Havana is by no means a great shopping city (although it is the best in Cuba). Given the reality of the Cuban economy, all shops selling any goods above and beyond the basic necessities are by default geared entirely toward tourists, a small community of foreign diplomats and workers, and an even smaller community of Cubans earning enough hard currency to afford such luxuries. Hence, it's a challenge to find interesting shops with unique local items at good prices. In general, stores throughout Havana are open from 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week. Some may open earlier and close later, particularly in heavily trafficked tourist areas. Virtually none close for lunch.
All shops selling to tourists operate exclusively with Cuban convertible pesos. Most are run by big, state-owned enterprises. The most common stores belong to the Caracol chain, which is geared primarily to tourists, while the Tiendas Panamericanas chain specializes in household and domestic items aimed at foreign residents. In recent years, modern malls have begun popping up. Everything stated above holds true for the merchandise you'll find here.
ARTex (tel. 7/204-0813; www.soycubano.com) is the state-run company in charge of managing Cuba's artistic export products (hence the name "ARTex"). Its job runs the gamut from promoting Cuban musicians and artists abroad to marketing their goods and negotiating contracts. ARTex operates a series of storefronts around the country, either stand-alone affairs or shops placed in prominent hotels or tourist attractions. Depending on the size and location, these usually carry a good selection of Cuban music, Cuban films, tourist T-shirts, and kitschy arts and crafts. The better ones have decent quality drums and percussion instruments, as well as art prints and posters. In Miramar, head to ARTex's Bazar Volveré, Calle 3, between Calles 78 and 80 (tel. 7/204-5370); in Vedado, check out Habana Sí, Calle 23 no. 301, at the corner of Calle L (tel. 7/838-3162), across from the Tryp Habana Libre.
On Plaza de Armas, you'll find multiple stalls selling second-hand and antiquarian books, including many with revolutionary and political themes. (You can also find coins, stamps, and other Revolution memorabilia.) Bargain very hard. Anticuaria El Navío, Calle Obispo 119, between Oficios and Mercaderes (tel. 7/861-3187), is a dusty old store selling expensive, rare and unusual books.
Cigars are Cuba's most-prized product. The word Cubans is synonymous with the highest quality cigars on the planet. Locally, they are called puros or habanos; the latter is the name of the country's official cigar company. All of the various brands -- Partagás, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Punch, and so on -- are marketed by Habanos S.A. Cigars not officially sold by Habanos fall into the various categories of black- and gray-market stogies. Habanos markets its product through a series of storefronts, usually called something like La Casa del Tabaco or La Casa del Habano. Official sales are also held at shops at most cigar factories, as well as at many higher-end hotels, restaurants, and attractions around town. Beware: Black- and gray-market cigars sold on the street or by jineteros (hustlers) are falsely marked, lower-quality cigars.
Cuban cigars range widely in size and shape. Prices range from around CUC$30 to CUC$50 per box for the smallest, lowest-quality puros, to over CUC$400 per box for the more coveted cigars. Most shops sell only complete boxes, although certain cigars are often available individually, or in boxes of five.
The best La Casa del Habano shops are those in the Hostal Conde de Villanueva at Calle Mercaderes 222, La Habana Vieja (tel. 7/862-9293); the Partagás cigar factory at Calle Industria 524, behind El Capitolio (tel. 7/862-4604); and in the Quinta y 16 shopping minicomplex at Avenida 5 and the corner of Calle 16, Miramar (tel. 7/204-7973). Another nice one in La Habana Vieja is the Casa del Ron y Tabaco Cubana, Calle Obispo and Calle Bernaza (tel. 7/867-0817), where you can combine two of Cuba's greater pleasures -- smoking cigars and drinking rum.
Perhaps the most distinctive clothing items a traveler can buy include T-shirts with the image of Che Guevara on the front, and the revolutionary's signature green boina (beret) with a little red star in front.
Men might want to pick up a guayabera or two. This cool, pleated, and embroidered tropical shirt comes in a variety of (mostly) solid colors, and in both long- and short-sleeve versions. As a rational alternative to heavy suits and ties in a tropical clime, guayaberas are appropriate for everything from informal occasions to high-level government and business meetings (in Cuba, at least). You'll find guayaberas for sale all over; some of the typically touristy gift shops even carry them. One good place to shop for a guayabera is El Quitirín, Calle Obispo and San Ignacio (tel. 7/862-0810). For a more upscale selection, head over to Miramar and shop at Le Select, Avenida 5 and Calle 28 (tel. 7/207-9681); or Joyería Quinta y 16 (see "Jewelry").
