Carcassonne has an entire city that is a castle, in La Cite, the fortified upper city. These massive ramparts atop a hill provide broad views of the lower city below. In Carcassonne, visitors stroll along the cobblestone streets, browsing shops selling Medieval wares, or nibbling on the classic peasant stew cassoullet at various cafes.
Although this city is one of France's top tourist destinations, drawing an average of three million visitors yearly, it mostly attracts Europeans, so it can feel especially exotic. Some describe it as a tourist-trap, and there are a bit too many shops hawking tacky souvenirs, but it is still and enchanting and interesting place to visit.
You can fly into Carcassonne's airport, although if you are departing from the U.S., count on a layover somewhere in Europe. Once you arrive, there is a free shuttle into the city. There are also free shuttles from May through November (an electric car during the early spring and late fall, then a shuttle bus during the summer) running from La Cite to the lower city. The city's bus can be used during the winter. A key warning, though. The bus system doesn't run on Sundays.
You can also book a French Rail Pass. If you are arriving by train and staying in La Cite, you will need to navigate the city's bus system or catch a taxi.
When To Go
There isn't really a bad time to visit, since the weather here is quite temperate year-round, but select a season based on your own tastes. In winter, many of the city's attractions are closed or run on limited hours. Spring and fall can be ideal. The most will be happening during summer, but Carcassonne will also be the most packed with tourists that time of year.
Top AttractionsLa Cite may be small, but there are many things to see here. Take a tour of the ramparts, visit some of the museums, and be sure not to miss visiting the Basilica of Saint Nazaire.
Outside The City
There are many wonderful spots that are a short drive outside of Carcassonne, and are certainly worth spending a day with a rental car the explore. Carcassonne is the heart of Cathar Country, and there are many Cathar attractions nearby. This is also the heart of the Languedoc wine country, and there are many wonderful vineyards to visit.
- Don't miss Limoux, a village just south of the city. This is the home to the annual Carnivale from January through March, and is also a thriving wine-making community. They even claim to have been the true inventors of sparkling wine, and that Dom Perignon stole the idea.
- Rennes le Chateau is a very creepy little village where the Baron Sauniere, at the turn of the 20th century, erected a church and other religious structures. There are many rumors about the baron's work, including allegations that Mary Magedelene stayed there after the crucixion and that the Holy Grail is hidden there.
- Montsegur is the site of the biggest stand the Cathars made against the Crusaders during the Middle Ages. Make the grueling climb to the ruins of their castle stronghold, where they held off 10,000 Crusaders for months. When they were finally conquered, many of the Cathars chose to march into the flames rather than convert.