The top things to do in Carcassonne on a day trip.
It was the final day of my Athos barge cruise on the Canal du Midi in the South of France. We slowly sailed between tiny medieval towns, exploring each one along the way. These included Marseillan, Pézenas, Narbonne, Minerve, Capestang, and Carcassonne. Even if you only have a day, I’m going to outline all of the best things to do in Carcassonne during your stay.
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Out of all the villages we visited, Carcassonne was the most famous, arguably the most noteworthy, and it was the busiest with tourists. After all, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its preserved and restored fortifications. My sister also let me know that Carcassonne is the name of a fun and popular board game that she’s played.
Visiting La Cite de Carcassonne
Carcassonne France is actually quite large, consisting of the medieval village, the rest of the city down below the hill, some outlying areas, and even its own airport. I only visited La Cité de Carcassonne for the day, which is the old, medieval town up on the hill. If you’re going to visit Carcassonne for more than a day, I am sure you will have time to see the town down below, too. This Carcassonne travel guide will only go into detail about visiting La Cite de Carcassonne.
Even though La Cité de Carcassonne isn’t very big, there’s a surprising amount of things to do in Carcassonne. If you’re looking for precisely what to see in Carcassonne, you’ve come to the right place. I have five fantastic ideas of must see spots around the medieval old town. Carcassonne is one of the most special medieval towns in France. Even though it’s going to be busier and more crowded than other lesser known spots, it’s definitely worth the trip. This is one of the South of France destinations you’ll surely want to add to your bucket list.
Things to Do in Carcassonne: The Fortified Walls
If you’re looking for what to do in Carcassonne, you really can’t miss checking out its fortifications. After all, you must walk through the fortified walls to enter the old town center. However, I suggest that before you venture right into town, you take some time to walk along the fortified walls themselves.
A Brief History
Since the days of the Roman Empire, a fortified settlement has existed up on the hill where you’ll find present day Carcassonne. There’s 2500 years of history here. Over time, the city was occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Crusaders and Saracens, and it was once the largest fortress in Europe. The citadel is encircled by double fortified walls about 3 kilometers in length. During the Crusade against the Albigenses in the 13th century, Carcassonne was captured by Simon de Montfort. He decided to construct the outer wall to strengthen its position.
After the town lost its military significance in the 1600s, Carcassonne’s fortifications were abandoned. In 1849, the French government wanted to demolish the fortified walls, but there was a great opposition to this decision by the locals. Thankfully, the government changed their minds and decided to restore the walls.
Restorations of Carcassonne’s Fortifications
The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc started to renovate the ramparts around La Cite de Carcassonne. His work was met with some criticism as the restorations might not be that similar to the original structures. The pointed caps of the towers evoke architecture from northern France and not those from the south of France. Viollet-le-Duc wanted to completely restore each building for a feeling of completeness, although some believe that Carcassonne looks a little too “Disney-fied”.
Defenders of Viollet-le-Duc believe that he was only working with the knowledge he had at the time, and otherwise the buildings could have been lost completely. All in all, Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations only affect less than 20% of the monument. What do you think? I can personally see how the restorations look a little too “new” or not original, but I am certainly glad that we didn’t lose one of the most important medieval towns in France.
Wandering the Walls
My first suggestion for what to see in Carcassonne? Naturally, take a stroll between the ramparts. Don’t rush right into the old town. Take the time to admire the walls themselves. When you visit Carcassonne, enter through the Narbonne Gate and take a turn to your left rather than walking straight into town. There’s a large space where you can walk between the double fortifications. It’s different from other fortified walls that I’ve checked out in the past.
For example, Quebec City’s fortifications surround the old town and you can walk on top of the walls themselves. While the walls of Carcassonne aren’t designed for tourists to walk on, you can wander right between the walls, admiring the towers and stone walls themselves on either side of you. Wandering the walls is one of the top things to do in Carcassonne and shouldn’t be missed.
Explore Château Comtal, Carcassonne’s Castle
If you’re wondering what to do in Carcassonne, don’t miss Chateau Comtal, the castle of Carcassonne. A trip to the castle is one of the top things to do in Carcassonne. There’s so much fascinating history to explore at the count’s castle. As a symbol of feudal and then royal power, the castle dominated the city and its surroundings.
The castle was constructed in the 1100s and improvements continued through to the 14th century. Additional buildings were added, stories were added to existing buildings, and the castle gained multiple functions. It was defensive (with its fortified walls), residential, housed the military, and was also a political center.
At the entrance of the castle, there’s a wide stone bridge, ending with a wooden drawbridge. There are also several towers lining the front entrance where guards could easily attack any foreign soldiers with bows and arrows or crossbows.
As you walk through the castle, you’ll notice courtyards, walkways, and incredible views of Carcassonne’s lower town. There’s also an archaeological museum in the west wing of the castle for historic and beautiful objects from Carcassonne and the area.
