Is shopping something to be endured or enjoyed? If you’re shopping in Havana, trust us, it’s going to be the latter (even if you’re someone who generally needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into a shopping mall). Because shopping in the Cuban capital is a vastly different experience to the sanitised, same old shopping experiences that have become common in many corners of the globe. And yeah, sometimes these shopping experiences can feel like an exercise in endurance.
There are five shopping malls around the world that now have more than 1000 stores in them (and three of them are in China, interestingly enough). Shopping should be about discovering new things that you might not have even known you wanted, and things that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.
You’re not going to get that experience at a 1000+ store megamall, but you can get that experience when you take a stroll around the retail delights on offer in Havana.
The Hotel Habana Libre was originally opened as the flagship Havana hotel for the Hilton chain in 1958. American companies ceased operating in Cuba after the revolution, and so the hotel was renamed “Free Cuba.” A touch of its American consumerism is still in effect and a small mall operates on the ground floor (towards the back of the hotel). While you might not find anything you want to buy, this is one of the nicest spots for shopping in Havana (or at least for browsing), since you get to enjoy the artwork put on display by the hotel. The 50s vibe of the hotel also gives your shopping a curious (and fun) retro feeling.
The Cuban Version
If you’re not a fan of the traditional type of shopping mall, you might be tempted to avoid Plaza Carlos III in central Havana. This place truly feels like an oddity when it comes to shopping in Havana, and is one of the few places where you might find some recognisable brands of clothing.
It’s worthwhile simply to see the Cuban version of a traditional shopping mall, and is always crawling with people. In reality, there are far more alluring options when it comes to shopping in Havana.
On the Street
Who wants to wander around an enclosed shopping mall when you’re in glorious Havana? There are many shopping options that don’t involve going indoors, such as the street market that pops up daily on Calle 23. A lot of the stuff on offer is aimed at visitors, so you can expect to see many items that are intended as souvenirs, often at over inflated “tourist” prices, so be prepared to bargain. You can also do some window shopping as you walk along Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes, regarded as the main shopping streets in Old Havana.
The Scent of Havana
While you might be perfectly content to window shop, there’s a place on Mercaderes that warrants your attention. Looking somewhat like a vintage pharmacists workshop, Habana 1791 is an old school perfumery where you can have a fragrance custom made based upon your preferences. You can get a scent that is unique in every sense of the word, and if you’re unsure about which combination of fragrances best reflect your personality, the staff will be able to help you based upon a few questions designed to find out what kind of person you are (you probably didn’t expect to have your psyche analysed while you were out shopping, but nevermind).
Your finished perfume is then put into a handmade bottle and sealed, and then you have benefitted from one of the most original experiences when it comes to shopping in Havana. And all you need to do is take a whiff from the bottle when you want to remember the city.
It’s Time to Go Book Shopping in Havana
English language books are not all that common in Havana, but you might want to pick up something in Spanish as a memento to your time in the Cuban capital. Head to the antique book market that can be found on the Plaza de Armas in Havana’s Old Town.
You’re unlikely to be interested in the multiple Spanish language historical and political books on offer, so you might want to opt for something lighter to remember your time in Havana. There are quite a few art books for sale, for which an understanding of the Spanish language is not necessary. Much like the street market on Calle 23, you can feel free to bargain when you shop at the Plaza de Armas book market. It’s all part of the fun.
Cuban Music and Movies
You can find yourself shopping in Havana at rather unexpected times. When you hear a band play in a bar or club, it’s quite usual for them to sell CDs afterwards. If you liked the music, then of course you can grab their CD as a souvenir. For a better selection of Cuban music (and Cuban movies on DVD, some of which have English subtitles), you need to go to ARTex. This is the retail branch of the government organisation that promotes Cuban arts, with a fairly wide choice of music and movies. The best branches in Havana can be found in Vedado (on Calle 3) and in Miramar (on Calle 23, just along from the street market).
Those Famous Cigars
You’ll probably want to pick up a few Cuban cigars to take home, even if you don’t smoke since they make rather nifty gifts. You won’t have to look hard to find a cigar store (they are literally everywhere), but a word of warning when buying cigars. Only buy them from an actual store. You might be approached on the street and offered some suspiciously inexpensive cigars. These are poor quality counterfeit products and need to be avoided, since buying them is not actually legal.
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