Romance, chivalry, swordsmen, knights, princesses – Carcassonne’s history is peppered with all of these and more. Read on for our guide to the best things to do in Carcassonne with kids; the best Carcassonne hotels for families; where to eat and ideas to expand your trip beyond the medieval fortress.
The best things to do in Carcassonne with kids, in 2 days
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Carcassonne is one of France’s most visited tourist attractions, second only to the Eiffel Tower. You’ll find Carcassonne in the south of France, near to Toulouse and not that far from the Pyrenees and the Spanish border.
The city is most famous for its medieval Cité; a town surrounded by two sets of battlements, high on a hill overlooking the rest of the area. It’s the largest fortified city of its kind in Europe, and was a strategically important fortress in medieval times. There’s nothing quite like it – it’s been the set for many films and novels and still has a romantic aura about it. Unsurprisingly it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Carcassonne is small enough that it can easily be done as a day trip if you only want to see the old city. We spent two (and a bit) days here in early April and found that there was a little more to see in this town.
Here are the things that we managed to do in two days in Carcassonne.
Day 1: Explore the fortified old city of Carcassonne
The old city, the medieval fortress set on a hill overlooking the rest of Carcassonne is the main thing you will want to see, so make your first stop here. You’ll probably need a day to fully explore its streets and museums and to walk along the battlements.
Walk through the streets of Carcassonne’s old city
There are two entrances to Carcassonne’s fortified city. When we visited, the Porte d’Aude entrance was shut so we went in through the larger entrance, the Porte Narbonnaise. Look out for Lady Carcas’ statue at the entrance – Carcassonne is said to be named after her.
The old city doesn’t close so you can visit it at any time, and it’s good to go again in the evening to see the city without all the day trippers. Entry to the city is free – the only thing you have to pay for is entry to the Chateau Comtal and battlements. Inside the walls and ramparts are winding streets and alleyways full of shops and restaurants all aimed at tourists, as well as several museums.
We found walking through the city streets to be great fun. The children loved being able to run fairly freely through the narrow alleyways as there were only a few cars about. Exploring the shops was also one of their highlights – there are several dedicated toy shops and pretty much every shop had some toys in the window.
We did feel as though the City has been a little Disney-fied – there didn’t seem to be many shops serving the locals (they’re all in the Bastide and in the streets around the old City). Instead there were either souvenir shops or handicraft shops selling jewellery, embroidered items, lavender from Provence, soaps, perfumes and more. This will appeal to some; but if this isn’t your thing, then you’ve been warned.
Still, the streets are atmospheric and there are lots of cool little details to keep an eye out for.
Chateau Comtal and Battlements of Carcassonne
Inside the former palace of Carcassonne, Chateau Comtal, is the only museum dedicated to the building of the old City itself. It’s a must – it would be silly to come to Carcassonne and not see the battlements.
Begin by following the signs to the 2nd floor of the palace where you can watch a brief video (French, subtitled) on the history and rebuilding of the City by an architect called Viollet-le-Duc. Carcassonne was rebuilt and restored in the 1800s so much of what you see is fairly modern considering how long there’s been a settlement here.
The restoration was (and is) quite controversial as it’s probably not historically authentic in many places. The tiles and the shape of some of the turrets have been particularly criticised. But as the film reasonably points out, the restoration is now part of the City’s history and without it, Carcassonne wouldn’t be anywhere near as complete today. You can’t have it both ways!
After the film, you’re then able to take a tour through the Palace, mainly through its towers and battlements. You can see how Carcassonne was developed through the centuries from a Roman fort to a medieval city. There isn’t a huge amount of information available on signs, but there is an audioguide option.
We didn’t bother with the audioguide as experience has taught us that it’s futile while marshalling our two kids. Unlike many castles and palaces in the UK there isn’t any furniture set out in the rooms and it all feels quite empty – it’s difficult to see how its inhabitants would have lived. The last few rooms are filled with statues and you can also see some examples of medieval art on the walls, but otherwise there’s not much inside.
