The ancient city of Narbonne, located in the Aude department of the Occitanie region in southern France, is one of the best places to visit in France, albeit one of the lesser-known cities. It is also the entry point to some of the most beautiful French countryside, cities and culture, including the Canal du Midi. Surprisingly, for most, it is also not far from the French Riviera. And, despite its lack of notoriety, there are many great things to see and do in Narbonne.
If you are planning a visit, this is our comprehensive guide the best things to do in Narbonne. If you have time to stay here longer, you won’t regret it. Narbonne is also a great place to base yourself for a longer stay as there are many day trips you can do from here as well.
Note – the Tour de France passes through Gruissan in 2024. You might like to read more about our guide to following the Tour de France in a motorhome too!
Where is Narbonne?
We found Narbonne quite unexpectedly. If it wasn’t for it being the starting location for our first Canal du Midi barge cruise, it might have taken us longer to find it. I didn’t feel so bad though, as over 80% of visitors to Narbonne are French. It’s not a usual tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But it should be, and its lack of tourists means it is a terrific place to explore without huge crowds.
It’s historical, with buildings dating back 21 centuries, and it’s pretty, with canals, plane-tree-lined promenades and architecturally-stunning buildings.
It’s easy-going. Without so many tourists, there’s no air of pretension, no airs and graces to be seen, just a casual way of life. There’s not a lot of English spoken, always a sure sign that the tourists haven’t dominated. It’s inexpensive, both in terms of accommodation and food. It’s also a 20-minute drive from some of the quietest beaches on the Mediterranean. You’re so close to the French riviera and yet a world away.
It’s also a city that provides easy access to so many other unknown areas of the region of Occitanie, where the food and wine are as wonderful as some of the other more known areas of France, but without the price tag.
Narbonne is located in the southwest of France, approximately 100 kilometres from the Spanish border.
- Region – Occitanie
- Department – Aude
- 15 kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea
- It was once a busy port until the course of the river was changed
- The Canal de la Robine now links Narbonne to the Canal du Midi and the Aude River
- Population – just under 52,000.
80% of the visitors to Narbonne are French. While many tourists from all over the world flock to Carcassonne only 40 minutes away from Narbonne, or the French Riviera, this area remains a well-kept secret. If you are looking to escape the winter, or just to seek out a patch of sand without having to share it with hundreds of people, Narbonne and its southern beaches are the best choices for a quiet holiday. The prices don’t soar as they do in major tourist destinations either.
The best things to see and do in Narbonne
Soak up the atmosphere in the Town Square
Town squares are one of the things I love the most about European towns. Whether they are hugely elaborate, like some of the ones in Belgium, or much smaller affairs in tiny villages, they are the heart and soul of any town. They are a place where people meet and chew the fat, usually over a coffee, beer or aperitif.
They are usually bustling, as people cross through them from one side to the other, on their way to another location. It’s a place where visitors like us sit and watch the world go by.
Here in Narbonne, the city square is bordered by some impressive buildings. The Hotel de Ville, once part of the Archbishops’ Palace, is kept in check by the two towers on either side.
Visit the Narbonne Cathedral
[Note the information towards the end of this article about the Pass Monumental which applies to many of these Narbonne attractions]
It seems like all roads lead to this cathedral. Towering above the city, it’s the perfect landmark that will ensure you never get lost here. Known formally as the Cathedral of Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, this impressive Gothic building was commenced in the 12th century. As was usually the case with such buildings, it represented political power and offered protection for those within the walls.
It was, however, never completed. It was positioned alongside the city walls (ramparts) when it was built. Continuing to build the cathedral would have meant that the ramparts would have needed to be demolished. This was not approved by the city, which determined that the walls were still a necessary part of the city’s defence. Thus, it was left as is, and this is how it remains today.
The inside of the finished church is impressive, with a 42-metre-high vault. Once completely covered internally with paintings, most have now suffered at the hands of time and previous generations and have been removed.
Every church or cathedral I have been to has wonderful stained glass, but the displays in this cathedral were some of the best I’ve seen.
Relax in the Archbishops’ Palace Gardens
Adjacent to the cathedral is the palace that was built in the 12th century for the protection and comfort of the Archbishops. Its style is more Roman than the Gothic cathedral and boasts three large towers, used of course as a defence. Today, the towers are used to house museum and art gallery exhibits. The garden, perfectly manicured as only the French would have it, is a great place to relax after a day of sightseeing.
Admire the art and architecture in Palais Neuf
Built between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Palais Neuf is now a stunning art museum. Paintings, crockery, furniture, incredible painted ceilings, dining rooms, and plasterwork it is mind-blowingly beautiful and a must-visit when you are in Narbonne.
