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Occitanie is one of the regions of southern France, nestled against the Pyrenees and bordered by the Mediterranean Sea.
A region where sunny days abound, Occitanie has an incredible variety of landscapes, haven for great outdoor experiences. But it has also interesting cities to explore and some of the cutest small towns.
Occitanie is a land with a thrilling history and the stones of its main sights – from the Arena of Nîmes to Pont du Gard or the Cathar fortresses – carry memories from the centuries.
Occitanie is another south, far from the Riviera’s buzz. It is a land of traditions, a place where its inhabitants like to take the time to enjoy life and good food.
From the Pyrénées to the Mediterranean Sea, Occitanie is always a trip back to the essential.
Occitanie is a relatively new region (2014), the fusion of the former regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. The main city in Occitanie is Toulouse and it is divided into 13 departments: Ariège, Aude, Aveyron, Gard, Haute-Garonne, Gers, Hérault, Lot, Lozère, Hautes-Pyrénées, Pyrénnées-Orientales, Tarn, and Tarn-et-Garonne.
Occitanie is diverse, and that’s good! Below, the list of best things to do in Occitanie and the most beautiful places to visit in Occitanie to get a glimpse of its history, culture, and natural wonders.
Toulouse, the Pink City
Located on the banks of the Garonne River, and capital of the región of Occitanie, Toulouse is a dynamic city – Europe’s aeronautical capital, with the largest space center in Europe – but also very human and pleasant, where life is good.
In the city center distances are never far and it is possible to go everywhere on foot. Visitors will discover admirable churches, charming narrow streets, sumptuous buildings, wonderful architecture, and a rich cultural heritage.
Feeling blue? Head to Toulouse! The Pink City owes its nickname to its brick architecture, with all shades of pink – depending on the time and the place – ocher and red that gives the cityscape a look that it’s not possible to compare with any other city.
Start your wanderings at Place du Capitole, the city seems to gravitate always towards this place. Then explore the Vieux Toulouse with its little squares and private mansions, its riveting museums that explore the cosmos, prehistory, ancient art, and the natural world. Then, take a more than deserved break in one of its beautiful parks.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard aqueduct is a Roman construction built during the first century AD, to channel water from the source of the Eure in Uzés all the way to Nîmes. Along the way, the difficult obstacle of the Gardon River was overcome by the construction of the Pont du Gard.
Pont du Gard was used as an aqueduct until the 6th century. In the Middle Ages, it became a tollgate in and later a road bridge from the 18th to the 20th century.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Pont du Gard is a true technical feat. It measures 48 meters high, and it has three vertical rows of arches: 6 on the lowest level, 11 on the second level, and 35 on the third and top level. Don’t miss the Museum of the Pont du Gard, which retraces the history of the aqueduct’s construction.
The Pont du Gard makes a great day trip from Nîmes, Uzés, or Avignon. Also, you can reach the foot of Pont du Gard by kayak sailing the Gardon River and some of the tours proposed are available during all the year.
The Cathar Country (Pays Cathare in French) is one of the most fascinating areas to visit in Southern France, with an incredible heritage and a turbulent history of heresy and crusades. The Cathar Country is an ensemble of medieval castles, villages and Romanesque abbeys related to the Cathars and Catharism – a Christian dualist movement that thrived in southern Europe, especially in the Languedoc Region between the 12th and the 14th centuries. These sites were witnesses of the conflict which opposed 800 years ago hunted Cathars with the Catholic Church.
Carcassonne is one of the most important sites to visit in the Cathar Country, home of many Cathars. The city became a land of heresy in the eyes of Pope Innocent III and it was one of the main targets during the first Cathar Crusade in 1209 led by Simon de Montfort.
The Cathar Country is best explored by car as most of these sites are poorly served (or not served at all) by public transportation. You can read about our Cathar Road Trip in this post.