Once you’ve looked around the Palace, walking the battlements is worthwhile. There are two routes to take from the courtyard – take route A first as you can then come back to the courtyard and take route B. Route B finishes on the other side of the City, near the cathedral. The views are the main draw for walking the battlements, and they’re pretty spectacular whether you’re looking out over the countryside or in to the city. If you’re lucky you’ll get a view of the Pyrenees on the horizon.
I’m not sure about the yellow foil that was being stuck all over the Chateau, though. Apparently it’s meant to look like concentric circles but it wasn’t finished when we visited. You can see the foil being put on in the above photo. This art installation finishes in September (perhaps plan your visit for when it’s gone?).
You can also walk around the base of the battlements, in between the two fortified walls, and it’s a good spot for sunset or just for letting the kids run around.
Tickets cost €9 per adult, kids go free, and you can use your ticket for re-entry to the Chateau at any point the same day. Alternatively buy skip the line tickets online – check here for prices.
This is a sweet little museum close to the cathedral. A few rooms are set out as a French school would have been at the turn of the 1900s. Old desks, exercise books, vintage school posters and photos of schoolchildren and their teachers are some of the things you’ll find here. You can also see old school equipment, like projectors and instruments children would have worked with. Most of the information is in French but you can get a good idea of what the kids were taught.
I have to say the layout of the French classroom doesn’t seem to have changed much – it definitely reminded me of when I used to teach in France!
There’s not much that’s hands on here, but the Cub had fun writing with purple ink from an inkwell in one of the rooms. The kids also enjoyed being disgusted by the jars of pickled creatures and human skulls in one of the display cabinets at the back of the room. I can imagine slightly older children being bemused by the differences with modern schools. Of course, our kids liked running around in the little playground best.
There’s a small cost to enter, kids go free. You can pick up an English information leaflet when you buy your tickets.
Enormous and dating back hundreds of years, the cathedral is worth poking your nose into. From the outside it’s a real mish-mash of architectural styles – one end is blocky and business-like, more of a fortress. The other end is ornamentally gothic.
When we visited half of the inside seemed to be under renovation so we couldn’t look around all of it and see if the inside was as contradictory as the outside. But we saw the altar and the stained glass which was fabulous.
The kids loved spotting the fantastic gargoyles perched all around the doorway of the gothic end of the cathedral. They thought that perhaps this guy was sick of choir practise…
Chivalry Museum (La Maison de la Chevalerie)
The Chivalry Museum looks more like a shop from the outside, although a shop with a slightly forbidding doorway. There’s a small fee to look around this little museum which tells you about courtly love and knightly behaviour.
This turned out to be one of the kids’ favourite places as there were lots of hands-on games in the courtyard. They loved firing a crossbow and playing with the quoits. The husband enjoyed dressing up as a knight almost as much – unfortunately I couldn’t find any dresses or clothes for the kids.
There are a couple of rooms set out as historical tableaus (someone must do a roaring trade selling mannequins in Carcassonne; they’re everywhere). The top room is the best. It’s set out as a banqueting hall with a couple of really beautiful tapestries on the walls. Upstairs you can also watch a film (French, with subtitles) although this didn’t hold the kids’ attention.
There”s a shop in the entrance where you can buy replicas of antiques and other souvenirs. It’s about €6 for adults to look around, our kids went free.
Inquisition and Torture Museums
Not for small children or those of a sensitive disposition, the Inquisition and Torture Museums set out the history of the Cathars in old Occitania and the various nauseating torture methods that were used to get them to confess their sins. I visited these museums by myself as the husband and I thought that they wouldn’t be suitable for our small kids. We were right!
The history behind the Cathars is fascinating. Cathars were a group of Christians who believed in a different reading of the Bible to that of the Catholic Church. They lead simple lives – they weren’t into massive churches or riches and didn’t see much point in the Pope and the Catholic Church in general. This didn’t go down at all with with Pope Innocent III, who declared them heretics. He then launched a crusade against them in 1209 as he was worried about his diminishing influence.
