The woman in the yellow suit is standing by the cash register, smoking a Cohiba Siglo VI. It’s a massive cigar, and it chugs smoke like an age-old locomotive struggling up a mountain. She smiles at you as you walk inside the Casa del Habano, all glass and dark wood. Leather couches beckon you to sit and stay awhile.
At a tidy bar in the corner a man in a black vest and bow tie nods hello as he wipes clean the counter in front of him. You say a quick “buenos dias” as you pass them and step inside the large walk-in humidor. The door shuts with a loud creak behind you.
Inside, it’s just you and the cigars, Cuban cigars, all of them stacked in neat piles. Your mind spins with possibilities—what to buy? You look at the myriad sizes, the colorful boxes, turning them over to inspect the dates stamped beneath, seeking out something special, then select your smoke and take it to one of those comfortable chairs. As you put flame to the robusto you’ve just clipped, the woman in the yellow suit hands you a hot cup of Cuban coffee to go with your smoke. You take a puff, and for the next hour, all is right with the world.
No trip to Cuba is complete without buying at least one Cuban cigar, and now is a great time to buy. The cigar shops in Cuba have impressive inventories, today’s Cuban cigars are smoking extremely well, and the Cuban cigar industry has added shops and improved others in Havana. Cuba’s capital city is arguably the finest place on the planet to shop for Cuban cigars, with nine Casa del Habanos in the city and more on the way.
Prices here are among the lowest in the world. Set by the government, they are almost always identical from shop to shop. You can get a single cigar for only a few dollars, such as the diminutive Montecristo No. 5, which sells for 3.60 cuc (about $4.25, including exchange fees), or splurge on a large Cohiba Esplendido, which sells for 17.95 cuc ($21.50). The vast majority of Cuban cigars retail for less than 10 cuc apiece, so for less than $300 you can
acquire most boxes of 25.
To help you get the most out of your time in Havana, we surveyed all of the city’s nine Casa del Habano cigar shops and three other stores to provide you with the most comprehensive shopping guide to Cuba’s capital city we’ve ever published. The Casa del Habanos are distinctive, each required to stock most of Cuba’s cigar brands, have at least 60 square meters of space, walk-in humidors, a cigar roller, seats for smokers, a small bar area and humidified lockers where you can store your cigars in style for aging and to smoke on future visits. The stores that stand at the forefront of our write-ups provide something special for the smoker, ideally superior professional service and an unrivaled selection of cigars from which to choose.
Still, don’t dismiss a store simply because it’s not a Casa del Habano—we found at least one store in Havana that is worth a visit despite not being part of the Casa chain.
La Casa del Habano
5th and 16 Av. 5 y Calle 16, Miramar
Long regarded as one of Cuba’s finest cigar stores, the Casa del Habano on the corner of 5th Avenue and 16th Street in Cuba’s serene and opulent Miramar section of Havana, is simply one of the world’s premier cigar shopping—and smoking—experiences. This is a shop prized by collectors, with an experienced and courteous staff, a long history of selling fine cigars, a vast array of rooms and even cigar-friendly dining areas where you can puff on what you purchase.
The shop is run by Osmany Rios, who has been here for more than 10 years, and Carlos Robaina (the son of legendary Cuban tobacco farmer Alejandro Robaina), who has worked here for the past four. The duo knows fine cigars well and can steer a buyer in the right direction. On a May visit, an open box on display in a small cabinet to the right of the cash register was marked “No Se Pierda,” Spanish for “Do Not Miss.” It was a box of Hoyo de Monterrey le Hoyo des Dieux from 1999, not a great vintage, but who could resist a 12-year-old cigar priced at a mere $7? It was a mild, tasty smoke that was perfectly suitable for the morning.
The design of the walk-in humidor at Quinta Avenida is one part art, one part genius. Built to maximize storage space while minimizing its imprint on the store, the walking space around the humidor is only shoulder-width wide, and it snakes along the wall in a pattern of Ls, so walking through it requires twists and turns.
