The astounding walls of Carcassonne’s citadel protected the city for centuries and were left to decay, before getting a full restoration by the 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Never mind that his work might not be the most historically accurate, they’re an architectural wonder all the same and draw visitors to the city from far and wide.
After discovering every niche, passageway and parapet you can navigate the streets of the hilltop settlement or venture into the less touristy Lower City for lunch or a shopping trip. Within minutes of Carcassonne you can also get to vineyards, wine caves, ruined castles and the soothing green banks of the Canal du Midi.
Lets explore the best things to do in Carcassonne:
1. La Cité de Carcassonne
First we’ll deal with what’s inside the walls. The streets within the citadel are a Disney-esque dreamland of passageways and winding alleys.
There’s an engaging lack of symmetry to the old stone buildings, some with exposed timbers and others clad with ivy.
It will be an effort not to walk around with your camera glued to your face.
The ideal time to come is early, before the tourist hordes and lunch time.
Most of the restaurants and crêperies are geared towards day-trippers anyway, and this labyrinth of streets is at its best when semi-deserted.
2. Château Comtal and Ramparts
From above or below, on the ramparts or inside the walls, Carcassonne’s double line of fortifications are a marvel.
The insurmountable walls and 52 towers are deservedly the centre of attention and go on for three kilometres around the old upper city.
You can enter the Château Comtal for a tour, and with an audio-guide you should expect to lose two awe-filled and informative hours finding out about how the walls were built in the 15th century and how they were restored in the 1800s by Viollet-le-Duc.
You can do the full walk along the battlements, and between the walls there are even jousting shows for families to watch in summer.
3. Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus
This church was built over several hundred years from the 800s to the 1300s and what makes it rare is the way romanesque and gothic design coexist so comfortably.
The sense of harmony is easy to see in the church’s interior, which escaped Viollet-le-Duc’s intervention and boasts romanesque sculpture, stonework and stained glass windows side by side.
In the choir, the long central stained glass window is from 1280, and so one of the oldest outside northern France.
4. Carcassonne Lower City
Known as the Bastide de Saint-Louis, this area of Carcassonne was built outside the walls in the 13th century on the orders of Louis IX (known as Saint Louis). There’s a completely different ambience to La Cité, which is down to the regular grid street-plan, high street shops, the usual French amenities and almost total absence of tourists.
Place Carnot is a handy place to begin your brief jaunt through this area: There are restaurant tables spilling onto the square, and the Fountain of Neptune in the centre dates to 1770.
5. Carcassonne Cathedral
Less acclaimed than the Basilica, Carcassonne’s current cathedral was a simple parish church in the Lower City until the Episcopal seat was switched at the turn of the 19th-century.
But it’s worth calling in, as it was built in the 13th century and is a satisfying piece of southern gothic architecture, with an octagonal bell-tower and a beautiful rose window.
It suffered damage in the 100 Years’ War, and was rebuilt with fortifications, as you can tell from the loopholes on the tower.
Viollet-le-Duc was involved in restoration works in the 1800s, and it was his first project in Carcassonne before he moved on to the fortifications.
6. Lac de la Cavayère
Twenty minutes by car or bus from the city is a lake formed by a dam built in 1988. There’s 40 hectares of water and pine woodland, with three small beaches, a grassy area and all sorts of things for kids to do in summer: You can hire pedalos and play mini-golf, while kids have an inflatable playground to scramble over on the lake.
Motorised craft are banned on the waters, which keeps things peaceful, and you can take gentle walks in the forested hills and have family picnics on the benches beneath the pines.
7. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Carcassonne’s fine art museum was established in 1836, and nearly 200 years and many donations later it provides you with an enlightening journey through French art from the 1600s to the 1900s.
One of the museum’s eight galleries is also dedicated to Flemish and Dutch art from the 1600s.
Among the names that even philistines like us will recognise are Brueghel the Elder, Mattia Preti, Jan van Goyen, Jacob Jordaens and Gustave Courbet.
Room Five has a display of 19th-century French ceramics and there’s also a telescope used by Napoleon after departing Elba in 1815.
8. Châteaux de Lastours
The hills of the Aude department are peppered with the eerie vestiges of medieval castles that belonged to noblemen loyal to the Cathar sect.