Get a view from Donjon Gilles Aycelin
Whenever we can get up high in a new city, it’s one of the first things we will do. It gives such a different perspective and allows you to get your bearings. This is especially for someone spatially challenged like me. Located right in the centre of Narbonne, within the Palais Neuf, the square tower looks out over the city. On a good day, the views are exceptional.
Built in the late 1200s and completed in 1306, the tower is 42 metres above the ground. One hundred and sixty-two steps will get you to the top where you’ll find four rooms to explore.
Watch some medieval jousting
Sit inside the inner palace and watch the fierce battles take place. To find out when these events are on, touch base with the local Narbonne Tourism Office. It’s located just opposite the palace.
Wander the cobblestone streets
As you can imagine, with a city as old as Narbonne, plenty of old cobblestoned streets and buildings are bound to exist. In the inner parts, near the cathedral, the streets are quite like a maze, so you can feel as though you might never get out in some parts. Never fear, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible to get lost here. There are plenty of great shops in the Old Town and many cafes to relax in.
The layers of time can be seen in buildings such as these, where the original rocks and stones have been covered up with mortar, only now to resurface again. When you see this, it once again reminds me of how well these buildings have been built, in an era long before the technological advancements of modern-day construction.
Go underground into L’Horreum (old Roman warehouse)
If I thought Narbonne was old, it was validated when we visited the L’Horreum, a series of underground tunnels and caves built right underneath the Old Town. Dating back to the 1st century BC, they are believed to have been connected to a former warehouse above. Located off Rue Rouget de L’Isle, it is open to the public every day except Tuesday.
All museums can be accessed individually or via the Narbonne Pass. They are also free on the first Sunday of each month.
During September each year (check with the tourist office for dates), there is a weekend called European Heritage Days, where not only are the museums and galleries free, but access is provided to many historical buildings not open all year round.
Learn about the Roman history of Narbonne
A long time ago, Narbonne was a city of great strategic importance to the Romans. Evidence of this can be seen in the Town Square, where a part of the old Roman road has been exposed to allow visitors a peek into the past. Via Domitia is part of a road network running from Rome right through the south of France and into Spain.
When you’re here, take a break and pull up a chair alongside this ancient road located in the town square. As you sip on an early morning coffee, cast your mind back to those days when Roman soldiers trod on this path and merchants walked along the rocky road selling their wares.
Find the Les Quatres Fontaine
Across the canal from the Old Town is the Les Quatres Fontaine, a fountain with four spouts dating back to the Renaissance. They were installed between 1588 and 1593.
Visit the Les Halles market
Les Halles Narbonne is of the best covered markets in France. It is open every day of the year from 7 am to 2 pm. The original market opened its doors at this location in 1901. The building was renovated in the late 1990s. The images on the building represent the men and women involved in the Winegrowers Revolt of 1907.
We’ve now been to Narbonne several times, and we spend hours here at this market each time. On a Sunday morning, if you go early enough, you can wander around for a short time without too many people, but from about 9.30 am, the market gets extremely busy.
Still, it’s a great time to visit one of the many boulangerie or patisserie vendors to buy some morning goodies or even some cheese and charcuterie. Do what the French do by enjoying a cheeky glass of rose before noon.
Each Sunday, the area in front of Les Halles (Barques Promenade) comes alive with a market selling everything from jeans to shoes, teatowels, leather belts and food. It’s a great vibe down by the canal.
Visit Notre Dame de Lamourguier
A much less grand church than the Narbonne Cathedral, the Note Dame de Lamourguier no longer operates as a place of prayer. Largely destroyed in the 19th century, it has been used as military barracks and an archaeological museum and place of storage. It is located behind the Les Halles.
Explore the beautiful city buildings
Whilst not much remains of Narbonne’s Roman past, there are still many exquisite buildings. With so many beautiful buildings on display, it’s hard to have a favourite, but I knew the instant I saw this grand building that it would be hard to beat.
The “Ladies of France” building, located right in the Town Square, was once a department store. In the mid-eighties, another Parisian favourite of mine, Galleries Lafayette bought the company.
Stroll along the Canal de la Robine
The Canal de la Robine is connected to the more famous Canal du Midi and eventually makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean. While the large canal barges cannot use this canal, smaller electric boats are often used to meander up and down the canal.
In Narbonne, the canal makes for a beautiful spot to walk, eat, or drink at one of the many places along the tree-lined left bank of Les Barques Promenade.
