Best Things to do in Carcassonne, France

The fairytale medieval city of Carcassonne sits amid the Aude plain between Toulouse and Narbonne in southern France. A city of two halves that seamlessly converge to become one. 

Upon the hillside, La Cité de Carcassonne, a walled fortress with a castle, flanked by turrets, ramparts and ancient stone gateways awaits. Behind the city walls, cobbled streets and winding passageways make way for ivy-clad taverns serving cassoulet, a medieval chateau, basilica and lively tree-lined squares.

Across Pont Vieux, on the opposite side of the Aude River, is the lower city, known as Bastide Saint-Louis. Often overlooked in favour of its hilltop counterpart, but equally as beautiful. It’s a marginally more modern interpretation of Carcassonne with produce markets, museums, cosy French cafes and fine dining restaurants.

A few kilometres outside the city in each direction, you’ll find lakes and forests, canals, hiking trails and AOC wineries, making this an appealing spot for a family vacation.

The best things to do in Carcassonne, France can be enjoyed on a day trip, or throughout a longer holiday to the fortified city.

Read More: 10 Stunning Historical Places in France to Add to Your Bucket List

Is Carcassonne Worth Visiting?

Even if you’ve visited every corner of France, or live here like I do, Carcassonne is a place that will leave you in awe.

Like a rich tapestry woven from medieval times to the present day, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place of myths and legends, infused with tales of bravery and fortitude.

To understand Carcassonne is to delve into its rich history, unravelling the times when the city was a major trading stop along the Atlantic to Mediterranean road. Learn about the invaders who tried to take it over and the heroic figures that foiled them.

Wander along the ramparts of La Cité overlooking the lower city and river, stroll through castles where counts once lived, and sip coffee in pavement-side cafes overlooking centuries-old cathedrals.

Carcassonne captures the hearts and minds of all who visit, and you only have to spend a day here for this magical city to get under your skin.

Top Things to do in Carcassonne

Whether you’re visiting Carcassonne for a day, a weekend or longer, you’ll find plenty of attractions to entertain everyone in your travelling party. Here are my top picks of what to do in Carcassonne.

Stroll along the Medieval Cobbled Streets of La Cité

To gain a true understanding of what Carcassonne is all about, head to La Cité first. The ancient city is housed within a fortress atop a hill, flanked by ramparts and turrets with a distinctly Rapunzel vibe. Unsurprisingly, the alluring spot has been featured in many Hollywood movies, namely Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves and Labyrinth to name a couple.

Enter La Cité via Porte Narbonnaise, one of the ancient gates. It is here, etched into the walls, you’ll see the stone relief of Dame Carcas, for whom Carcassonne is named. Legend has it that her quick-witted, psychological (although a bit gruesome) strategy saved the citadel from being attacked by Charlemagne’s troops. You can take a walking tour with a guide dressed as a medieval knight to learn more.

Wander along the maze of cobbled streets, browse window displays of souvenir shops and inhale the distinct aroma of local speciality cassoulet emitting from quaint eateries. If you wish to try the dish for yourself, Place St. Jean is where the locals go.

Pop into Hotel de la Cité, and if budget permits, treat yourself to a Michelin-star dining experience at La Barbacane. The restaurant, with its arched windows and gothic chandeliers, makes it a favourite for dinner on cooler evenings.

Visit Château Comtal and Walk the City Ramparts

The most well-known of Carcassonne attractions, Chateau Comtal was home to the famous Trencavel family during the 12th century, when Carcassonne was the heart of Cathar country.

Like others in the Languedoc region, the city had rejected the Roman church’s teachings in favour of Catharism. This didn’t please the leader of the Roman church, Pope Innocent III, who sent a large army to take over the city.

The residents of the chateau at the time were key to Carcassonne’s survival, and you can learn what happened next on a guided tour of Chateau Comtal.

Buy your tickets in advance (to secure your spot), but be sure to pick up an audio guide for €3 at the door – it truly enhances your visit.

As you’re guided through Comtal Castle, you’ll observe faded frescoes and preserved alabaster sculptures, peek into secret courtyards, and climb the Bishop’s Tower, explore the archaeological museum and wince at the fate of those subjected to the “murder hole” (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one).

Learn about how the castle was abandoned and later restored by renowned French architect Violett-le-Duc during the 1800s.

