Carcassonne? Meh.

I love reading a movie critic teeing off about a film that just drives him nuts. And, in that vein, I think there’s something very satisfying in a travel writer bashing an overrated destination. So in the spirit of Roger Ebert, allow me to turn my negativity up a notch.

The medieval fortified town of Carcassonne is a challenge for guidebook writers. We understand that no amount of convincing will persuade you to skip it. So we do our best to offer strategies for enduring it. The Rick Steves’ France guidebook suggests arriving in the evening, spending the night, then getting outta there as fast as possible the next morning. Could it possibly be damned with fainter praise? And based on my second visit — this time for two whole nights — I agree that this is the only way to go.

First of all, I’ll concede that the city walls and towers are, without a doubt, magnificent. Carcassonne is well worth a one-hour stroll to appreciate some of the most remarkably intact old fortifications you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, Carcassonne is a few hours away from anything else that’s really worthwhile, so most visitors get stranded here with more time than they need.

When it comes to touristic metabolism, Carcassonne has two speeds: overwhelmed by tourist hordes, and tumbleweed town. By day, you’re fighting your way through a mosh pit of elbows, dodging tacky candy and souvenir boutiques. By night, you’re the lonely, last Cathar defending a lost-cause fortress. Some people enjoy the tranquility of after-hours Carcassonne; to me, it just feels empty and melancholic — a reminder that virtually nobody still lives within the walls of this once-thriving community. (And to be fair, I may be slightly jaded because of my regular visits to Dubrovnik, Croatia, the only walled town in Europe that trumps Carcassonne.)

Normally French chefs can do no wrong, but even the food in Carcassonne manages to be underwhelming. The most famous local dish is a bland casserole of beans and old meat called cassoulet, which I believe is French for “bowl of farts.” If it’s not a lutefisk-style “hardship food,” eaten only in desperation, then it should be. Despite my reverence for French chefs, I desperately want a dash of Sriracha (or even ketchup) to jazz up my cassoulet.

All of that said, I found a few things to enjoy during my stay in Carcassonne. The town has almost no sights worth entering, but the one exception is the castle-within-the-castle Château Comtal, with a well-presented, one-way walking route through the keep and up onto the ramparts. Exploring here with a good imagination, you can envision a far more appealing age when the city would have been inhabited by smelly, raunchy, aggressive soldiers. The moat surrounding that château is filled with a very scenic garden, where pooped sightseers enjoy a restful break. And after dark, the city — while deserted — does have a certain floodlit magic.

What it comes down to is this: In my travels, I’m most drawn to places that feel vital and authentic. And Carcassonne may have the widest gulf between glitz and substance of any place I’ve been. It feels like a stage set: Perfect for a postcard or a coffee-table book, but torturously dull to explore. It is, simply, soulless.

In the interest of saving you time, here are a few pretty pictures of the city from my last visit. (Well, I hope it’s my last…) Staring at these for a few minutes releases you from the obligation of visiting Carcassonne, freeing you up for so many other, underrated things France has to offer.

Carcassonne skyline

It’s striking, sure. But for my money, playing the game Carcassonne is more enjoyable than visiting the town Carcassonne.

Carcassonne Wall

Tourists wander the old moat of Carcassonne…seeking an escape, I imagine.

Carcassonne Chateau

I must admit, the Château Comtal’s garden is one of the most enticing picnic spots I’ve seen in France.
Carcassonne Floodlights

After hours, as the blue hour of twilight dawns, a good tripod makes Carcassonne worth the trip for photographers.
Carcassonne at Night

If you think I’m being too hard on Carcassonne, you’re probably right. Have at it in the comments. And here’s one positive tip to balance out all of my curmudgeonry: If you’d like to stay someplace with far more substance on your swing through Languedoc-Roussillon, take a good, hard look at Albi. This captivating city — about an hour and a half north from Carcassonne (on the way to the Dordogne) — is the focus of my next entry.