The Villages of Aveyron
Located in the heart of Occitanie, the Aveyron is full of history and exceptional sites. With an altitude ranging from 144 to 1463 meters, the Aveyron goes from the desert plateau of Larzac to green valleys crossed by rivers full of fish.
Rough and sweet at the same time, a paradise for food and nature lovers, l’Aveyron is a land of character where life tends to slow down just like in the old times.
More than anything, Aveyron is a place of villages, with more official Les Plus Beaux Villages (the Most Beautiful Villages in France) than any other region. There are ancient hamlets balanced on ridges, villages pressed into the sides of valleys, settlements wedged into the rippling green hillsides, each with their own stories to tell.
Where to start? Among these “Prettiest Villages of France” there’s Conques, situated along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route and home to the 12th-century Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy. The list of picture-postcard villages goes on with places like Belcastel, Najac, Peyre, and many more.
Sant Martí del Canigó & Sant Miquel de Cuixà
The Canigó (Canigou in French) is a mountain in the Pyrénées that has symbolical significance for Catalan people. For the Catalans, the Canigó was always a sacred place, a place of legends and mysteries but also a national symbol that inspired poets like Jacint Verdaguer and his poem Canigó. The writer Rudyard Kipling, who stayed several times in Vernet-les-Bains between 1910 and 1926, declared himself “among the loyal subjects of the Canigou”.
Unfortunately, this area of the Pyrénées passed into French hands after the Treaty of the Pyrenées in 1659, when Philip IV of Castile and III of Aragon ceded the lands of northern Catalonia, with its capital in Perpignan, to the French King Louis XIV. This was a setback for Catalonia, as it lost 1/5 of its territory and, most importantly, the second city in the country (Perpignan) was left in foreign hands.
On the mountains of Massif del Canigó, we find Sant Martí del Canigó (today Saint-Martin du Canigou) and Sant Miquel de Cuixà (Saint-Michel de Cuxa) two beautiful Benedictine abbeys founded in the 10th century by the Count Guifré II of Cerdanya. Both abbeys are jewels of Catalan Romanesque architecture in the Pyrenées and listed historical monuments.
Sant Martí del Canigó has a spectacular setting, perched in the mountains, whilst Sant Miquel de Cuixà outstands for its beautiful roman cloister, with impressive capitals decorated with monsters and other strange creatures. Both abbeys can be visited on a day trip by car from Perpignan or Barcelona. We recommend!
Parc National des Cévennes
Created in 1970, the Cévennes National Park is one of the ten national parks in France and one of the two parks to be inhabited, also in its core zone.
This vast territory has been distinguished by Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve, for the particular balance between man and nature, and as a property inscribed on the list of the world heritage of humanity for the cultural landscapes of agro-pastoralism in the Causses and Cévennes.
The richness of the Park is based on the variety of natural environments and landscapes: from the granitic highlands of Mont Lozère to the majestic forests of Aigoual, or the vast limestone plateaus of the Causse Méjean carved out from the spectacular Gorges du Tarn and de la Jonte, Cévennes is this and much more.
With its 5,000 kilometers of marked paths, there are many ways to explore the magnificent landscapes of Cévennes National Park: on foot, on horseback, by mountain bike, or by practicing sports like canoeing, kayaking, climbing, via ferrata and more.
Albi, la Rouge
Located in the Tarn Department the city of Albi is nicknamed “La Rouge” (the red) because of its architecture made from red brick. And yet nothing predestined the city to bear this nickname, because Albi comes from Alba (which means white), the city being surrounded by cliffs!
This bastion of Catholic power was the base for the bloody 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and still looks like it’s ready for war. Albi does not make part of the Cathar Route but if you are interested in Catharism, it makes sense to extend your explorations to Albi. The Cathars were known as Albigensians because of their association with the city of Albi, and because the 1176 Church Council which declared the Cathar doctrine heretical was held near Albi.