Powered by GetYourGuide

After the tour of the castle itself, your ticket allows you to wander along the castle fortifications, as you take in the views and try to imagine what it was like to live in Carcassonne in years gone by.

See the 52 towers that make up the fairy tale perimeter of the city spanning three kilometres. Stop to photograph and admire the patchwork landscapes aside the River Aude, that stretch far into the distance to vineyards and hotchpotch Occitane villages.

Visit Carcassonne in summer and be treated to medieval music and jousting in the castle courtyard. Take the kids to medieval camp (July-late September) to see workshops and demonstrations or enjoy a fun guided tour of the old city at any time of the year led by storytellers dressed in historical garb.

Step Inside the Centuries-old Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus

The beautiful Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus rises from the cobbled streets of Carcassonne like a dazzling Romanesque-Gothic masterpiece. Built on the site of a former Visigoth 6th-century church – the treasure we see today dates to around the 11th/12th century.

As you stroll around the perimeter, notice the fine architectural detailing added during different periods, and learn about the role of the minor basilica during various conquests.

Step inside to discover the choir of the basilica and see incredible biblical depictions on France’s oldest stained-glass windows dating to 1280. The cathedral is a highlight for anyone interested in architecture and French history. To gain further insight into its heritage, you can take a self-guided audio tour.

Discover the Museums and Monuments of La Cité

If you’re seeking things to do in Carcassonne for families, take the kids to Musée de L’école to see what an old-style school classroom would look like, and partake in activities from the era.

Alternatively, pop into Musée de L’Inquisition for a more gruesome take on medieval life. Wander along the enchanting alleyways to see the monuments of Raymond Roger Trencavel, whose actions prevented Carcassonne from being destroyed.

While walking around the old city streets, try to spot the 20+ ancient wells dating as far back as the 14th century. They were tasked with providing much-needed water sources to the city dwellers, and legend has it that treasures pertaining to the Holy Grail are hidden in one of the wells…

Alternatively, enjoy a fun family activity and book an inexpensive City Exploration Game and Tour. Simply use the app and solve the riddles while learning about the city, seeing the historic sights and having fun!

Time your visit to see the Festival of Carcassonne

In the heart of La Cité sits the ancient open-air theatre of Jean Deschamps. Every year it hosts Festival de La Cité, a huge outdoor gathering of over 200,000 people from around France and Europe.

During June and July, over 100 shows take place, many of which are free – spread across Carcassonne on different stages. Celebrate Occitan culture as troubadours, performance artists, local and internationally known musicians and opera singers take to the stages. The air is filled with music and laughter as the city comes to life – with entertainment in medieval courtyards, chapels and squares.

From mid-July until mid-September each year, you can also observe the spectacular ramparts lightshow as ancient walls and castle turrets transform into a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns. It’s a magical, atmospheric experience that adults and children will enjoy. Don’t forget your camera!

Read More: Festivals in France

Walk across Pont Vieux to Musée des Beaux Arts

After exploring the historic sites of La Cité, take a stroll 10 minutes across Pont Vieux to La Bastide Saint-Louis, the charming lower town of Carcassonne.

Many tourists overlook this area, and it’s a real shame. This half of the city is just as delightful as the last, with a rich cultural heritage, fine arts museums, picture-postcard squares and gardens beside the river.

As you disembark the ‘new’ bridge (pont neuf), you’ll reach Square Gambetta – a pretty space filled with fragrant roses of ancient varieties. Close by, the Museum of Fine Arts (musée des beaux-arts) stands resplendent, housing paintings donated by wealthy patrons of the city and from the Louvre in Paris.

Artwork collections range from the 17th to 20th centuries and exciting temporary exhibitions are held throughout the year. You can see Delft porcelain, sculptures and works by Jan Brueghal the Elder, Dirk Hals and Jose de Ribera. Another interesting exhibit is the telescope said to have been used by Napoleon during the early 1800s.

This area of the city is a great place to sit during the early evening as the sun sets over the castle ramparts and the old city begins to illuminate.

Discover Charming Cafes and Local Markets at Place Carnot

When you’ve completed a tour of the fine arts museum, walk a few minutes to Place Carnot. This pretty square is dotted with trees and features dozens of restaurants and enchanting French cafes around the perimeter.

Sip coffee overlooking Neptune Fountain or venture here on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday mornings when colourful market stalls appear. The organic produce market sells everything from fruit and vegetables to artisanal bread and local cheeses.