50 Replies to “Carcassonne? Meh.”

  1. We visited Carcassonne on a Rick Steves tour, arriving at the worst possible time–buildings were closing and we were not spending the night. In those days the tour included other Cathar sites,Sarlat,Albi, and interesting towns in the Dordogne. The route made sense. We had a snack, a glass of wine and a rest break, took our pictures and got back on the bus.

    Our tour also featured cassoulet ‘to die for.’ It was the highlight of the trip–and the very devil to try to make at home. As you note, it takes an expert to make it tasty and Rick and Steve Smith had found just the place in a small town where we overnighted.

  2. I agree Carcassonne is a zoo during the day. But I found the night time Carcassonne a delight,perfect for historian and photographer alike. Like so much in Europe, even with its drawbacks, it shouldn’t be missed. Its truly a one-of-a-kind. BTW, your photos DO do it justice

  3. C’mon Cameron, don’t beat around the bush. Tell us how you really feel about Carcassonne! Seriously, I have to admit that I enjoy your blog MORE than Rick’s. And that is no b.s. Your photos are better too!

    1. Carcassonne is not just about le citie which is a toutist hot spot. It is a lovely town to explore with many bars and cafes. It has the canal du midi running through it.

    1. Good question, Becky. I guess I’m still mulling that one over myself…
      I’d say go, if you must, but don’t linger. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if you skip it.
      -Cameron

  4. I agree thar Carcassonne is dissspointing for the most part. However, there is little better on a cold or rainy day than a properly made cassoulet. If you had a bowl of something you could compare to farts, you just missed on restaurant choices. It would be like saying “pizza must be italian for ‘giant stale matzo with bland cheese and canned tomato paste’ ” based on eating a Domino’s product.

  5. an author named Kate Mosse wrote 3 books with Carcassonne as the central location of the storyline. The books were amazing and made Carcassonne and the history there very real for me. I highly recommend reading all 3 books. Looking forward to my visit to Carcassonne in September 2015

  6. Carcassonne was our overnight with a student group heading toward Spain. We pulled in late afternoon. The light over the fortified city was amazing. We put our things in our rooms and headed out. The tour guide said nothing would be open late on a Sunday afternoon. I told a group of students that we would see for ourselves. As we we headed out, we wet mooned by a trio of young boys. We laughed and headed up the hill where a lovely local store was open. The students picked up a few snacks and we headed back for a nice hotel dinner. After dinner we watched the sun set over the city. The next morning we had a quick tour of the city and headed out. I have fond memories or Carcassonne. No Meh – Yay!

  7. Actually, it was Dubrovnik that I couldn’t get back to the ship fast enough!! The walled city on Rhodes Greece also gets a thumbs down from me.

  8. My two daughters and I stayed in Carcassonne on the way to San Sebastian in early September. We got up early and hiked up the hill to the fortress across the field. There were no tourists and we got in when it opened. We had a very fun time. Granted it is a little Disneylandish………..

  9. Yep, it can be sleepy. However, we did find one little museum on a side street that was interesting. It was a museum for one room classrooms – lots of cool posters and desks and turn of the century classroom stuff. They even had ink pens and paper for you to practice your writing. Sounds nerdy, but it was sorta cool. You sometimes have to look down the side streets to find gems.

  10. I visited Carcassonne in the early 1980s and it was even back then rather underwhelming. The highlight for my then-young-kids was the wacky French woman who had tied little pieces of colored paper with fractured English phrases on them to the trees and shrubs, and expected tourists to pay for the privilege of walking by her “art.”

  11. I truly enjoyed reading your piece, very entertaining. However, as someone who hasn’t been anywhere in the last ten years (well, except for that 10 day trip to San Francisco for brain surgery [yay?]) I have to say you do sound a bit spoiled and jaded. Humorous, but jaded. Oh well, hopefully I’ll have a chance to become a jaded traveler again too. :)

    *mutters to self* “‘stranded’ in France, indeed.”

