My recent trip to France was my first visit to France outside of Paris. I spent my time based in Carcassonne and exploring the Mid-Occitanie region. Occitanie is a new name for the region (established in 2016) in southern France, in the Midi-Pyrènèes and Languedoc-Roussillon regions.
The cultural and historical region of Occitania existed since the Middle Ages, and included parts of southern France, Catalonia (in Spain), and even some parts of Italy. In Occitanie today, many things in towns are signposted in both French and Occitan, the historic language of the region. It was a fascinating area to explore!
There is so much to do and see in the middle part of Occitanie, and having a car was a huge help in being able to see so much in such a short trip. Here are the top places to see in this part of Southern France!
I stayed in the city of Carcassonne for this trip to France, and loved it—I felt like it was a very authentic way to experience life in the south of France. Carcassonne definitely merits a day of exploration, particularly for the Cité de Carcassonne, the medieval walled fortress. La Cité was heavily restored in 1853, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While inside it’s mainly souvenir shops and touristy restaurants, visiting the medieval wall museum, and walking the walls, is a must.
So many people visit Carcassonne, stay in La Cité, and leave. While it is a very fairytale-like area, getting out of the walls will definitely give you a different experience. I loved wandering around the streets of Carcassonne, and especially seeing the main square and the Neptune fountain. Some of the best views of La Cité are from Pont Neuf (or New Bridge). There are also a few very nice churches in Carcassonne proper!
Carcassonne is also on the Canal Du Midi, a 240 km (150 miles) canal across southern France, starting in Toulouse and finishing at the sea. The Canal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site!) first opened in 1681, and is one of the oldest canals in Europe. It’s still in use today! If you don’t want to travel it via boat, there are lots of hiking opportunities along the banks, and some stretches are paved and ideal for biking.
Don’t miss a visit to Carcassonne in this region of France.
I spent most of a day wandering around Toulouse and marveling at the beautiful architecture. Toulouse is the capital of the Occitanie region, and is sometimes called “La Ville Rose” (The Pink City), because of the pink-colored terracotta bricks used in many buildings. There are about 466,000 people in Toulouse, which is the fourth-largest city in France. The Toulouse Metro area has just over 1.3 million people, also making it the fourth-largest metropolitan area in France. There is an underground Metro system, with 2 lines, that is fast, frequent, and convenient and costs 1.60€ per ride.
Toulouse is definitely the main tourist and transportation hub in the region, and if you won’t have access to a car it would probably be easiest to stay in Toulouse. However, I was glad I stayed in the much-smaller Carcassonne. I spent a day in Toulouse and really enjoyed wandering around—if you’re visiting this region, you really can’t miss Toulouse.
The main attraction in Toulouse is its plethora of art nouveau architecture around the city. Le Capitole is the beautiful City Hall, located on a large square that’s always busy. The Basilica of Saint-Sernin is the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe. The basilica was built between 1080 and 1120, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is free to enter.
One of the nicest parts of Toulouse is around the banks of the Garonne River. The “new bridge,” Pont Neuf, is actually an old bridge, built in the 16th-century over the river. One of the most notable buildings across the river is the Grave Hospital (Hôpital de La Grave), which was used to treat plague victims in the medieval period.
My favorite thing I did in Toulouse though? Eating cassoulet, a traditional dish in this part of France. It’s kind of like a bean stew, with a whole duck leg and sausage (locally sourced) inside. It was absolutely delicious! I ate at Au Gascon, which is tucked away in an alleyway. For a 3-course lunch, with a glass of wine and an aperatif, it was only 25.75€, which I thought was a huge bargain! Cassoulet as a main was generally priced between 15-20€ just on its own in most places I looked.
Two of Toulouse’s other major attractions (which I didn’t visit) are the Cité de l’espace, a space museum/attraction, and the Musée des Augustins, a fine art museum.
One of my favorite stops was Albi. While the city of Albi is quite large, the medieval old town in the city center is very compact. Albi Cathedral was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Albi in the first place—it’s supposedly the largest brick building in the world. Construction began in 1282 and lasted for 200 years. The cathedral is free to enter, although admission to the choir area costs 5€.
