Have you ever dreamt of visiting a tourist attraction for ages, but when you finally make it there, it doesn’t live up to the hype? We’ve had that happen sooo many times. And the more famous the place, the bigger the hype. One really popuar tourist attraction that definitely does not fall into that category is the Cite de Carcassonne in southern France.
“Carcassone [sic] represents one of the biggest and best preserved fortified cities in Europe.”
We knew almost nothing about this UNESCO World Heritage Site when a friend first told us we absolutely had to visit. During a two-week road trip from Switzerland to Spain, we decided to take a little detour through the luscious vineyards of the Aude River valley to see it.
After a long day of adventures in Spain and Andorra, we arrived on the outskirts of Carcassonne in the evening. Routing to the nearest campground, we were grateful to find them still open so late at night. We hastily pitched our tent, whipped up a simple camp dinner, and dined at a picnic table with views of the massive medieval citadel’s lights twinkling on the hill.
I fell asleep dreaming of castles and princesses and knights charging into battle. Tomorrow we’d spend the day exploring this ancient marvel – one of the most visited in France.
Carcassonne is a town with about 50,000 inhabitants in southern France. Sprawling across the Aude River valley, it’s strategically located between the city of Toulouse an hour to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the east.
In the distance, the town is largely surrounded on three sides by regional nature parks ringed by the Pyrenees to the south.
Travel Tip: See our custom map at the end of this post for the location of Carcassonne, the citadel, and noteworthy attractions within the Cite de Carcassonne.
What is the Cite de Carcassonne?
Within the modern-day town of Carcassonne, you’ll find the Cite de Carcassonne – a huge citadel, or fortress, crowning a small hill above the surrounding town.
It was built on land inhabited since the Stone Age some 12,000 years ago. Romans later occupied the hilltop. Recognizing its strategic location, they began building fortifications to protect against invasion.
Those who were wealthy enough lived inside the fortress walls because it was safer.
In the 13th century, a second huge stone rampart was built around the city with guard towers for additional security. These measures served it well and helped protect against the destruction other medieval cities suffered.
By the mid-1800s, the Cite de Carcassonne had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was nearly demolished by the French government. Luckily, several locals campaigned to save and restore the complex.
In 1849, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was granted the right to begin work on the site. He’s largely credited with the renovations, though he deviated from the site’s original construction materials and architecture. Some say he created a more fanciful, attractive version of the actual historical Carcassonne.
Either way, now it’s definitely a dreamy place to visit!
Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with charming 13th-century homes with red tile roofs. Shops and cafes offer outdoor seating and sell wine from the valley’s vineyards and other local wares. Especially if you like shopping, make sure to leave enough time during your visit to wander among the Cite de Carcassonne’s charming shops.
Where is the best camping near the medieval fortress?
On a typical Saturday morning at home, it’s not uncommon for Travis to still be in bed at 10 am since he’s pretty much always sleep deprived. When we’re traveling though, sleep comes last.
“We can sleep when we’re dead!” he likes to say.
We’re always conscious of how little time we have to explore and how much there is to see when we’re traveling. Our morning at Camping de la Cite was no exception, and I popped awake before the sun was even up, rarin’ to explore the Cite de Carcassonne.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t check out early because the payment office doesn’t open until 9 am, a practice which is rather common at European campgrounds – that and keeping your ID overnight until you pay and check out. After realizing we couldn’t leave for hours yet, I tried to go back to sleep but it was too late. I was too excited.
Rolling out of my sleeping bag, I deflated my sleeping pad and camp pillow and packed my bag in its stuff sack. When Trav joined me, we quickly broke down our small tent, mowered down breakfast, and headed for the delicious, free hot showers on site.
By the time we were done, it was 9 am. With the car loaded up, we popped in at reception to pay.
We then ended up hanging around for another hour while the day staff tried to locate my ID, which the night staff had apparently misplaced. I was a bit irked until they served us fabulous coffees on the house, and then the gal at the front desk comped part of our purchase as an apology because she felt so bad. We left later than we’d planned but with warm memories of our night at the campground.
