Cuba Street is the heart of Wellington, pumping locals through to eat, drink and play.
Unlike Lambton Quay or around Parliament, people who work around Cuba Street (or as locals simply call it “Cuba” as in “I’ll meet you on Cuba”), tend to occupy hospitality, creative industries or are bright-eyed design students. It has a lively, chilled-out vibe and is a ‘can’t miss’ if you visit Wellington, even if just for a day. Plus, who could miss the legendary bucket fountain?
Made up of one long pedestrian mall, which stretches from Wakefield to Webb Street, Cuba Street is full of quirky shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries, apartments, tattoo parlours, a creative polytechnic, and bars. On streets shooting off, like sprouts on a branch, are theaters, fashion designers, art studios and cinemas. Yes, it isn’t quite world famous like Las Rambles or the Champs Elysee. But it’s ours and it is so very Wellington.
Here are the top five reasons that people who visit Wellington have to visit Cuba Street.
1. The People Watching
Wellington has a reputation as being very accepting of individualism. You can dress how you want, speak how you want, and - provided you are polite and not disruptive - to behave how you want. We don’t care, so long as you’re happy and nice.
On a typical day on Cuba Street, you’ll see people of all nationalities, all backgrounds and styles mixing together along this inner city strip. From mums and babies to steam punk street performers, dancers, artists and businessmen, humans of all types flock to Cuba Street. No one (usually) yells or gets into fights. People laugh and joke. We know the Cuba Street characters by name and treat each other with respect. It's a neighbourhood, and even if you don’t always live in the same way as your neighbours, you all rub along together. That’s the Wellington way.
2. The Food and Drink Scene
Cuba Street is home to many amazing cuisines. You can eat hand-made pasta at Eleven Fifty Four, dine in seasonal style at Floriditas, go luxe at Highwater Eatery, stop for fresh, modern brunch at Loretta or Fidels, get oysters and wine at Noble Rot or hoe into some dumplings at Rams. There’s something for everyone, whatever your tastes. For a full list of top eateries, see my blog about Cuba Street eats from 2017 here.
If you’re a fan of hops, you’ll enjoy exploring the Wellington Craft Beer bars that surround Cuba Street. Try an ale at Goldings or Fortune Favours on Leeds Street, or walk further up to HeyDay. Finally, finish with some top-quality gelato at Kaffee Eis. Just don’t eat before you head out!
3. The Night Life
In my late teens and twenties, Cuba Street was the spiritual home of my night owl. To this day, Wellingtonians talk nostalgically about bars that have come and gone, from Mighty Mighty and the Matterhorn to Good Luck.
While the scene has changed and there are fewer clubs on Cuba Street, mainly due to buildings requiring earthquake strengthening, there’s still plenty to do for those who seek. San Fran still runs regular gigs which pull the crowds. Havana Bar is excellent for a dance after midnight. You can pop around the corner to Glover Park for a bevy in the sun at Rogue and Vagabond and listen to some music. And if you need a pub to watch the game, you can visit JJ Murphy’s. Plus, who could say no to a wander through the night markets which run regularly, rain or shine, on lower Cuba Street on Saturdays. As long as you are curious enough to explore, Cuba Street delivers.
4. The quirky shops, with something for everyone
If you love shopping, Cuba Street has everything your heart desires - from beauty and body care at the Wellington Apothecary to curated retro boutiques like Ziggurat and Hunters and Collectors, quirky fine jewellery at Lazule and designer clothes at Area 51.
My favourite thing about shopping in Cuba Street is that it’s so compact. One minute I can be browsing for sneakers for Matt at Stirling Sport in the James Smith Corner or trying on a designer dress at Kate Sylvester the next. Cuba Street boasts many independent stores which means you’ll always find something no one else has got. Firm favourites which have stood the test of time include Slowboat Records, Iko Iko and McLeavy Gallery.
5. Seeing Wellingtonians at their most friendly and comfortable
Wellingtonians love that Cuba Street is recognised for its authentic personality and so it’s natural that it’s where we feel most comfortable in the city. You don’t have to pretend to be anyone else. Just come as you are. You’ll find that if you talk to your barista or chat with the shop girl, you’re greeted warmly and asked how your day is going. We’re a genuinely helpful lot. We love to get to know one another, and to find out where someone is from, what their story is and show someone how to get where they need to be or find what they’re looking for. Cuba Street is a place to play, and it’s relaxed, eccentric vibe is part of what we love about it.