Guide to fascinating Albi in the south of France

A lovely French city with a rich history

France, Tarn, Albi, the episcopal city, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO
AZAM Jean-Paul / hemis.fr/hemis.fr/Getty Images

Why visit Albi?

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

If you have a sense of history, then Albi beckons. In the 11th century the Cathar heresy took over large parts of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, many of the heretics coming from Albi.

The name of Albigensians became synonymous with the heresy which threatened the autonomy of the catholic church. From 1209 to 1229 the Crusade against the Albigensians raged through the region, ultimately destroying the heresy with great brutality. 

If you're interested in exploring the Cathars, take this walk around Montsegur, the remote castle perched high on a rocky hill where they made their last stand.

Location of Albi

Albi is in the Tarn department, on the banks of the River Tarn, and about 52 miles (85 kms) north east of Toulouse.

What to see in Albi

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 most amazing site 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

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).

Where to Stay in Albi

The 4-star Mercure Albi Bastide is a glorious 18th-century mill building on the banks of the Tarn. Rooms are well decorated; bathrooms are particularly good and the restaurant has a terrace looking out to the cathedral.

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. Although it’s an upscale hotel, there’s a wide range of room prices.

​​Hotel Chiffre in the city centre was a typical coaching inn, accommodating travellers on the mail coaches that criss-crossed France. 38 rooms and suites are decorated in comfortable, old-fashioned fabrics and colours and rates are reasonable.

    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. The restaurant has a terrace for outdoor dining.

    Albirondack Park is a camping lodge and spa and very good value. It’s surrounded by trees near Albi with cabins, Airstream trailers, a heated swimming pool, spa, hamman and sauna.

    ​Albi is a popular destination so there are hotels for every price. Check them out on TripAdvisor.

    Edited by Mary Anne Evans