For almost six decades, the tightly state-controlled and embargoed Cuban economy meant that all businesses, from department stores to shoe-shiners, were in the hands of the state. Today, though, Havana is slowly evolving; new economic rules on private ownership are allowing ordinary Cubans to open their own stores and businesses.
Under the changes, artists of all kinds have started to showcase and sell their work in galleries which double as private shops. The Cuban capital hasn’t been a shopping destination since the 1950s, but these local boutique shops are leading the way to change.
Brainchild of young Cuban designer Idania del Rio, Clandestina is perhaps the leading example of the new entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba. The canvas bags, t-shirts and posters play with revolutionary slogans and imagery, turning them on their head to create an original and provocative brand.
They’ve even coined the local version of ‘I love NY’, capitalizing on Havana’s newfound trendiness under their own trademark: ‘Actually, I’m in Havana’. In 2017, Clandestina became the first privately-owned Cuban brand to sell its creations online.
This welcoming boutique shop is the perfect reason to take a stroll out to Miramar, Havana’s shaded upscale neighborhood west of the city. Owner Alex Oppman travels across Cuba to carefully select pieces from local artisans in different provinces.
Each piece is unique and hand-made from natural or recycled materials. Whether it’s jewelry, embroidered cushions or a vintage cigar humidor, this is a great place to pick up a high-quality gift or souvenir from your Cuba trip.
Salomé Casa de Modas
In a country where scarcity ruled fashion for decades and lycra pants were considered a must-have in women’s wardrobes, Salomé’s linen pieces were like a breath of fresh air.
This unassuming, but elegant boutique in Miramar features Cuban dresses, blouses, trousers and guayaberas (traditional men's Cuban shirts), all in pastel colors and some with embroidery included.
Mercado del Oriente
Calle Mercaderes (The Merchant's street) in Old Havana used to be a buoyant alley where traders met to sell fabrics, porcelain, precious metals and spices back in the 18th century. Though not as lively today, it does keep a handful of gift stores worth discovering.
Mercado del Oriente (Eastern Market), located between Obispo & Obrapía streets, is among the few places in Havana selling hand-made soaps in a dozen scents, incense sticks made in India and Indi-styled linen clothing.
Looking for a more permanent memento of your time in Cuba? Then head to La Marca. The young collective who runs this tattoo parlor maintain it at an international level of cleanliness and hygiene, so you can be sure you’ll be inked with properly sterilized needles.
There’s an art gallery onsite that also hosts social projects aiming to share the inspiration of visual arts with the surrounding community through theatre, dance, literature, graphic design and music.
The designers behind this new shop will turn almost anything into a lamp. Housed in the foyer of a 1950s building in Vedado’s main avenue, this quirky shop is worth a peek (Calle 23 between 8 and 10). An old iron, a meat grinder and a piece of a tree trunk were only some of the objects doubling as lamp stands during a recent trip.
For fans of contemporary Cuban interior design, there are pieces here that range from trendy to downright weird. And if you have a crazy idea of something that you would like see turned into a lamp, they also make to order.
Piscolabis Bazar and Cafe
Perfectly located just steps from Havana’s 18th century cathedral, this eclectic shop run by a group of Cuban artists features a wide range of decorative and functional items for the home, as well as jewelry and some clothing.
The designers make modern creations from iconic objects of Cuba’s past. For example, a glass water bottle from the middle of last century doubles as a lamp stand, and parts of an old watch have been deconstructed into a necklace in another of their unique pieces. Should you need a pick-me-up, you can indulge in an energizing espresso from the attached cafe.
There’s this tiny boutique almost hidden in plain sight in front of one of the city’s liveliest squares – Plaza del Cristo.
Cris Cris is a small designer’s shop offering colorful lingerie, bikinis and wide-brim Pamela hats. The German-born store owner founded the first Cris Cris in Berlin in 1999, but opened up a Havana location in 2007 after falling in love with the island during a holiday trip in 2004. Cris Cris appeals to local Cubans, expats and of course travelers.