While the cigars in this shop receive serious attention from a stream of customers, I’ve always found something old here, especially when searching through secondary brands and smaller sizes. Some digging found a 1997 box of Juan López Patricias, unusual cigars that measure 4 5/8 inches by 40 ring, a cigar size known as a Franciscanos. They were selling for a mere 76 cuc.
The shop moves a lot of smokes. “Last week we sold more than 30,000 cigars,” said Rios. It’s rare to walk in and see deep stocks on the shelves, and quite common to see boxes in the back being opened up, ready to be moved into the humidor.
Quinta Avenida is ideal for collectors. While all La Casas on the island have lockers, this one has 96 of them, the most in Havana. In earlier years it cost hundreds to rent one, but today the lockers are free, although renting is up to management. Rios says they fumigate the lockers twice a year, to eliminate the potential for tobacco beetles, and the rules of the house prohibit you from storing cigars purchased elsewhere in your locker.
This is a shop where you must linger, or you risk missing out on one of the shop’s classic touches. Once you’ve selected a cigar, order a Cuban coffee. The steaming little cup of Cubita is delivered on a saucer with a pair of actual tobacco leaves beneath the cup. There are several places to sit and relax while you puff, including the smoking parlor up front, with its tiled floor and high-backed chairs; a bar area off to the side, with wicker furniture, and even a cigar-friendly (of course) restaurant.
There are three private rooms (named Bolivar, Cohiba and San Cristóbal, for the cigar brands) if you wish to host a party. A visit to Havana without stopping here would be a mistake.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Habana
Av. 3, entre 76 y 80, Playa, Habana
The Meliá Habana’s Casa del Habano is quickly turning into a favorite. The shop, which is 10 years old (it has only been a Casa del Habano for eight) is stunning and luxurious, with large glass-lined cabinets flanking the front wall of the room, comfortable and big leather sofas in the center near the curved bar that grabs the eye as you walk in. There’s an “outdoor” seating area (which is actually within the hotel proper) a quiet smoking room off in the back, a huge walk-in humidor and walls lined with all varieties of cigars and accessories, plus an attentive, friendly and attractive staff that puffs away happily while helping you find what you want.
The bar stands out in Cuba for its surprising selection of Scotch, which includes Johnny Walker Swing, Red, Black, Green, Gold and Blue, Chivas 12 and 18, and Dimple 15, as well as a bottle of Hennessy Paradis Cognac. The bartender mixes cocktails as well, making this bar the most complete of those in Cuba’s cigar stores.
The walk-in humidor has a nice touch—some of the shelves are cut with an angle, so a half-circle of wood extends out, adding to the charm. There’s a small table in the center of the room—displaying a few special items—with a chair.
The cigar selection here is superb. There’s a well-chosen selection of cigars by the box, many of them in cabinets of 50, such as Punch Punch, Hoyo Doubles and Punch Doubles. There’s also a large number of singles, with a broad selection of brands as well as sizes. We saw all types of Montecristos, lots of Cohibas, Partagás, Bolivars, Trinidads, Hoyo de Monterreys, even relatively obscure brands such as Sancho Panzas, Diplomaticos, Saint Luis Reys and La Gloria Cubanas.
Most Casas have aged cigars mixed in their stock, but the management at this store does some of the digging for you. They have a cabinet within the walk-in humidor with older cigars from 2000, 2003 and 2005. “This is one of the things we do all the time, call and ask for old cigars,” says Maryla Delgado Fernández, showing off an old box of Partagás Charlottes as she puffs on a cañonazo-size smoke that was made in house.
The shop has a small but well-kept locker area, and a simple but pleasant enough back room if you wish to smoke with some privacy.
La Casa del Habano, Club Habana
Av. 5, entre 188 y 192, Miramar, Playa
Far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Havana lies one of the best cigar stores in all of Cuba, the Casa del Habano at Club Habana. Located on the site of the old Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, the shop is situated next to a stately 80-year-old building with a terrazzo roof that backs up to a beach.
