Covering seven hectares, 3,000 traders and up to 180,000 visitors each weekend, the Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen is generally thought to be the biggest flea market in the world. If this conjures up images of a sprawling field filled with broken bed frames, faded curtains and sofas with the stuffing coming out, you're in for a surprise (and are better off going to the Montreuil version). The fleas left long ago, and since 1885 what started as a rag-and-bone shantytown outside the city limits has been organised into a series of enclosed villages, some entirely covered and others with open-air streets and covered boutiques for the antiques dealers. South of this sprawls the canvas-covered part where joss sticks, fake Converse trainers and cheap batteries are perused by crowds of teenagers - best avoided unless you're after that kind of thing.
In recent years rents have shot up. The result is that much of the Puces is more like a museum than a flea market, and restaurants are swiftly replacing antiques dealers who can no longer make ends meet. But once you get under its skin, the Puces still offers an intoxicating blend of the sublime and the ridiculous. Repeat visits pay off and the more you banter with the sellers (preferably in French) the more bargains will reveal themselves, especially in the couple of streets that still sell unrestored objects.
The main street is rue des Rosiers, and off this runs Marché Malassis (toys, vintage cameras and furniture), Marché Dauphine (furniture, ceramics), Marché Biron (expensive lighting, furniture and objets) and Marché Vernaison (more varied, with fashion, a gilding shop, books, prints and kitchenware). The open-air Marché Paul Bert (one of the two markets owned by the Duke of Westminster) has some beautiful 19th- and 20th-century furniture, though you'll need to bargain hard. But if you are looking for genuine bargains and unrenovated things Marché Lecuyer is the place to head: as the home of house-clearance specialists, it's the closest thing you'll find to a reclamation yard and many of the traders have warehouses that they may open for you if you are searching for something in particular.
- Enter the market from Garibaldi métro rather than Porte de St-Ouen - a longer trek on line 13 but you avoid the crowds and new tat.
- Visit on a Monday morning, a cold, wet or snowy day, or in mid August - you're more likely to pick up a bargain.
- If you like the look of something, don't pick it up or touch it. This already shows the dealer that you want it. Be prepared to walk away if you really want that good deal.
- Bring cash with you (but keep an eye on your wallet). Some only take it, and for others it's a good bargaining tool. There is only one cashpoint and there is always a queue.