It’s the perfect place to hang out on a summer evening. With a long twilight in summer, the musicians come out to serenade as you are having a drink (and to relieve you of a euro or two).
On Thursday and Sunday mornings, the side streets off the promenade are used for markets. On Sundays, the right bank of Cours Mirabeau also becomes a veritable feast of antiques, kitchen goods, clothing and other flea market type stalls.
Many houses and apartments are built right on the canal. Walk over the many bridges that will be awash with flower pots in the summertime. Check out the Pont des Marchands, an old bridge that joins the old Roman city with the medieval town. It remains one of the few inhabited bridges in Europe, with houses built on it.
Visit Narbo Via Museum
In 2020, the Narbo Via Museum opened, celebrating the Roman history of the city of Narbonne. Prior to the opening of this museum, Roman history was displayed in three museums and several other areas of significance. With the Narbo Via Museum, everything is exhibited together under one roof. As well as incredible displays and exhibitions, the Narbo Via Museum has workspaces and restoration workshops, showcasing all there is about Narbonne’s ancient archaeology.
Online reservations may be made for the museum.
It is located on the city’s outskirts, near the sports stadium and along the Canal de la Robine. Car parking is available near the museum.
For opening times and ticket prices visit the Narbo Via Museum website.
Location: 50, avenue de Gruissan, newly 2, avenue André Mècle
See a show at the theatre and cinema
From foreign films, live shows and contemporary theatre, if you are a cultural traveller, you’ll find something to take your fancy at the theatre. The theatre is located close to Narbo Via Museum, so combining the two locations for one visit makes sense.
Location: 2 avenue Maître Hubert Mouly
Where to eat
The left and right banks of the Canal de la Robine have the most options in one area. While most offer French cuisine, there is a strong tapas theme in many cafes and bars. Depending on your budget, there is also a good choice of casual, lower-cost places to eat and some mid-range locations.
In the Old Town, wandering the back streets will produce many small restaurants and cafes.
Eating at the Les Halles market should also be considered, especially for lunch and a later afternoon bite to eat. There is plenty to choose from, you can always get a drink as well, and it’s a much more casual environment.
Immediately outside the Hotel de Ville, in the Town Square, Ave Domitius serves up enormous pizzas, with some unusual toppings (but every single pizza has olives!), in a casual outdoor environment. While some seating is indoors, sitting outside with a view over the Town Square is a must.
Cafe Le Centaurée, a great spot for people-watching on the Cours Mirabeau has a great cocktail list, cold beer on tap and tapas which are great for a quick bite to eat.
For a quick French breakfast of croissant and coffee head to Brasserie Co on the right bank, opposite Les Halles Market. Maison Maury, right near the Town Square is also a local favourite.
Looking more formal but with a menu that caters to the mid-range budget, l’estagnol, also on the Cours Mirabeau is a wonderful spot for lunch.
Where to stay
Narbonne does not attract a large number of tourists, so there are no major hotel chains or luxury accommodations. The best hotel is the three-star Hôtel La Résidence. We have stayed at all of the hotels below during our time in the city. All provided the right location at the right time, depending on what we were doing, and the time that we arrived.
Hotel La Residence
It is perfectly located between the cathedral and the Canal de la Robine in the city’s centre. Unless you have a car, staying in the city would be your best option. Alternatively, it is about a one-kilometre walk (ten minutes) from Gare de Narbonne train station.
- walking distance of the main attractions of Narbonne
- 19th-century building
- close to restaurants and bars
- managed by two generations of the same family
- 24-hour reception.
Zenitude Hotel Residences Narbonne
Zenitude Hotel Residences is centrally located and offers self-contained apartment accommodation. We have stayed here and it offers good value for money.
- approximately 600 metres from the Gare de Narbonne and close to the main restaurant areas of Barques Promenade
- self-contained apartment with small kitchen: dining table, fridge, microwave, sink
- storage room for luggage
- secure entry to the building
- easy after-hours access
Ile de Gua Suites
- ten-minute walk to the city
- private terrace views of Canal de la Robine
- kitchenette with stove, toaster, microwave and fridge
- buffet breakfast
- on-site restaurant
Located across the road from Gare de Narbonne, this hotel is surprisingly good, despite its proximity to the train station. We chose to stay here on our last trip to Narbonne, as we arrived in late at night (after a 50-hour transit from Australia) and we just wanted to get straight to sleep.
- good sized rooms for France
- separate bathroom
- free wifi
- luggage storage
- five-minute walk into the city centre
- after-hours check-in
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Narbonne is during the summer when many festivals occur. Note that the summers can be quite hot because this is a Mediterranean location. With its close proximity to the beach, staying here in summer lets you see Narbonne and its surroundings in good weather.
