Albi: Planning Your Trip

France, Tarn, Albi, the episcopal city, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO

AZAM Jean-Paul / / Getty Images

Albi is a small, charming French city with a remarkable old center that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heart of Albi is the Episcopal City, an enclosed medieval quarter containing two outstanding buildings.

Albi is a city with an interesting history. It was a major center of Catharism, and its name comes from the Albigensian heresy, which resulted in the 1209 Albigensian Crusade, ultimately leading to the Inquisition. To explore the story of the Cathars, take a walk around Montsegur, the remote castle perched high on a rocky hill where they made their last stand.

Albi is located on the Tarn River, in the south of France, within the Languedoc-Roussillon region. An architecturally relevant landmark is the Gothic Sainte-Cécile Cathedral, which is built of brick and lacks a flying buttress.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best season to visit is spring, from March to May, before the tourist boom begins, and while the weather is comfortably crisp. Heads up: Albi receives a fair amount of rain. Even in its driest month, July, it gets significant rainfall.
  • Language: French, naturally, is the primary language spoken in Albi. It's always good to brush up on the main language before visiting a place, but you can get by with English here.
  • Currency: The euro is the currency you will need in Albi.
  • Getting Around: Gare d'Albi-Ville and Gare d'Albi-Madeleine are the two train stations on the Toulouse to Rodez station that serve Albi. The A68 highway connects Albi and Toulouse.
  • Travel Tip: Albi makes a great stop on a road trip. Start in Lyon, pass through Maison Bras and Rodez, and end in Albi, otherwise known as "the red city."

Things to Do

Start with Sainte-Cécile, the extraordinary Gothic cathedral, dating from 1280. It's a commanding, huge building, dominated by its belfry, and has the somewhat odd advantage of being the largest red-brick cathedral in the world. The exterior, though impressive in scale, is relatively plain, due in part to its quasi-military purpose as a reminder of the power of the Catholic church in the face of the Cathar heresy. Go inside and it's a different story. Every inch of the interior is decorated with extravagant tiles, gold leaf, and frescoes. The focal point is the mural of the Last Judgement, depicting the end of the world with suitably grotesque scenes of the damned writhing in eternal pain and misery. It was painted between 1474 and 1484, probably by Flemish artists, and is the largest in the world. If you can, catch a concert or a recital on the 18th-century classical organ.

The Palais de la Berbie is almost as imposing as the cathedral and resembles a fortress rather than an Archbishop’s Palace. Today it houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and the world’s most important collection of his art. The museum covers both his art and his life, which was a strange one, much of it lived out in the bars and brothels of Paris.

Albi’s markets are reason enough for a visit particularly the covered market hall where the local Albigensians come to shop for vegetables, cheese, meat, and fish.

The city hosts a wide variety of markets, including a vegetable market every morning except Monday, a poultry market Saturday mornings, a domestic animal market Saturday mornings, a second-hand book market on Wednesdays, and an arts and crafts market on Saturdays (except January through March).

Albi is on the banks of the River Tarn, and about 52 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of Toulouse. A worthy day trip in the area, if you're staying longer than a couple of days, is the city of Rouen. Here are a few of the best things to do in Rouen.

  • Visit the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, the museum that details the life and legend of Joan of Arc. Not far away, you can visit the site where her trial was held—Joan of Arc Tower—and Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc de Rouen, where she was tragically burned at the stake.
  • Mill around Old Market Square, people-watching, enjoying coffee at a cafe, and scooping up a bouquet of fresh flowers. The history of the square is not as lovely as its present iteration. This is where prisoners were executed in the Middle Ages.
  • Pay a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, France's second-largest collection of Impressionist art, after the d'Orsay in Paris.

What to Eat and Drink

Not unlike a cassoulet, a signature Albigensian dish is pot au feu, containing sausage, beef, haricot beans, and duck confit. The asparagus that grows here is can't-miss, fresh, green, and crisp. It's reason enough to visit in the springtime. Duck and goose are regular staples here, too. If you visit in the winter, savor croustade aux pommes, which is basically French apple pie. Oenophiles will love the restaurant La Table du Sommelier, which offers wines from the Languedoc, among many others.

Where to Stay in Albi

As a more off-the-beaten-track destination, you might not expect so many great accommodations in Albi. But make no mistake, there are plenty of options.

The heart of Albi's city center is a good place to stay, since this is where much of this smaller town's action and scenery are. This will ensure you get to experience Albi's charms day and night, and for as much time as possible. Hostellerie du Grand St-Antoine is not merely a landmark four-star hotel in Albi; it's also one of the oldest hotels still in operation in France. It first opened its doors in 1734, and the same family has welcomed guests for five generations. There’s a courtyard garden overflowing with flowers and greenery, and although it’s an upscale hotel, there’s a wide range of room prices. Hotel Chiffre is also in the city center, and was a typical coaching inn, accommodating travelers on the mail coaches that crisscrossed France. The 38 rooms and suites are decorated in comfortable, old-fashioned fabrics and colors, and rates are reasonable.

If you're looking for a quieter location outside the center, the foodie retreat La Réserve is a gem of an option for you as well, offering river views of the Tarn on five hectares of scenic parkland. La Réserve is a Relais et Châteaux hotel, so you can count on luxury and very high standards. It’s relatively small with just 20 rooms on the banks of the Tarn, and the restaurant has a terrace for outdoor dining.

Getting There

Albi is an accessible location. Belonging to the fourth-largest tourist area in France, and having been awarded World Heritage status twice, it is a major destination.

It has its own airport, albeit a small one, Albi-Le Séquestre Airport. Albi is an hour away from Toulouse Blagnac Airport and Castres Mazamet Airport (connections from Paris), and an hour and a half away from Rodez Airport (connections from Paris, Lyon, and London) and Carcassonne Airport.

Albi is on a train branch line between Toulouse and Rodez. From Paris, connect via TGV to Toulouse, then transfer to a local train.

Money Saving Tips

  • Picnicking on the Tarn river is a lovely and low-cost alternative to a restaurant. Eating out in France can be very expensive, especially for a longer trip. Sit along the riverbank with a sun umbrella, a blanket, a bottle of rosé, some local Pechegos cheese, and a baguette. Then, rent a kayak and enjoy the rest of the afternoon on the water.
  • Travel off-season. The South of France has nice weather in the summer of course, but diminished crowds and prices at other times of year are a plus. You might just enjoy your time in Albi better without so many fellow tourists, even if it's a little colder out.