Carcassonne – A tale of two Languedoc towns
When most people think of ‘Carcassonne’, they think of the massive medieval citadel sitting on the hill overlooking the ‘new town’ of Carcassonne. It’s no wonder the castle dominates the town in people’s minds - it is France’s second-most visited tourist spot after the Tour Eiffel, and most who visit it pour off their busses and then back on to them, never venturing into the slightly newer town across the river.
I say ‘town’ because Carcassonne, although officially a city, doesn’t feel city-like in scale and energy. It certainly feels smaller than its siblings Béziers and Narbonne, and to be honest, offers far less than those two cities in terms of sights, shopping, restaurants and bars. In fact, Carcassonne can feel like a little bit of a come-down - it’s rather sleepy and small, with a nice square in the middle and a few nice shops and restaurants. But don’t expect it to captivate you for more than a few hours.
The trick to appreciating the ‘La Ville Basse’ as Carcassonne is sometimes called is to see it as a jumping-off point to more interesting sights just outside the city walls. The castle just over the river, La Cité, is the most obvious example. The Canal du Midi is another - Carcassonne is a great launch pad for a day’s pootle along the canal. All around the city you’ll find endless vineyards offering great tasting opportunities. To the north is the pretty village of Caunes-Minervois, and beyond that the Cathar castles of ‘Las Tours’. Further afield from Carcassonne is the rugged Corbières region to the south, peppered with pretty villages and some of France’s most atmospheric Medieval castles and abbeys.
The Carcassonne Citadel
Set high up on a hill, Carcassonne’s ancient walled city is Disneyworld-perfect. This fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s The Sleeping Beauty, and it’s a must-see on any trip through this part of southern France. Its medieval core, the cité, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.
Although both the Romans and Visigoths were here, Carcassonne really flourished under the well-to-do Trencavel family of the late 12th century. In 1355 the lower town was burnt to the ground by the Black Prince, one of the key figures in the Hundred Years’ War of the Middle Ages, miffed at his failure to capture the citadel. Carcassonne’s key role in cross border trade with Spain, however, dried up with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when Roussillon was restored to France.
As trade dwindled, the city walls, no longer needed for protection, fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the architect Viollet-le-Duc began restoration in the 1800s that things started to improve. It was this project which helped save Carcassonne and ensure that the city of today is so outstandingly beautiful.
Read our FULL guide to the Carcassonne Citadel here >
About Carcassonne Town
(La Ville Basse)
In the shadow of its smaller but more famous sibling, the ‘La Cité’ citadel, Carcassonne’s (lower) town dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as all the standard services and amenities you’d expect, and as such it’s the perfect antidote to the tourist attraction that towers above it. Sample the town’s charms by simply strolling through its streets. Drink in the atmosphere and enjoy the authentically gallic experience; this part of Carcassonne is home to a handful of charming boutiques, several great places to eat and a couple of unusually stylish overnight options.
The best shops in Carcassonne
While not exactly a shopaholic’s paradise, Carcassonne’s lower town has some eye-catching boutiques that are a good source for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. They are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot (home to the weekly food market, and in winter, the site of the temporary ice rink) and can be whizzed round in an hour or so if you’re pushed for time.
|Esprit de Sel
10, rue de la Republique
|Three rooms housing a treasure trove of attractive items that would make ideal presents – L’Occitane soaps, fragrances and beauty products, distinctive bags, hats and other fashion accessories, jewellery, herbs and other similarly non-essential “nice-to-haves.”
|Comptoir des Tisseurs
25, rue de la Republique
|Just across the street from Esprit de Sel – a smart homewares and décor shop, with the accent firmly on subtle, muted tones rather than your more typical, brighter, south of France shades.
13, rue Chartran
|A very chi-chi store that sells high end home deco and design wares plus furniture, as well as jewellery – and if you need a refreshing cuppa, there’s tea on offer, too.