You owe it to yourself to take a look at the water (at the very least) and order a cold Bucanero beer and watch the waves, or perhaps catch a view of the Russian flight attendants who like to tan here between flights. Club Habana also makes for a fine spot for an afternoon getaway—speak to your hotel concierge about making arrangements.
Getting inside Club Habana and the cigar shop means going through a security check with a gate (don’t worry, they’ll let you in). The shop, located at the far left of the complex, is gorgeous, spotless and luxurious. The walk-in humidor, set to the right when you enter, is large and bursting with smokes, and is decorated with stained-glass panels above the clear-glass panels of the wall of the humidor.
The shop always seems stocked with great cigars, for this is the domain of Enrique Mons, widely believed to be the greatest cigar retailer in Havana. Mons, who was in charge of quality control for Cuba’s cigar industry in the 1970s and 1980s before turning to retail, knows cigars inside and out.
His humidor has artfully arranged stacks of Cubans, and at the center of the racks is a backlit area featuring special accessories. Be sure to dig around—something old always seems to be lurking if you’re patient enough to find it.
Mons’s shop has two cigar rolling tables, stationed outside of the walk-in humidor, facing one another from across the room. Cigar rollers here work slowly, carefully, and while house cigars can often lack a certain something, the ones made here are not to be ignored. Ask for a “Monsdale,” Enrique Mons’ take on the lonsdale size, which looks like a thicker-than-normal panetela, complete with a pigtail cap. The cigars are rich, robust and delicious. You’ll want at least two.
The back room, with long strips of wood paneling, is among the best smoking rooms in Havana. The room has artwork on the walls, including a dramatic dark bust of Alejandro Robaina, a bar with an extensive selection of rum and Scotch, great Cuban coffee and extremely comfortable leather furniture. It’s also spacious, designed so that you can claim your own little area and smoke in peace. On one recent visit, a very happy gentleman wearing a suit sat in a corner, smoking a robusto and reading his iPad, quite content with the world.
Shops worth visiting
La Casa del Habano, Partagás Cigar Factory
Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana
Undeniably touristy and often crowded, the Casa del Habano at the Partagás Cigar Factory nevertheless remains a must-visit cigar shop in Cuba. The dark wood paneling, the high energy, the vaulted ceilings, the photographs of famous visitors, the crowded masses puffing away on great cigars, all of it combines to create an experience not to be missed.
While the Partagás Cigar Factory itself is scheduled to be closed for a lengthy renovation (it was expected to have closed by spring 2011, but was still open as this issue went to press), Cuban officials say the shop will stay open during that time.
The 17-year-old shop is the busiest in all of Cuba, and Habanos says it’s the busiest Casa del Habano in the world. The shop gets its biggest crowds early in the morning when tourists pour in for factory tours, so visitors in the afternoon are often rewarded with more elbow room. It’s also likely that the closing of the factory for renovations will make the crowds ease up, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
The retail operation here is run by one of Cuba’s best-known and most talented cigar retailers, Abel Expósito Diaz, a gentleman who really knows his cigars and is always quite hospitable.
Not nearly as many cigars are on display here as in most Cuban La Casas, but Partagás does such a brisk business that the shop can often get what you want, even if you don’t see it in the case on display. In May, we saw vast stocks of H. Upmann Noellas jars in the back room, for example, while none were displayed out front.
Running counter to the hustle-and-bustle of the front room is the VIP smoking lounge in the back. If you do a lot of business at Partagás, you should ask about going inside—it’s one of the best smoking rooms in Havana.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Conde de Villanueva
Mercaderes 1202, esquina Lamparilla, La Habana Vieja
If you’ve never seen a peacock outside a cigar store, you’ve never been to the Casa del Habano at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. This small, charming and soulful cigar store is up a narrow flight of stairs off the courtyard of the boutique hotel, which has only nine rooms and is situated somewhat off the beaten path in Old Havana. Said courtyard is the domain of a few proud peacocks. Pick the right (or wrong) time to visit and one might be roosting on the banister outside the shop door.