  12. We did a tour with high school students of Carcassonne in the late afternoon, had dinner, then strolled the streets. We were heading back to the hotel when we saw two women from our group having a glass of wine at a café near the river. They asked us to join them, When we told them that we were heading back to the hotel for bed check, they said, “Nonsense! You’re in Carcassonne.” Somehow the bed checks didn’t matter that much.

  13. Good I can skip it…it was making trouble with the itinerary anyway. BTW, at the risk of being stoned I feel the same way about Mont Sainte Michel.

  14. Cameron, perhaps you missed the shops displaying racks of plastic swords for sale! Hard to leave France without one. Seriously, though, like so many other walled towns, stay the night. The buses, or boats, all leave and you get the place to yourselves. And, regarding Dubrovnik, we lived there for a month a couple of years ago, in the walled town, in February, with no tourists and we thoroughly enjoyed every minute. But, I would not want to be there in tourist season. After all, when you can walk the entire wall of Dubrovnik and the only person you meet is your best friend, you have done very well indeed!

  15. We liked Carcassonne. We were there on a drizzly day which fit the location and it wasn’t very busy. There was a delightful parade of children dressed in costumes from different countries, including an “american indian”. The parade had music and ended with folk dancing in front of the church. we did have cassoulet “to die for” and have been looking for it every since. And at the risk of being stoned as the previous person said, i was very underwhelmed by St Petersburg and the Hermatage. A few beautiful places, but the rest was repetitive.

  16. We just spent last weekend in Carcassonne – a last minute attempt to escape that rain that had followed us through much of Provence. I ended up reading the section on Carcassonne from Ina Cato’s interesting (and accessible) book, “The Road from the Past: Traveling Through History in France” out loud to my kids while my husband drove us there. It was a perfect accompaniment for our visit.

    That being said, I felt we had seen all we wanted to see by the morning of the second day, so we drove to the village of Minerve for a little more Cathar history as well as getting our nature fix!

  17. We were just in Carcassone two weeks ago. The best thing for us was 4 Russian acapella singers in the Church. Absolutely fabulous and made our Top Ten France list. Carcassonne late in the day is the only way to go – good light for photos and no flocks of tourists getting in the shots.

  18. I visited Carcassonne a few years ago. As a Medieval history buff, I thought it was magnificent! There is a lot of touristy shopping, but I thought that the chateau, its statuary museum, and the walk of the walls more than made up for it. I’d love to go back and stay overnight. P.S. A well made cassoulet can be very tasty. Beans yes, but frequently also duck, sausage, and other game. Yum!

  19. I agree! I visited Carcassonne for two nights in 2011 and was completely underwhelmed. I enjoyed the walk through the castle but the continual restorations and renovations – especially to the roofs of the towers – have made it difficult to imagine what the medieval city looked like before it became a tourist attraction.
    Although the live music in the church was lovely, it felt like a concert and rude to be walking around while the musicians were playing. It is the only church in France that I didn’t duck back into if time allowed.
    I won’t go back but, if I’d never been, I’d always be wondering…

  20. I spent my 60th birthday with my family, two nights at the Hôtel de la Cité, a MGallery Collection, it was amazing! There were no crowds, we had dinner at the Michelin-star Restaurant La Barbacane one of the hotel’s restaurants, it was divine! I recommend it!

  21. I first saw Carcasonne in July 1963 at the full moon as had been recommended by my History professor at the University of Washington. It seemed enchanted! Lily Deveze,a guide who held 2 History degrees from the Sorbonne, entertained us for tea in her 800 year old house inside the walls. She showed us a relief in the church which depicted the funeral of a bishop where the prelates near the bier were weeping but as you looked further away faces cheered up until those at the edges of the panel were laughing heartily. Apparently his grace was not really much mourned.

