Languedoc is a region in the South of France that many Americans have never heard of. Nestled between Spain and the Midi-Pyrénées to the Southwest and Provence to the East, this section of Occitanie offers sandy beaches, Cathar castles, charming towns, and colorful gardens that soak up the Mediterranean sunshine. The main cities are Montpellier and Toulouse, but there are so many quaint villages in Languedoc to explore that are off the main tourist path.
When people consider a visit to the South of France, they usually first look at either Provence or the French Riviera. Yet the primary advantage of Languedoc over its neighbors comes down to affordability and accessibility. You can find adorable towns, ancient abbeys, delicious food, great wine, and plenty of sun without paying the premium or dealing with the crowds you find in those other regions.
Best Villages in Languedoc
My husband and I recently spent a week in this region on a romantic getaway poking around small towns, visiting wineries, and indulging in feasts of fresh prawns and crisp white wines. Not all towns were created equal, but we discovered many that made us fall in love with this region of France.
And despite being quite inept with the French language, we were always made to feel welcome and comfortable from the locals and expats that we met throughout our travels.
Of all the towns we explored, Pézenas near Montpellier was the most charming. We had the good fortune to visit on Saturday, during market day, when the town was bustling with both tourists and locals picking up their weekly goods.
It is very easy to park at the free car park just out of town and then walk 5-10 minutes into the historic town center versus struggling to find a spot in one of the few pay parking lots in town.
The historic town center is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets lined with old stone buildings adorned with colorful shutters or doors. Flowers hang from window boxes and locals gather boisterously in outdoor cafes. The town is known for its artisan goods, creating a shopping paradise for those seeking authentic, local finds.
When you get hungry, stop into Restaurant Les Palmiers, Café Brasserie Chez Hansi, or enjoy some tapas at La Mamita.
At the beginning of our visit, we stayed in the small town of Montreal, near Carcassonne at a lovely maison d’hôtes called Camellas-Lloret, which has sadly since been put up for sale. Our hosts recommended we check out the nearby town of Mirepoix on our way down to Limoux and Lagrasse.
Alas, we weren’t there on Monday, which is market day, but we were still charmed by Mirepoix and it was an ideal spot to kick off our vacation in the South of France. As soon as we arrived I felt that I had walked into the pages of a storybook or a Disney set.
The town square, with its surrounding buildings braced by old timbers, looks so French it looks fake. It is almost hard to imagine that towns still exist like this and not just recreations the way we think a French village should look.
Yes, there are souvenir shops that line the town square, along with a small carousel, but charm oozes from every corner. The Tour de France passes through Mirepoix in the summer, so don’t be surprised to see a few bike groups gathered there also as they do their imitation rides.
If you continue on from Mirepoix to Limoux, you will come to the heart of the region that produced the first sparkling wine (before Champagne), known as Blanquette de Limoux. Today the region is famous for Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and the sparkling Cremant de Limoux. There are wineries in the area that you can arrange to visit (note they are closed on Sunday), or you can stop into Antech Limoux on the outskirts of town.
There is a wide square called Place de la République in the heart of town, where you can find many restaurants. We had a lovely lunch at Chez Stephan. Just remember that in French villages, lunch is served strictly between 12 and 2pm. If you do not arrive by 1-1:15, you may not be served, so plan accordingly.
After lunch, take a walk along the River Aude and across one of the bridges to the Petite Ville on the Eastern Side. This area is a bit reminiscent of the Arno in Florence.
Halfway between Narbonne and Carcassonne, you come to the beautiful town of Lagrasse. You could squeeze this into a day trip combined with Mirepoix and Limoux, or spend the morning here before continuing on to Perpeyteuse in the afternoon.
There is plenty of parking outside of town, but you will need to pay at a meter and leave the slip on your dashboard. Be prepared to do a lot of walking and wear comfortable shoes and bring along lots of water in the summer. You may actually want to wear a swimsuit and pack a towel because there is a small rocky beach along the river where locals swim and wade in the water to cool off.