The hotel is considerably quiet and small, belying the quality of its cigar shop. The shop is charming and has that slightly weathered, slightly chaotic look that makes it seem like it has been there for ages. It’s quite inviting. Walk through the hotel lobby, into the courtyard, then turn right and walk up the winding stairs past a series of black-and-white photographs of Groucho Marx and other cigar smoker luminaries to the door, which is covered with labels from cigar brands.
The main area of the shop has a good selection of cigars. Open boxes invite cigar lovers to select from the singles artfully arrayed in decorative cabinets made of dark, ornate wood. There is also a bar and smoking lounge with humidified lockers. Antonio Hevea, who has been working in the cigar business for more than five decades, runs the shop. He previously worked at the Partagás Factory Store, and helped open the Casa del Habano in the 6th Arrondissement on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Habana Libre
Calle L entre 23 y 25, Vedado
The largest Casa del Habano in Cuba is also its newest, the store at the Habana Libre Hotel, which opened in February 2010. When you enter, your eye is immediately drawn to a fountain, complete with a few small turtles, about 15 feet from the door. The bubbling water makes for a tranquil scene inside.
This shop stocks a vast inventory of cigars, and in May it was the only cigar shop in Cuba to still have Cohiba Behikes in stock, albeit only singles, and only BHK 52s and 56s. It also had a rarity sitting on a top shelf—a full box of Cohiba Selección Reserva cigars, a 2003 release containing 30 specially banded Cohibas, including the unreleased Medias Coronas size. It was priced around $400.
The selection by the box is simply stunning and is, perhaps, the best in Havana. The vast walk-in humidor was loaded with all manner of Cuban cigars: Cohiba, Cuaba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Trinidad, Hoyo de Monterrey, H. Upmann, Vegas Robaina—you name it. There were cabinets of 50 Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas and at least 20 Partagás Serie P No. 1 jars.
The Casa at the Habana Libre has several comfortable seating areas, but it lacks some of the old-world charm of other Casas (and the industrial green paint on the walls in the back smoking area doesn’t help). There’s a small bar serving coffee and Havana Club rum and a cigar roller who works just outside the shop. The large shop could soon be even larger, for there are plans to add seating areas outside on the perimeter of the shop, which would provide for an al fresco smoking experience.
While the shop may lack the warmth of some of the other stores in Cuba, it’s worth a visit due to the breadth of the selection and the sheer size of the retail space.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Nacional
Calle 21 y O, Vedado
The jaded cigar aficionado might quickly judge a visit to the Casa del Habano at the Nacional Hotel a mistake after popping inside and being greeted by racks of rum and other liquors. Don’t be discouraged—the upstairs looks like a typical tourist trap, but the real magic lies beneath.
The store has two floors, and aside from a cigar roller working upstairs, all the cigar action happens on the lower level, which is about twice the size of the upstairs floor. The downstairs is brightly lit, but grand and spacious, with several smoking areas. There’s a nook just to the left of the very wide retail counter, with a couch and a table where you can puff, and a smoking room that can seat a dozen or so patrons in the back, past the very large walk-in humidor. That room also has a bar.
What we found most impressive with the Nacional’s cigar shop was its selection. There was every size of Montecristo (even massive “As,”) every Cohiba (save for the Behike line), plenty of Romeo y Julietas, all kinds of Partagás cigars, including some Culebras, and just about everything else you could want in Havana. This store also has superb stocks of singles, which are arrayed in a counter display and on glass-rimmed shelves behind the counter as you walk in.
While the vast majority of the boxed stock was from 2010, we found a three-year-old box of Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas in a cabinet of 50 right there on a shelf. While many Havana cigar stores had old stocks of certain items, it’s rare to find something old from such an in-demand brand and size.
