You’ll often hear people describe Languedoc-Roussillon as the “real” south of France. And they have a point, because towns here have a traditional flavour, observing old rituals, remaining full in winter and not selling themselves out to tourism.
There’s far more to see and do in the region that can be described in a few paragraphs, but certain sights demand your attention, like Carcassonne’s solemn walls or the Roman monuments in Nîmes, still standing 2,000 years after they were built.
Lets explore the best things to do in Languedoc-Roussilon:
1. Cité de Carcassonne
In the Aude department is what may well be Europe’s greatest fortified city.
Carcassonne’s hilltop has been ringed by walls since before the Romans, and the medieval wall standing now is more than three kilometres long and has 53 towers and barbicans, many topped with conical slate roofs.
What adds interest is that in the 1800s the settlement was restored by the neo-gothic architect Viollet-le-Duc, a pioneer in the science of conservation.
His work might not be the most authentic, but there’s no question that it’s a wonder to look at and walk through.
A tour of the ramparts with take about 90 minutes, and you can also enter the castle for a small fee.
2. Pont du Gard
The precision of Roman engineers never ceases to amaze: Pont du Gard is just one section of what once was a 50-kilometre aqueduct that channelled water from a spring at Uzès to the city of Nîmes.
All that way, weaving through the mountains and travelling underground, there’s just a 17-metre change in elevation.
The outstanding fragment remaining is Pont du Gard, where it crosses the Gardon River, and has a minute 2.5-centimetre gradient.
This bridge is nearly 50 metres in height, with three tiers of arches.
It’s a UNESCO site and one of Roman France’s most treasures landmarks.
3. Roman Nîmes
You can see where that water was headed half an hour away in this glorious city, where some of the Roman buildings look as good as new.
This definitely goes for the Maison Carrée, one of the most intact Roman temple facades anywhere in the former empire.
It’s so complete it could almost be a neoclassical building from the 1800s.
Tickets for this save you money on Nîmes‘ other Roman sites, like the wonderful arena, which has been adapted as a live music venue.
Extremely pretty are the 18th-century Jardins de la Fontaine, with balustrades around the city’s spring and a couple of the city’s other Roman monuments, the Temple of Diana and the Magne Tower, once part of the city wall.
4. Musée Fabre, Montpellier
The most prestigious art museum in the region is a rare example of a “Musée de France” located outside the Paris area.
In the last decade it has come through a regeneration project costing more than €60m which saw it closed down for four years.
It is set in an ensemble of exquisite buildings dating between the 1600s and 1900s and including a Jesuit college.
Hanging here are works from between the 1400s and early-1900s, including pieces by Rubens, Breughel the Younger, Veronese and Charles Le Brun, who was lauded by Louis XIV.
5. Plage de l’Espiguette
Languedoc-Roussillon has 214 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline, beginning in the east with Plage de l’Espiguette, the longest beach in the South of France.
The is where the Camargue meets the Mediterranean, and if you’re looking to escape the crowds you may never find a more remote place by the sea in such a popular holiday region.
This is because you can walk for kilometres away from the touristy area in the west to deserted sands backed only by dunes and 20 kilometres of salt lagoons.
6. La Bambouseraie en Cévennes, Anduze
This garden was a labour love of the 19th-century botanist Eugène Mazel.
Starting in the 1850s he invested his fortune in a collection of plants from East Asia, most notably bamboos of a wealth of different sizes and species.
This makes it one of the oldest collections of this plant in Europe, and a great option for hot days as the paths through the giant bamboo plantations are fresh and shaded.
These trees get up to 25 metres and make that famous clunking noise when stirred by the breeze.
There’s much more besides this though, with a Laotian-style village and three different Japanese gardens.
The best of these is Dragon Valley, where instead of grass there’s a sea of miniature bamboo plants, 30 centimetres high.
7. Cathar Castles
To the west and south of the region, in the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales departments, stand the ruins of a host of castles dated between the 1100s and 1300s.
These were built by the local noblemen that offered refuge to followers of the Cathar religious movement, seen as a heresy by the Catholic church, which suppressed it in stages, and then crushed it during the Albigensian Crusade in the 1200s.
These castles were either destroyed or occupied by their Catholic conquerors and later remodelled.
You can download maps showing where these buildings were located, but Peyrepertuse in Aude is a good place to start.
8. Fontfroide Abbey, Narbonne
To see the base of power for the Catholic orthodoxy in its fight against the Cathars, come to this former Cistercian Monastery close to the border with Spain.