If you plan to dine here, head for Chez Felix or Le Bastid, they are local favourites. If vegetarian or vegan food is more to your taste, take a 15-minute walk to quirky Jardine en Ville for a menu packed with light seasonal bites. Their carpaccio de Jardin with fresh vegetables and the mushroom risotto are both divine.

If you prefer to create your own gourmet picnic and eat it riverside, the 17th century covered market Halles Prosper Montagné is open from Tuesday to Saturday. Take your picnic to Berges de l’Aude, a pretty grassy parkland by the water passing 13th century St. Michael’s Cathedral en route and dine with a view.

Hop on a Boat and Glide Along Canal du Midi

If you fancy visiting two UNESCO sites during your trip, continue walking through Bastide Saint-Louis for just over five minutes until you reach the scenic and meandering Canal du Midi.

The canal links the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, stretching over 200 kilometres and ending in the coastal resort of Sète. This canal is famous throughout the world for its scenic route passing beneath umbrella pines, and by medieval villages and fields of yellow sunflowers.

Between April and October, you can take a short, guided two-hour cruise from the port near Carcassonne train station. Rent a bicycle to cycle along the towpath, or simply enjoy a leisurely walk to explore the villages of Greater Carcassonne, stopping at locks to observe the process along the way. There are a few quaint waterside restaurants to break at for refreshments and snacks too!

Read More: Best Places to Visit in France

Enjoy a Family Day of Activities at Lac de la Cavayère

Did you know that Carcassonne has a beach? If you’re looking for things to do near Carcassonne, and you’re travelling by car, head 10 minutes southeast of the city to Lac de la Cavayère – the perfect place to cool off on a hot day.

The vast leisure lake surrounded by forests is an expansive space of 40 hectares. The peaceful oasis boasts picnic areas, three sandy beaches and there are even (less peaceful) inflatable water games to enjoy as a family.

Try your hand at water sports like wakeboarding or paddle boarding, or challenge friends to a fun game of mini golf. Around the lake there are five kilometres of trails to hike, then afterwards relax in the bar/restaurant which serves tapas, salads and grilled foods during the summer months.

Read More: Most Beautiful Lakes in France

Enjoy Wine Tasting in La Cité or Visit a Local Vineyard

If you’re looking to sample the local flavours, why not join a 1.5-hour wine-tasting adventure? Join a wine expert in Carcassonne’s La Cité and make your way through a selection of fine wines accompanied by local dishes. Learn all about the history of viticulture with tips passed down from Roman times to the present day.

Alternatively, drive 10 minutes northwest of Carcassonne to Chateau de Pennautier. The 17th-century grand mansion delights with a partial pastel façade and elegant, planted gardens. The family-owned chateau dates to the early 1600s and has been frequented by royalty in the past.

Enjoy a stay in the castle, explore the vineyards, or enjoy wine tastings sampling Chateau de Pennautier Classique AOP Cabardes wine. Their fragrant rose has notes of red berries and a hint of spice. Alternatively, walk away with a special Cuvee 400th bottle of red made with raspberry, black pepper and toasted vanilla. It’s the perfect souvenir of your Languedoc trip.

Where to Stay in Carcassonne

To be in the heart of La Cité, you can’t go past the incredible Hotel de la Cité, situated right next door to the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus. This 5-star property allows you to live like a King or Queen during your stay.

Nearby, still within the old town walls, Hotel Le Donjon offers more modest accommodation in an authentic setting.

If you’re bringing a car to Carcassonne and would like to explore freely, perhaps staying outside of the walled city is a better option. Hotel du Roi & Spa by Sowell Collection sits just across the Pont Vieux, so you can enjoy a view of the medieval fortress as you sip your morning coffee.

Alternatively, Hotel du Chateau, and its sister property Hotel Montmorency are boutique properties just a few minutes walk from Porte Narbonnaise. Both have access to the large car park next door and they allow dogs.

If you’re looking for cheap and easy, the IBIS Styles Carcassonne offers bed, breakfast and free car parking for under €100 a night.

Carcassonne is a magical city to visit in any season. Summer months are the most popular with tourists due to the many activities and festivals taking place, but there are also lots of things to see in Carcassonne outside the peak season too.

These are times when you can take guided walks with medieval knights, solve clues to learn about the city, step inside cosy cafes serving warming cassoulet and discover the true essence of what it was like to live in the fortified town in centuries gone by.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.