Wandering around and seeing the medieval-style buildings was a major highlight. One of the best views of the city is from the bridges by the River Tarn.
I also popped into the Saint Salvy Monastery and Cloisters, which were so beautiful and peaceful. The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is great for art lovers, as the artist was born in Albi!
This impossibly charming and picturesque village, about an hour’s drive from Albi, is located on top of a hill. This was one of the most beautiful places I visited in France—I arrived just before sunset and was blown away by the beauty of the village and the area. The fortified town was built in 1222, and people still live there today.
There are a smattering of attractions like museums and churches, lots of local artisans, and so many winding, fairytale-like cobblestone streets that are begging to be explored. I really only had time to walk (uphill) through the village, but it really did make me feel like I was in another era. I can imagine that it gets absolutely packed during the day with tourists and coach bus crowds, so I recommend going either early in the morning or in the late afternoon. All day parking is 3.50€.
One place I didn’t get a chance to visit (but wish I could have!) was Gaillac. The region is famous for its wine, and I would have loved to have gone to a few wineries in the area! If you have time and a car (and a designated driver), wine tasting around the countryside sounds like a great idea.
Daytrips from Carcassonne
Carcassonne isn’t a huge city, and most of it can be explored in a day. I spent a lot of time daytripping and driving around the area on this trip to France! If you don’t have access to your own transportation, most of these will probably be impossible to reach by public transport.
Hautpol is a medieval city, nestled in the mountains (specifically in the Black Mountain, or La Montagne Noire) near Carcassonne. There are castle ruins, winding cobblestone streets, and a statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the nearby town of Mazamet. It’s free to visit.
Lastours Castles (or Chateaux de Lastours) are four medieval Cathar castles not far from Carcassonne, and perfect for a daytrip. It costs 7€ entry to the castles, but there is free parking at the bottom. If you’re up for the hike up to the castles at the top, it’s a really pretty area!
Abbaye de Saint Papoul was one of my favorite visits of the surrounding Carcassonne area. Saint Papoul is a tiny village, but the abbey is certainly worth a stop. The church that remains today was built in the early 1200s, with decorated sculptures by the Master of Cabestany, the famous Romanesque sculptor.
The cloisters were by far my favorite part of the abbey! The abbey costs around 4€ for students.
Montolieu was barely an official stop—but this photo is perhaps one of my favorites of my trip to France. The town was small but bustling with people. The road out of town goes across a bridge, which is where the best photo spots of the town are. I would absolutely love to come back here and stay for a few days!
Saissac was my last stop of the day—we saw a sign for a castle, and turned off the road immediately! The small town of Saissac has incredible views over the area, seen from the viewpoint on the main road. It’s a maze of winding streets down to the castle, which is the village’s top attraction. The castle costs 4€, but there’s free parking in town.
Occitanie is a region in Southern France, which includes 13 departments (equivalent to a county). The population of Occitanie is about 5.6 million, while France as a whole has a population of roughly 66.9 million people. The official language is French, although you will see signs in the local language Occitan, which is also an official language in the region. France is part of the European Union and the Schengen Zone, and the official currency is Euros.
We rented a car for this trip, and I’m so incredibly glad we did—even though we paid an extra 90€ for a young driver’s fee. Car is definitely the best way to get around, and gives so much more freedom to be able to stop at smaller places to explore. If you’re relying on public transportation, I recommend basing yourself in Toulouse, where there are better and more frequent public transportation links around the region.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at this Airbnb in the city center of Carcassonne, which I absolutely loved. We had our own apartment that had a fully equipped kitchen, and even had a washing machine!! The apartment can sleep up to 7, but it would be a major squeeze as the beds are all on a sort of balcony. The only downside was that they didn’t have wifi. It was an excellent location though, and a perfect base for exploring Carcassonne and the Occitanie region! I loved this Airbnb and would absolutely stay here again. (Want to sign up for Airbnb?! Sign up here and get £25 or US Dollars equivalent off your first stay!)
This trip to France was incredible. There is so much to do in this area of Southern France! I definitely hope to be back someday to explore more.
Have you ever been to France? What were the favorite places you visited?