Corner of rue Verdun/rue Chartron (just off Place Carnot)
|What the French call an “épicerie fine” – a fine food emporium, packed full of the most enticing goodies and accessories for foodies and wine-lovers. From luxury items like foie gras and caviar to fancy flatware and truffle slicers, via state-of-the-art corkscrews and champagne buckets: everything you could need to entertain in high style.
Just across the road from La Ferme are the newly-refurbished Les Halles (Carcassonne’s covered food market) – a must for foodies.
Carcassonne's best restaurants
|Le Parc Franck Putelat
Chemin des Anglais
Tel: +33 (0)4 68 71 80 80
|Carcassonne’s fanciest restaurant is located just outside the town. A 2-star chef whips up super fare - ‘modern French’ in style. Outdoor seating is available in summer in the garden. The lunchtime menu offers great value.
29 Rue Armagnac
Tel: +33 (0)4 68 26 64 54
|Simple, unassuming Alsace-themed restaurant near the Canal. Very tasty but simple food, rustic décor and friendly service.
|Restaurant La Marquiere
13 rue St Jean
Tel: +33 (0)4 68 71 52 00
|Good food in a pleasant, traditional atmosphere, up near the Carcassonne citadel. The food is traditional French without being too fussy, and very tasty.
7 Rue Viollet le Duc
Tel: +33 (0)4 68 47 12 55
|Another good French restaurant up near Carcassonne’s medieval citadel. More modern and less formal than La Marquiere, both in terms of the food and décor. The tapas is very good.
| Le Jardin en Ville
5, rue des Framboisiers
Tel: +33 (0)4 68 47 80 91
|With a menu dictated by the fresh produce in season, this place serves nice french style cuisine and has an interesting retro charm. Up top is a nice open-air terrace.
Carcassonne’s Top 5:
1: The walls of the Carcassonne ‘La Cité’ citadel.
The upper town is surrounded by a double wall – the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times. The citadel includes the Château Comtal - the central castle of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. There are guided tours of the château which also take in sections of the walls and the amphitheater. St-Nazaire basilica. Again set in the Carcassonne citadel, Pope Urban V (born near Mende in the north of Languedoc) visited here in 1096 and ordered the construction of the basilica. However, the original Romanesque style is now predominantly Gothic after alterations over the years – the best features are its enormous rose windows and the weird gargoyles.
Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude. A wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538.
CLICK HERE to read more about the Carcassonne Citdel.
2: Carcassonne Town’s central square
A nice place to drop after you’ve shopped and enjoy a cup of coffee or an al fresco lunch. There are a few outdoor cafés and restaurants here, all offering simple but tasty fare. The square sits in the very centre of Carcassonne, and is dominated by a huge fountain.
3: The Canal du Midi
The canal port at Carcassonne is one of the busiest, and from here you can hop on a half or whole-day canal trip, or even rent a boat for a week or two. Even a half-day trip is lots of fun - get a picnic together at one of Carcassonne’s épiceries, and flat down the tunnel of plane trees either to the west towards Bram or to the east through Trèbes. To find out more about the canal boat rental options from Carcassonne, visit our Canal Boat Hire page.
4: Château Las Tours
About 20 minutes north of Carcassonne town, in the undulating hills of the Haut-Minervois, you’ll find one of the most picturesque of the region’s Cathar castles. Las Tour’s four towers sit along the spine of a hill, just above a small village. Whereas Carcassonne’s ‘La Cité’ is huge and very touristy, Las Tours has a far more intimate and atmospheric feel. Read nore about the Château Las Tours on our ‘Cathar and other castles’ page. On the way back, why not pop into the pretty village of Caune-en-Minervois, with its medieval abbey and winding streets.
5: Wine Tasting
Wine is everywhere in the Languedoc, but Carcassonne is ideally placed as a jumping-off point into two of the region’s finest wine-growing areas - the Minervois to the north, and the rugged Corbières to the south. Whether you decide to go on a Wine Tour (with a company such as Vin en Vacances, for example) or just pop into domaines for a bit of Wine Tasting, you’ll find plenty of excellent options. Click here to find out more about tours and tastings in our Wine Pages.