While there are plenty of things to do in Carcassone, it is the old section of town, Europe’s largest medieval fortified city, which draws hordes of tourists each year, ourselves included. With three kilometres (1.9 miles) of city walls hosting 52 watch towers, it is one of France’s most visited monuments.
Officially called ‘Cite de Carcassonne’, most people simply refer to the walled city as “Carcassone”, creating instant confusion for visitors who are looking for a walled city inside a larger city, both with the same name.
Below, we will focus on the old first, making it clear when we step outside the walls.
From the first moment that we spotted the fortified city, we were mesmerised by its charm. On approach, it looks more like a fantasy mirage than a reality. It’s like stepping back in time or transporting to a fairytale castle.
Of course, anywhere this intriguing has a bewildering history to go with it.
Carcassonne pre-dates the Roman Empire some 2500 years ago. In fact, it was a significant town in the empire at the start of the Middle Ages when the castle was originally built.
The outer of the double-walled ramparts was added when the castle was expanded in the 13th century. During this time, it was controlled by the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect that flourished during this time period.
However, at some point later, it was left in ruins and finally restored in the 19th century. Today, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Top things to do in Carcassonne
If you are like us and only allocated one day to explore all the things to do in Carcassone, you will probably spend most of your time inside the “Cite de Carcassonne” (old fortified city). Don’t miss the opportunity to:
- Tour Cite de Carcassonne
- Walk the ramparts
- Learn the history
- Explore the Carcassonne castle (either guided or self-guided audio)
- Admire the stained glass of the Basilica of Saint Nazaire
- Spend a bit of time exploring some of the things to do in the rest of Carcassone
Cite de Carcassonne (the fortified city)
Topping just about every list of things to do in Carcassone is the old walled city.
The fascination begins right at the start, as you are greeted by the tall, ancient walls, the bust of Lady Carcas, and massive queues to get in.
Honestly, if you haven’t hired a guide or booked a tour that includes entrance, you will wish you had booked your entry tickets in advance.
We waited about an hour just to purchase tickets to get into the castle and along the ramparts, so by the time we got in, we were already hot and sweaty (It was a shockingly hot day when we visited). Reserve your castle and ramparts skip-the-line ticket here.
Carcassonne Castle (Château Comtal)
Touring the 12th-century castle was definitely one of the highlights. As you can see above, we enter the castle from the stone bridge that once crossed a moat but was dry when we visited. Immediately on the other side, we crossed the draw bridge.
Castle expansions continued for several hundred years as it became the centre of military defence, politics, and residence.
We opted for the audio tour, which is available for a nominal fee at the entrance, even when you purchase skip-the-line tickets.
While we learned a ton of fascinating trivia from the audio tour, we did miss the opportunity to ask questions. Much of the tour focused on some of the chateau’s defence tactics, ranging from its 31 watchtowers to a few cruel ways to keep out the enemy.
However, for me, it was the castle’s detail that made it so special, from the frescoes still on the wall to the archaeological finds and even the tombs.
There is so much to see and photograph that picking the small selection above was challenging.
Walk the ramparts
Both the outer and inner double walls are referred to as the ramparts.
Walking along the ramparts is where our audio guide told us the most intriguing stories, but it’s also a place to enjoy wonderful views.
It was extremely hot on the day we were there, peaking at 41ºC (106ºF), and there was no shade along the ramparts. In addition, it was somewhat crowded, as you can see in the larger photo above, especially as you look into the tower entrance.
As a result, we opted not to walk the entire distance around the top, but we did do enough to get into several of the towers. We also didn’t walk the walls at night but have been told it’s worthwhile, as the illumination creates a fantasy effect.
Basilica of Saints Nazaire and Celsus
A national monument, the Basilica of Saints Nazaire and Celsus is another highlight among the things to do in Carcassone’s fortified city.
Like everything here, the church’s history is impressive. Construction began in the 800s AD, and in 1096 Pope Urban II blessed the materials used in the construction.
While most of the construction was completed during the 12th century, the central stained glass window was finished in 1280 and is, therefore, one of France’s oldest.
However, it’s the 13th and 14th-century stained glass that made the Basilica of Saints Nazaire and Celsus so famous.
The resulting church is a blended masterpiece of romanesque and gothic styles.
It transformed from a cathedral to a basilica in 1898.
Other things to do in Carcassonne’s medieval city
- Shop or stroll along one of the many picturesque streets filled with stone buildings that are now retail establishments catering to the tourist market.
- Have a snack at one of the many cafés along Marcou square or a meal at one of the restaurants.
