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Should You Take The Time To Visit Carcassonne?

Should you take the time to visit Carcassonne? And if so, when is the best time to visit this medieval city? When I first wrote this post in 2017, I really wasn’t fond of Carcassonne, mainly because of the crowds. I’ve done a full “360” and would, without question, return and have now visited this city in the Occitanie region three times. Let me share with you the Carcassonne I discovered and why you should make a visit there.

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1. Carcassonne: UNESCO World Heritage SiteCarcassonne at night (J. Chung)

Carcassonne was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It is located 95 kilometres south-east of Toulouse and has a fortified city, La Cité, within its boundaries. This is one of the most impressive walled cities in France. It is surrounded by two massive walls and 53 towers which protected it during medieval times.

Throughout its history, there have been campaigns to demolish it and renovate it and in the mid-1800s, renovations began to preserve it as a historical monument. What appears today is a medieval castle children (and adults) would imagine: with a drawbridge, a moat (grassy), and towers.

Check out this page for more details about getting the Carcassonne: Castle and Ramparts Entry Ticket.

2. Should You Visit Carcassonne?

Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France

Today, Carcasssonne is one of the most popular sites in France. Should you visit the walled city of Carcassonne? Yes, but just be aware it could be crowded during high season, which is in the summer. It is packed. Really packed. To make your visit more pleasurable, consider the following suggestions.

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Rock Sculptures Carved By A Blind Abbott In Brittany   

3. Three Trips To Carcassonne

Inside the walls of Carcassonne
Inside the walls of Carcassonne

The first time I stayed in Carcassonne (at the end of July many years ago), my accommodations were located within the walled city at the (Best Western) Hotel Le Donjon. The upside was that the fortress and old town were right there in front of me, but so were the crowds, the minute I walked out the front door.

The second time I did not stay in Carcassonne. My friend and I made a (long) stop in the town on our way to Collioure so it was just one day in Carcassonne—in La Cité. Laurie toured the fortified city while I did a quick walk inside the fortress and then wandered beyond the walls to take photos. It was not crowded at all and I have to say our visit in the month of January was perfect. The weather was pleasant and the sky was clear blue.

During my most recent visit in early June, I did not find the town overly crowded. I stayed outside La Cité (old city) in the ville basse (lower town) in an Airbnb. The location was perfect—only a 15 minute walk into the old city. Plus, parking was nearby and free.

4. When To Visit Carcassonne?

(a) Off-Season

If you can visit in the off-season, like I did in January, it will be worth it. You’ll have a much better time wandering the cobblestone alleyways and along the ramparts off-season. Take a look at my pictures in this post. Not very many people, right? Keep in mind, however, that some businesses may be closed for the holidays.

I was pleasantly surprised at how lovely the weather was in January—crisp blue sky, few clouds, and only a winter coat was needed (no boots!). It wasn’t particularly cold, about 5° Celsius.

(b) Shoulder Season

When I visited in early June, which is considered the shoulder season, the weather was perfect for bike riding (22° Celsius) and I had no problem walking through La Cité or getting a dining reservation on short notice.

(c) High Season

My first trip to Carcassonne took place at the end of July, which is typically the hottest month in the city (ie. 27°-37° Celsius). So, besides the heat, you’ll have the crowds. Not my favourite time of year to visit France, especially in the south.

If you must travel to Carcassonne in the summer, consider visiting when it has Le Festival de Carcassonne, often held in July. It is one of the largest festivals in France and in the past there have been over 120 shows (with many being free) featuring dance, music, opera and theatre and some acts have taken place in the ancient theatre.

On July 14, to celebrate Bastille Day, there are fireworks which are some of the best in the country. I do not doubt that the spectacle is impressive; however, the crowds are enormous. I debated spending my birthday there but decided I simply didn’t want to fight the crowds or have a problem trying to find (reasonably-priced) accommodations.

5. How Many Days To Visit Carcassonne?

Apartment in Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Apartment in Carcassonne (J. Chung)

So, is Carcassonne worth a visit? Yes! I have spent 1 day, 4 nights, and most recently, another 4 nights in Carcassonne. My apartment was located in the perfect spot–not far from the Citadel and not far from the centre of town (link to the apartment: Apartment in Carcassonne With Terrace).  Certainly, the one-day visit for my friend only exposed her to the fortress for only a few hours. My second visit had too many excursions outside of the city.

My third time to Carcassonne was perfect. I had a suitable amount of time to wander around the old (and new) city and outside the fortress wall and go for a bike ride for a day. If you have the time, spend at least 3-5 nights in Carcassonne. You won’t be rushed and you’ll have plenty of time to see the town and the area.

What Should You See In Carcassonne In A Day?