    Do you know the legend of the siege which was lifted when the residents fed their little remaining food to a pig and tossed it off the battlements? Poor thing burst on impact convincing the besieging commander that he could not starve the residents out.

    I did visit again in 1995 and regretted the proliferation of souvenir shops. Still, walking the battlements, you could almost hear the clash of weaponry.

    We savored delicious, hearty cassoulet. (Julia Child raved about this dish on her TV series.)

    Perhaps your pleasure in these things depends on your expectations?

  22. I have to entirely disagree with you. We did Carcassonne on the Loire to the South of France tour last year and totally enjoyed it. We even played the board game to celebrate it! And cassoulet will always be better than snails or some of the other regional delicacies. As for Carcassonne’s stillness at night, I enjoyed it second only to the stillness on Mont St. Michel.

  23. Just back from Croatia and I found Dubrovnik as miserable as you found Carcassonne. So happy to hear someone else thinks Dubrovnik is a hot mess. :-) We wish we had not allocated 4 nights there. So many people are afraid to say they do not like a place after others rave. I guess we don’t like to be judged as making a bad travel decision. Thanks for your honesty.

    1. Hi Laurel,

      Just curious, what did you particularly dislike about Dubrovnik apart the many tourists?

      Thanks and kind regards from Dubrovnik,

      Marina

  24. Try visiting Carcassone on July 14, French independence day. We watched fireworks over the old city and it was beautiful! Love medieval castles, streets, moats, and stayed at a youth hostel within the old city that was great fun. But this was awhile ago. I enjoyed Carcassone, and thought it was worth visiting.

  25. Wow! Let me first say that I haven’t been to Carcassonne in probably 20 years, but it was a part of my first trip to France and my experience was SO different! My brother and I rented a 32 foot cruiser from Castelnaudary to Marseillian in 1988. I’d never been to France so I thought that this would be perfect and it was. We drove ourselves 100 miles down the Canal du Mid over the course of a weeki, stopping whenever we wanted along the way to visit or to spend the night in our boat. Carcassonne was probably night three or four. I remember that we tied up the boat right there in the thick of it all on Saturday night and after visiting the town on that mid-September morning, we set off again in early afternoon. Seeing the town at night was amazing and walking around it in the morning was also very pleasant.

  26. I live in Languedoc and love many things here in this region however Carcassonne is not one of them. At first i was intrigued by the picture book castle upon first vieiwng but once entering, very disappointed. I tell my visiting friends it is very much like the Disneyland castle, from afar very enticing but once in, commercial garbage! Spend the day on the canal du Midi instead!

  27. Can you see anything picture-worthy from the train? Will be passing thru on the way from Albi to Arles. Sounds like that will be just about enough of Carcassonne.

  28. Appreciate the tough critique. We detoured to Carcasonne on our driving route. However, we (4 retired folk) decided to walk all around the outside “First”. It was dead quite with few other tourists, but then went inside – big mistake. Rick Steves said it was touristy stuff and he was right as usual. We gave it a quick peak and realized not for us. All round the outside was what was worth the trek.

  29. Substitute The Old City Of Jerusalem with Carcasonne and you have an identical description. So, would you recommend people just avoid Jerusalem too? I was there in May and Carcasonne was hardly “overrun” and as you said, by night, utterly spooky and abandoned and fascinating. But no worse than about 10,000 other places in Europe in May and June…..why single out this one for abuse?

  30. Go to a restaurant in Chicago, Boston or New York and and you may encounter the owner photos with celebrities as compelling as DomDeLouise, Jerry Lewis or Dick Butkus. Go to the restaurant at the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne, a hotel of acknowledged luxury, and see the letters from Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Grace Kelly. That little touch, in a hotel in a castle of compelling beauty, made our 20 hour overnight an enduring memory.

  31. Cameron, I was there in Sept ’14 and I 100% agree with everything you just said. And, I would add (as others also mentioned), it felt like Disneyland.

