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Take a tour of the Citadel of Carcassonne, the real-life castle seen in video and board games

In southwest France, in sight of the Pyrenees, sits an epic and ancient castle on a hill, the Cité de Carcassonne. A stunning example of medieval design, and inspiration for board games, strategy video games and more. Here's a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Carcassonne. Just the name sounds impressive.

Maybe that's why this particular medieval castle was chosen as the inspiration for the popular tile-based board game, which, in turn, inspired an award-winning strategy video game for consoles and mobile devices.

The real-life citadel is a sight to behold. Sitting atop a hill in southwest France, the Cité de Carcassonne is an awe-inspiring example of imposing medieval architecture and design.

Having survived its peak usefulness relatively intact, it was subject to an extensive restoration in the 1800s.

Today, Carcassonne feels old, but not decrepit. Visiting the site is more like stepping back in time to an era of trebuchets, swords and stone.

It's easiest to arrive in Carcassonne (rhymes with "son" not "Sony") by train, about an hour from Toulouse or Narbonne, and about 3 from Bordeaux or Barcelona. Then it's about a 20-minute walk through the lovely modern(ish) town of Carcassonne. Make your way through the winding streets, and suddenly you emerge to see a walking bridge with the citadel on a hill across the river L'Aude. It somehow doesn't look real...far too big and intact to be something that exists in the present day.

The hike up to the citadel is steep, though there's a shuttle available. (I don't know how convenient it is to catch, as I preferred to walk.)

There are multiple ways in through the walls, the first indication the fortifications are now merely decorative.

Inside it looks like many other small French towns, with restaurants and cafes, tiny winding streets, lots of dogs and people smoking.

There are even multiple hotels in case you want to stay the night. I wish I had done this, as the spending the night exploring Mont Saint-Michel was one of the coolest things I did last year.

Walking around Carcassonne is free, but to get into the Keep or along the walls, you have to pay about 10 euros. Worth it, of course. The Keep itself is fairly simple, mostly two courtyards and a central building with the gift shop, a movie room on the castle's history and a room with a scale-model overview of the castle.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It's out on the walls that the size of Carcassonne is really noticeable. It's hard to tell size when you're getting lost on curvy streets. From above, seeing the walls of the town down in the distance, it's truly impressive. The view down into the town is reminiscent of the castles above San Marino.

As the day winds down and the sun sets, the beige walls take on the warm fire of sunset. Many of the restaurants close, but some stay open. It's fairly standard French fare, mostly; rich sauces and wonderful preparation.

I took a different route back to the train station, my hostel in Toulouse waiting. Crossing the road bridge, I got a much better view than from the walking bridge earlier in the day.

Carcassonne is definitely worth a day trip if you're nearby. Otherwise, check out the gallery above for a picture tour.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, Abbey Road Studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!