Carcassonne in the French Languedoc is magical. The old medieval walled Citadel is a maze of cobbled streets, drawbridges, turrets and towers, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated on a hilltop, above the River Aude, it really does look like something straight out of a fairytale when seen from a distance.
It’s a wonderful place to explore on foot. Strolling around the double walls, ramparts and narrow cobbled streets is just fascinating and very atmospheric.
But of course, being so magical does have its drawbacks. Carcassonne is one of the most visited places in France, and is understandably hugely popular with coach tour groups. It can therefore be extremely busy during the day, especially during the summer season. And there is the usual overabundance of touristy shops, stalls and cafes.
A Winter Visit
In an attempt to avoid the crowds and the summer heat, Matt and I visited in winter, just after Christmas. And we are so pleased we did. The crowds were indeed less, and if anything the city looks even more magical when the spotlights come on at night. Wandering around after dark, checking out the restaurants, with spotlit turrets and towers at every turn, was a very special experience.
One thing to bear in mind if you do visit in winter is that it can be surprisingly cold. When we visited cold winds were blowing straight down from the nearby snow-capped Pyrenees, making it very chilly indeed.
The Lower Town
As magical as the Citadel is, it is also worth spending time exploring the slightly newer ‘lower town’ across the river. Here there are all the facilities you would expect, including good hotels, restaurants and shopping.
We enjoyed just strolling around, and particularly enjoyed the attractive bridges over the River Aude.
Canal du Midi – Great for a Longer Stroll
The Citadel is not the only UNESCO Site in town – the Canal du Midi which runs through Carcassonne also has UNESCO status. There are great towpaths beside the canal, making it ideal for a longer stroll if you want to get away from the sounds of the city for a while.
When we visited in mid winter there were sheets of ice on some sections of the canal, which was interesting to see.
If you want to explore further afield, here are a few suggestions.
If you have a car you can easily visit some of the nearby Languedoc Vineyards, or arrange a walk in the wonderful Cathar Castle region.
By rail it is easy to visit nearby Tolouse, Perpignan or Montpellier see RailEurope for timetables and to purchase tickets online.
If you would like to join an organised tour see Viator for a range of options in and around Carcassonne.
Getting to Carcassonne
Carcassonne has its own airport. To check for available flights from your local airport try using Skyscanner.
If you cannot find flights direct to Carcassonne, the city is easily reached by car from the airports at Tolouse, Perpignan, Montpellier or Girona (Spain). For car hire try Holiday Autos for a massive choice at great prices.
Or you can easily travel by train from Tolouse, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Paris and many other cities.
To check train routes, connections and timetables from any starting point see RailEurope.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the Hotel Mercure La Cite, and were very happy with it. The hotel is really conveniently situated, just a few minutes walk the citadel entrance, making it a pleasant stroll in the evenings. It was comfortable, with a good breakfast and pleasant restaurant, and good value.
If you want to splash out and stay actually within the citadel walls, the Hotel de la Cite looks fabulous – we would love to give this one a try one day!
To search the huge range of accommodation available at Carcassonne see this page at booking.com.
Although magical at any time of year, we highly recommend Carcassonne for a short winter break. The sight of the medieval city lit up at night will certainly remain long in your memory.
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