For clothes try, Galería Comercial Comodoro, Avenida 3 between Calles 80 and 84, Playa ([tel 7/204-6177), which houses Mango, Adidas, Converse, Benetton, and Clarks stores, or Paul and Shark, Muralla between Mercaderes and San Ignacio, Plaza Vieja, La Habana Vieja.
Cuba doesn't have a particularly strong tradition in producing handicrafts, but the rise in tourism has seen local artisans quickly making up for lost time. Tourist gift shops as well as the street markets discussed below are well stocked with locally produced handicrafts. The best buys are woodcarvings and statues, papier-mâché masks and religious figures, and simple jewelry made from shells and seeds. You'll also find a host of Afro-Cuban percussion instruments for sale. Drums you'll find include the two-headed, hourglass-shaped bata drums; paired bongos, carved African-style religious drums; and congas, the modern salsa backbone. Shékeres (gourd shakers) and claves (two wooden sticks used to play the fundamental rhythm in various Cuban genres) are also available.
The Calle Tacón market, which was a large crafts market, has closed, and all vendors have moved to the Almacenes San José, which is now Havana´s largest craft market, offering clothing, paintings, tourist souvenirs, ceramics, baseball bats, jewelry, and a multitude of other products. It is open daily 9am-5pm.
There are few good jewelry shops in Cuba, which has no real history of producing fine jewelry. You'll find a plethora of simple, artisan-produced necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings at most tourist shops and street markets. If you look hard enough, you'll actually find some well-made and attractive pieces. Unfortunately, the nicest jewelry being produced in Cuba is usually made with tortoiseshell or black coral, both natural resources slow to replenish and easily endangered by overharvesting.
Music is one of Cuba's greatest exports. Many CDs available in Cuba are also widely available abroad or via the Internet. Most CDs in Cuba sell for between CUC$8 and CUC$15. However, be careful: Unless you are shopping at one of the official state-run stores, the CDs you buy may be low-quality bootlegs.
If you're looking for salsa, pick up a disc or two by Los Van Van or NG La Banda. Fans of Cuban folk music should definitely stock up on recordings by Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. Jazz fans will want some Chucho Valdés with Irakere, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, while those looking to groove to some Afro-Cuban sounds should check out Síntesis, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Yoruba Andabo, and Clavé y Guaguanco. For son and mambo, pick up discs by Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, or the classic rereleases of Beny Moré and Peréz Prado. Finally, since you've probably already got a copy of Buena Vista Social Club, you might stock up on solo albums by its various members: Compay Segundo, Rubén Gonzales, Eliades Ochoa, and Omara Portuona. If you enjoy Reggaeton, Eddy-K or Gente de Zona is your group.
After cigars, rum is one of Cuba's signature products. Cuba produces several fine rums. The most commonly sold brand, Havana Club, comes in white and dark varieties of various vintages and ages. The premier rum in Cuba is Havana Club's 15-year-old Gran Reserva. This sells for anywhere from CUC$75 to CUC$100 per bottle. It's good, but I don't think it's worth the price tag. However, their 7-year-old Añejo Reserva is a fine rum at around CUC$12 per bottle. Other good rums include Ron Varadero, Matusalém, Ron Caney, Ron Santiago, and Ron Mulata.
Don't Run to Buy Ron -- Your best bet for buying rum is the duty-free shop at the airport. The prices and selection are as good here as you'll find anywhere on the island, and you'll save yourself the hassle of hauling heavy bottles around with you while traveling.
A small street market occurs daily in Vedado in a small open area on the south side of La Rampa, at Calle 23 between Calles M and N. The market, which is open daily from 9am to 5pm, has less artwork than the market at Almacenes San José, but it has plenty of woodcarvings and simple jewelry for sale.
Note: Cubans don't really have a firm grasp on this capitalism thing. Moreover, given the huge gap between the peso and hard currency economies, Cubans often have a hard time understanding the true value of the convertible peso. Prices are often grossly inflated for tourists, on the principle that they "must all be rich." Bargaining is possible at street markets, but it's not necessarily a fluid and enjoyable process. Still, if you think something is overpriced, definitely feel free to offer whatever you believe to be fair, or whatever you are prepared to pay.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.