The crusaders burned the nearby town of Beziers to the ground; the commander of that siege was asked how they would know Catholics from Cathars and is said to have replied “Kill them all; God will know his own.” Carcassonne and Toulouse capitulated quickly and eventually this lead to Occitania becoming part of France. The Cathars were all driven away or captured. If you’ve read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse then this part of Carcassonne’s history will be familiar.
The Inquisition and Torture Museum is spread over two buildings, just around the corner from one another, so keep your tickets as you’ll need to show them again. Inside the first building, dedicated to the inquisition, you’ll see displays of torture and conditions prisoners were kept in. However, the presentation of the museum isn’t great – there isn’t much information and the mannequins are more amusing than anything – not really the effect that you’re looking for considering the horrific things that happened to the poor Cathars.
At the nearby Torture Museum you’ll see more methods of torture and torture instruments, and explanations of how they were used. There is some signage in English but the more detailed history and explanations are in French. In the courtyard there are more slightly weird mannequin displays. The accompanying woodcut illustrations are much more effective at getting the horror across.
Overall, the museums cover an incredibly interesting part of French history and they could be so much more detailed and effective especially with regards to the Cathars. It’s a missed opportunity – but perhaps enough people visit anyway that they don’t have to bother upgrading the displays. I’ve seen much better medieval torture museums in Tuscany (I’m sure there’s a good one in Siena).
The tickets cost €9 for adults and €6 for kids. Buy your tickets on the door and keep them to show at the next building, if you think it’s worth the entry fee (I’m not sure I can recommend it as it will cost a family of four €34). I’m also glad I didn’t take our kids – I’d say it’s suitable for kids aged 8+ depending on their sensitivity.
Take a walking tour of Carcassonne
A more family friendly option is to take a guided tour of Carcassonne with everyone in costume. If our kids had been a little older we’d have tried this but at 4 and 2 they’re not really into being marshalled everywhere and listening to a guide. They tend to set the pace themselves! If you want to take a guided tour then the office is in the courtyard next to the Torture Museum but you’ll probably get a leaflet given to you within your first 30 seconds in the city.
If fancy dress isn’t your thing then take a look at a 2 hour guided tour of the Chateau and Carcassonne – click here for more details and prices.
In the evening you can return to the City to watch the sun set and get a meal in one of the many restaurants when they’re a bit quieter. It’s definitely worth coming back at night, especially if you are visiting in high season.
Day 2: The Bastide Saint-Louis, or the Ville Basse
Carcassonne was a divided city for years during the Middle Ages. The Bastide Saint-Louis, or the Ville Basse, is much newer than the old fortified City but still pretty old by today’s standards. When the people of the old City tried to set up businesses within the walls they were banished, so in 1240 they founded a rival city just across the river. In 1355 much of the Ville Basse was burned down by Edward the Black Prince after he tried and failed to capture the old City.
The Bastide was built in a grid layout and surrounded by walls but these weren’t as impressive as those of the old City, up on the hill. The two parts of Carcassonne squabbled a fair bit over the years. Today, the modern city surrounds both cities and unless you look at a map the walls of the Ville Basse aren’t immediately obvious.
The Bastide Saint-Louis is full of shops and cafes. You probably don’t need more than a couple of hours to wander around but there are a couple of things worth making time to see. In addition to the things listed below there’s an art museum (closed Sundays and Mondays but free entry) and some pretty little gardens too.
It’s an easy walk from the medieval city over the pretty old bridge to the Ville Basse. Turn around and look back for a lovely view of the towers and battlements.
Muck about in boats on the river Aude and the Canal du Midi
The main thing that we wanted to do in the Bastide was to take a look at the Canal du Midi, and to take a boat trip if possible. Having looked at the forecast we chose the Sunday for the boat trip as it was the best day weather wise.
The Canal du Midi was built in the 17th Century and links Toulouse, the largest city in the region, to the Mediterranean Sea at Narbonne. It’s one of the oldest canals in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the other side of Toulouse, another section of canal (Canal de Garonne) links Toulouse to the Atlantic, so the Canal du Midi is part of a larger canal that stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
The Canal du Midi flows right through Carcassonne and is well worth exploring if you’re spending longer than a day here. A boat trip is one of the best ways to see the canal, of course. The docks are just in front of the train station at the top of the Bastide.
