Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France’s Languedoc area, is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. The first walls were built in Gallo-Roman times, with major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries. Château Comtal, a 12th-century castle within the Cité, offers archaeological exhibits and a tour of the inner ramparts.
It is huge and completely over-the-top, with no less than 53 towers, strung together by two enormous concentric walls, surrounded by a moat, and punctuated here and there by heavy barbicans, portcullis and draw-bridges.
Within these fairy-tale fortifications sits a castle, a basilica (church), and a small town. And the whole thing struts its stuff at the top of a hill, giving it superb views of the modern city of Carcassonne to the west, the Aude river and Canal du Midi to the north, and the often-snow-capped Pyrénées to the south.
Such Medieval extravagance has made the citadel at Carcassonne France’s second-most popular tourist attraction, and visitors from all over the world are bussed in in their thousands – to stroll around what has become the world’s largest medieval theme-park, and one of France’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We were extremely lucky as during our visit there was a medieval festival going on
Having said all of this there are some negatives. Some of the restoration work is not to a high standard. Also, the centre of the La Cité has become totally over commercialised, with far too many overpriced shops selling gaudy trinkets and sketchy nougat. The choice of restaurants is not great and of course, you will pay over the top prices. The best option is to do your sightseeing and find somewhere to eat away from the tourist traps.
Overall, despite these nagging issues of over-commercialisation (which of course is an issue in many places), Carcassonne is still worth the visit and should be enjoyed for what it is.
Although it is free to enter and walk around the citadel of Carcassonne, you do need to pay to visit the Château Comtal and to walk around the ramparts. However, there are still plenty of things to see and do in Carcassonne even if you don’t pay for these experiences.
On the western side of the citadel is the Château Comtal which was built by the Trencaval family in the 12th Century. This fairy-tale looking castle is nestled against the protective ramparts of the Cité.
The admission fee to enter the castle includes:
- Privileged access to the upper part of the ramparts where you can enjoy 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding area.
- The rampart walk and access to the hoards.
- A visit to the dungeon (donjon).
- Access to rooms in the castle and interior courtyards.
- A short film and visit to the model of Carcassonne.
- A visit to the Musée Lapidaire which is full of sculptures.
At the southern end of the Old City of Carcassonne is the stunning Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus. This beautiful church was built in the 12th Century and is an impressive example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. In 1898, it was upgraded to a Basilica by Pope Leo XIII.
There is also a School Museum hidden in the heart of the medieval citadel of Carcassonne. If you are interested in seeing what schools were like in France at the time of the 3rd and 4th Republic, you can explore the 5 rooms which are full of teaching tools and resources from 1880 to the 1960s. There is a small charge for entry.
Planning your visit to Carcassonne
The City of Carcassonne has two main gates: The Narbonne Gate (Porte Narbonnaise) on its eastern side and the Aude Gate (Porte Aude) below the Château on its western side. In fact, the interior of Carcassonne can be accessed by 4 gates which are located on each of the 4 cardinal compass points.
However, the main entrance to Carcassonne is via the Porte Narbonnaise. On arrival at the Porte Narbonnaise, it’s exciting to cross the drawbridge. Take time to admire the amazing view of Carcassonne’s imposing walls before you head through the striking stone towers which make you feel so small and insignificant.
One of the great things about Carcassonne is that it is free to enter the walled Old City and explore this medieval gem at your leisure. However, it is worth knowing that access to Carcassonne’s ramparts is through the Château Comtal and there is an admission charge for entry.
Best time to visit Carcassonne
You can visit Carcassonne any time of the year. It benefits from a Mediterranean climate so it will not likely be too cold or too hot, but outside the summer months, the weather can be changeable.
Avoid the crowds
Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination, it especially gets busy in the holiday months of July and August. If you don’t want to be sharing the streets with a hoard of people then best avoid this time.
Having said that outside these peak periods some of the shops and activities may not be running – so there is a choice to be made.
Where to stay in Carcassonne
1. HOTEL DE LA CITÉ & SPA
Set in Carcassonne’s circular walls, Hotel de la Cite Carcassonne – MGallery Collection is set in a Medieval-style chateau. The hotel features gardens and an outdoor pool with views of Saint Nazaire Basilica. Free WiFi and wired internet access is available.
Homemade pastries are served at breakfast and regional dishes are offered in the brasserie and summer restaurant. Guests can also dine at the Michelin-starred Barbacane restaurant or enjoy a cocktail in the bar.
2. BEST WESTERN PLUS LE DONJON
Located in the heart of the medieval city of Carcassonne, Best Western Plus Le Donjon – Cœur de La Cité Médiévale is surrounded by the city’s ancient ramparts. The hotel features a restaurant and bar. It is divided into 2 buildings. Free WiFi is provided throughout.
A buffet breakfast is served each morning at the hotel. Le Donjon’s restaurant serves traditional French cuisine and there is also a cocktail bar where guests are invited to relax in the evening.
3. LE COUVENT HOSTEL
Le Couvent Hostel is a modern and elegant youth hostel, located in the heart of Carcassonne city. This former 17th-century convent has preserved its architecture and all the authenticity of the buildings of the period with its cloister, arcades and vaults.
Featuring family rooms, this property also provides guests with a patio. The accommodation offers evening entertainment and luggage storage space.