- If you visit in July or August, you can watch the Knight’s tournament; although, be warned, there is no shade at the jousting match, so remember to bring a hat and sunscreen.
- For about a month in summer, the Carcassonne Festival adds music, dance, and other concerts to the list of things to do in Carcassonne.
Take a tour of Cite de Carcassonne
We would have done much better to have either a private guide or a group tour of the fortified city. Based on reviews, these look like good options.
- Carcassonne guided tour
This 1.5-hour walking tour will take you through the fascinating history of Carcassonne, walk along the top of the wall, and point out the city’s towers. You will admire the stained glass in the basilica, look at the castle, and discover the museum in the castle. Reserve your guided tour here
- Private walking tour of Carcassonne
Fully customizable, your guide will take you where you want to go, explaining the history and significance of everything you see. You can even choose to spend a portion of your time outside the walled Cité de Carcassonne. The reviews highlight knowledgeable and interesting guides. Reserve your private walking tour here
- Carcassonne: Medieval Citadel Exploration Game
If you are looking for something a bit novel and you have a smartphone, this exploration game will have you solving clues and unlocking stories as you explore the Citadel, both inside and outside the city walls. Note that the game starts at Square Gambetta, well outside the old city, and ends at Chateau Comtal. Reserve your Medieval Citadel Exploration Game here
How did Carcassonne get its name?
Legend tells us that back in the 8th century, the town was under siege. The attackers thought by surrounding the castle and the walled city of Carcassonne, they would starve the inhabitants, therefore simplifying victory. Lady Carcas stuffed a pig carcass with grain and catapulted it over the wall at the enemy.
When the invaders saw the fat pig, they assumed the people inside the walls had plenty of food. They retreated, and Lady Carcas rang the city bells to celebrate. It was announced, “Carcas sonne!” (which means “Carcas sounds” or “Carcas rings the bell”).
Other things to do in Carcassonne
Spending all your time in the old city is fascinating and makes for a great day. However, it does mean that you miss of the rest of the city and its museums, walkways, rivers, and lakes.
Most notable is the Aude River, which runs through much of the city. From just outside the old city wall, it’s easy to enjoy a walk along the river. And if walk to or from La Cite, you will most likely cross the Pont Vieux, the 14th-century pedestrian stone bridge.
Here are a few interesting things to do in Carcassone outside of the fortified city:
- Fine Art Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts)
This free-to-enter art gallery features French and other European art.
- Boat trip along Canal du Midi
Another popular summer activity is a barge trip along Canal du Midi, a waterway originally built in the late 17th century as part of a series of waterways, locks, aqueducts and bridges that connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Lac de la Cavayère (Lake Cavayère)
A summer destination, visitors enjoy the hour-long walk around this picturesque lake, a quiet picnic, or the opportunity to hang out on one of its beaches and enjoy gentle water sports.
- Le Parc Australian
This small Australian-themed wildlife park seems almost out of place, but kids love it. It’s about a 10 -minute drive from the fortified city.
Stay inside the fortified city
As we arrived during the height of the summer tourist season without pre-booking, we had no option but to move on. Everything was full.
Next time we hope to stay in one of these two Carcassonne hotels, both located inside the walled city:
Hotel de la Cité & Spa – Mgallery by Sofitel: This five-star medieval-style chateau has outstanding customer reviews. The room decor, a mix of classic and Provencal-style, features comfortable beds and liveable space along with impressive views. Catering to everyone, they have a pool, wifi, spa, restaurant, and bar. The room options include classic, jr. suites, family, and pet-friendly options. Reserve your stay at Hotel de la Cité & Spa here
Best Western Le Donjon: A more affordable four-star option, the Best Western Le Donjon is also located inside the city walls. Divided into three buildings, many guest rooms have stone walls. This pet-friendly option offers wifi, a restaurant, and a bar. If you read the reviews, you will see this is a well-liked option. Reserve your stay at the Best Western Le Donjon here
Getting to Carcassonne
The three primary ways to get to Carcassonne are to drive, take the train, or a barge cruise along the Canal du Midi.
There are trains from several cities, including Beziers, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Marseille, and Toulouse. The walk from the train station to the fortified city is about 30 minutes.
We opted to drive as we had a car as part of our home-exchange deal. To our surprise, we not only found Carcassonne to be both an easy city to drive in, but we also quickly found car parking (it might have just been good luck). Carcassonne was one of several charming French villages we visited as we drove from Lourdes to Béziers in the Pyrenees Mountains.
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