There are so things to do in Carcassonne. Almost at the centre of the Aude département it’s one of the largest fortified towns in Europe, and one of the best conserved. This is thanks to restoration work carried out by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
Carcassonne is a two-tiered city. The lower town – La Ville Basse – is built around the bastide of St Louis, built in 1260 to the customary chequerboard pattern of these fortified settlements.
There are over 300 bastides towns in the south of France, and as well as meeting defensive strategies, they served to garrison and control the changing and feckless populations of the Middle Ages.
Today, St Louis is consumed by the sprawl of the modern town, a bright, bustling place and one of the most-visited cities in the whole of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Where is Carcassonne?
Carcassonne is in the very south of France and is around 50 miles east of Toulouse. Historically it has been an important link between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and was fortified by the Romans.
Read our: Visitors Guide to Aude
The town stands on three rivers; the Aude, Fresquel and the Canal du Midi so is always popular with boating enthusiasts.
Things to do in Carcassonne – a walk through la Cite
Above the bastide, across the River Aude is the Upper Town. La Cité, is the largest fortress in Europe, consisting of a central building, the Chateau Comtal, surrounded by a double curtain wall within which hundreds of people once lived.
These days, there is a resident population of a little more than a hundred, with access by the narrow but massive Porte Narbonnaise, a crenellated redoubt built on a bridge across the moat.
Wandering the streets of La Cité at night, after the clamour of tourists has subsided and the walls are floodlit, is one of the most highly recommended things to do in Carcassonne.
Enter by the Porte Narbonnaise and you are suddenly pitched into the Rue Cros Mayrevielle which, it has to be said, is a mess of tacky souvenir shops.
But this narrow street – used by vehicles, although only those resident or staying at the hotels can drive in the city – leads up to the place du Chateau. Through an archway and over a dry moat, and you enter the world of the Chateau Comtal.
One simply cannot visit France without exploring at least one chateau; these are what this country is all about and the Chateau Comtal is certainly worth a trip. This ginormous mediaeval building takes over the entire landscape with its red brick pointed turrets and beautiful details.
Originally built in the 1200s, Chateau Comtal was built to be a royal fortress after the Albigensian crusade. Today it exists as a UNESCO world heritage site and lies at the heart of this fortified city.
However, the breath-taking castle almost didn’t make it to the present day. In the 19th century, the entire city was being demolished and if it wasn’t for the valiant efforts of a guy named Viollet le Duc, who restored the castle to its former glory, it might have been no more.
But it was well worth saving and keeping the city intact since today, Carcassonne is known to be the largest city in Europe with both the castle and city walls still standing; that’s a real claim to fame!
For architecture fans, the Chateau Comtal is certainly a real treat. It features six towers and is surrounded by a deep ditch with two barbicans. There are also 52 arrow slits which today are used as viewing points which offer stunning views across the city from a variety of angles.
The mediaeval design remains perfectly intact and when viewing the castle, one could be forgiven for thinking that they had travelled back in time.
Open: January to March and October to December daily 9.30am–5pm; April to September daily 10am–6.30pm.
Closed 1 January, 1 May, 1 and 11 November and 25 December.
Tel: 04 68 11 70 70; www.remparts-carcassonne.fr.
Carcassonne lower town
The regular layout of the lower town means that it is difficult to get lost. You should just keep turning left. You’ll probably find your friends wondering where you got to, still ensconced outside the café on the Place Carnot.
If you’re looking for things to do in Carcassonne you should explore the Place Carnot (see below). It’s one of the city’s most favoured meeting places, where markets are held beneath the gaze of a statue of Neptune, and the problems of the world are put to rights, at least for the next hour or so.
Walk up Rue Georges Clemenceau, and eventually you come to Pont Marengo spanning the Canal du Midi, just in front of the railway station.
Read our Guide: Boating Vacations on the Canal du Midi
The canal is a remarkable engineering achievement and, like La Cité, a World Heritage Site. This 360km network of navigable waterways linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic is one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering.
It elevates engineering to a work of art, thanks to the care that its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet, took in its design and the way it blends with its surroundings.
If you’re thinking of going boating in France the Canal du Midi should be first on your list. And it’s highly suitable for newbies.
Place Carnot in Carcassonne
People flock to London to see the great Trafalgar Square and when tourists head to Carcassonne, they simply cannot miss out on seeing the gorgeous Place Carnot. Located right in the heart of Carcassonne, Place Carnot is a great place to soak up the culture, have a spot to eat, get in with the locals and appreciate the beautiful architecture.