During the Albigensian Crusade the sect was violently suppressed by the French Catholics, and many of these strongholds turned to rubble.
The four castles in Lastours, Cabaret, Tour Régine, Quertinheux and Surdespine, were sacked during the crusade and later repurposed as fortresses.
They are part of the same complex, but are all different structures with courtyards, arcades, towers with loopholes, murder holes and spiral staircases, as well as the ruins of a church.
The location is sumptuous, high on a rocky spur in the Black Mountains.
And the many little flourishes and surprises contribute to a fulfilling hour or two of discovery.
9. Canal du Midi – barge trip
The exceptional work of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the Canal du Midi was dug in the 17th century, and helped connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.
It passes through Carcassonne just north of the Lower Town.
The leg between this city and the Mediterranean town of Sète is touted as the most picturesque of all.
Obviously you needn’t go that far; just outside Carcassonne you can amble east along the tow path for a few miles, as the plane trees meet above the water to form a green tunnel.
There are guided boat tours with Carcassonne Cruises, pointing out the historic locks and bridges.
10. School Museum
In a former school in the old city is this unassuming museum capturing school life in France between the 1880s and 1960s.
You have five rooms to navigate, each with furniture and vintage teaching paraphernalia, like desks, slates, blackboards and lecterns.
The collection of old projectors may bring back memories, as will the schoolyard, with hopscotch and other playground games painted on the ground.
The museum also has old-time dip pens, which kids can try out to see how easy they’ve got it now.
11. Museum of the Inquisition
Not to be taken too seriously, this attraction will kill a few minutes and kids aged around 10 to 14 will probably get a kick out of it, though it’s definitely not for younger minds.
With the help of some sad-looking mannequins the museum exposes the eye-wateringly inventive methods and tools used for torture from medieval times up to the Revolution.
There’s an emphasis on the Catholic inquisition of the Cathars in the 13th century, and most of the exhibits are reproductions.
The Black Mountains rear up behind the pretty village of Caunes-Minervois, 20 minutes north of Carcassonne.
The surroundings are heart-achingly idyllic, with rustic stone walls, Minervois vineyards, orchards and olive groves.
The medieval village is built around an abbey founded in the 700s, and historic quarries that provided the pink marble for the Louvre and Trianon Palace at Versailles.
The abbey is also replete with this stone: One of the most cherished parts of the building is the apse, which is from the 1000s and epitomises the modest romanesque style.
If you’re a meat-eater, and particularly fond of poultry and game, the Carcassone diet will suit you well.
Duck and goose confit are famous specialities, as is Spanish-style cured ham.
But Cassoulet is southwestern France’s most beloved dish, a casserole with white haricot beans, sausage and duck or goose confit.
But Carcassonne has its own version of cassoulet, adding partridge meat to the stew.
More adventurous palates could try Languedoc-style snails, in which their cooked in their shells with onions, ham, tomato and parsley.
In Carcassonne you’re in the centre of the world’s largest wine region.
Not only that, but you’ve got easy access to some of the best AOCs within Languedoc.
Minutes north and east is Minervois, producing mostly reds from a blend of Bordeaux, Mediterranean and Rhône grapes.
South of Carcassonne is the upland Limoux region, famed as the place where sparkling wine was first produced in the 1500s.
Blanquette méthode ancestrale, Crémant de Limoux Blanquette de Limoux are all sparkling whites to discover.
Like champagne, the bubbles are created with secondary fermentation in the bottle, but the flavour is distinct, with fresh, apple notes.
Narbonne is east of Carcassonne and reachable in about 45 minutes.
In Roman Gaul “Narbo” was a vital port on the Aude river, but among the many misfortunes that befell the city in the coming centuries was that Aude changing course and the harbour silting up.
The medieval centre is a treat though, with one-of-a-kind monuments like the unfinished cathedral.
It’s symbolic of the fate of the city throughout the middle ages, as work was halted due to an economic downturn in the 1300s, so there’s no nave.
Also marvellous is the Archbishop’s Palace, a gothic complex mostly from the 1400s and containing the city wall as well as museums for Narbonne’s history and archaeology.