By Sarah Showfety
Paris is well known for its upscale magasins and luxe boutiques. But just outside the highway encircling the city rests a different kind of shopping adventure: The world’s largest flea market. A far cry from the chic stores of rue Vieille du Temple, Les Marches aux Puces de Saint-Ouen span nearly 17 acres and attract an estimated 200,000 visitors every week. Formed in 1885, when Parisian rag and bone men who sifted through discarded items at night were banished beyond the city walls, Les Puces have expanded into 15 individual markets.
“They’re like a city, an almost maze-like labyrinth of different ‘neighborhoods’ that each have their own character, cafés and style of antiques,” says Heather Stimmler-Hall, author of Adventure Guide Paris and secretsofparis.com. “Like the Louvre, you could come every weekend for a year and not see everything.”
Jennifer Ladonne, co-author of Paris Confidential, agrees. “While the Puces are great for a lot of reasons, two stand out: sheer variety and low overhead, which allow dealers to keep prices just expensive compared to outlandish in Paris. I’ve seen some amazing things there—for a price—from featherweight 100-year-old Baccarat goblets to a magnificent rare stuffed turtle.” Below, a roundup of this treasure trove of miscellany, arguably the best place in the world to find everything from old postcards and corsets, to antique mirrors and Louis XV chests of drawers.
The old soul of Saint-Ouen, it was here that the first organized market was born. Originally erected as a set of wooden shacks in 1920, it is known today as Saint-Ouen’s cheapest and most authentic market. A labyrinth of Virginia creeper-covered alleys, Vernaison remains true to its bric-a-brac roots. Its 300 professional merchants, who benefit from lower rents as a result of joint-owned plots, provide curious bargain hunters with jewels, antique toys, linens, paintings and country-style furniture at true flea market prices.
The Bergdorf’s of the fleas, this is the most posh and expensive market, attracting many professional decorators and dealers. Countering the “as is” mentality of its rival Vernaison, Biron’s upscale merchants take pride in offering only the best of the best. Its 200-plus stalls are filled with fully restored period furniture, gilt objects, Limoges porcelain, signed paintings and other exquisite objets d’art.
Set up in the former garage of France’s first Citroen dealer and linked by proximity and ownership to the neighboring Paul Bert market, the 130 stands of Serpette’s covered walkways are known for fashionable, expensive items of the highest quality, including art nouveau and 20th-century decorative pieces. Enthusiastic, youthful dealers chat happily about their latest discoveries, making this market a favorite among veritable antiques aficionados.
Marché Paul Bert
With objects from the traditional to the kitschy, this stylishly relaxed open-air market surrounds its trendy neighbor Serpette. Its 220 stands boast a giant selection of second-hand clothes, antique luggage, hardware, garden ornaments, art deco household items, Parisian bistro furniture, African art and Renaissance objects. Strolling among its seven aisles you’ll likely brush elbows with renowned decorators and antiques dealers on the lookout for rare treasures. You may even have a star sighting; Sharon Stone and Bill Gates have both been spied here.
Perched at the entrance of the Saint-Ouen flea market since 1989, the partly-covered lanes of Malassis contain objects spanning a range of time periods from baroque to neo-classical. Whether it’s Asian art and 17th-century ceramics or 1970s design furnishings and art deco buffets you're seeking, Malassis is home to a bevy of unique goods from the antique to contemporary.
Established in 1991, Dauphine is the most youthful and modern of the Saint-Ouen markets. A two-floored gem replete with glass-roof, escalators and a central square with its own palm-tree shaded fountain, Dauphine is comprised of 180 dealers over 6,000 square meters. Stylish boutiques bearing rare texts, musical instruments and 18th- and 19th-century pieces populate the ground floor while the upper level teems with traditional bric-a-brac merchants. Renowned for its diversity and concentration of expert-certified antiques, Dauphine is a bastion of authenticity and quality in a graceful setting.
In contrast to the comparatively rickety sprawl of its neighbor Vernaison, Antica is a classy miniature market. With only a dozen stands, it offers a beautifully refined selection of tapestries, decorative objects, Asian antiques, paintings, art deco and Napoleon III pieces in an elegant gallery atmosphere.
This 10-stall market, ironically located on rue Paul Bert (though many other markets are located on rue des Rosiers), specializes in 20th-century decorative pieces: from light fittings, art nouveau and glasswork to lacquerware, lithographs and furniture by Majorelle.
Marché Jules Vallès
One of the dustier, “junkier” markets, Jules Vallès retains the original thrift store spirit of Les Puces. Its two covered “no frills” aisles of 120 stands are filled with posters, antique weapons, military uniforms, records, religious art and a host of curios. Sarah Lahey, of Frommer’s Born to Shop guides, found the stall of her husband’s Native American antique arms collecting dreams in Jules Vallès. “Along with Plains Indian war clubs and knives, the dealer had bow, arrow, quiver sets and rifles — all authentic and priced lower than in the U.S.”
One of the newer markets, Lecuyer Vallès is similar to Jules Vallès in its reputation for proffering random odds-and-ends rather than serious antiques. It covers 1,000 square meters of floor space, and is filled with cheap knick knacks, ornaments and unusual objects.
Formerly a haven for second-hand threads, Malik has gradually added new, cheap clothes to its roster (plastic trousers anyone?). Attracting a young, diverse crowd, Malik is a great place to shop for incense, military surplus, imitation leather or a tacky Halloween costume. In the fray you just might stumble upon some fashionable round-toed boots from the ’70s.
Still a serious and genuine antique furniture purveyor, Cambo is less stuffy than its peer, Marché Biron. Twenty stands spread out over two floors, Cambo contains regional objects and furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, pottery, antique musical instruments, linens and art nouveau pieces.
Another fairly recent market, L’Entrepot (the warehouse) opened in 1990 and specializes in outsized items such as spiral staircases, castle gates, fountains and fireplaces.
Marché le Passage
This newly formed market linking the rue Jules Vallès and rue Lecuyer is populated by trinkets, chairs and contemporary objects some long-time traders complain are “too new.”
This 40-trader market is strictly for professionals and not open to the general public.
Take the Metro to the last stop on Line 4, Porte de Clignancourt, or Porte de St. Ouen on Line 13. Follow the throngs past the black market street items on your way to rue des Rosiers.
Official hours vary. Les Puces are open Saturday, Sunday and Monday, generally from 9:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m. However, while some stalls may still be closed, arriving earlier will allow some leisurely browsing before the hordes descend, and may ensure first dibs on a recent acquisition.
A Word on Safety
The northern edge of the 18th arrondissement is known as a “colorful” area. (Parisians will tell you to watch your bag). A rather dingy area known for pickpockets, it’s fine during the day and less savory at night.