    Rick posed a question on his blog a couple of months ago – he asked us to tell him about tourist traps we found ourselves in. My reply was: Carcassonne!

    As to whether people should visit or not: I say, go ahead and visit if its along the way to another city you are visiting. Something for the Bucket List. I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip. I made the mistake of driving down from Sarlat with the intention of going back North right after Carcassonne.

  32. We visited Carcassonne three times, each time magical. we stayed in a hotel just outside the walls, with a view of a turret. During the day we took the tours; the one in French was by far the best –we saw different sites than in English. We enjoyed the food — salade gesiers (gizzards) became a permanent favorite. The highlight was early morning photo walks — I have almost 1000 photos of all that lovely stone and light. So be jaded if you like, but it is a very special place.

  33. I’m curious…

    I visited somewhere around 25 castles on a 30 day trip to England and never got bored of them. There was nothing to them, mostly just a shell, albeit some of them in very good shape.

    Wouldn’t you say that Carcassonne would be more impressive than say… Bodiam, or Conwy, or Beaumaris?

    So long as you can still get dinner and do some shopping I could easily see spending the day there. Or am I that odd guy that just loves castles?

  34. Love the candor and the thoughts…. but there is much more to Carcassonne that the tourist castle. We lived in the small town of Limoux for a month last year, and took the train several times from Limoux to Carcassonne. It is a short track train, cost 1 Euro each way, an you can catch it in the morning and return in the evening. Yes, we did the requisite castle visit once! It was a hoot watching the “herds” move through and then we escaped out a back gate to old Town.
    The old town, the quartiers around it are wonderful to stroll through…. it is truly a “Back Door” experience to see how the towns people live their daily lives when the Hordes come through with one singular intention.

    Cassoulet…. this is a farm dish; a deeply layered flavorful dish of the region and its farm heritage. There is a delicious one to be had just inside the Portail des Jacobins, across the street from the Theâtre Municipal…. walk into this red draped, wood paneled bar and cross to the upstairs dining room for the true cassoulet experience. Your fellow diners will be a bit older, well dressed, regulars who are greeted and served with familiarity. We were treated to a wonderfully sincere service (delicious cassoulet) as it was appreciated that we had found our way here.

    The parks in Carcassonne are beautiful, as they line both sides of the river banks with great walking paths. AND, the pièce de résistance is a bike ride along the Canal du Midi. Just outside the train station is a mooring basin for the Canal…you can hope a Canal tour, or rent a bike for a few Euros and head off down the Canal (you can go either direction). We had a wonderful ride from Carcassonne to Homps and back…. picnicking and waving at the boaters that passes by…. this is what Carcassonne is all about.. the Castle is like saying that all there is in Los Angeles is Disneyland!

  35. Glad to see I am not the only non-fan of Carcassonne. In 2009, I did a trip to France. I had always wanted to visit Carcassonne, so I made it a stop. Yes, it was beautiful from afar, and yes, I enjoyed walking around it for maybe 30 minutes, but I made the mistake of staying overnight. Wish I had hopped the next train!

  36. Your article is interesting … And it is your right not to like Carcassonne, but problem is that your article is filled with inexactitudes.It seems that you completely missed the genuine Carcassonne, the one of its inhabitants (yes there are people still living in the medieval city, contrary to what you say) … well you obviously made the banal tour of tourists in a hurry without really seeking to discover the soul of this city and its region (when you say that Carcassonne is a few hours away from anything else that’s really worthwhile, are you just kidding? What about the canal du Midi, the abbeys and medieval fortresses of the Cathar country, some of them only 15 mn drive from Carcassonne, the old city of Narbonne, the Languedoc vineyards, etc… ????)
    You hope you never come back to Carcassonne, so we invite you to come abnd visit the area around it, called Cathar Country :)
    Please take contact with us communication@audetourisme.com
    Hope to see you soon in Carcassonne again! :)

  37. I visited Carcasonne about 15 years ago. What fascinated me more than anything is the story of the fattened chicken thrown over the wall to make the “enemy” think that these folks were still thriving and prepared to continue the fight. That story stuck with me for a long time, and made it worth the side trip.

