We came to Carcassonne from the north and the city of Mazamet so we crossed the Haut Languedoc regional park. In this picture that corresponds to the mountain range north of the city which actually had a fair bit of snow near the summits in May.
Almost as soon as you begin descending from the pass through the mountains, you can see the turrets of La Cite in the distance. La Cite is the older portion of Carcassonne and perches on a hill just outside the modern town. It's very distinctive, very noticeable from a distance and definitely eye-catching.
Beneath the reconstructed walls of the fortress-city is a dense maze of streets that have some smaller hotels and restaurants along them. The bigger tour-bus hotels are closer to the autoroute exits. La Cite is generally swarmed with tour buses during the day. The rest of Carcassonne is not as heavily visited.
The inner and outer walls of La Cite are intact. There are tours of the walls which mostly cover the higher, inner levels and some of the towers. This walkway between the walls is now mostly a sort of group staging ground leading in from the parking lots (and there are a lot of parking lots).
Besides the formidable outer walls and the more formidable inner walls, there is also an inner keep or chateau inside those layers. It has its own mini-moat (now dry) and its own ramparts just for good measure. At the time all these defenses were built, Carcassonne was on the border between kingdoms which is why so much security was necessary. Those kingdoms eventually became France and Spain but the border moved south to the Pyrenees so fortified Carcassonne became less important as a military outpost.
Now it is one of the biggest tourist draws in France. This is the central square at around 10:00 in the morning. It looks much the same two hours later except all of the tables are occupied. We probably have a few hundred pictures of La Cite at all times of the day. It's relatively uncrowded in the morning and evening and most of the souvenir stores disappear at night leaving just bars and restaurants open.
There is a city of Carcassonne outside of La Cite and it is well worth visiting. This is the Musee de Beaux-Artes on Place Gambetta, just across the river from La Cite. It's obviously closed at night but it's also much more colorful. Our hotel was just off this square. On Saturday mornings the otherwise vast open space in the middle becomes a lively clothes market. This is a bad time to try to navigate across it with all your rolling luggage on the way back to your car (which is parked underneath this square).
The engineering marvel that is the Canal du Midi passes directly through the center of Carcassonne. The canal was built to provide water access across southern France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. A large number of locks are involved and it's fascinating to watch them in action. The one directly in front of the Carcassonne train station seems to get a lot of use.
Long narrow canal boats are parked along both sides throughout the center of town. There are also pleasant walking/biking paths along the canal in both directions from Carcassonne.
We can't really end this without mentioning the food of the Carcassonne region which in general was fantastic. The region is known particularly for several variations on cassoulet. We tried it in a couple places and well, you just can't go wrong where duck fat is involved. La Cote du Maille in La Cite was our particular favorite restaurant in the city (and maybe all of Languedoc). While we had cassoulet here, it's really not all that photogenic so here is the unbelievably good venison stew plate instead.