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Carcassonne has a reputation as France's fairytale town. The Cité Médiévale, Carcassonne's walled hilltop fortress, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 52 towers dotted along its restored ramparts. Behind them, there are twisting stone lanes full of quirky buildings dating back over 600 years. There are also plenty of vineyards near the city where you can go for a wine tasting.
Many hostels in Carcassonne have an outdoor space where you can have dinner or simply hang out. One hostel even shares its courtyard with a 13th-century castle. If you come in summer, find a Carcassonne hostel with a garden pool to cool off in or laze in an indoor Jacuzzi. Ask your hostel if they have bikes: some lend them out free of charge. Then, to find your way, download a map using the free Wi-Fi or pick up a free city map.
Carcassonne is divided into La Cité Médiévale (the hilltop fortress) and La Ville Basse (lower Carcassonne). At the centre of La Cité is the Château Comtal, a medieval castle open for visits. To avoid crowds, save your visit for the evening when quiet streets add to the romance. Across the River Aude, La Ville Basse is also a bustling place. Rue de Verdun is the central street where you can pick up pastries and hunt for antiques. Just outside Carcassonne is the Montagne Noire mountain range, where ancient villages teeter above gorges while rivers rumble below.
The sights of Carcassonne are best seen by simply wandering. You can fill up on café and croissants in Place Carnot in La Ville Basse. On Saturdays, the square transforms into a food market showcasing the fresh produce of this fertile region. If you'd like to explore beyond the city, you can cycle down the Canal du Midi. Once you leave town, the banks turn green and trees provide plenty of shade. A 20-minute drive away, you'll find the atmospheric hilltop Châteaux de Lastours, four ancient Cathar castles, just above a small village.
Carcassonne Airport is an 11-minute drive out of town, although Toulouse Airport (an hour away by bus) has more international flights. If you're travelling from within France, Gare de Carcassonne, the train station, connects to most major cities and is an 8-minute walk from Place Carnot. The city itself is very compact so you can explore by foot, and in summer a novelty train links the Ville Basse with the Cité Médiévale.