If you want to take a boat trip along the Canal du Midi then you can buy your tickets at the dock from the green Citroen van at the docks. We were visiting off peak and so we were able to get a ticket for the next trip but if you’re visiting Carcassonne in the summer then I’d book in advance.
There are a variety of trips available. We ended up going on one of the longer trips, 2.5 hours, which served meals and snacks. We paid for the boat trip only but of course we ended up eating a cheese platter and the kids got a chocolate pudding to keep them quiet towards the end. The food we had was delicious, although we didn’t try the main courses. The mains were meat or fish so you’ll have to ask if they serve vegetarian options (I’m sure they could sort you out with a goats’ cheese salad – France appears to be much more veggie friendly than a few years ago).
The canal ride was a really peaceful way to spend a couple of hours. The ambient music helped! The canal is lined with plane trees, over a hundred years old, which meet to make a green tunnel. We went through a lock which the kids enjoyed – they loved the sight of the water cascading through the lock and watching the boat rise, and then sink on the way back. The cruise was Bee’s favourite thing to do in Carcassonne. The chocolate pudding probably had something to do with his choice.
If you don’t want to take a boat ride then there are other options to enjoy the Canal du Midi. You can simply walk along the river banks or alternatively, hire a bike and cycle along the paths. Both would be great choices. Bike hire is also available at the canal by the train station, on the other side of the lock.
St Vincent’s Church
This church is easily seen from the old City – it’s by far the highest building in Carcassonne’s Bastide. So, unsurprisingly, you can get the best views of the area from its tower. We headed here after our boat tour, hoping to be allowed up the tower.
Unfortunately when we visited the Bastide it was a Sunday and we found St Vincent’s church (and everything else) closed. It is also shut on Mondays so we weren’t able to visit the next day before our flight home either which was a bit of a disappointment! The church looks fairly impressive inside too so it’s a shame we had to miss it. It costs €2.50 to climb the tower.
Walk along the banks of the River Aude
Once you’ve crossed the Old Bridge to the Bastide side of the river you’ll see a path by the edge of the river. This is a lovely place to walk and we saw many families enjoying the good weather. There’s a kids’ playground at the far end of the garden by the side of the path too.
If you’re unfortunate enough to visit the Bastide St Louis on a Sunday as we were, you’ll find many of the shops and restaurants closed. But there are some cafes open in Place Carnot, in the Bastide’s centre. We grabbed some breakfast here in a very French cafe before we headed to the Canal du Midi. It seemed to be the place to hang out for the locals as many people were camped outside on the square itself enjoying the sunshine. If you want to meet some people who aren’t connected with tourism, then come here. There’s a beautiful fountain in the centre which the kids liked.
Carcassonne: Know before you go
Getting there and away
By plane and train
Carcassonne has its own airport and flights run from Stansted and Manchester airports in the UK. If flying directly to Carcassonne isn’t an option for you then Toulouse is only an hour or so away by train.
Airport shuttle bus
When you arrive at Carcassonne you can ring for a taxi to take you into town or use the shuttle bus. The shuttle bus was waiting just around the corner on the left when we exited the airport. It costs €6 per person and our kids travelled for free. You can pay with a card or cash so it’s very convenient if you’ve forgotten to bring Euros… *cough.
The driver was very accommodating and dropped us as near as possible to where we were staying at the foot of the old city – I don’t think he spoke English though, so if you don’t speak French you might need to show a map or just get off at designated stops.
To get back to the airport after our stay we booked a taxi, although the shuttle bus does run in reverse. Check schedules on the Carcassonne airport website.
Where to stay in Carcassonne
As it’s such a tourist magnet, you’re not short on choice for places to stay in Carcassonne.
We’ve selected some of the best accommodation in Carcassonne below. We like to use booking.com for its ease of use and good cancellation policy.
I’m pretty sure that one of the best Carcassonne hotels must be the one right next to the cathedral, Hotel de la Cite. It’s got a great view out over the battlements – we got a good look at the hotel’s grounds when we walked along the battlements. Inside, this 5* hotel looks amazing too – you can choose from modern rooms or ones that look like a medieval palace. It’s family friendly, with extra beds and cots provided. Check prices for your stay here.