This medieval town features book and pottery fairs at the covered market in the summer, and there is plenty of shopping. The main attraction is the Benedictine Abbey located across the river from town.
Today, the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse is divided into two sections. Each can be visited but require separate tickets. The buildings aren’t nearly as impressive as the Abbaye Frontfroide near Narbonne so you can decide which, if any, you want to visit depending on how much time you have in Lagrasse.
Minèrve is often thought of as one of France’s most beautiful villages, but its precarious location on a rocky peninsula overlooking deep gorges, keeps many tourists away. It doesn’t take long to explore this small town, but it is still worth the trip to see the sweeping views and its picturesque setting. You will need to park outside of town and walk over, so be prepared for an uphill climb on the return trip.
You can see some of the medieval fortifications, pop into the small shops in town, and peek into the 12th century church. Make sure to also get a picture from the impressive double-arched bridge that spans the River Cesse before you leave.
Carcassonne is the second most visited site in France, outside of Paris. This 2,500-year old medieval city looks like a massive fairytale castle from afar, protected on all sides by thick walls dotted with cone-shaped turrets.
The town is actually much smaller than it looks from a distance and the streets can get quite jammed with visitors during the high season. Your best bet is to park in the car park outside of the main gate of Porte Narbonnaise. If you arrive about an hour before the castle opens, you can have some time to explore the Basilica and town before the masses arrive (and it will be easier to find a parking spot.)
The old city is free to explore, but you will need to pay an entrance fee to access the main attraction, the Chateau / castle. Try to be in line before it opens so that you can explore before it gets jammed with tour groups. You can also take a walk along the ramparts of the city to get beautiful views of the valley surrounding Carcassonne.
It is easy enough to explore on your own, but if you really want to learn the history of this city and the Cathars, I would recommend hiring a tour guide.
After you have explored the Old City, you can walk down to the Lower City for lunch and shopping. We also enjoyed a nice wine tasting at Comptoir de la Cite.
If you are also interested in visiting a small city, I would recommend a half-day in Narbonne and an afternoon at the plage (beach). The center of Narbonne is beautiful, with arched bridges lined with flowers over the canal such as the Pont des Marchands (The Merchant’s Bridge).
There are a few sites that can’t be missed including the Donjon Gilles Aycelin tower, the Cathedral and its Treasury, and the Les Halles covered food market. When you are at Les Halles, don’t miss the meat-throwing proprietor at Chez Babelle. Just be careful if you order the cheval (horse.)
About 20 minutes outside of Narbonne, plan on spending a few hours exploring the Abbaye de Fontfroide. Fontfroide Abbey is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees and is a former Cistercian place of worship. The buildings have been kept in pristine condition under private owners, with photogenic cloisters and courtyards. Don’t miss the beautiful rose garden outside of the Abbaye.
Where to Stay in the Languedoc Region
The Languedoc region is quite large, so if you are staying for a week or longer, you will be better off splitting your time between two areas to make it easier to explore without spending as much time in the car. I wouldn’t recommend staying in Carcassonne, Narbonne, or Beziers. I think you are better off staying in a small village or at a chateau in the country.
We loved our stay at Chateau Les Carrasses near Quarante and Capestang. This beautiful 4-star estate offers rooms in the chateau, as well as self-catering apartments and villas (some with private pools.) We stayed in the main chateau and our room was so spacious and luxuriously decorated.
The infinity pool overlooking the vineyards was serene and stunning. With a full-service restaurant on property, we barely needed to leave the property but we still loved going out to explore. If you do want to stay in, there is a full kids’ club, tennis, and bikes to borrow. Be sure to have dinner at Le Terminus nearby. The food is delicious and the outdoor patio setting is idyllic.
If you need more to do than visiting villages, take some time to visit Languedoc wineries or take a Languedoc wine tour or tapas and wine barge cruise with Taste du Languedoc.
If you want to explore further, there were a few towns we had on our radar that we couldn’t fit into our one week in Languedoc including Collioure, an artsy seaside town near the border with Spain, and Montelire, which is known as the town of books, outside of Carcassonne.