This fall, I visited an entirely new region of the world for me: the South of France. There are so many places to see in the Mid-Occitanie region, including Toulouse and Carcassonne! I had never been to France outside of Paris, and was so excited to explore! However, there are a lot of things I wish I had known before I went. So after making a few mistakes on my trip, I thought I’d share the wisdom with you (isn’t that what travel blogs are for?!). Here are 10 tips for Southern France!
1) Everything closes on a Sunday in small towns
If you’re going through smaller towns or villages on the weekend, chances are you’ll discover that everything closes on Sundays. Stores, shops, cafes, etc. will be closed as the country shuts down for a day of rest. Make sure you plan in advance and do your shopping and errands the day before—or check opening times for shops and restaurants beforehand.
2) There are EXPENSIVE tolls on the major roads—but they can be avoided!
If you’re driving in France, you’ll soon come across highway tolls, called a “péage.” And they are expensive. Driving the roughly 60-mile highway from Toulouse to Carcassonne cost ~8€. Other tolls can be even worse. There are giant blue signs before entrance ramps clearly stating you’ll soon be entering a péage zone. However, you don’t necessarily need to take the highway/péage. There are almost always smaller roads (not highways) that run the same route as the highway. These won’t be multi-lane highways, and the speed limit will be significantly lower, but it’s cheaper than the highways! If you aren’t in a rush, do some research into the free roads and take those instead.
3) Speaking of speed limits, do your research beforehand
Speed limits aren’t well signposted, on either smaller highways or giant motorways. Do your research and look up the speed limits to avoid getting ticketed—especially as the official speed limits can change depending on any adverse weather conditions. Small rural roads (2- or 3-lane) are 90 km/hr, 4-lane expressways in rural areas are 110 km/hr, and highways are 130 km/hr in good weather. Limits are lowered to 80, 100, and 110 km/hr respectively in bad weather. Speed limits in cities are generally 50 km/hr. These aren’t signposted so make sure you know what the speed limits are before you get on the road!
4) There are a LOT of roundabouts
There are an insane number of roundabouts in Southern France. It seems like driving on smaller country highways, they are just everywhere. Be prepared, look for signs to see which lane you need to be in, and try not to get frustrated!
5) A “pain au chocolat” is called a “chocolatine” in this region
One of the best of the many delicious French pastries is the pain au chocolat—a chocolate-filled kind of croissant. However, in Southern France (especially in Languedoc and Occitanie) they’re called chocolatine. And if you order a pan au chocolat, in all likelihood locals won’t totally know what you’re talking about! So do yourself a favor, and make sure you ask for a “chocolatine.”
6) Carcacassonne Airport is probably the smallest airport I’ve ever flown through
My flights from the UK were round-trip to Carcassonne Airport with Ryanair. And despite flying through a plethora of tiny, out-of-the-way airports (which I frequently dub “Ryanair airports” as they’re what budget airlines fly through to keep ticket prices cheap), I think Carcassonne is the smallest one I’ve been through. There are only 4 departure gates. There is one café/shop in the departure area. And your bags get handed to you individually at baggage claim—that’s how small it is. So if you’re flying through Carcassonne Airport, be prepared and bring something to pass the time!
7) La Cité and Cordes-sur-ciel get really busy during the day
While La Cité (the old medieval walled town in Carcassonne) and Cordes-sur-ciel are beautiful, quaint, and charming, they can get insanely crowded with other tourists during the day—especially with coach bus trips. To avoid the crowds, go early in the morning or in the late afternoon. I visited Cordes-sur-ciel at about 4:00pm (just in time for sunset!) and had a blissful time with just a few other groups of tourists!
8) EAT CASSOULET
This delicious dish comes from Southern France, and it should not be missed on a trip to the Languedoc/Occitanie region. Cassoulet is a large stew made of beans, with local sausage and with a duck leg stuck in the middle. And it is absolutely amazing! It’s a pricey main, costing anywhere from 15-20€, but it’s worth it. I highly recommend visiting Au Gascon restaurant, where the cassoulet was delicious. And a 3-course lunch (including a glass of wine) was just about 25€, so it was a bargain! Definitely don’t miss this local dish while in the area.
9) Public transportation can be tricky (or non-existent) unless you’re based in Toulouse
Like most rural areas, public transportation can be infrequent, inconvenient, or even non-existent in this part of Southern France. The only reason we were able to do and see as much as we did was because we had a car and had the freedom that comes with that! Public transportation can be illogical and difficult unless you’re based in Toulouse—most trains will require going through and changing in Toulouse. For example, there is no direct train from Carcassonne to Albi. It’s roughly 100 km drive (about 1 hour 45 minutes), but by public transportation it’ll take at least 2 hours 30 minutes because you need to switch in Toulouse. If you’re relying on public transport, I suggest basing yourself in Toulouse!
10) However, smaller towns will definitely give you a more authentic experience
I absolutely loved being based in Carcassonne for this trip—I felt like being in a small town instead of a big city like Toulouse was much more authentic. I stayed in a wonderful apartment through Airbnb, ate a lot of fresh baguettes with cheese, and walked around a residential neighborhood. It was such a different experience compared to what I would have had had I have stayed in Toulouse. If you need public transportation to get around, I advise staying in Toulouse. If you can though, I highly recommend getting out of the big city and staying somewhere more local!
All in all, I loved my trip to Southern France. It was such an interesting region to explore, and one that was entirely new to me. I hope these travel tips help you as you plan your own adventures to the area!
Have you ever been to Southern France? What tips do you have?