s ancient history, but some visitors cannot bear to tour a city without visiting its cathedral. Built in 1809 and then rebuilt in 1849 after a fire it is simple in layout, not dissimilar to cathedrals of the United Kingdom, though reflective of its period’s architecture in France.
We hope you have enough time to spend here. As we say, it’s not the biggest city in France, but there’s plenty to do and discover in and around that we think it’s worth mooring a short while if you can.