No matter when you visit Carcassonne, the castle is going to be one of the busiest spots in town. A trip to the magnificent castle of the Counts of Carcassonne is one of the most important things to do in Carcassonne. I highly recommend that you buy a skip the line ticket in advance. It is not very expensive and it will save you lots of time. That way, you’ll be able to make the most of your Carcassonne day trips even if you have a limited amount of time in the village.
Visit the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus
Another main Carcassonne attraction is the St. Nazaire Basilica. The Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus is a national monument, constructed in the Gothic-Romanesque architectural styles. The original Visigothic church at the same site most likely dates to the 6th century, but no traces of it remain. Back in 1096, Pope Urban II visited the site and blessed the building materials for the construction of a new church. This cathedral was built between the 12th century and the late 13th century.
Don’t stop at the outside of the church without going inside. The most impressive features of the basilica are the glorious stained glass windows and the intricate carved decorations. The central stained glass window of the choir is one of the oldest in France, from 1280.
Aside from several brilliant stained glass windows and sculptures, you can view the Siege Stone inside the church. It’s a 13th century relief that most likely illustrates a scene from the Albigensian Crusade. There are a couple of other artifacts in this same area: a large bell and an etched image of Simon de Montfort from his tomb.
Admire the Scenery from Various Vantage Points
As you take in the wondrous scenery from Carcassonne, you might feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Though some of the best views are from the castle, you can catch glimpses of lower town and beyond from various spot around town. You’ll see some great views as you wander around the ramparts at the edge of town. The cobblestone streets of Carcassonne are also rather postcard perfect, if you can manage to see them without too many crowds. Viewing the scenery of the medieval village and its surroundings was one of my favorite things to do in Carcassonne.
Stroll through Cobblestone Streets
As you wander through town, you might feel a little bit like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The buildings are primarily from medieval times with Renaissance ornamentation. The best preserved building from the 13th and 14th centuries is the Inquisiton House at the corner of Rue du Four-Saint-Nazaire and Rue de la Porte-d’Aude.
Walking through town, you’ll also see houses with corbelled facades from the 16th and 17th centuries. These stand alongside facades from the late 19th and early 20th century. The restoration of the town impacted some of its inhabitants, as they wished to take part in the town’s revival. If you’d like to know more about the history, I recommend taking a Carcassonne walking tour with a knowledgeable guide.
Naturally, there are lots of little shops and cafes dotted through the old town of Carcassonne. You can find lots of interesting gifts and goodies to bring home with you. I even managed to find a candy shop in town that had a whole shelf of vegan candies!
Where to Stay
Inside the Cite de Carcassonne, there are only a few hotels where you can spend the night. There are hotels that vary in price according to their amenities and overall fanciness. Here are a couple to check out:
- Hotel de la Cité Carcassonne: This is a very luxurious hotel with spectacular views. It’s an upscale, five star hotel right in the heart of old town. There’s even an outdoor pool, a spa with a hot tub, and sophisticated rooms. This is my top choice for best hotel in Carcassonne, budget allowing, of course! Book your stay at the Hotel de la Cite or view additional reviews by fellow travelers.
- Best Western Hotel Le Donjon: This is a middle of the road, three star hotel in the middle of Old Town. The hotel is located within three medieval buildings inside the old town walls. Book your stay at the Best Western or view more reviews by travelers who have spent the night.
- La Demeure De La Cite: For a bed and breakfast experience inside the fortifications of Carcassonne, check out La Demeure De La Cite. It’s a cozy and welcoming place to spend the night. Plus, you’ll have the town to yourself when all the tourists leave from their Carcassonne day trips. Book your stay at La Demeure or read more reviews by fellow travelers.
Most other hotels are outside of the city walls, near the Carcassonne airport, or you can find them in lower town. Here is a full listing of Carcassonne hotels so you can compare. You can also find Airbnb rental listings in Carcassonne (sign up with my link if you haven’t used Airbnb before and you can receive $60 off your stay!)
It’s easy to reach Carcassonne France, even if you’re not sailing aboard a barge cruise. There are direct trains from to Carcassonne from many French towns, including Arles, Beziers, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Marseille, Narbonne, Toulouse, and others. Book your high speed train trip to Carcassonne quickly and easily online.
You can also fly to Carcassonne from many cities in Europe. Once you reach Carcassonne, you can rent a car to get around the South of France or compare car rental prices online. There are parking lots outside the wall city (no cars are allowed inside the old town).
Even though it can get a little crowded during shoulder and peak seasons, you definitely need to visit Carcassonne France. Whether you’re booking Carcassonne day trips, spending the night, or visiting from a Canal du Midi barge cruise like I did, it’s worth the trip. There are so many things to do in Carcassonne, including the five activities that I listed above. Expand your trip to La Cite de Carcassonne by venturing to the lower town, the Canal du Midi, and beyond.
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