Deep in the rural sprawl of Southern France lies a place like no other; the fortified city of Carcassonne. It’s actually a tale of two cities. The first dates back to the Middle Ages and is filled with typically French cafés, restaurants, and bakeries lining its charmingly atmospheric streets. The second is a towering, majestic citadel which looms large over its other half and provides one of the most striking tourist experiences in all of mainland Europe.
‘La Cité’ (the Citadel), as it’s known by locals, is the second most popular tourist spot in France, after the unbeatable Eiffel Tower. Reportedly an inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale turrets, spires and cobbled alleyways are immediately evocative, and they helped cement Carcassonne’s place as one of France’s premier UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Walking around the Citadel will give you the impression that you’ve stepped into some kind of dream world, which makes it perfect for a bucket list dream trip! Log on to BUCKiTDREAM to see if any other venturers have explored the walled city, then keep your BUCKiTDREAM planner by your side as we take you through some of the top things to explore in Carcassonne!
Finding the Citadel There are two main airports near Carcassonne, one being the titular Carcassonne Airport, and the other being Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. The former will bring you within meters of the city, while the latter is about an hour’s drive away, through miles of the pleasant French countryside. If Carcassonne is part of a European road trip, it’s quite handy to call in for a day or two as you make your way down to beautiful Barcelona, which is a mere three hours drive south from the walled city.
Inside the Castle Walls, La Cité is a pedestrian-only zone during the day, which makes it easy to explore in a relaxed and carefree way. A good place to start your visit is a ramble around the ancient ramparts, which will let you get to grips with the lay of the land, as well as provide breathtaking views of the surrounding French countryside.
The stunning Château Comtal, dating all the way back from the 12th century, is also worth a visit; this ancient castle is a keystone of Carcassonne’s stunning battlements and can be found to the west of La Cité. Inside, you’ll find a museum and reconstructions of medieval military battles and sieges, which will help you envisage what life was like for inhabitants of Carcassonne during the Middle Ages. The city was famously hard to conquer; England’s Black Prince reportedly threw a tantrum when he couldn’t breach the gates, and set fire to the surrounding villages to subdue his frustrations.
A large part of your visit to La Cité should be an unguided exploration of its labyrinthine alleys and backstreets. There’s plenty to soak up as you wander through the ancient cobbles, with loads of boutique shops to peruse and quaint restaurants to grab a bite in. The Basilica de Saint-Nazaire should be on your planner; the bizarre gargoyles lining the eaves make quite a sight. Another fascinating slice of history lies in wait at Museum of the Inquisition, but be warned – it’s not for the faint of heart. Carcassonne was the sight of part of the Catholic Church’s notorious Middle Age Inquisition, which saw thousands of heretics put to gruesome death when they least expected it. You can learn all about La Cité’s role in the bloody proceedings at the museum.
Venturing Outside the Castle While the citadel is undoubtedly the main draw in Carcassonne, most of the better restaurants and shops can be found in the lower, newer section of the city, outside the citadel walls. Sample the food inside La Cité, but keep in mind that it’s designed with tourists in mind; for something a little more authentic and satisfying, you might want to head to the more traditional side of the city. Prices will also tend to be a lot cheaper. There are endless restaurants to choose from, but if you’re looking for some tried-and-true French dishes, why not check out Le Brassens, a two-minute ramble from the bridge that connects the citadel with the (relatively) new town.
Deciding where to stay is also a tale of two cities; resting inside La Cité can be exciting and cozy, but there are very few hotels available inside the citadel walls, and the ones that are there tend to book up fast. A better and cheaper bet is to stay in the other Carcassonne, which has many more options, and you still remain close to the main draw of the citadel. Keep in mind that the Citadel wasn’t designed to handle huge amounts of tourists so the place can get pretty packed in the summer. The best time to visit is late spring or early fall.
Carcassonne is a wonderful experience and a place everyone should visit at least once. The best part is that the walled city can be incorporated into a larger road trip of France, or even mainland Europe. Ready for some more thrilling French bucket list inspirations? Check out Everyone ‘Swipes Right’ For Nice or Cycling Paris: An Idiot’s Guide.