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The Cité de Carcassonne, in the region of Occitanie, is one of our favorite places in France and will likely steal your heart too. The UNESCO listed Cité de Carcassonne is a medieval citadel that contains the Carcassonne Castle, Saint Nazaire Basilica, and medieval houses. We have listed the Cité de Carcassonne as one of the most famous French landmarks, and also one of the top things to do in France.
Cité de Carcassonne is One of the Main Sites in the Cathar Country
Carcassonne is one of the most important sites related to the Cathars in France. The Cathar religion had many followers within Carcassonne’s walls. Raimond-Roger Trencavel, Viscount of Carcassonne, protected the Cathars, and soon the city became a land of heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church. When all the negotiations failed, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars.
Carcassonne was one of the main targets during the first Cathar Crusade in 1209, which was led by Simon de Montfort. Carcassonne was besieged and surrendered in August 1209. After the death of Raimond-Roger Trencavel, the Carcassone citadel was occupied by the terrible Simon de Montfort, who turned Carcassonne into his headquarters to fight against the Cathars. You can see his tomb inside the Basilica of Saint Nazaire.
In 1226, the viscountcy of Carcassonne became part of the royal domain.
How to Get to Carcassonne in France
Carcassonne, France, is a city easy to visit on a weekend getaway from Paris or any major city in France.
The Carcassonne Airport (CCF) is located 4km west of the city center. The airport is one of the most useful French airports in the region and connects Carcassonne in France with many cities in England, Scotland, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, and Portugal. A cost-effective shuttle allows travelers to get to the city center from the airport.
You can travel to Carcassonne from various cities in the south and from a good part of the major French cities. Direct TGV trains connect Carcassonne to Dijon, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, or Bordeaux.
There are around 18 daily trains from Paris to Carcassonne, and it usually takes about 6 hrs 34 min, with a change along the way.
The Cité de Carcassonne is the perfect starting point for any road trip in the Cathar region of France. You can start by visiting the Cité and the Castle of Carcassonne before hitting the road to explore other sites in the Cathar country. This 5-day Cathar Country road trip, with a start and finish in Carcassonne, is one of the best road trips in France and covers the main Cathar sites in the region.
Where to Sleep in Carcassonne
The list of things to do in Carcassonne France will keep you busy for some hours. However, it is a good idea to spend at least one night in the city: the Cité de Carcassonne lit up at night is beautiful to see and a night stroll inside the Carcassonne citadel – when the day crowds are gone – is a wonderful way to finish your visit to Carcassonne.
For your stay in Carcassonne, book at the hotel Mercure Carcassonne La Cité. This charming hotel comes with free private parking, and it has beautiful air-conditioned rooms and a garden plus a swimming pool with fantastic views over the walled city.
Other good hotels in Carcassonne France worth checking are:
- Hotel Astoria (budget)
- Hotel Montmorency & Spa (mid-range)
- Hotel l’ Aragon (mid-range)
- Hotel de la Cité & Spa MGallery (luxury)
- Hotel du Château & Spa Les Collectionneurs (luxury)
Things to Do in Carcassonne, France
Here’s the list of things to do in Carcassonne, most of them inside the Carcassonne citadel.
Learn the Story about Lady Carcas
The sculpture of Lady Carcas reminds visitors of how Carcassonne got its name. Here’s the story:
Some 1,200 years ago, the Saracen King Ballak ruled today’s Carcassonne when Charlemagne’s troops began the siege of this fortified town. The dry moat kept the enemy away but during one of these assaults, King Ballak was mortally wounded and his wife Lady Carcas, assumed the role of leader.
The siege lasted for five years. Early in the sixth year, the Cité was running out of water and food. In one last attempt to save her people, Lady Carcas had the idea to feed a pig with one of the last sacks of wheat and then throw it from the highest tower of the city walls.
Believing that the city had enough food to the point of wasting pigs fed with wheat, Charlemagne lifted the siege and left. Happy with the success of her plan, Lady Carcas decided to ring all the bells in the city. One of Charlemagne’s men then exclaimed: ‘Carcas sonne!’ (which means ‘Carcas sounds’). Since then, the Cité is named Carcassonne.
Visit the Carcassonne Castle
The stunning Château Comtal – or Count’s Castle – is the must-site inside the Cité de Carcassonne. The castle of Carcassonne’s entrance is on the eastern side, and there’s an entrance fee to visit the castle.
