Carcassonne is an extraordinary place, a perfect medieval city with its massive fortifications dominating the surrounding countryside. Seen from afar it seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Inside, it’s even more impressive. Carcassonne is best known for having an entire city that is a castle. La Cité is double walled, with grassy lices (translated as lists) between the walls you can stroll along. From the massive ramparts, you look down to the lower cité (ville basse).
Carcassonne is one of France's top tourist destinations, drawing an average of three million visitors yearly. Some people describe it as a tourist-trap and there are some shops hawking tacky souvenirs, but despite the crowds, Carcassonne is an enchanting place to visit. So it’s no surprise that it has two UNESCO World Heritage Site listings.
Getting to Carcassonne
By Plane: You can fly into Carcassonne's airport (Aéroport Sud de France Carcassonne), although if you are departing from the U.S., count on a layover somewhere in Europe or Paris. Ryanair operates cheap flights from the UK to Carcassonne. Once you arrive, a shuttle service to the city center leaves the airport 25 minutes after the arrival of each flight. The cost is 5€ which also gives you one hour’s use of the entire transport system of the city.
By Train: The station is in the lower town and there are regular trains from Arles, Beziers, Bordeaux, Marseille, Montpellier, Narbonne, Nîmes, Quillan and Toulouse. Carcassonne is right on the main Toulouse-Montpellier train route.
Getting around Carcassonne
For short journeys in Carcassonne city center, the bus company Agglo runs a free service.
There is a tourist train shuttle (2€ single journey – 3€ day return) between La Cité and Bastide St Louis.
When To Go
There isn't really a bad time to visit since the weather here is quite temperate year-round, so select a season based on your own tastes. In winter, many of the city's attractions are closed or run on limited hours. Spring and fall can be ideal. The summer months have most events but Carcassonne will also be packed with tourists at that time of year.
A Little History
Carcassonne has a long history stretching back to the 6th century BC. It became a Roman city then was ruled by the Saracens before they were driven out by the French in the 10th century. The city’s prosperity began when the Trencavel family ruled Carcassonne from 1082 for around 130 years. In the middle of what is known as Cathar country after the heretical movement which challenged the Catholic church, Roger de Trencavel offered a haven to the rebels. In 1208 when the Cathars were declared heretics, Simon de Montfort led the Crusade and in 1209 captured the city before turning his attention to the rest of the anti-catholics. The movement was crushed with appalling cruelty, the last stronghold of Montégur falling in 1244.
In 1240 the people of Carcassonne tried to reinstate the Trencavels but the French King Louis IX was having none of it and as a punishment, he expelled them from the Cité. In time the citizens built a new city – the Bastide St Louis outside the main walls. The takeover by the French Kings of La Cité brought new buildings and it became a powerful place until the late 17th century when it fell into decay. This was the poor part of a city rich from the wine trade and cloth manufacturing. It was rescued from ruin by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in 1844, so what you see today is a restoration though it is so well done you feel right in the heart of a medieval city.
La Cité may be small, but there’s a lot to see.
- You can walk through the lices, but you have to take a guided tour to walk along the ramparts and see the Château Comtal, the palace of the viscounts of Carcassonne.
- The Basilica of Saint-Nazaire is another must-see site with both Romanesque and Gothic architecture and some beautiful stained glass.
- The Bastide St-Louis is in the lower town on the banks of the River Aude. It was built in 1260 and follows a rectangular plan around the central Place Carnot. Just wander along the boulevards full of 8th and 19th-century mansions.
- Walk past the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Santé which is the only surviving trace of the city’s oldest hospital onto the pedestrian-only Pont Vieux. Until the 14th century, this was the only link between the Bastide St Louis and the old city.
Outside the City
Carcassonne is in the middle of spectacular countryside, so it’s worth hiring a car to take side trips. If you’re interested in the fate of the Cathars, take a walk around Montségur.
- Montsegur is the site of the biggest stand the Cathars made against the Crusaders during the Middle Ages. Make the grueling climb to the ruins of their castle stronghold, where they held off 10,000 Crusaders for months. When they were finally conquered, many of the Cathars chose to march into the flames rather than convert.
- This is also the heart of the Languedoc wine country so check out some of the vineyards you can visit at the Tourist Office in Carcassonne.
- Don't miss Limoux, a village just south of the city. This is the home to the annual Carnivale from January through March and is also a thriving wine-making community. They even claim to have been the true inventors of sparkling wine, and that Dom Perignon stole the idea.
- Rennes le Chateau is a very creepy little village where the Baron Sauniere, at the turn of the 20th century, erected a church and other religious structures. There are many rumors about the Baron's work, including allegations that Mary Magdalene stayed there after the crucifixion and that the Holy Grail is hidden there.
Where to Stay in Carcassonne
The Hotel Le Donjon is a wonderful stay for the price. When you enter, the dim lighting and deep red decor take you into what feels like a medieval castle. It also has a wonderful location inside La Cite. Read guest reviews, compare prices and book on TripAdvisor.
If you have the money, stay at the four-star, luxurious Hotel de la Cite, with its own gardens and well-situated in La Cite next to the Basilica. Read guest reviews, compare prices and book on TripAdvisor.