Oddly, all the cigars here, even those in boxes, are marked with the single-stick price rather than the box price. So don’t think the box of 25 Monte 2s is 7.60 cuc—it’s 190 cuc.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Av. Padeo, entre 1 y 3, Vedado
You would expect to find a great cigar shop in a hotel with the word “Cohiba” in the name. Ten years ago, the cigar shop at the Meliá Cohiba wasn’t terribly special, but today the shop is greatly improved. If you’re staying at the Meliá Cohiba, it’s a no-brainer to stop by its Casa del Habano for a visit, but even if you’re staying elsewhere in Havana this is a lovely shop in which to spend some time.
The cigar store is located one flight up from the massive lobby at the hotel, through a pair of double doors that open onto a spacious room with a small bar and many, many tables. You might walk in and hear some live music, turning this area of the cigar store/lounge into a sort of club. A large, circular display case showcases ornate cigar paraphernalia—ashtrays, cutters, lighters and cases—and to your left is the humidor proper.
The walk-in humidor sits at an angle in the store, giving it a triangular shape. While far from Havana’s largest, it has plenty of fine cigars. In December 2010, it was the only cigar shop in Havana that had Cohiba Behikes in stock. In May 2011, it was out of Behikes (as was virtually every other Cuban cigar shop) but had decent stocks of boxes of all of Cuba’s major brands (Cohiba, Montecristo, Hoyo de Monterrey, Romeo y Julieta, etc.) but a very limited selection of singles. On this occasion there were Montecristos of all sorts available by the single stick, as well as deliciously oily (but somewhat overhumidified) Partagás Lusitanias. There was also a decent selection of cigars in three-packs.
A small table in the middle of the humidor showcases a few rarities, and allows for the staff to show off a box if you wish a closer inspection before you buy. If you opt to smoke what you buy here, you have plenty of space to enjoy it, for the smoking areas at the Meliá Cohiba Casa del Habano are grand indeed. There’s a full bar, along with plenty of cocktail tables in a spacious room. There are also small rooms off the Casa itself for meetings or the like, and in the very back is a small computer room, if you wish to regain contact with the outside world by surfing the Internet.
Oddly enough, as the Meliá Cohiba’s cigar shop has improved over time, its in-house cigar bar has fallen by the wayside. El Relicario, the cigar bar located on the same floor as the Casa del Habano here at the hotel, was once a posh, relaxing place to enjoy a fine smoke. On a recent visit, it was a tired old version of what it had been before. Pass on Relicario, but try out the Casa del Habano at the Meliá Cohiba.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Palco
Calle 11 y 146, Cubanacan, Playa
If you’re not staying at Cuba’s Hotel Palco, you might find yourself there for some type of convention, for the hotel abuts the Palazio de Convenciones. The 14-year-old hotel has one of Cuba’s more modest Casa del Habanos, a small shop conveniently located next door to the hotel’s currency exchange center (something all tourists need in Cuba). Look up and you’ll see an oversized guillotine cigar cutter hanging over the entrance.
Inside is a friendly staff, a cigar roller and a walk-in humidor that’s nearly 30 feet wide, with a decent selection of cigars. (Although on a May visit the back end of the humidor served as storage for some shirts, rather than cigars.) The selection of singles is limited compared with most Casa del Habanos.
Every Casa has its own identity, and the Palco’s also sells chocolates, which could come in handy if your cigar shopping takes longer than anticipated and you have a spouse to placate.
An elderly cigar roller who had spent 54 years in various Cuban factories was making beautiful cigars in the shop window, across from a selection of various cigar accessories. There’s a smoking area in the middle of the store itself, but a backroom with a good-sized bar offers a more civilized and private place to puff. If you choose the right time to visit, you may bump into a group of women who come to the Palco La Casa every month—they come together to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum.
The shop at the Hotel Palco is decent enough if you’re staying at the hotel, or if you’re attending a function at the convention center, but it’s not a shop you should travel far just to visit.
