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Home to the famous medieval citadel, a visit to the Southern French city of Carcassonne makes for the perfect weekend trip. Boasting 52 impressive towers with glinting slate roofs and 3 kilometres of grand concentric fortifications, the medieval cité is an astonishing sight to see. Although I would be happy to sit and gaze at the marvels of the Cité de Carcassonne architecture for hours, there are plenty of things to do in Carcassonne to keep you occupied for a full day or even a weekend.
How to get to Carcassone from Toulouse
You can visit Carcassonne as a perfect day trip from Toulouse if you are staying there as a base. It’s possible to get a return train ticket from Toulouse for around €20-€30 through SNCF. However, you can also get a day trip with both return journeys from Toulouse included through Get Your Guide for €21.Find out more about the day trip to Carcassone
Where to stay in Carcassonne
If you’re looking to stay in Carcassone for longer than a day, you’ll want to find somewhere to stay. The ancient citadel itself is on the smaller side, so you may find it difficult to find anywhere affordable to stay within the actual cité walls.
Hôtel Montmorency and Spa, however, is a perfect choice. With stunning views over the medieval citadel -which is a five-minute walk away- and an onsite spa, sun deck and indoor pool for €70 a night, it’s a clear winner to me.
If you’re on more of a budget trip, you might consider staying a little further from the centre of Carcassonne. Audotel is pretty affordable at €33 for a double room and still close enough to Carcassonne to reach easily for a day’s sightseeing. If this is still out of your price range, (don’t worry, we’ve all been there) why not think about Couchsurfing.
Things to do in Carcassonne
Wander the Bastide de Saint-Louis
Also known as La Ville Basse (the lower town), the Bastide de Saint-Louis, is the Cité’s bigger, newer yet slightly less attractive neighbour. This is where you’ll find yourself if you alight at Carcassonne railway station. Although the lower town is not as magnificent as the Cité, it’s still rather quaint in its own way and home to some architectural delights as well as a great collection of restaurants, bars and shops.
La Ville Basse was founded in 1240 when rebellious citizens of the Cité were banished beyond the walls. However, it was burned down in 1355 by Edward the Black Prince during the Hundred Year War and only some buildings survived, including the Cathedral Saint-Michel de Carcassonne. Today La Ville Basse is the business centre of modern Carcassonne.
Visit the Medieval Cité de Carcassonne
Of course, the main reason to visit Carcassonne is for its stunning medieval cité. Sat proudly atop a hill in the Aude valley and complete with towers, drawbridges, cobbled streets and a castle, visiting the Cité de Carcassone is like being in a real-life fairytale. It’s not hard to see why millions of tourists pour in from all over the world to get a glimpse of it.
A little known fact about the Cité de Carcassonne is that it was nearly demolished by the government in the 19th century after falling into a state of disrepair. In outrage, the town’s population campaigned against the demolition and instead the cité was eventually completely renovated by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
Of course, there is disagreement about whether the renovation was successful. Some argue that authenticity took a back seat in the restoration process, lending to an almost too perfect ‘cartoonish’ feel. However, it must be said that it’s a beautiful spectacle regardless.
Consider a private guided tour of the citadel to find out all about its rich history. This tour includes entrance tickets to the Château and ramparts, which alone are €9,50 each.
Visit the Château Comtal and walk the battlements
At the heart of the Cité de Carcassone is the Château Comtal. This is a must-see for anyone who is looking to find out about the citadel’s rich history. Find out how the cité would defend itself against sieges in the medieval period, learn about the Viollet-le-Duc’s massive restoration project in the late 19th century and take a look at the castle’s incredible Romanesque architectural treasures.
Your ticket to the Château will also include access to the cité’s ramparts. This is an absolute must for an up-close view of the stunning restored fortifications and views over the Pyrénées.
Get an advance ticket to the Château Comtal to skip the queues!
Admire the Basilique Saint Nazaire
The Gothic-Romanesque Saint-Nazaire Basilica is another historic monument within the citadel’s battlements that is absolutely worth visiting. Work started on the basilica between 1100-1120, however, it suffered damage in the Siege of Carcassone in 1209, which, delaying the work, meant that it was not complete until 1330. Nicknamed ‘the jewel of the city,’ the basilica is complete with stunning rose stained windows, which hark back to the 13th century.
You can find the basilica at Place Saint-Nazaire and it is free to visit.
Dine at a Restaurant
There are so many restaurants in the Cité de Carcassone to choose from that you may find yourself feeling a little lost. Rated one of the best eateries in Carcassone, Restaurant La Marquiere is a more upmarket option if you want to treat yourself to a traditional French meal, with outdoor seating and a beautiful ambience.
Being on a tighter budget, we ate at Le Bistro Fruit, situated right in the centre of the citadel, after spotting an extremely cheap deal. Our experience was average, with good food and service, despite the soup being initially served cold.
I have read that the restaurant options are better in the Bastide de Saint Louis, where you can visit Les Jardins de l’Estagnol for excellently rated Meditteranean cuisine at a more affordable price point.
Visit one of the many Carcassonne museums
If you’re one to easily get bored of wandering aimlessly around historic monuments, do not fret; there are plenty of interesting museums in Carcassone to keep your interest piqued. Within the Cité walls, you can find the Musée de l’inquisition, where you’ll get an hour-long tour of the different Medieval torture methods and instruments used in the French and Spanish inquisitions.
If you’re looking for something a little more family-friendly, consider taking a visit to the Musée de l’école, where you’ll get a unique insight into education in the 19th century, including a look at original classrooms and desks. Here you’ll hear all kinds of fascinating school stories and get to try writing with the old-fashioned pens at only €3 for an adult ticket.
Back in La Bastide de Saint Louis, you can visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts, where you’ll find massive collections of European fine art ranging from the 17th century to the present day. As well as the permanent exhibitions, the museum puts on three temporary exhibitions each year so check online to see if there’s anything new that interests you.
Explore the Cité’s artisan shops
If you’re looking to get some souvenirs from your trip to bring back home, the citadel is the perfect place to look. You can find a large range of colourful boutiques where you can buy jewellery, medieval relics, essential oils, home decor and more.
I loved wandering around the adorable sweet shops and perusing the many millions of flavours of nougat, as well as biscuits, fudge, chocolate, lollipops and more.
There are plenty of things to do in Carcassonne to warrant a full day exploring this stunning city on your travels across France. If you think I’ve forgotten something essential in this Carcassonne guide, don’t hesitate to get in contact with me in the comments below!