With the arrival of cheap flights to Carcassonne from the UK it is now very practical to visit for a long weekend and a have a great time at a very reasonable cost.
We stayed in Carcassonne itself as a base for our visit...
The medieval town of Carcassonne is one of the most popular destinations in France, attracting more than five million visitors each year - not surprising because it is an extraordinary place!
Your first sight of the old city is a memorable experience, with the medieval city spread out across a hilltop surrounded by high defensive walls and numerous towers and fortifications, and is quite unlike anything else you have seen.
After this you might expect that the town inside the city walls must fail to live up to your expectations, but it is equally impressive. You cross the drawbridge and pass between the two series of defensive walls to reach a very extensive medieval town, with an exceptional number of highlights.
Narrow streets lead around the town, passing through courtyards and passed carefully restored medieval houses, in the largest medieval city you have ever visited, with very little to spoil the impression that carcassone is unchanged over the last 500 years.
Many of the houses have now been converted into restaurants (to suit all budgets) and tourist shops (from high quality art galleries to lower quality gift shops).
There are perhaps two things that slightly diminish the appeal of a visit to Carcassonne:
- the first is the inevitable presence of lots of other visitors, so visiting early in the day or out of season is recommended if possible
- the second (which will only trouble you if you know something of architecture) is the lack of authenticity in parts of the renovation. Carcassonne was restored extensively in the 19th century largely to be an 'ideal medieval town', so for example the pointed turrets on the towers would not actually have existed in medieval times, so if you are a purist you might think there is an element of 'Disneyland attraction' about the town
But the sheer scale and beauty of the town far outweighs these concerns and a visit is highly recommended. Allow most of a whole day to explore, have lunch, and visit the castle itself.
See more details in our Carcassonne guide
The villages and countryside around Carcassonne
Public transport is inadequate so to explore the region you will need to hire a car for a couple of days. Depending on the time you have available you can choose whether to head north or south - our personal preference is the villages to the north and would choose that option if you only have time for one day trip, but both have highlights worth exploring.
To the north...
Heading north-east from Carcasonne there is a road that leads towards the town of Revel. This route takes you to the southern part of the Montagne Noir (the southern end of the Massif Central region), passing through some ancient woodlands and the rise in altitude assures the impressive views across the countrside below. En route you pass through:
- the village of Montolieu, well known for its number of bookshops and printing museum;
- the village at Saissac, with an impressive castle on the brow of the hill below the village giving you an exceptional panorama across the plains below the town;
- the village of Soreze, our favourite medieval village in the region and with lots of half-timbered medieval buildings. A stroll through the gardens at the Soreze Abbey-Ecole also makes for a very pleasant visit.
By now it is lunchtime, and Revel itself has a well-preserved town center with a very large medieval market hall and several restaurants.
Alternatively you might head a few kilometres south (along the road towards Castelnaudary) to the castle and tiny village at La Pomarede. Wealthy visitors will enjoy lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant within the castle walls - see L'Hostellerie for details and bookings.
To the south...
Heading south from Carcassone there are various options, with our favourite being the route that leads through the countryside to reach the exceptional abbey at Saint-Hilaire, one of the most impressive romanesque buildings in the region, then on to the small town of Alet-les-Bains, with its medieval centre and the ruins of an abbey.
The route you follow makes a great deal of difference to the enjoyment of this excursion. The main road from Carcassonne to Alet-les-Bains that passes through Limoux is much less interesting than the route that follows through the countryside!
We recommend that from Saint-Hilaire you first follow the D54 route towards Belcastel. This passes through very quiet, rural countryside and we didn't pass another car along the whole route!
Just before Belcastel in a hamlet called Buc there is a pretty church, while Belcastel itself is well known for the ruins of a castle that stand high on a hill. For one of the best views of the castle, follow the (equally quiet and scenic) D429 south from here - after a few kilometres there is a very lovely view across to the castle. Following the same road you eventually reach Alet-les-Bains.
If you do pass the town of Limoux it is worth venturing in for a quick look at the medieval square in the town centre. If you visit at the weekend between January and March you will see a different side to Limoux - it has a festival that runs for about 12 weeks and includes a great deal of pageantry and period costumes, and is much the best time to visit.
- To arrange car hire for the duration of your visit see car hire in France
- We stayed in a hotel in 'new' Carcassonne because they are cheaper but there are also a couple of hotels in the medieval city which would be great places to stay - the Hotel de la Cité looks great from the outside and when I win the lottery I will stay there. For hotels at all prices in the town see Carcassonne hotels
If you can get hold of cheap flights, rent a small car for two days, and stay in a reasonably priced hotel you might be able to have your weekend in Carcassonne for two people for less than 300 euros. If price is not an issue and prefer luxury you could pay a lot more. For 1000 euros you could have a weekend of unashamed luxury!