The Castle of Carcassonne is a medieval castle within the Cité de Carcassonne, a kind of fortress inside the fortress and one of the best castles in Southern France, the epitome of your fairytale medieval castle.
The Castle at Carcassonne was built in the 12th century by Bernard Aton Trencavel over the western part of the Roman walls. It was surrounded by a rectangular fortified enclosure in 1226.
The castle is rectangular in shape, and it is separated from the city by a deep moat and defended by two barbicans.
The castle’s six towers are pierced with stirrup loopholes, and the curtain walls and the top of the towers can be used with hoists. The western flank of the walls, against which the Carcassonne Castle is built, is defended by a square watchtower, the Tour Pinte, the highest in the city.
Today, the fortified castle’s walls support a reconstruction of hoardings between the door and the Major’s tower. The hoardings are the covered wooden walkways with openings that allowed soldiers to launch projectiles at invaders.
Inside the Carcassonne Castle, there are the remains of the Counts’ private chapel and a museum with an interesting collection of Cathar gravestones and other objects related to the Cathars.
Visit the Basilique Saint Nazaire
This beautiful 10th-century building originally built in Romanesque style was the former Carcassonne’s Cathedral, consecrated by Pope Urbain in 1096. The current basilica has a Gothic style look, and it was completed in the first half of the 12th century but has been remodeled several times since.
Saint Nazaire lost its cathedral status in 1801, replaced by Saint Michel Church in the lower city. It has the basilica status since 1898.
When we visited the basilica, some parts of the façade were under restoration, which allowed us to take some ‘Cathar pictures.’
Inside, you can see Simon de Montfort’s tomb and a beautiful collection of stained glass windows from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Walk along the Cité de Carcassonne Ramparts
The imposing ramparts of the Cité de Carcassonne occupy a rocky outcrop that dominates the course of the Aude River. The Cité de Carcassonne dues its appearance with pointed towers to Viollet le Duc, the French architect who in the 19th century wrongly restored the Cité following the patterns of the medieval villages and castles in Northern France.
The visit to the Carcassonne Citadel is self-guided, and you can also walk along the walls. However, it is a good idea to take a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide to learn more about the Cathars and Carcassonne’s terrible past.
Walking along the Carcassonne ramparts is one of the absolute highlights of the Cité de Carcassonne. These stunning walls are witness to 1000 years of military architecture and 2600 years of history, plus the views from the ramparts are spectacular.
The Carcassonne ramparts are punctuated with 52 guard towers. Some of them are simple stone structures accessed by low arched doorways on each side. Others are grand architectural constructions with multiple floors you can explore. One of the towers even housed the Catholic Inquisition in the 1200s! Inside this tower, the architect Viollet-Le-Duc found about 200 skeletons during the restoration works.
Stroll around the Carcassonne Citadel
The medieval Carcassonne citadel, which is in the southeastern corner of modern Carcassonne, is a lovely place for a stroll, with winding cobbled streets, picturesque squares with stone fountains, and a homogeneous medieval architecture.
Apart from the Carcassonne Castle and Basilica, there are two museums (Musée de l’ Inquisition and Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale), many hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Although it is a touristy place, the Cité de Carcassonne has managed to keep its authentic atmosphere and a particular charm.
The Carcassonne Citadel has four entrances:
- Porte du Bourg – Rodez Gate to the north
- Porte Narbonnaise – Narbonne Gate to the east
- Porte Saint-Nazaire – Saint-Nazaire Gate to the south
- Porte d’Aude – Aude Gate to the west
Visit Carcassonne’s Lower City (Bastida Saint Louis)
The Lower City, built after the siege, is also interesting to visit. Named Bastida Saint Louis, this newer part of Carcassonne is of a completely different design, named bastida.
In the Languedoc region, ‘bastida’ designates a village or a town built on a regular plan, giving it its specificity. The bastides were built between the Albigensian Crusade and the Hundred Years’ War in the 13th and 14th centuries. Generally, the bastides are constructions a Novo sine populated but their establishment is not necessarily carried out on virgin territory. Today, we count around 500 bastides in Southern France, like the lower city of Carcassonne or the lovely town of Mirepoix.
In addition to the medieval bridge and Saint-Michel Cathedral, the Bastida Saint Louis has some interesting buildings worth the visit, and Place Carnot is a lovely place to hang around.
So, what are you waiting for? Book your trip to the Cité de Carcassonne today!