For those that are looking for something different, there are also many areas that are equally as beautiful, or historically important as the places most people know about, but remain largely unnoticed by visitors to France.
One such place is the ancient city of Narbonne. Not only is it a wonderful city, but it is 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.
France is a country that is home to some of the most iconic destinations and landmarks in the world. Who could argue the global importance of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Palace of Versailles?
Equally, places like Paris and the French Riviera are household names, whether you’ve had the opportunity to visit them or not. They remain enviable destinations for those who have never travelled to Europe but have a yearning to do so.
I’d love to issue a challenge to visitors heading to the south of France to add Narbonne to your itinerary. Whether you are staying in a villa in southern France for an extended period of time, a hotel on the promenade in the Riviera, or just passing through for a few days be sure to look westward from the trendy French Riviera. I am quite sure you’ll be delighted by what you find.
Where is Narbonne?
We found Narbonne quite unexpectedly. If it weren’t for it being the starting location for our Canal du Midi barge cruise, it might have taken us longer to find it. I didn’t feel so bad though, with over 80% of visitors to Narbonne being French. It’s not a usual tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But it should be.
It’s historical, with buildings dating back 21 centuries. It’s pretty, with canals, tree-lined promenades and architecturally stunning buildings.
It’s easy-going. Without all the tourists, there’s no air of pretension, no airs and graces to be seen, just an easy-going 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.
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 south-west of France, approximately 100 kilometres from the Spanish border.
Quick Facts about Narbonne
- 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
In this article, we will show you some of the best things to do in Narbonne in 24 hours. If you have two days to spend here, that would be ideal.
80% of the visitors to Narbonne are French. Whilst many tourists from all over the world flock to Carcassonne only 40 minutes away from Narbonne, or to the French Riviera, this area remains a 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 as well as offering protection for those within the walls.
It was, however, never completed. When it was built, it was positioned alongside the city walls (ramparts). Continuing to build the cathedral would have meant that the ramparts would have needed to be demolished. This was not approved by the city, who 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 into 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, 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 it 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. 162 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 Tourist Office. It’s located just opposite the palace.
Wander the cobblestone streets
As you can imagine, with a city as old as Narbonne, there’s bound to be plenty of old cobblestoned streets and old buildings. 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’s plenty of great shops in the Old Town and lots of 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 once 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
If I thought Narbonne was old, it was validated when we visited theL’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. We were lucky enough to arrive (unknowingly) on this weekend, so had free reign of all of the major sites.
Learn about the Roman history of Narbonne
A long, 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. As you sip on an early morning cappuccino or a café au lait, cast your mind back to those days where Roman soldiers once tread 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
If you go to this market, be sure to go on a busy day as it makes all the difference in the world. 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. Personally, I can get lost in these markets for ages.
On each Sunday, the area in front of Les Halles 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. Located right on the Town Square, the “Ladies of France” building 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 also eventually makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst the large canal barges are unable to 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 or to eat or drink at one of the many places that exist along the tree-lined left bank of Les Barques Promenade. It’s the perfect place to hang out on a summer’s 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 actually built on the bridge.
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. During COVID, two hour time slots are allocated.
It is located on the outskirts of the city, near the sports stadium and along the Canal de la Robine. Carparking is available near the museum.
For opening times and ticket prices visit the Narbo Via Museum website.
Where to eat in Narbonne
The left and right banks of the Canal de la Robine have the most options all in one area. Whilst most offer French cuisine, there is a strong theme of tapas in many of the cafes and bars. Depending on your budget, there is also a good choice of casual, lower-cost places to eat and also 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 fro, you can always get a drink as well, and it’s a much more casual environment.
After a solid week of three-course French meals onboard the Savannah barge on the Canal du Midi, we were chasing something non-French. 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. Whilst there is some seating 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.
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 in Narbonne
Narbonne is not a destination that has a high number of tourists. As such, there is an absence of major hotel chains and luxury accommodation. The best hotel in Narbonne is the three-star Hôtel La Résidence.
It is perfectly located in the centre of the city between the cathedral and the Canal de la Robine. Unless you have a car, staying in the city would be your best option. Alternatively, it is about a one-kilometre walk (ten minutes0=) 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
For pricing, reviews and booking online go to Trip Advisor
Zenitude Hotel Residences is also centrally located and offers self-contained apartment accommodation.
- Approximately 600 metres from the Gare de Narbonne.
- Self-contained apartment with small kitchen: dining table, fridge, microwave, sink
- Storage room for luggage
- Secure entry to the building
For pricing, reviews and booking online go to Trip Advisor
Located a five-minute walk from the Gare de Narbonne, this is another mid-range hotel with good access to all the main things to do in Narbonne.
- Free wifi
- Luggage storage
- Free parking
- Close to Les Halles and Canal de la Robine
- One of the newest hotels in Narbonne
- Small boutique hotel spread over three floors
- Public terrace on level 3
- Not suitable for wheelchairs as there is no elevator
For pricing, reviews and booking online go to Trip Advisor.
Best time to visit Narbonne
The best time to visit Narbonne is during the summer when there are many festivals going on and the weather is tropical. With its close proximity to the beach, staying here in summer extends your opportunity to see Narbonne and its surrounds in good weather.
Day trips from Narbonne
Narbonne is perfectly placed for day trips and makes a good base if you are wanting 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 been keeping 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.
In the middle of the Narbonnaise Regional National Park lies the ancient city of Gruissan. Its location in between the sea and lagoons means that it has several marinas. Here you will also find sandy beaches and a resort. Gruissan has been a favourite destination for 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.
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 quite a few wrong turns, we got there 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 through the Cap Leucate area.
Buy the Pass Monumental
If you are planning on doing a lot in Narboone, 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 Narbonne
If you are planning to spend most of your time in Narbonne then getting around is easy. Narbonne is small, with a compact city centre that contains most of the attractions. Walking around is simple enough, with no significant hills. A lot of the 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.
There is a free shuttle that also goes past most of the major sites like Les Halles, Hotel de Ville, theatre, Victor Hugo, the Narbonne Cathedral and the Four Fountains. It is called La Citadine.
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.
Local buses also operate in and around Narbonne and down to the beaches on the southern coast.
How to get to Narbonne
Narbonne by Air
Narbonne is serviced by Beziers International Airport, approximately 30 minutes drive from the city. Montpellier, also with its own airport is the closest large city in France. Budget airlines also fly into Carcassonne about 40 minutes away.
From Beziers Airport you can take the bus into Narbonne. The #210 bus takes just 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 Rentalcars.com when hiring cars in Europe.
Narbonne by train
Narbonne is also serviced by a train station, allowing easy train travel from all over Europe. It is also serviced by the TGV fast train, meaning it is possible to connect to major French cities like Paris and Bordeaux. We arrived in Narbonne via Barcelona, Spain.
A train from Barcelona to Narbonne took 2 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. Total transit time for this was approximately five hours.
Narbonne by bus
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.
Narbonne by car
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 Victor Hugo carpark is on the main road into Narbonne. Car parks can be found here.
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.
Examples of driving distances from major cities:
Nice to Narbonne – 413 km
Montpellier – 95 km
Paris – 787 km
Toulouse 151 km
Bordeaux 400 km
Narbonne by Barge
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.
More reading >> Barge holidays in France
Narbonne France map
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.
Narbonne Travel Guides
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 near Narbonne
If you are looking for more French inspiration why not check out some of our other articles of areas that aren’t that far from Narbonne.
More French reading
Travelling further afield in France? you might also like to read these articles as well.