In the next section I list many of the sites to see and things to do over a period of a few days; however, if you only have one day I would suggest:

  • first, explore the “old” city….just walk everywhere inside La Cité and around the fortress from the outside
  • visit Château Comtal and walk along the ramparts
  • add in visits to the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse and
  • perhaps add in lunch at La Barbacane

Having less than 24 hours in Carcassonne will basically give you an overview and introduce you to the centerpiece of the city, the fortress. You might have time to visit the newer section of Carcassonne, Bastide Saint Louis, but you can always visit it another time.

6. What To Do In Carcassonne

(a) La Cité Médiéval de Carcassonne

Fortresses: Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France

If you only have one day in Carcassonne, this is the place to visit: La Cité, located in the “upper town” of Carcassonne. It’s not big and you’ll enjoy gazing on the immense fortress from the outside and inside. Walk on the cobblestone streets and drop into one of the bars or restaurants or some of the shops (many are touristy, however).

And of course visit the 12th-century castle within, called Château Comtal. There is an admission fee and you can get an audio guide to learn about the history of the castle and how it was restored.  Walk along the ramparts and get splendid views of the valley.

Carcassonne castle opening times: 10:00-5:45 pm

(b) Get Views Of Carcassonne From Outside The Fortress

Fortress walls-Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Fortress walls-Carcassonne (J. Chung)

While the inside of La Cité is pedestrian-only and interesting, I much prefer photos taken OUTSIDE the entire fortress rather than of the inside town. The outside walls of the fortress are absolutely stunning.

I was interested in taking a nighttime guided tour run by the tourist office, however, they were not offered in the month of June when I was there. So, I did it on my own.

After dinner, I headed back out and took pictures from Pont Vieux and Pont Neuf—both bridges cross the Aude River and provide excellent views of the fortress. I then walked to La Cité and took photos inside and outside the fortress. I did the same during the day. Do not miss walking around the entire fortress. You’ll be duly impressed.

(c) Murals Outside Of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye

Murals Outside Of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye (J. Chung)
Murals Outside Of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye (J. Chung)
Murals Outside Of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye (J. Chung)
Murals Outside Of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye (J. Chung)

By chance, I came upon a long wall of frescoes, or murals, outside of Notre Dame de L’Abbaye which is now a hostel. In the mid-1980s, a number of mural painters (Cité de la Creation) collaborated to create a mural about medieval life in Carcassonne. It runs along rue Trivalle and intersects with rue du Reverend Pierre Dupont (just below the fortress walls and entrance). When I asked the tourist office about it, they had no idea what it was, which is sad, as the mural is impressive. I hope they’re protected and preserved.

(d) Bicycle Ride Along The Canal du Midi

Bike Ride Along The Canal du Midi From Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Biking along the Canal du Midi (J. Chung)

One of the reasons I wanted to stay in Carcassonne was to see the Canal du Midi. While many people do a barge cruise, I wanted to rent a bike and go at my own speed. With a picnic lunch and lots of energy, I spent the day riding eastward to the town of Trebes and then back to the western edge of Carcassonne at L’Epanchoir de Foucaud. In total, my journey covered 34 kilometres. A lovely day’s outing. Here’s more information about the excursion: Bike Ride Along The Canal du Midi

(e) Lunch At A Truly Affordable Michelin-starred Restaurant

Terrace at La Barbacane, Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Terrace at La Barbacane, Carcassonne (J. Chung)

I had a wonderful lunch at La Barbacane, which is run by chef Jérôme Ryon. He was awarded the Michelin star in 2006 (and he still has the star!) and the food was amazing, the service friendly and attentive, and the price? What a deal! Affordable Michelin-Starred Lunch: La Barbacane In Carcassonne

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(f) Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse

Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Choir in Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, Carcassonne (J. Chung)
Choir in Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, Carcassonne (J. Chung)

The oldest church in Carcassonne is the Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse basilica. It was constructed in 1096 and was named after two first-century martyrs. Originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, it was demoted to a basilica in 1803. Located in the citadel of Carcassonne, the church design is that of a cross and certainly, the focal point is the choir with the large stained glass windows. They are some of the most beautiful in the south of France.

(g) La Bastide Saint Louis

fortress walls. You might say Carcassonne is made up of two towns—the medieval one up top (La Cité) and the lower town, called Bastide Saint Louis. This town was a “planned town”, built in 1260 to surround Place Carnot in a grid pattern.

Often considered the “new old town” of Carcassonne, it has a commercial district with a (more modern and spacious) tourist office, boutiques, cafes, and more businesses. While considered “newer”, it still retains lots of charm with some narrow, cobblestone streets. Place Carnot has outdoor cafes and a fairly large food market which is held a few times a week.

Have you been to Carcassonne? Do you have any favourite experiences or sights to share?

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Should you visit Carcassonne?

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  1. Paula Markus says:

    Hi Jan, I enjoy reading your blog!
    We went to Carcassone on Bastille Day years ago for the fireworks. It was indeed very crowded, and we had to stake out our patch of grass outside the walls hours before the show. But we will always remember the amazing fireworks bursting over the towers and ramparts of the old city, oohing and ah-ing with thousands of people from all over France. Definitely worth it.