The Best Western is a reliable chain which has a hotel in the middle of the old City. They’ve got a great location and lovely gardens for kids to play in. Prices probably won’t be as steep as the Hotel de la Cite – check prices here.
Hotel du Pont Vieux is just outside of the City’s walls and is a highly recommended family friendly hotel. Modern clean rooms and an easy walk to the City and the Bastide. There are also some nice restaurants on the same street. Check prices and availability here.
If you’re on a budget, as we invariably are, then you can try the youth hostel in Carcassonne’s City.
Self-catering apartments in Carcassonne
Self catering apartments might be the way to go if you’re travelling with small kids. They’re often more convenient than hotels and have much more room for kids to play. You can keep costs down by self catering rather than eating in restaurants for every meal. Carcassonne has some great options – all highly rated.
Apartments Pech Mary are right in the centre of the medieval city. There’s a family apartment with free wifi and an equipped kitchen. Check prices and availability here.
Pelletier du Claux sit at the foot of the old city with great views and easy access to the City and Ville Basse. These are luxury apartments with private parking so it’s a good choice if you’re driving through the area. There’s a family apartment. Check prices and availability here.
Apartment le Tranquille is a 2 bedroom apartment with a terrace and barbecue as well as all mod cons. It’s located near to the train station in the Ville Basse. Check prices and availability here.
You could also look at AirBnB. We try not to use AirBnB every time we go away (there are moral issues surrounding its use in certain circumstances) but sometimes it’s really the cheapest and best option for a family.
In Carcassonne we did use an AirBnB apartment. If you’ve never used AirBnB before then you can get £25 credit by using this link.
What to eat in Carcassonne
The local specialty is cassoulet, which is meat (duck or chicken, usually) with haricot beans, all cooked slowly together in a pot. It was on the menu of pretty much every restaurant we went to, although I didn’t manage persuade the husband to try it. He did try some local Toulouse sausage though, and said it was good!
Now, we’re not foodies and don’t actively seek out gourmet restaurants – as long as everyone’s fed we’re usually happy. Being a vegetarian I was a little concerned about finding anything to eat (I lived in France an eternity ago and used to have real trouble, despite speaking French) but I saw several restaurants which had vegetarian options and of course, there’s always the reliable option of pizza or a goats’ cheese salad. The kids enjoyed eating chips and ice cream of course.
In the City itself you won’t be short on places to choose. We found the most suitable kid-friendly places in Place Marcou. We ate at Les Terraces de la Cite and Le Menestrel – food in both places was good and the servers were great with the kids.
Outside of the City we ate in a couple of places on the City side of the bridges, close to where we were staying. Again, both places had good food and were very accommodating with the children. O Deliz Cafe had vegetarian galette options and made a special croque monsieur without ham for Bee. Le Jardin d’ete was also nice, and more of a restaurant than the others.
Carcassonne weather: when to go
We visited Carcassonne in early April. Although our trip was during the UK Easter holidays, we visited a while after the Easter weekend and the City was fairly quiet – French schools had apparently gone back. We walked straight into everything we wanted to see without having the queue once. The restaurants were all quiet and business was fairly slow for them as I overheard in conversation between local workers. But we could see that there were large areas for queuing, especially at the Castle entrance and given the amount of restaurants I imagine that Carcassonne gets extremely busy at peak times.
The weather was mixed while we were in Carcassonne. Cold air can frequently blow down from the not-so-distant Pyrenees and we did get some rain. We knew that one of our days was going to be sunny so that’s the day we saved for the Canal du Midi boat ride. But overall we’d take the inclement weather over hordes of other tourists!
That’s a wrap for pretty much all the things to do in Carcassonne in two days. It was a great weekend trip – there were plenty of interesting things to see and the kids definitely enjoyed it.
Let me know if I’ve missed anything!
Have you been to Carcassonne? Did you think it was a tourist trap or a medieval marvel?