Things to do in Narbonne France – The top 11 things you can do in 24 hours
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.
For those that are looking for something different, there are also many areas that are equally as beautiful, or historically important, but remain largely unnoticed by visitors to France. These are the kind of places that we deliberately seek out.
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.
I’d love to issue a challenge to visitors to the south of France. 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 eastward from the trendy French Riviera. I am quite sure you’ll be delighted by what you find.
Narbonne – an ancient city
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 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.
All of these things can definitely be done in 24 hours, but if you were able to stay at least two days, that would be better.
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
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. It’s 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
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 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. We were lucky enough to arrive (unknowingly) on this weekend, so had free reign of all of the major sites.
Learn about the history of the city through its unique features
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.
Across the canal from the Old Town is the Les Quatres Fontaine, a fountain with four spouts.
Shop or eat at 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 1990’s. 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.
Look up and take in the beautiful buildings
In a city like Narbonne, 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
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 really 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.
Where to eat
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.
After a solid week of three-course French meals on board 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.
L’Entre Temps Restaurant is one of those restaurants secretly hiding in the backstreets. Whilst it is not far from the Les Barques Promenade, it could be easily missed. Located in a small stone building, there’s only room for about 20 people inside. Our waiter was the only man on the floor when we visited, earning his wages for that day I’m quite sure. Despite being busy, his service was efficient and helpful. This restaurant serves up two and three-course prix fixé (fixed price) offerings of traditional French food.
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 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 main 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 from Gare de Narbonne train station.
Zenitude Hotel Residences Narbonne is also centrally located and offers self-contained apartment accommodation. Zentitude is approximately 600 metres from the Gare de Narbonne.
There are some excellent Airbnb apartments on offer. We stayed in an apartment overlooking the canal. It was incredibly spacious, with separate bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry. The living area was also large. This is quite unusual for a French apartment and certainly unheard of in Paris for €57 a night!
How to get here
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. Narbonne is also serviced by a train station, allowing easy train travel from all over Europe. We arrived in Narbonne via Barcelona. 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.