A strong wind also blows in from the Atlantic, often in winter and spring. On days when the winds blow, it can be freezing. Always take a jacket with you when visiting the area.
Day trips from Narbonne
Narbonne is perfectly placed for day trips and makes a good base if you want to explore more of the surrounding areas. Narbonne is only 30 minutes from the beaches that line the Mediterranean.
It’s an area that the French have kept a secret. Fishing villages, holiday houses, a touch of Spanish influence as you nudge closer to the border, and a summer playground without hordes of people. I can see why.
Beach day trips from Narbonne
In the middle of the Narbonnaise Regional National Park lies the ancient city of Gruissan. Its location between the sea and lagoons means it has several marinas. Here you will also find sandy beaches and a resort.
Gruissan has been a favourite destination for the summer holidays for centuries. In the early 1920s, stilt houses were built here. Whilst they have been rebuilt and form part of the local resort, they still represent the stilt houses of a bygone era.
Must-do: Attend the Les Festejades Festival
Gruissan is one of the Tour de France locations for 2024.
La Franqui is a great place to visit although I’d highly recommend driving a car here as it is a bit out of the way. We caught a train from Gare de Narbonne to Gare de Leucate, thinking there were shuttle buses to take us to the beach. This wasn’t the case, so we had to walk about 4.5 km. After taking several wrong turns, we arrived about an hour later.
This is a relaxed beach area that runs into a dead end. Low rise accommodation, many taking on the look of Spanish haciendas line the hill and backstreets. The ocean is blue, the sand is golden.
Bars and restaurants occupy a large portion of waterfront land. We recommend taking a seat with a view and ordering a Spanish beer and charcuterie plate.
The yards of the houses are covered in sand, bikes lean up against trees, abandoned for a few hours whilst the owner takes a tip in the water. There’s no traffic here, vehicular or people. It’s a cruisy lifestyle in a world that feels like it belongs to another era.
Further along, is Leucate, a place from which you can see Spain on a clear day. It’s another perfect location for a day trip from Narbonne or a week-long summer odyssey. This is also the best location along the coast for adventure sports involving the wind, which blows most of the year-round.
Kitesurfing and windsurfing lessons can be had here adding to the summer fun. Hiking and nature walks are also common in the Cap Leucate area.
City day trips from Narbonne
Other areas close enough to do a day trip to Narbonne.
- Palais des Rois de Majorque
- Perpignan Cathedral
- Perpignan Castillet
- Hotel de Ville
Distance – 65 km from Narbonne – approximately 50 minutes
- Old port
- Water jousting (August)
- Théâtre de la mer
Distance – 82 km from Narbonne – approximately 60 minutes
- Béziers Cathedral
- City centre – Allées Paul-Riquet Promenade
- Pont Vieux
- Jardin des Evêques
- Fonserannes Locks
Distance – 28 km from Narbonne – approximately 34 minutes
- Old city
- Château Comtal and Ramparts
- Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus
- Carcassonne Cathedral
Distance – 60 km from Narbonne – approximately 51 minutes
Our tip: Carcassonne gets extremely busy in summertime. We recommend buying advance tickets online for the castle and ramparts to beat the queues.
Buy the Pass Monumental
If you are planning on doing a lot in Narbonne, we also recommend the Pass Monumental. This pass gives access to all the main historical sites and must-see attractions in Narbonne. It is priced at 10 Euro (or €6 concession) and is valid for one year. It can be bought at any of the museums or at the Archbishop’s Palace boutique.
Narbonne attractions included in the pass:
- Palais Vieux
- New Palace
- Narbonne Cathedral
- Donjon Gilles-Aycelin
- Cathedral Treasury
- Horreum Romain
- St-Paul Basilica
- Lapidary Museum
- Charles Trent’s birth house
How to get around
If you plan to spend most of your time in Narbonne then getting around is easy. Narbonne is small, with a compact city centre containing most attractions. Walking around is simple enough, with no significant hills. Many streets are cobbled in the inner centre and you can still rack up a few kilometres walking around. Be sure to wear flat, comfortable shoes.
A free shuttle also goes past most of the major sites like Les Halles, Hotel de Ville, theatre, Quai Victor Hugo, the Narbonne Cathedral and the Four Fountains. It is called La Citadine. you can park for free at the theatre and catch the bus from there.
Local buses also operate in and around Narbonne and down to the beaches on the southern coast.