The complex is almost out of sight, tucked into woodland in a secluded valley, and took on its current appearance after large donations by the Viscountess Ermengarde of Narbonne in the 12th century.
English tours are available, and will show you around the refectory, cellars, dormitory and the serene cloister.
If you’ve got kids with you then you needn’t worry about them getting bored, as the abbey produces a child-friendly app for the tour, with fun, educational activities.
9. Les Halles de Narbonne
You can’t come to Narbonne and not stop by this covered market next to the plane trees on Cours Mirabeau and just a few strides from the Canal de la Robine.
It’s an iron and glass pavilion from 1907, with more than 70 stalls, including butchers, fromagers, fishmongers and fruit and veg sellers.
If you’re planning a picnic, buy your olives, cheese, bread and charcuterie right here.
At lunchtime when all the stalls close down for the day you can also show up for a casual meal: There are little counters selling dishes like steak tartare (or cooked meat from the butchers) and frites with a glasses of beer or local wine.
10. Cirque de Navacelles
This tremendous natural amphitheatre has been shaped over eons by a meander in the River Vis and almost resembles a volcanic cone.
There are two panoramic viewpoints on either side of the cirque where you can appreciate the grand beauty of the limestone cliffs and greenery at the base: Blandas and La Baume Auriol at 618 metres.
At the bottom of the cirque is the dreamy little hamlet of Navacelles, with a waterfall next to it.
The D130 down to Navacelles has a very steep gradient and involves a lot of switchbacks and hairpin turns.
It’s a lot of fun if you go carefully, but it’s not a good idea to to take a caravan down there.
If there’s a time of day to be in this walled city in the Camargue it’s the early evening when the warm light does something intangible and transformative to the stone.
The walls have a strict, square shape and contain streets with a rough grid system.
You can buy a ticket to get up and walk the 13th-century ramparts to look down at the city and over to the salt lagoons, which take on a strange reddish hue.
There are also information boards and little exhibits in each of the guard towers filling you in on the city’s past – the Tower of Constance is from the 1300s and was built over an earlier tower erected by Charlemagne in the 8th century.
There are also tourist trains touring the salt fields, but you can just content yourself with some fleur du sel sold in many shops in the Aigues-Mortes.
12. Grotte de la Salamandre, Méjannes-le-Clap
If you think caves are all the same then this subterranean attraction that opened in 2013 should be a breath of fresh air.
As the name might tell you, the cave uses subtle, multi-coloured lighting to illuminate its massive stalactites and stalagmites.
These are also combined with ambient sounds to create something special and memorable.
It’s all been designed to be very accessible and visitor-friendly, minimising steps and lighting the way with optical fibre.
You can take a guided tour, or, for something you won’t find in many other caves, you can rappel 50 metres down to the cave floor from the ceiling.
13. Mende Cathedral
The best reason to venture north into Lozère is to see the only entirely gothic building in the department, made from red sandstone.
Pope Urban V, based in Avignon, ordered its construction in the mid-1300s and there’s a statue of him standing in front.
In the middle ages the cathedral became famous for having the bell, “Non-Pareille”, which is claimed to have been the largest bell in Christendom.
It was melted down by the Huguenots to make weapons in the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, but the clapper survives, and weighs 470kg, standing 200cms in height.
14. Train à Vapeur des Cévennes
Running between Anduze and Saint-Jean-du-Gard is a heritage steam train on a line created in the 1880s.
It’s one of the best ways to see the countryside around the Gardon River in the foothills of the Cévennes , as the train chugs along five tall viaducts and stops at occasional halts for photographs.
If you’re into 19th-century engineering, the train also goes through four tunnels, the longest of which is almost 900 metres long.
Saint-Jean-du-Gard is also a pretty little town, so you could easily pass a couple of hours poking around the market or sitting back at a cafe.
Languedoc-Roussillon’s countryside is fluted with vineyards: There are 16 regions in all, each composed of many more domains.
For a long time it’s been associated with quantity and the famous wine glut, rather than quality, but the last decade has seen a lot of changes, and many mass-market vineyards replanted with more nuanced grape varieties . If you’re an oenophile the hardest part is working where to start.
Reds, whites, rosés, sweet and sparkling wines are all produced in the region, and thanks to a kind of inherent unfussiness, you’ll find that vignerons in this part of France are less formal and much more approachable.
Many, like Joe and Liz O’Connell at O’Vineyards north of Carcassonne are also from abroad and less bounded by French tradition.