We visited Carcassonne as part of a barge cruise down the Canal du Midi hosted by European Waterways. All opinions are our own and are based on our experiences.
Carcassonne is a fascinating fortified city in the Occitanie region of France that has been around since the Neolithic Period. Over time, the hilltop area was occupied by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Saracens, and the Franks. Carcassonne was of great strategic importance due to its location between trade routes connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and the Massif Central to the Pyrenees.
Here’s how to spend a great day in Carcassonne.
Explore The Old Fortified City Of Carcassonne
Carcassonne boasts an old fortified city known as La Cite de Carcassonne, and it’s full of layers of history. It’s actually a castle as well as a double-walled city. On a visit, you can see the various methods of fortification -- wooden ramparts, towers, barbicans, and more. The castle has a drawbridge, and you can see a section of the Roman wall, which is quite different from the medieval walls constructed later. One of the towers of the fortified area played a role in the 13th-century Inquisition.
La Cite was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and if you’re there to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, you’ll definitely think you’re visiting a fairy-tale castle. You can wander through the winding cobblestone alleys and passageways past old stone buildings; there’s plenty of history to enjoy. There are also lots of shops, restaurants, hotels, and souvenir spots.
Head To The Lower Town
While visiting the fortified city is a must, the Lower Town along the banks of the River Aude is also worth experiencing. It was founded in the 13th century when rebels from the citadel were kicked out. It’s called the Bastide Saint Louis and is home to many cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, and places to spend time. It’s built in a rectangle around the central Place Carnot.
Enjoy a stroll along the boulevards, which are home to beautiful mansions from different centuries. The Lower Town is also the modern business center of Carcassonne.
Cross The Pont Vieux
There are a few bridges that cross the River Aude, but the Pont Vieux is arguably the prettiest and definitely the oldest. It was constructed during the 14th century; at the time, it was the only link between the Lower Town and the old fortified city. Reconstructed in the 19th century, Pont Vieux is one of the few medieval bridges still existing in France. It’s compact and boasts lovely features like graceful arches. Pont Vieux is a pedestrian-only bridge, so you can take your time admiring the scenery while you’re there.
Snap A Photo Of The Lady Carcas Statue
A famous Carcassonne legend is the story of Lady Carcas, of whom there is a statue right in front of the drawbridge at La Cite.
When the Saracens occupied the city, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne wanted to conquer it. He mounted a siege against the Saracen king and his people, destroying their crops and depriving them of resources. The siege lasted several years, and the Saracen king died.
His widow, the resourceful Lady Carcas, strategized a bold defense. Although she and her people were on the brink of starvation, she took their last piglet and stuffed it with their last bale of wheat. They tossed the pig over the wall, where it exploded at Charlemagne’s feet. Upon seeing the grain-filled animal wasted without a thought, he assumed that the city was so well provisioned that his attempt to overtake it was futile, and so he left.
Take A Boat Trip On The Canal Du Midi
Carcassonne has a bustling canal port from which you can take a half-day (or longer) boat trip. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Canal du Midi was developed in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
You can take an organized trip or rent a boat for yourself and your friends. A great way to spend an afternoon is to pick up some picnic goodies at one of the many Carcassonne markets, float down the canal and eat your picnic onboard, and perhaps make a stop at one of the lovely spots along the way. The canal passes by locks and bridges and near the Lower Town. This is a fun way to get another perspective of fascinating Carcassonne.
Eating In Carcassonne
Carcassonne has a great cuisine scene. There are plenty of options for whatever you are hungry for. Here are a few ideas.
La Table De Franck Putelat
Two Michelin-starred restaurants in the city are worth checking out. La Table de Franck Putelat shines with its two stars even in the busy Carcassonne dining scene. At home in contemporary decor near the ramparts of the citadel, this tribute to inventive cuisine will tingle your taste buds and awaken all your senses. Menus have themes like “Emotion” and “Action Reaction,” illustrating the chef’s continuing quest to provide the ultimate flavor experience.
La Barbacane is one of the best fine-dining restaurants in Carcassonne. The Michelin-starred spot’s gorgeous stained glass windows, cathedral ceilings, carved woodwork, and rich furnishings let you know you’re in for a special occasion from the moment you arrive. Prepare to enjoy classic dishes and modern interpretations, all beautifully plated. Don’t forget to try a local aperitif to get things rolling.
Le Jardin En Ville
Seasonal farm-fresh ingredients take center stage at Le Jardin en Ville, where you can enjoy a delicious meal al fresco on the terrace. Freshly prepared dishes include duck, lamb chops, fish, and beef in addition to delightful cheeses and even Buddha bowls. You can order food to go or stop in the fun little boutique that sells interesting items to add to your home decor.
Le Saint Jean
For a meal in the heart of La Cite with stunning views, head to Le Saint Jean. Surrounded by the walls of the city, you can enjoy delicious fare such as classic French entrees, salads, and even tapas. Its house version of the local specialty cassoulet is considered exceptional.
Popular with the locals, Comte Roger has something for every palate, including different prix fixe menus with loads of options. From soups and salads to parfait glace and plenty of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes in between, you’ll enjoy a wonderful meal and a great terrace, too.
Shopping In Carcassonne
Carcassonne’s Lower Town offers some fun boutiques with gifts, souvenirs, and tasty purchases to take home. Many are located around the central square, the Place Carnot.
The weekly market is open on Saturdays and is fun to explore for local produce. You can hang out at one of the cafes in the area and watch local shoppers pick out their favorites.
Also, since Carcassonne is in the fantastic wine region of Languedoc, you are near two great wine-growing areas: Minervois a little north and Corbieres a little south. You can head to one of those if you have the time for a tour and tasting.
Where To Stay In Carcassonne
While many people consider Carcassonne a place for a day trip, if you have the time, you might just want to spend the night. One of the reasons is that the Hotel de la Cite is simply amazing. Its elegant decor, Michelin-starred restaurant (La Barbacane), and private gardens offering views of the city are just the beginning. Located on the site of a former bishop’s palace, the hotel offers history blended with modern comforts, including an exceptional spa, a heated pool, and rooms with both character and sophistication.
We’ve tried to give you an idea of how you could spend a day in Carcassonne. Locals would advise you to come early in the day to avoid the influx of tourists at lunchtime in the summer and to get a better feel for what the city is like. There is much to do in this historically important and vibrant city that offers a glimpse into both ancient and modern life.
For more things to see and do in France, visit this page.