Bicycles can also be hired from several locations in the city and there are many bike paths around Narbonne, making cycling both fun and easy.
How to get to Narbonne
Narbonne is serviced by Beziers International Airport, approximately 30 minutes from the city. Montpellier, also with its own airport, is France’s closest large city. Budget airlines also fly into Carcassonne about 40 minutes away.
From Beziers Airport you can take the bus to Narbonne. The #210 bus takes under two hours and stops at the Gare de Narbonne rail station. Taxis also operate but are expensive. Alternatively, you could hire a car from Beziers airport. We use and recommend Discover Rental Cars when hiring cars in Europe.
Narbonne has a centrally-located train station, allowing easy travel from all over Europe. It is also serviced by the SNCF regional trains and the TGV fast train, meaning connecting to major French cities like Paris and Bordeaux is possible.
We have travelled by train to Narbonne via Barcelona, Spain and Paris, via Lyon.
A train from Barcelona to Narbonne took two hours. All of the major car hire companies also operate from Narbonne. An express TGV from Narbonne to Paris takes 4.5 hours direct. We caught a train that stopped at all stations until Montpellier and then went directly to Paris. The total transit time for this was approximately five hours.
Just be mindful when booking train fares, especially ones with connections, that trains can arrive and depart from different train stations in the one city. For example, there are two train stations in Montpelier and in Lyon that have services to Narbonne. If you are booking a ‘through-ticket’ from one destination to another, the transfer times can be very short, so it’s imperative to know what station the trains arrive and depart from.
Platforms for departure for trains in France are also only announced 15-20 minutes before they leave, so it is impossible to know the platform when booking your ticket. While some train stations are small enough to move quickly from one platform to another, others are not so. If you are carrying a lot of luggage, this makes it more of a logistical concern.
Sometimes it is easier to split the tickets to make for a more comfortable journey. For example, we could have booked an entire train journey from Paris Charles de Gaulle, via Lyon, to Narbonne. The transfer time for this was only 15 minutes, so we elected to book one ticket to Lyon, and then a second ticket from Lyon to Narbonne, giving us a longer transfer time.
If we had booked the same through ticket via Montpelier, we would have had to change train stations (1.5 km apart).
We use and recommend Omio for train tickets in Europe.
Blablabus operates a bus service from Toulouse to Narbonne on a daily basis. It takes just under two hours. However, the arrival location in Narbonne is not in the city and would require a taxi from Narbonne Croix Sud to get into the centre.
Driving into Narbonne is easy and there are places to park the vehicle (out of the city) in streets and public carparks. There is a public carpark underneath the Canal de la Robine and Quai Victor Hugo carpark is on the main road into Narbonne. Car parks can be found here.
Quai Victor Hugo allows motorhomes to be parked there and there is dedicated parking for motorhomes at Parkplatz Narbonne Camping Car [1000 Av. de la Mer]
Narbonne is serviced by the A9 toll road and a number of other main arterial roads. Narbonne is at the intersection of the A9 (Orange – Perthus, Spain) and A61 (Toulouse). The exits are: Narbonne Sud (South ) #38 and Narbonne Est (East) #37.
There are several car hire locations either at Gare de Narbonne or in the streets immediately around the train station.
Our tip: Note that if you are driving to Toulouse it is a permanent low-emission zone, so your vehicle will need a crit air sticker within the relevant boundaries. For more information on crit air stickers read out comprehensive guide – Do I need a crit air sticker in France?
Examples of driving distances from major cities:
- Nice to Narbonne – 413 km
- Montpellier – 95 km
- Paris – 787 km
- Toulouse 151 km
- Bordeaux 400 km
With the Canal du Midi close by, many people start or end their barge cruise in France with a visit to Narbonne, just like we did. We have now been on two luxury barge cruises in this area on the Savannah and the Enchante.
Read about our barge cruises on the Canal du Midi here >> Barge holidays in France
The map below gives a high-level snapshot of the location to Beziers (airport), Montpellier (airport and train) and the southern beach areas on the Mediterranean Sea.
If visiting Narbonne is part of a broader French itinerary, you may like to consider these travel guides for Narbonne and the surrounding areas.
Looking for more information on Narbonne? The Narbonne Tourist Information Centre can be found in the centre of the city, along the Canal de la Robine at 31 rue Jean Jaurès. Alternatively, click here to go to the Narbonne Tourism website.
More reading on locations nearby
If you are looking for more French inspiration why not check out some of our other articles on areas that aren’t that far from Narbonne.
More French reading to help you plan
Travelling further afield in France? you might also like to read these articles as well.