The square has been the pride of the city since the year 1355 and it remains as popular today. Lined with cute little eateries where you can sit outside on the cobbles enjoying a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a bite to eat and watch the world go by; there’s no better place to relax.
But this square wasn’t always known as Place Carnot; it was only given this name in the late 1800s. Before this, the square had gone by many names including Republic Square, Napoleon Square and Freedom Square.
At the very centre of Place Carnot, one can find a stunning statue of the God Neptune. Surrounding this are stone dolphins that shoot water at the main feature. If you’re looking for an artistic social media photo, this is it!
What many locals and tourists love is the open-air market that comes to Place Carnot three days a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Here, you can purchase a wealth of local produce including fruits and vegetables, flowers and much more.
Surrounding the square are a variety of buildings including shuttered homes and holiday lets as well as some seriously stunning traditional French style architecture. It’s rustic, quaint and a sight that has to be seen.
Do you have an interest in the slightly darker history of France? Well, if you do then there aren’t many other museums that will take your fancy as much as the Inquisition Museum in Carcassonne.
The museum focuses on a period of Roman Catholic history that many of us would sooner forget; with instruments of torture and a range of education, it’s certainly an exhibition you won’t forget in a hurry.
The Inquisition museum shows devices and information from as early as the 12th century all the way through to the French Revolution. But it is made much more personal thanks to the information and stories of several prominent characters from these periods.
The museum is set in a stunning 17th century building so it’s also an excellent opportunity to check out the architecture of this time. While the museum is far from being the largest attraction in the area in terms of size, it’s certainly one of the most visited.
It’s great if you’re looking for a way to kill an hour in the afternoon learning about the gruesome history of the Inquisition.
However, visitors should be aware that some of the descriptions and educational material here are incredibly graphic.
For this reason, we would urge you to err on the side of caution and would not recommend this attraction for families with young children. But for those who do want to visit, it’s an amazing opportunity to see how far humanity has come in terms of crime and punishment.
Bastide Saint-Louis in Carcassonne
Bastide Saint Louis is a neighbourhood in the lower part of Carcassonne and is one of the most popular areas to visit. Having been built in the Middle Ages, Bastide Saint Louis was constructed to be the ‘New Carcassonne’ and sits on the left bank of the River Aude.
While it is a popular destination, it’s not one that you might merely stumble upon. Unless you have already been told about Bastide Saint Louis, it isn’t uncommon for people to miss it and they really miss out on a beautiful French gem.
The Bastide Saint Louis is connected to the old part of the city with a striking bridge; the Point Vieux Bridge. Once you cross into the Bastide Saint Louis, it’s almost like being transported back in time, with a winding maze of cobbled streets and beautiful old architecture.
If you’re a fan of getting in with the locals, then you won’t be disappointed since the markets here are an excellent place to connect as well as buy local produce.
And when you’re done, you can relax and enjoy watching the world go by in the Place Carnot where there are a plethora of cafes and restaurants to choose from.
But one of the biggest draws of the Bastide Saint Louis is the canal. Visitors can take a boat ride which allows them to see the citadel and many of the other historic aspects of this quaint little town.
Also keep in mind that Bastide Saint Louis is a pretty windy little location. With more than 300 days of wind each year, it’s a breezy little spot with winds coming from the Mediterranean, but it’s by no means unpleasant. In fact, on a hot summer’s day, there’s nothing more refreshing!
Narbonne, about forty minutes’ drive east of Carcassonne, is a bright and refreshing town, once the largest Roman province in Gaul and a great port until the Middle Ages, when its harbour silted up.
It offers an easy day out from Carcassonne. The autoroute is the quickest way to get there, but a more relaxed approach along the routes nationales leads through numerous diverting villages, and has much to commend it.
Thriving now on tourism and a flourishing wine trade, it is hugely agreeable to saunter along the winding narrow streets.
Head towards the Palais des Archevêques and the basilica of St Just, or stroll along the banks of the Canal de la Robine and maybe take a Moka coffee or herbal tisane in the shade of plane trees.
In the centre of town, is the lively square with an exposed section of the Via Dominitia, the original Roman road that passed through the town.
The central part of town is a pedestrian zone. So, park in one of the car parks alongside the Canal de la Robine, and walk in from there; it isn’t far.