    1. Lucky you to be there on Bastille Day. I totally forgot that the fireworks are great there. It would have been amazing!!!

  2. William Richardson says:

    Really packed? We live here in Carcassonne and have toured La Cité with family during July. It can be crowded during lunchtime when it seems everyone tries to find a table at the same instant. The streets are very narrow which is very much part of the charm. Walking the streets in the evening is magical. You feel you have the world to yourself. Don’t forget that there is another formerly walled city just outside the walls where you can find the Canal du Midi, another UNESCO site, markets, many more restaurants, a free art museum, galleries, wine shops, cheese shops, boulangeries and patisseries. Don’t pass the chance to see La Cité and expand your trip down the hill to the centreville and just down the road a bit you can taste sparkling wine where it all began in the area around Limoux.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. That’s true about the evening. Things are much more magical. I’ve found this in a lot of usually “touristy” places.

  3. michele peterson says:

    Handy tips! I haven’t yet been to Carcassonne but will add it to my list for my next trip to France. I’d love to go exploring those atmospheric streets

  4. Donna Janke says:

    The Carcassonne fortress looks impressive. I would certainly visit it.

    1. I’m glad I went back. I’m so happy the sun came out to take photos of the entire La Cité.

  5. Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields says:

    David and I visited Carcassonne decades ago when there were no crowds and it was absolutely wonderful.

  6. Sue Reddel says:

    Another spot in France we haven’t been to yet. I think we’ll heed your warning and visit during the shoulder season. As much as I love travel I really struggle with big crowds. They just suck the joy out of my experience. Plus we have a friend who now lives close to Carcassonne so we’ll definitely make the trip. Thanks Jan!

    1. Definitely go then! When I was there in July many years ago I stayed IN the town and it was crazy busy then. Off-season would be much better.

  7. Carole Terwilliger Meyers says:

    You had me at UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love walled cities and know I will love Carcassonne. And I’ll heed your advice and go in off season.

    1. Yes, and I’m now keen to find more UNESCO sites in France!

  8. Jenny Freedman says:

    We also visited a while ago and missed the crowds thankfully. It’s an interesting town to wander through but I agree with you that the exterior view is lovely as are the views of the nearby Canal du Midi. We actually loved wandering around the main town just down the hill.

    1. Sadly we just didn’t have time to go through the town. I’d like to visit the area again, however.

  9. Doreen Pendgracs says:

    Great post, Jan. I would love to visit Le Festival de Carcassonne, but I imagine the crowds must be SUPER big during that time. I love local festivals, though, and sometimes, it is worth it to battle those crowds.

    1. True. Festivals can be so much fun and if you really want to be there…so be it!

  10. I have been to Carcassonne twice and loved every visit – although I always travel off season to really avoid all the crowds and this yes a very busy tourist site but nicer in the off season.

    1. Another one who’s been twice! Pretty neat place….especially off season.

  11. Rachel Heller says:

    I visited Carcassonne many years ago … let’s just say it was before it was a designated UNESCO world heritage site. I loved it: there’s something romantic about a medieval structure like that! I would think that, if the only time you can travel is the summer, you could still get those photos of a crowd-free Carcassonne if you got up early and went out before things started opening up. With the added bonus that the light would be best for photography!

    1. Definitely a bonus when you get up early or go at dusk. Great light then.

  12. I read that a stain glass window in the Basilica there was disassembled & hidden in the mountains to protect it from the Nazis but can’t find anything else about it. Do you know this story?

    1. No I had no idea. I wish I had visited the Basilica. The stained glass looks amazing.

  13. Frances Folsom says:

    Hi Jan, I’ve never been to France and reading this post confirms that I need to go there.

    1. I’m so happy it inspired you!

  14. Alex Vagliviello says:

    My wife and I visited Carcassone on our European Road trip in July 2018 (Paris to Naples via Lake Como). I f you don’t like crowds then I suggest your silly to travel to Europe in peak season. However, having said that we spent three fabulous days and nights staying at the base of the Fortress (still think about that climb up to the Castle along a 600 year old pathway). Our other highlight was walking into the Town square every evening to enjoy the wine, food, music and atmosphere. The people of Carcassone are very open and welcoming and know how to have a good time. The experience of the free Concerts each evening still remains with me. We also had the good fortune to meet another couple from our part of the world (Perth, Western Australia) and to find that we lived only 20 minutes apart. I would highly recommend to anyone to travel to Carcassone and the South of France for that matter in July / August. It will provide many memories for years to come.

    1. Thank you so much for your input on visiting Carcassonne.

  15. Canal Du Midi Bike Tours says:

    Relax Bike Tours drops of bikes in Carcassonne all the time, if you want to do a one-way bike tour along the Canal Du Midi starting in Carcassonne. Heading East from here, towards Béziers or Sète, you will be going downhill and with the wind.

    1. Yes, and your company was very helpful in providing me with information about possible routes. Merci!