Whether you're shopping for a picnic, counting the number of cheeses on sale or simply observing Parisians at play, head for one of the 80 street markets dotted across Paris. Here's where to find them
Wherever I go in France, one of the first things I do is visit the food market. It's essential for gleaning an insight into not just the local produce, but the local psyche – and for eavesdropping on the French fascination with food. Paris is described as a collection of villages, and its markets (see www.paris.fr for the full list) are great places to experience the different atmospheres and populations that make each quartier distinct, as Parisians – especially at weekends – stock up for Sunday lunch, bump into neighbours and catch up on gossip.
Most roving markets are set up for two or three mornings a week, from 7am to around 2pm. It's a sign of the times (and an acknowledgment of the long working day) that a few recently established markets take place in the afternoon and early evening. Another trend is the growing amount of organic (biologique in French) produce. As well as specialised markets on boulevard Raspail (Sun), boulevard de Batignolles (Sat) and place Brancusi (Sat), you will now find organic stalls at most city markets, along with those where you can buy direct from producers – surprising evidence of how many market gardens remain in the area around Paris. When shopping at markets, think seasonal: wild mushrooms in autumn, runny mont d'or cheese in winter, mounds of asparagus in spring.
Avenue du Président Wilson
(16th arrondissement, Wed and Sat mornings)
This is perhaps the smartest of all Parisian food markets, occupying the central alleyway between the 1930s Palais de Tokyo art space and the Palais Galliera fashion museum. The undisputed star here is market gardener Joël Thiébault (who you will also find at rue Gros on Tuesdays and Fridays), renowned for supplying many of the capital's top chefs with purple carrots, orange broccoli and hundreds of other rare and rediscovered varieties of vegetable, which he grows on the family farm just north-west of Paris.
(18th arrondissement, Wed and Sat)
Stretching beneath the overhead métro along boulevard de la Chapelle, Marché Barbès is like the seething, multicultural antithesis of Président Wilson. Crowded and noisy, it caters to the area's large North and West African populations, reflected in mounds of fiery peppers, fresh coriander, sweet potatoes, dates and barbary figs.
(rue d'Aligre, 12th arrondissement, Tue-Sun)
This is considered Paris's cheapest market. East of the Bastille, multicultural working-class Paris meets bobo as people cross town for the bargains to be had – especially towards the end of the market, when produce is sold off by the crateful. As well as fruit and veg, it's a good place to find fresh herbs.
(12th arrondissement, all day Tue-Sat and Sun morning)
Just alongside the Marché Aligre, you will find cheeses, Italian produce, meat, poultry and flowers in this more elegant, covered market. The adjoining square is home to Paris's junkiest fleamarket (the only one in the city centre) where, in contrast to the food market, prices seem exorbitant for tacky vases, crockery, second-hand books and clothes.
(5th arrondissement, Tue and Sat)
Over on the Left Bank, place Maubert has been the site of a market since the Middle Ages. Today, along with organic veg, you'll find homemade biscuits, foie gras and olive oil, as well as the excellent cheese shop of Laurent Dubois at the back of the square. It's mainly food on Saturday, with lots of clothes and accessories and an African art stall on Tuesday.
(5th arrondissement, Wed, Fri and Sun)
This is a great local market, with lots of stalls where you buy direct from producers (apples, pears and chicory from Picardy, honey and honey cakes, Patrick's organic lettuces and veg), as well as cheese, fresh fish, mountain hams and cheeses, or stalls selling hot roast chicken, choucroute and Lebanese snacks for an instant picnic.
Best of the rest
Other big markets include Boulevard de Ménilmontant (11th arrondissement, Tue and Fri) in front of Père Lachaise cemetery; Marché Bastille (boulevard Richard-Lenoir, 11th, Thur and Sun); chic avenue de Saxe (Tue, Sat) for upmarket food stalls, clothes and kitchenware in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower; boulevard Auguste Blanqui in the 13th arrondissement (Tue, Fri, Sat); boulevard de Grenelle (15th arrondissement, Wed, Sun); and avenue Daumesnil (12th arrondissement, Tue, Fri) – Paris's longest market, stretching for well over a kilometre.
As well as Beauvau, a few other covered markets remain. St-Quentin on boulevard Magenta is convenient for the Eurostar, while the small, picturesque Marché des Enfants Rouge, entered through iron gates on rue de Bretagne in the Marais, is Paris's oldest covered market (the name – red children – comes from a charity school that once stood here), dating back to the 17th century. Though you find good wines and organic produce here, its chief appeal is the hot food to take away – notably from a stall selling couscous, and the Estaminet bistro on one corner.
Though not strictly markets (on the official city hall list, at any rate) these semi-pedestrianised streets are packed with good food shops and stalls. Most market streets are open all day Tuesday to Saturday, and on Sunday mornings. Don't get caught out by the lunch trap, however: just when you are getting really ravenous, most places close at around 1pm for three or four hours... for their lunch.
Très chic rue Cler, not far from the Eiffel Tower, has lots of fruit and vegetable stalls, pavement cafés and the lovely Italian deli Davoli. At rue Montorgeuil, north of Les Halles, the historic pâtisserie Stohrer is said to have invented the rum baba and the puits d'amour, a sort of sweet vol-au-vent. In the Latin Quarter, lively, crowded medieval rue Mouffetard has particularly good cheese shops, including La Fromagerie, Faucher and Androuet, and added entertainment from gadget sellers, swing bands and on-the-street massages.
Rue Daguerre, south of Montparnasse, draws locals for the Daguerre Marée fishmonger, the Vacroux cheese shop and a glass at Le Rallye wine bar, while rue de Lévis (in the 17th) is an intriguing mix of the less well-off looking for cheap clothes and the haute-bourgeoisie who live around nearby Parc Monceau. In burgeoning south Pigalle, at rue des Martyrs, mouthwatering temptations include Auvergnat charcuterie, a Greek deli and, higher up the hill, star baker Arnaud Delmontel's award-winning baguettes and unusual cakes.
With more than 80 markets around the city, there is sure to be one near to where you are staying. Two hotels spring to mind for their foodie location. Hôtel des Archives – just round the corner from the Marché des Enfants Rouge and the food shops of rue de Bretagne – offers smart modern style behind a historic Marais façade; doubles from €150. The good-value Grand Hôtel Lévêque is plum in the middle of rue Cler market street. Several of its rooms have recently been refurbished; doubles from €99.