In France, the outdoor market is not just a place where you can buy things. The French generally fancy themselves to be gourmands, and we tend to think of the marché as the place to buy items of quality, produced nearby that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere.
Along with wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables, they can feature everything from cheeses, wines, flowers, antiques, souvenirs, and all sorts of other bits and bobs. And beyond that, the best markets in France also serve as a community hub, a place to meet, and of course, a tourist attraction.
All the more reason to head to one, wouldn’t you say? The one thing to remember however, is that “the customer is not king” in France (they did chop off their heads after all). There are certain rules and etiquette to follow at a French market, if you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a particular market vendor.
But it doesn’t have to be intimidating though, even if you don’t speak French. Armed with a few handy do’s and don’ts, you too can head to the marché with confidence. So allons-y!
1. Always greet with a bonjour.
You may have heard that in France, it is very important to start any conversation with a bonjour. When it comes to conversational taboos, there can be no greater sin.
And even if your French is terrible, it is important to at least pretend by saying bonjour, that you are making an effort. And you can even take it a step further for better results:
The person may say no, but once you get past 2 words, their long forgotten English language skill from high school will arise to the surface and save you both from plodding along in French.
One of the main things about a marché in France is that it is usually run by the maraîcher (producer), not natural salespeople. Their expertise is producing, not selling and customer service so they may not speak English as well as you may expect. Nevertheless, they are usually happy to sell to tourists, so don’t let that intimidate you.
2. Go to the market early for the best selection.
The markets in France usually open early, around 7-8am. So if you are looking for the top selection and bargains, if is best to head early. I once made the mistake of walking around the full market before making my selection, but by the time I made my way back, the items I wanted had already been sold.
3. Head to the market late for the best prices.
On the other hand, if you are looking for bargain prices, it is best to head towards the end of the market around 11:30am – 1pm. At this point, the vendors are not keen to pack up their items and take them back, so you may get better prices for the items you are looking at.
4. Don’t touch anything.
In general, the rule is look, don’t touch. And this is especially the case for fruits and vegetables. Most food producers don’t like their produce touched and prodded, so if you are looking for a kilo of apples, it is best to tell the maraîcher, who will bag the item for you.
Even if it is not a food item, it is still best to ask if you may touch. That antique vase may be more precious than you realise.
4. Tell the shopkeeper what you are looking for.
If you are looking for fresh tomatoes to use in a tomate à la provençale recipe in 3 days, you should tell the shopkeeper that. They will be able to pick the tomatoes that will ripen perfectly in 3 days time for your meal.
Similarly, if you like a savon de marseille (soap) in a lavender scent but cannot spot it on the shopkeeper’s stall, do ask as they may have it in a storage box out of sight.
6. Bring your own bags.
Usually the market stalls in France will not not offer free plastic bags, as they have been banned for ecological reasons. Bring your own tote bag or a wicker basket to fit right in with the locals, and carry your new purchases home.
7. Bring cash and change.
If you are at a French food market, you may need to pay cash as the vendor may not necessarily take credit cards. Bring small bills and plenty of change so that you can quickly pay for the items you are hoping for.
8. Don’t try to negotiate.
Unless you are buying antiques or at a flea market (Marché aux Puces), you will find that there is not much in terms of negotiating. In many countries, culture dictates that there is a bit of haggling at markets, but this is not really the case in France. The price stated is the generally the price you pay.
9. Be prepared for a crowd.
Certain markets like the food market at Marché Bastille or the antique market in the provençale town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue can get very crowded, especially in the summer months.
From the locals habitués to visiting tourists, standing room is often elbow to elbow. Be prepared if you have small children or pets with you.
10. Patience is key.
Even if the market is not crowded, you will notice that many of the locals will strike up conversations with the vendor and be discussing all sorts of things. These are often long-standing relationships that date back years if not decades, so go in with a bit of patience. Wait till the conversation is finished before launching your own requests.
11. Look for produce that is in season.
One of the best things of going to a French farmer’s market is buying things that are in season, and as fresh as possible.
Here is a quick chart to show when particular fruits and vegetables are in season:
|Time of the year||Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables|
|Summer||cucumber, artichoke, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, watermelon, figs, raspberries|
|Fall||beetroot, aubergine (eggplant), yams, zucchinis, grapes, peaches, blueberries|
|Winter||cauliflower, celery, brussel sprouts, green beans, oranges, lemons, kiwi|
|Spring||leeks, spinach, snap peas, carrots, grapefruits, strawberries|
Other fruits and vegetables like carrots, onions, garlic, bananas, apples, and tomatoes are staples all year around.
12. Expect to pay more.
Now, you might think that you will pay less at an outdoor French marché, but this is not always the case. These producers produce in small quantities and to remain profitable, they sometimes actually have higher prices than the mass-produced stuff that you can find in a shop.
In a marché, on the other hand, you are paying for the benefit of knowing that your item was produced nearby, which in French is called the concept of the terroir.
Outdoor markets in Paris
Now with all that said, if you are visiting Paris, you will want to visit a few markets to get the feel of what a marché is really like. There are several famous outdoor markets, but my favorites that I would recommend are:
- Marché Bastille – food and vegetable market in the 11th arrondissement on the Right bank next to Place de la Bastille,
- Les Puces de Saint-Ouen – flea market in the north of Paris,
- Marché des Enfants Rouges – oldest food market in Paris in the 3rd arrondissement,
- Marché aux Fleurs et aux Oiseaux – flower market on Ile de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement,
- Marché Rue Mouffetard – food and vegetable market in the 5th arrondissement on the Left bank.
Other famous Marchés around France
If you are traveling around France, you should know that every town or village will have their own outdoor market, at least once or twice a week.
However, there are certain markets around France that are more famous than others, that will have local French and foreign tourists flocking to the area:
- Fish and seafood market on the Vieux Port of Marseille,
- Marché aux fleurs (Flower market) in Nice,
- Antique market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue,
- Provençale markets in Aix-en-Provence,
- Christmas market in Strasbourg in December,
- Braderie (antique and flea) market in Lille in September.
So do you have your best “bonjour” at the ready to visit one of these outdoor marchés? If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read more about traveling around France. A bientôt!