Casa del Tabaco La Escogida, Hotel Comodoro
Av. 3 y Calle 84, Playa
While the name Comodoro sparks memories of old Havana, old and hotels don’t go well together in Cuba, so the confidence level wasn’t high when I walked toward the cigar shop at this well-known but quite weathered Cuban hotel, which has a white sign at an angle to an old ship’s wheel, paired nicely with the Epcot Center-style concrete façade of the hotel.
One need not enter the hotel to go into the shop, with its entrance set off to the left of the front doors of the hotel, near a four-foot-tall statue of a smiling crocodile standing at a desk.
The shop has a more modest selection of cigars than those found at Casa del Habanos, and the variety of single cigars is particularly limited. The shop does have a very talented cigar roller, who works while wearing a shirt and tie, and effortlessly rolls cigars for the house, which are kept in their own four-foot-tall cabinet, made of dark wood with a pyramid on top.
There are a few comfortable leather chairs to sit and smoke, and a frequent visitor from the United States is known to drop off copies of Cigar Aficionado magazine.
El Aljibe Tienda de Tabaco
Av. 7 y Calle 24, Miramar
It’s not a Casa del Habano, it only has about seven types of cigars available by the stick and it’s very small, but the cigar shop at El Aljibe restaurant just might save your night. Say you fly into Havana on a Sunday, miss out on the Casa del Habanos and head to dinner at Cuba’s most famous restaurant. You’re happy to find smoking is allowed at the tables, but you just arrived on the island and you don’t have cigars for before (and after) dinner. Salvation awaits only steps away inside the shop.
The staff here is friendly, and while the selection is limited, it’s hard to go wrong. There were two unbanded cigars on a recent visit, a pirámide and a Churchill. I asked for the former. The manager took two from the tray, gave each a gentle squeeze to check for plugs, and handed me the one she liked best. It was priced at 3.60 cuc.
When I asked for details about the cigar, she told me it wasn’t made on premises, but rather by a cigar roller at the Comodoro Hotel. (I later asked said roller, and he denied making the cigars for El Aljibe.) Whoever made the one at El Aljibe, he or she knows the craft well, and the flavor was just fine. Will it be the best cigar you smoke in Cuba? Far from it. Will it make you smile because it just might be the best $4 cigar you’ve ever smoked? Maybe so.
The cigar shop at El Aljibe even has a little seating area in the back, but with all those tables in the restaurant proper (and all that succulent chicken) who would sit there? This is not a cigar shop you should visit just for the experience, but when you eat at El Aljibe, pop in and try the $4 house smoke.
Cigar Shop at Romeo y Julieta (AKA H. Upmann) Factory
Belascoaín 852 entre Peñalver y Desagüe, Centro Habana
Cuba’s Romeo y Julieta factory is now serving as the temporary home of the H. Upmann factory and the cigar shop down the street from the fabrica is in the process of being transformed into a full-fledged Casa del Habano. This factory (operating as H. Upmann) is open to tourists, and said tourists need a good place to shop for cigars after leaving the factory, so Habanos is working to improve the quality of the shop.
It was OK in May during a visit, with a midsized walk-in humidor with a fairly sparse selection, focused on cigars made at the factory, from Montecristos to H. Upmanns and Romeo y Julietas and some Cohibas. There was a small bar, guayaberas for sale, but the rum selection was bigger than the cigar selection.
The shop is decent, but should be better once it becomes a Casa del Habano.
Cigar Shop at La Corona Cigar Factory
Av. 20 de Mayo y Línea de Ferrocarril, Municipio Cerro
This is the most disappointing cigar shop in Havana. Located next door to the La Corona cigar factory, the shop is small and soulless, with a limited selection. This shop is not meant for connoisseurs, but for tourists to grab a quick box or five-pack of cigars and a bottle of rum.
Walking inside is a bit of a running of the gauntlet, as cigar hustlers freely solicit counterfeits to anyone going in or out. Should you walk in when a bus packed with tourists arrives, prepare for an even worse experience as the shop turns into a subway car in New York at rush hour. A shop to avoid.