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 definitely had that happen. Usually the more famous the place, the bigger the hype. One really popular tourist attraction that does not fall into that category is the Cite de Carcassonne in southern France.
We hadn’t heard about this UNESCO World Heritage Site until a friend from France told us we should visit; she was insistent we’d love it. She was right!
During a 10-day road trip from Switzerland to Spain, we decided to take a detour through the luscious vineyards of the Aude River valley so we could explore the Cité de Carcassonne, or Cité Médiévale, on our way home.
If you love medieval history, fairytale castles, or just tracking down UNESCO sites, this medieval fortified city is for you. Here we share everything you need to know to plan your own visit!
Day 9: Carcassonne, France | 10-Day Road Trip Map & Itinerary
For those feeling particularly adventurous, you’re welcome to use our custom map to build your own DIY European road trip.
The map is best viewed in full size. Click on the square icon in the upper right corner to enlarge it. Carcassonne France is the dark blue pin east of Toulouse.
Where is Cite de Carcassonne, France?
The Cite de Carcassonne fortress is on a hilltop just outside modern-day Carcassonne city. It’s on the outskirts to the southwest of town.
Carcassonne itself is a town in southern France. It has a population of about 50,000 inhabitants. Sprawling across the valley of the River Aude, it’s strategically located between the city of Toulouse an hour to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the east.
What is the Cite de Carcassonne?
The Cite de Carcassonne is a huge citadel, or fortress, that 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.
Carcassone represents one of the biggest and best preserved fortified cities in Europe.
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 remnants of the ancient city.
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.
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 fortified town and preventing access. This is exactly as it was designed to do, but it means you have limited options for where to enter.
The medieval city complex 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, and
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.
Travel Tip: Paid parking is available in the car park near the Porte Narbonnaise at the eastern entrance of the medieval city.
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 only €2 for 3 hours. We paid about €8 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 Carcassonne.
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 things to do in the Cite de Carcassonne?
Besides the many shops and restaurants, the main tourist attractions are:
3 km of fortress walls (ramparts),
52 towers along the ramparts, and
Carcassonne Castle Tickets: During our visit, tickets for Chateau Comtal cost €8 per adult. As of September 2021, a single adult ticket costs €9.50. The Cite de Carcassonne, basilica, and cemetery (just outside the medieval city) are free.
Château Comtal | Count’s Castle | Castle of Carcassonne
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!
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.
Carcassonne 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.
Don’t miss the castle walls’ hoardings: covered wooden walkways with openings that allowed soldiers to launch projectiles at invaders.
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 main church or cathedral located inside the Cite de Carcassonne is the Basilique Saint-Nazaire. It’s a Gothic church and 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, 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.
It fed both of us for dinner!
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.
Carcassonne has a second UNESCO site, the Canal du Midi.
Before you leave Carcassonne, you might be interested in a second UNESCO site.
The Canal du Midi runs along the northern edge of Carcassonne on the opposite side of the city as the Cite de Carcassonne.
Considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 17th century, the canal was built to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. The full length of the canal is 240 km (150 mi) and includes over 200 locks, bridges, and aqueducts.
Official Tourism Site: You can find more info about it and other things to do in Carcassonne on the Grand Carcassonne Tourisme page.
Where can you camp near the Cite de Carcassonne?
For those who are adventurous and outdoorsy like us (or are just budget travelers), you can camp right in town at a campground called Camping de la Cité. Not only is it within walking distance of the Cite de Carcassonne, but at night you can see the twinkling lights of the castle within its walls right from the campground!
Serendipity led us to this place after a long day of adventures road tripping from Spain through Andorra. We arrived on the outskirts of Carcassonne in the evening and routed to the campground – the only one that popped up on our map app. Take note that if you see online reviews for “Camping Carcassonne,” they’re likely for Camping de la Cite.
Grateful to find them still open so late at night, we hastily pitched our tent, whipped up a simple camp dinner, and had dinner at a picnic table with views of the enormous medieval citadel on the hill. I fell asleep dreaming of castles and princesses and knights charging into battle.
The next morning, I popped awake before the sun was even up, excited to explore the medieval city shimmering in the distance. 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.
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 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, ate 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. 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 a complementary bottle of wine, snacks, and warm memories of our night at the campground.
All in all, between the location, price, and amenities, it’s a great option for Carcassonne camping.
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 within walking distance of the Cite de Carcassonne (1.4 km), or you can catch a bus from the campground.
Next stop? The 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 the beautiful and enormous ancient city and hit the road once again.
Our route back to Switzerland would next lead us to the golden beaches of the Riviera on the Mediterranean coast.