Travel Tip: Camping de la Cite is a beautiful campground with a pool, hot showers, tent and RV pitches, and cabins for rent. It’s just a few kilometers from both UNESCO sites in Carcassonne: the Cite de Carcassonne and the Canal du Midi. We definitely recommend it. *This is not a sponsored ad or affiliate referral. We simply enjoyed our stay.
How do you enter the Cite de Carcassonne?
This can actually be a bit confusing since the outer perimeter of the Cite de Carcassonne extends for over 3 km, encircling the medieval city and preventing access – exactly as it was designed to do!
The medieval city, which is in the southeastern corner of modern Carcassonne, 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
Of these, only two are main entrances: Porte Narbonnaise to the east and Porte d’Aude to the west.
We entered via the eastern access point at Porte Narbonnaise and recommend it. If you’re driving, you can park near there in a large lot called Parking Cite. It’s not free, but rates are 2 euros for 3 hours, so we paid about 8 euros to park for the better part of the the day. Plus it’s right next to the Cemetery of the Cite, which is worth a visit as well.
It’s free to enter the fortress at either main gate, so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets. Once you park your car or get off the bus, you can walk across the Porte Narbonnaise drawbridge and start exploring the Cite de Carcacassonne.
I can’t explain why, but I have a thing for drawbridges.
Once across the drawbridge, you have several options. You can go straight into the heart of the fortress, which is where all the shops and homes are.
Or you can turn right or left and walk around the perimeter of the fortress between its twin ramparts encircling the citadel.
Because we were less interested in shopping and more fascinated by the fortress, we opted for the latter. Turning left, we made our way around the perimeter all the way to the west entrance: Port d’Aude.
Passing through the massive arched western gate, Port d’Aude, suddenly we were no longer walking along the quiet, mostly empty dirt “street” that surrounds the city. Though it wasn’t too crowded yet because it was still before noon, later in the day the narrow streets would be so packed we could barely move.
We visited in April too, which is still off-season, so if you visit during the summer, you can assume it will be a madhouse. If you don’t like the crowds, plan your visit for the off-season.
What are the main attractions within the medieval city?
Besides the many shops and restaurants, the main tourist attractions are:
Chateau Comtal ,
three kilometers of fortress walls (ramparts),
fifty-two towers along the ramparts, and
Chateau Comtal – Count’s Castle
The crowning glory inside the Cite de Carcassonne is the stunning Chateau Comtal, or Count’s Castle.
It’s the epitome of your fairytale European castle!
Travel Tip: Note that visiting everything within the Cite de Carcassonne is free with the exception of the castle, which has an entry fee.
When we first entered the medieval city, we actually didn’t realize we still weren’t even in the castle. We feel a bit silly now because when you see it on a map or in person, it’s pretty obvious.
Angling our way north through the city streets, we found the entrance to the castle, which is on the eastern side, and purchased two tickets.
Fun Fact: Movie buffs should know that the castle and fortress appeared in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. The castle was used as a stand-in for scenes of Nottingham Castle.
We didn’t see anything posted at the castle itself, which is a shame. I’ve loved the movie since I was a kid.
In fact, if they had offered a “movie tour” for a couple bucks extra, we would have jumped on it! Even just a few signs or photos showing where different scenes were filmed would have been cool.
Three Kilometers of Fortress Walls
The castle itself is quite large, but once you’ve browsed through its rooms, wandered through the central courtyard, and read about its history, head for the fortress ramparts. Walking along them is one of the absolute highlights of the entire city.
The rampart walk offers sweeping views of the mountains, valley, and modern city of Carcassonne.
It also gives you a nice vantage to peep down into the backyards of homes and shops inside the medieval city.
Fifty-Two Towers Along the Ramparts
One of the really neat things about walking the ramparts is that they’re 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.
