Havana has much to offer the adventurous traveller, even though many say a superlative shopping experience is not necessarily one of them. We beg to differ. You may not find a plethora of top-notch malls here, or an infinite array of trendy up-scale boutiques (there are some but they are extortionately expensive) yet we believe this is exactly what makes Havana a truly great shopping destination.
When you’re out and about in the streets of Havana, the lack of anything remotely resembling what you’d find at home is precisely the reason discerning souvenir collectors find Havana’s shopping scene enticing and unique. From impromptu street markets selling everything from old records and revolutionary paraphernalia, to the ubiquitous shops selling cigars, rum and tribal arts and crafts, Havana can offer a myriad of fun and cheap retail therapies.
Habana Vieja and Miramar are the spots of choice for most tourists, yet getting lost in the city’s outer suburbs and stumbling upon a market or small store can often gift some of the best shopping experiences in town.
Havana’s best markets
The San Jose Artisan Market in Old Havana is a treasure trove of local arty goodies which include the ever-present Che memorabilia, as well as colourfully decorated cigar boxes, hand-painted fans and gorgeous musical instruments. Over in Plaza de Armas is where you’ll find Havana’s beloved second-hand book market, a mecca for visiting and local writers and artists or even shrewd collectors, who often find some rather priceless texts and books among the myriad of stalls.
For fantastic fresh produce and a cultural experience to match, head to one of the city’s liveliest and largest food markets, the Cuatro Caminos Market south of Old Havana. In a country where almost every aspect of commercial activity is dictated and overlooked by the government, it is revitalising to discover a haven full of private farmers trying their hardest to sell their produce and make a few extra bucks.
Among loud shouts (pregones) of cheaper than free offers, sellers try to outdo each other in getting shoppers attention. The first thing which may strike you is that the extensive diversity of produce you’ll find here and indeed the market is home to certain types of fruit and veggies you won’t find anywhere else in Havana. Even more interesting is to discover that a small portion of animal and vegetable produce is bought for the ritual religious sacrifices Cuba still holds dear.
Havana’s most popular souvenirs
Start planning a trip to Cuba and you’ll soon start taking orders from friends for world class Habanos, one of Cuba’s most renowned, respected and expensive export. Taking home a stash of puros, as cigars are known in Cuba, is almost a given for visitors. You’ll certainly find a wide array of great shops selling cigars, along with rum and coffee (Cuba’s other famous exports) spread out all over the city, but if you head to the most respected stores: Casa del Tabaco (Calle Oficios) and La Casa del Habano (Calle Industria), you’ll know you’re buying quality cigars at market prices.
What you’ll also undoubtedly come across is anything and everything with Che Guevara pictures on them. From ashtrays to towels, T-shirts, baseball caps, badges, patches and aprons, the Che souvenir is as iconic to Cuba as cigars and rum.
Havana’s best local mall
Plaza Carlos Tercero (Salvador Allende) is one of the city’s most popular malls and, being home to lots and lots (and lots) of cheap stores selling clothing, electronics and food, it’s usually jam packed with locals hunting hard for a bargain. The main drawcard for tourists here is the people watching experience. Mingle with locals as you munch on some cheap and cheerful fast food or head here if you’ve mysteriously run out of plain underwear.
Havana’s best touristy mall
La Puntilla (Miramar) is not aimed at the tourist market specifically; it’s just that the inflated prices of (admittedly good) products here tend to keep the local masses away. Located in the former Woolworth store, this large department-style mall makes for a very pleasant and sanitised shopping experience, if that’s what you’re after for a few hours. You’ll find plenty of shops to browse as well as a swimming pool and rather good restaurant.
Shopping hint for Havana
Whether you’re out to splurge on ridiculously high-priced electronics in Havana, or just want to browse shops and stalls to bring kitschy souvenirs back home, it is quite imperative that you carry a mix of CUCs and CUPs with you at all times. Some stores will only accept either and, as banks are found mostly in the city centre, you may kick yourself if you fall in love with something only to find you don’t have the right currency to buy it!
Havana Street Fruit Vendors via Flickr
Havana Market, Rahimadatia via Flickr
Havana Cigar Shop, Chumpolo via Flickr
Havana’s Cuatro Campos, Bruce Tuten via Wiki