First founded in antiquity as a Roman port city, silt and sand have since built up in the region to the extent that Narbonne now lies some 15 km North of the sea. Filled with terracotta style rooftops, plenty of coffee shops, and all the charm you’d expect of a Southern French town, here’s a quick guide to the best things to do in Narbonne!
A quick history of Narbonne
Located in the Languedoc region of France, an area often overlooked in favour of its much more popular neighbour of Provence, Narbonne was first founded some two millennia ago. First named ‘Colonia Narbo Martius‘ and known colloquially simply as ‘Narbo‘, the city was established in 118 AD in what was then Gaul. Once upon a time, each Roman port city would trade in something specific; whether it be wine or grain. Today little of the original Roman city remains.
Instead, should you visit this part of the Languedoc you can expect to find plenty of the warm stone buildings which are synonymous with the region, as well as several ancient churches. Further afield, the nearby countryside is filled with plenty of French vines. After all, as I discovered during my solo trip to the South of France, each year the region of Languedoc-Roussillon produces more wine than Bordeaux, South Africa, and Chile combined!
The Best Things to do in Narbonne
If you’re in the mood to soak up some history, sun, and sample some local cuisine, then Narbonne is the city for you. The French settlement of 50,000 inhabitants has plenty of museums, shops, and food stores to explore. As such, the place can be visited as a day trip from Beziers, or even Montpellier if you don’t mind travelling a little further afield. Trains between Beziers, Montpellier, and Narbonne run on a regular basis.
If you have a little more time to see the city, then there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from when it comes to Narbonne. After all, stay longer and you can take day trips to the nearby iconic abbey of Fontfroide, as well as to the stunning beach which is quickly becoming known as the ‘Secret French Riviera.’
Climb the Donjon Gilles Aycelin
For the best view of Narbonne, you simply must climb the Donjon Gilles Aycelin, a square-shaped tower in the very heart of the city. First constructed during the Middle Ages, today little in the tower has changed since it was first built all those centuries ago under the watchful eye of former archbishop, Gilles Aycelin in the 13th-century.
Near the top of the narrow spiralling stairs, there’s even the chance to see a watchtower room from days gone by where the city was at risk of regular attack. From the very top of the Donjon, there are breathtaking views onto the city below, the vineyards beyond, and the mountaintops of the Pyrenees in the distance.
Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur Narbonne Cathedral
One of the very best things to do in Narbonne is to visit the city’s impressive cathedral. Or rather, the part of the cathedral which was actually built! After all, wander into one of the highest Gothic naves in Southern France today and you can expect to find just a quarter of a cathedral. The original plans for the cathedral were much more extensive.
However, time and financial constraints, as well as an unwillingness to destroy the medieval city walls (which no longer exist) were all contributing factors. Now, the cathedral is free to visit, though you’ll have to pay a few euros in order to enter the Cathedral’s treasury which contains several treasures including medieval manuscripts and plenty of reliquary boxes.
All that is left of Narbonne’s antiquity past today is a small slice of the Roman Via Domitia (the most important road in Southern France- then Gaul- during the Roman Empire) in the city’s main town square, as well as the underground vaults of the Roman Horreum. The former grain storage stretches out for an extensive distance under the city and is now an interesting museum exploring the city’s seafaring past.
Les Halles de Narbonne (Covered Food Market)
One of the top food markets in the region, and indeed in France, can be found in the form of Les Halles, a covered marketplace alongside the Canal de la Robine. The place contains over 70 stalls and is home to countless local produce. Open until the early afternoon most days of the week, inside there’s plenty of food to be purchased.
Everything from wine produced within the region to freshly caught fish in the nearby Mediterranean can be found within the old building. If you’re looking for a particularly authentic dining experience, then it’s well worth considering stopping at one of the four restaurant’s located within the four walls for lunch.
Bishop’s Palace (Archaeological Museum & Art History)
Now a museum housing countless artworks and precious paintings, the beautiful façade of the Bishop’s Palace can be found in the main town square. If you’re interested in learning more about prehistory in the Languedoc-Roussillon region (which is now part of the wider administrative area of Occitanie), then you simply must head to the city’s archaeological museum. Nearby, the Art History Museum is filled with plenty of pretty artwork.
Canal de la Robine & Pont des Marchands (The Merchant’s Bridge)
One of the most picture perfect views of Narbonne (seriously, it looks like a snap straight off a postcard) is on one of the the bridges filled with oodles of flowers along the Canal de la Robine, an offshoot of the Canal du Midi. From there, glance over the glistening waters and you can expect to see the Pont des Marchands, a beautiful bridge covered in over-the-water houses.
Notre-Dame-de-Lamourguier & Musée
To the other side of the waterway from the cathedral and the main body of shops, the former church of Notre Dame de Lamourgier is now home to some two thousand Roman building blocks. Situated amongst a maze of narrow side streets and shuttered windows, the ecclesiastical building was first reconstructed in the 13th-century and has since been transformed into a lapidary museum.
Maison Natale Charles Trenet
For those unfamiliar with French music, Charles Trenet was a French singer who was born in Narbonne in 1913. From there, he went on to have a hugely successful career from the 1930s and right up until the 1990s. His most famous song is ‘La Mer’ and should you listen to it (the song can be found on Spotify and YouTube), you’ll surely recognise it from many a French movie!
If you have access to a car, then the best day trip from Narbonne is easy to reach within just half an hour of the city. Fontfroide Abbey is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees and is a former Cistercian place of worship. Today, wine is produced here, and there is a retaurant making homemade food.
Where to Stay in Narbonne
When it comes to accommodation, Narbonne is reasonably priced and dining out can be done for not too much money. As Narbonne is a little off the beaten path and not so much of a tourist destination as other Languedoc cities like Carcassonne or Montpellier, there are no major hotels to be found here. Instead, there are a plethora of two and three-star hotels, all of which are priced for under €100.
Hotel de France: I personally stayed in the Hôtel de France while in Narbonne and highly recommend it. While the decor was a little dated, the owner was incredibly friendly and offered me plenty of tips on the best places to eat in Narbonne, where to go, as well as a town map. My room was friendly, spacious, and while the WiFi was a little temperamental, the space offered a great view onto the rooftops of the town and the mountains beyond.
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