Basilique Saint-Nazaire – Basilica Saint Nazarius
The Basilique Saint-Nazaire is a Gothic church which is a national monument in its own right. Located at the southern end of the medieval city, it’s official name is the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus.
A religious building existed on this site as early as the 6th century, but the current church completely replaced all traces of it when it was built at the end of the 11th century.
Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect responsible for renovations throughout the fortress, also restored much of the exterior of the basilica.
Though the interior supposedly has retained more of its original Gothic architecture than the outside, the exterior clearly still reflects its Gothic origins as well.
It features classic stonework, ornate gargoyles, and beautiful stained glass windows.
Budget travelers, grab some street food!
You’re bound to be famished after a full day of exploration. We definitely were!
The medieval city offers tons of options for cafes and fancy restaurants. Budget shoppers will be happy to know that you can also find really good, inexpensive street food. In such a touristy destination, this isn’t always a given.
We hit up a place that looked like a street vendor from the sidewalk. It had a casual walk-up drop-down window, but just beyond that was a full-on gleaming stainless steel kitchen.
For about 7 bucks, we ordered a smorgasbord; a giant bucket of real French fries (real because we were in FRANCE); tasty fried chicken, greasy and seasoned like my mama used to make; and a couple of chocolate crêpes for pre-dessert, meaning I ate them first.
Visit the Cite de Carcassonne Cemetery before you leave.
By the time we finished exploring what felt like every inch of the Cite de Carcassonne, it was early evening. We started to make our way back to the car.
On our way, we passed the Cemetery of the City near the eastern gate and stopped in to briefly wander the rows of headstones.
You probably won’t want to spend too much time at the cemetery, but it’s an interesting way to bring your visit to Carcassonne to a close.
Next stop? The French Riviera!
After a long day visiting the shops, the castle, the basilica, and the cemetery of the Cite de Carcassonne, we had to say goodbye to this charming attraction and hit the road once again. Our route back to Switzerland led us to the French Riviera.
The French Riviera!
All my life I’ve heard about the famous French Riviera. It didn’t seem real we would actually be there.
After several hours of driving, we reached the Mediterranean Sea. With a fairly abrupt terrain change, we were suddenly cruising past swaying palm trees and luxurious sailboats gently rocking in the waves.
Unable to resist the urge to stop, we pulled off at the first place that had beach access and clambered down the rocks so Travis could touch the Mediterranean for the first time.
Camping Le Dramont on the French Riviera
We drove a few more miles, then swung into a campground called Camping Le Dramont not far past the tiny town of Saint Raphael.
We were amazed to find that despite the hour, several seaside tent sites were still available, and we excitedly nabbed a spot. Amazed at our good fortune, we hurriedly pitched our tent in an attempt to beat the setting sun, then headed up the hill to the little pizza shop on site that was still open.
Since it was the last night of our road trip and we hadn’t eaten at a single “nice” restaurant, we decided to splurge, each ordering our own pizza.
Ten minutes later, we ran back up the hill to pick up our pizzas, returning just as quickly to the pebbly beach where we sank contentedly onto the warm low rock wall bordering the beach.
Piping hot, cheesy, perfectly prepared fresh seafood pizza devoured while listening to the gentle waves lapping shore…
Warm sea breezes washing over us…
The sky pink with the last of the sun…
It was the perfect last night for a memorable road trip!
Have you been to Carcassonne? Did you like it? Let us know in the comments!
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Know Before You Go
Prices: During our visit, tickets to tour the interior of the castle cost €8 per adult. It’s FREE to visit the inner walls of the medieval city and the basilica.
Castle opening hours: Open April – September from 10 am to 6:30 pm. Open October – March between 9:30 am and 5 pm. The rest of the medieval city of Carcassonne is open 24 hours a day.
Parking: Paid parking is available in the car park near the Porte Narbonnaise at the eastern entrance of the medieval city.
The dark blue pins mark our travel for day nine, from Carcassonne, France to our camping place in Agay, a seaside resort town on the French Riviera. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.