The evolution of Wellington's Cuba Street

Cuba Street is a creative melting pot of buskers, art galleries, graffiti-filled alleyways and community exhibition spaces.

“Cuba St is a place that embraces diversity and steadfastly refuses to be boring. It's a comfortable, homely little inner-city bunker where eccentrics and individualists of every stripe peacefully co-exist…” - Grant Smithies, Sunday Star Times

The capital of cool’s famous inner city slice of Bohemia is a happy accident of sorts. Named after an early 1840 settler ship called Cuba, many of the street’s residents have opted to run with the Caribbean theme. Fidel's Cafe – where the “coffee is Cuban and the hospitality is pure New Zealand” – is one of many tasty spots locals love to chew the literal and philosophical fat. The coffee’s strong, the seating eclectic and the variety of delectable counter food is akin to some form of culinary heaven and hell for the indecisive.

A Second Chance

A lengthy period of uncertainty over a planned inner-city bypass meant there was little maintenance on many of Cuba Street’s buildings during the mid to late 1900s. The result was a proliferation of secondhand and bargain shops.

This led to the birth of the street’s reputation as Wellington's Bohemian zone, a fact that was further reinforced in 1969 when part of the street was permanently blocked off to traffic to create Cuba Mall and that has since been embraced as an imperative piece of the city’s soul. Cuba Street has been a registered Historic Area under the Historic Places Act since 1995.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Cuba Street is a creative melting pot of buskers, art galleries, graffiti-filled alleyways and community exhibition spaces. It’s a meeting of minds, menus and market culture. What developed out of uncertainty has become one of the capital’s icons, loved and enjoyed by everyone from mods to suits, locals to visitors. While many old shops are slowly being replaced with trendy, upmarket eateries and bars, the street’s Bohemian heart pumps strongly.

Raising the Bar

Tucked down a quiet corridor at number 106, Matterhorn is without a doubt Cuba Street’s most famous bar, and is Wellington’s most awarded. The iconic spot is regularly placed among the world’s best bars in the Drinks International industry poll, voted by 700 bartenders from 50 countries. It also has a slew of New Zealand ‘Best Bar’ awards under its belt, along with a coveted Cuisine Supreme Restaurant of the Year accolade.

While not actually on Cuba Street itself, just around the corner on Wigan Street, Havana bar is Cuban by both name and nature. The cocktail bar and restaurant housed in colourful historic cottages is a popular local nightspot known for its great atmosphere and choice tunes.

Taste of Cuba

You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world where you’ll find the finest dining next door to a burger bar and across the road from a sex shop, but that’s all part of the charm of Cuba Street, which is home to dozens of delectable eateries. Here, winners of the coveted Cuisine Supreme Restaurant of the Year award such as Logan Brown mix it up with ethnic cheap and cheerfuls and cool cafes such as Plum, Arthurs, Laundry and Olive.

Read about Sunday Star Times music journalist Grant Smithies’ love affair with Cuba Street.

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