In Albi, you cannot miss the Cité Episcopale, listed Unesco World Heritage since 2010. Organized around the cathedral and the palace-fortress, the Cité Episcopale dates back to the 13th century! The Cité Episcopale is a well preserved and unique representation of urban development of this kind in Europe. It covers a surface of 20 ha and regroups four neighborhoods of medieval origins, historical monuments, major sites, and the banks of the Tarn.
Visitors looking for a weekend break of museums, historic monuments, and animated medieval streets will enjoy the red city of Albi. The city is also an excellent base for exploring other corners of the Tarn department, with charming villages, inspiring museums, and a generous nature.
The medieval city of Béziers was an important stronghold of Catharism. During the Cathar Crusade, Béziers was the first place to be attacked.
The Catholics of Béziers were given an ultimatum to hand over the heretics or leave before the crusaders besieged the city. Finally, they decided to refuse and they resisted with the Cathars.
With the words “Kill them all, God will recognize his own” by a legate of the Pope of Rome, the Crusaders gave free rein to the “grande boucherie” (big butchery) in Béziers: the city was burned and all its population, Cathars and Catholics, were massacred.
Today people come to Béziers to visit its impressive Saint-Nazaire Cathedral, built in the 13th century atop a steep rock. The city’s Romanesque bridge over the Orb River (12th century) is also a wonder. For many centuries, this bridge was the single river crossing point from Provence on the way to Toulouse.
Béziers is also a great place to explore Canal du Midi by boat or by bike.
Gorges du Tarn
The Gorges du Tarn is a huge canyon sculpted in the limestone plateau by the Tarn River – between the Causse Méjean and the Causse de Sauveterre -, where picturesque villages, churches, and old châteaux and fortresses have been built.
Today, this area is well known for its large number of outdoor activities like rafting, rock climbing, or kayaking but it is also a beautiful area to explore on a road trip, with remarkable sites and amazing views.
Canal du Midi
Stretching from Toulouse to Sète, the Canal du Midi is a feat of architectural genius that makes a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This 17th-century construction designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet required the work of 12,000 men over fifteen years, from 1666 to 1681.
Today the Canal du Midi is listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is an unmissable tourist destination in the region of Occitanie, great for exploration as well as relaxation.
Visitors to the region can hire boats, hotel-barges, or rent bikes and make their way along the canal at their own pace. Some hikers use the trail along the canal to make their way toward the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Being bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Occitanie has no shortage of pretty coastal towns perfect for some days of bathing, relaxation, and water sports.
Here, you can find some of the most glorious beaches in France as well as vibrant fishing villages, and thriving market towns.
Amongst the coastal towns that populate the coast in Occitanie outstands Collioure, center of André Derain and Henri Matisse’s Fauvism movement; Gruissan, characterized by its typical houses built on stilts on the beach; or Sète, with its strong character, raised from the sands to link the Canal du Midi to the Mediterranean Sea.
Occitanie Food & Wine
Occitanie offers excellent regional specialties, quite different depending on where you are.
In the former region of Languedoc-Roussillon, visitors will find good seafood platters of clams, oysters, and mussels, the famous cassoulet (bean stew casserole with pork or duck) from Castelnaudary, the excellent rice from the Camargue and many kinds of biscuits and pastries.
The Languedoc – Roussillon wine region is one of the largest wine-producing areas of France by vineyard surface area even if it is not as famous as other wine regions in France.
The wines of Languedoc are good wines at really affordable prices and include Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah. There are plenty of quality whites as well such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Grenache, and Muscat Blanc.
The list of typical dishes of the Pyrénées includes Tarbes beans, lamb, aligot (a creamed potato dish with cheese), and garbure, (a mountain soup with cabbage and chunks of ham). The Pyrénées are also famous for their cheeses, both cow’s milk and sheep’s cheeses, paired with wines from local domains such as Jurançon, Gaillac, Cahors, Madiran and Armagnac.
We hope that you enjoyed the main places to visit in Occitanie. If you want to learn about other regions head to this article on the Regions of France, where we have summarized the highlights of each region.