  38. Love your honesty! We were in Carcassonne in April. As another poster commented, we loved hearing 4 Russian a cappella singers filling the church with beautiful music. The gargoyles outside the church were the most bizarre we’ve ever seen. We liked our visit, but it won’t be back on our itinerary list in the future.

  39. My husband and I stopped there during our honeymoon “tour de France” – we liked it! We stayed in a B&B in the “new city” (which is from, what the 1500s instead of the 1100s? :) and it was really wonderful!
    Sure, it’s a bit touristy – so what? It’s a tourist spot.
    We were there over bastille day and the fireworks from the distance were SPECTACULAR!!

  40. Arrived one evening and walked up to the Cite. Drizzling. Restaurants all full. Finally got into one and ordered the cassoulet and a funghi pizza. A memorable meal. Delicious duck, foie grais, and whatever else was in there. Funghi was fresh, flavorful. Walked around the ramparts and right outside the walls with the evocative lighting and shadows. Hardly anyone else around. Very enjoyable. Next morning walked back up, admiring the variety of old windows. Tried to find a restaurant with cassoulet but, alas, none opened. Lots of tourist shops. Soon crowded with tourists along the small streets and the main roads.

    Still dream about the cassoulet, pizza, city walls and the windows.

  41. Don’t listen to him! I was just in Carcassonne at the end of May and I loved it. We walked around the outside perimeter of the castle and found very few people doing so. Yes, the inside main walk is full of very touristy stuff for sale, but so what. I was happy to find a booklet on the history of Carcassonne and bought some delicious nougat candy that is impossible to find in the U.S. anymore.

    It is worthwhile wandering around the streets of the inner city to find the Saint Nazaire basilica which is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic art styles.

    We had lunch in the courtyard of the inner city and all six of us had wonderful food. In fact the cafe creme there was the best I had in all of France. So there — don’t listen to this Bah Humbug guy.

    If you are heading towards Narbonne consider making a stop at the Abbaye de Fontfroide which is just off the A61. It was been lovingly restored by a private family and has a extensive garden as well.

  42. Come on Cammeron. Carcassone is not the 3rd most visited site in France for nothing! Yes in peak summer season it is very crowded with tourists. Yes it does have the tacky shops that you describe but what top tourist destination in Europe does not have those things? We recently moved to France and just had our first family members visit us. We took them to Carcassone and while it had been several years since we had visited it, the tour of the Castle with audio which took well over an hour was fascinating. The streats outside of the castle are a pleasant walk and there are some actually attractive garden restaurants that will get you some shade, some very decent food, and a very nice place to relax. Just, when picking a restaurant I would avoid the main square establishments as they are just packed. The Basilica is also a wonderful spot to visit within the walled city. We too were lucky enough to catch the Acapella choir which made that visit even more enjoyable.
    As for being in the middle of nowhere, I would recommend other Cather castles and sites in the area along with winery tours. Its a fasciniting place and should not be overlooked!

  43. Wow, a bit sad to see such a bashing of a place we enjoyed exploring so much! There’s something to be said for traveling independently by car rather than as part of a tour group and for visiting in April. During our visit, shops were open and streets were lively during the day, but we didn’t see many tourists.

    We actually found the castle and entire medieval city quite by accident. We were road tripping from Switzerland to Spain and just needed a place to camp for a night. We landed at Camping de la Cite in the evening, pitched our tent, and enjoyed dinner with views of the twinkling castle. The next day, we spent hours exploring the medieval city, walking the ramparts, and learning about the castle inside its many towers, most of which we had to ourselves. It’s definitely a site we recommend to our readers!

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