One of the most inviting port cities you could hope for, Cienfuegos (known as La Perla del Sur or the Southern Pearl), combines colonial French élan with an exotic Caribbean vibe.
Throughout the 19th century, Cienfuegos’s cultural stature grew off the back of its economic status as a key port for sugar, tobacco, and coffee.
Once you get past the belching factories and a rather conspicuous, abandoned nuclear plant on the city’s outskirts, Cienfuegos’ UNESCO-protected historic core is home to a stunning display of classical buildings – many of which have been converted into museums – while the city’s scenic natural bay invites a myriad of water sports and activities.
Centered upon a marble statue commemorating the city’s namesake revolutionary, the lush and elegant Parque José Martí is the city’s heart and soul.
Surrounding the park, a confection of Cienfuegos’s impressive, late 19th-century buildings speaks to the city’s glorious heyday.
On the park’s north side, Teatro Tomás Terry is a national monument which has played host to luminaries including Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova.
Directly opposite, the grandiose Museo Provincial distills Cienfuegos’s epic history into a small collection of exhibits primarily focused on fusty 19th-century French-Cuban decorative arts and furniture.
On the southwest side, the Palacio Ferrer (built in 1918) is home to the Casa de la Cultura where quality art exhibits, concerts, and dance performances are worth a quick peek.
On the east side, the striking yellow Catedral de la Purísima Concepción features dazzling stained-glass windows depicting the 12 apostles and a statue of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
Cienfuegos’s palm-lined waterfront promenade unfurls south to Punta Gorda, where an ensemble of glorious palaces and mansions reveal the wealth and pomp of Cuba’s illustrious 19th-century sugar barons.
While it has the tendency make you squint, the city’s architectural magnum opus is the Palacio del Valle, a whimsical riot of Moorish stucco, tile, and turrets built in 1917 by Spaniard Acisclo del Valle Blanco.
The maze of rooms spans Baroque, Neoclassical, and Gothic styles, and culminates in the arresting Salón Comedor (dining room) with its odes to the intricacy and mathematical precision of Spain’s Alhambra Palace.
During the 1950s, Batista planned to convert the palace into a casino, but now it’s a restaurant (the food is hit and miss), with a rooftop bar worth a visit for its impressive sunset views and live music performances.
Five blocks northwest of Parque José Martí, it’s hard to miss the elaborate pearl-pink National Naval Museum, housed in the showy former headquarters of the southern naval command center, built in 1933.
It was here in September 1957 that a disgruntled band of sailors and civilians revolted unsuccessfully against the Batista government.
The rebellion forms the museum’s narrative thrust along with a rather forensic insight into Cuban Naval history.
Exhibits also shed light (don’t expect a balanced commentary) on Cuba’s declaration of war on Germany, Tokyo, and Rome, as well as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
There’s a collection of military and maritime artefacts including Spanish coins and terrific views of Cienfuegos’s bay from the ramparts.
With an enviable location overlooking a picturesque bay, Cienfuegos summons on-the-water adventures; several international regattas, fishing tournaments, and speedboat races are held in the city each year.
Southeast of town, a cluster of pleasant Caribbean beaches, includes Playa Rancho Luna (the most accessible), an ivory sand half-moon beach with rocky headlands, around 18km from town.
At the Faro Luna Diving Center, you can rent snorkeling equipment and sign up for scuba diving trips to a large coral reef directly west of the beach.
At the 36-berth Marina Cienfuegos, you can charter a sailboat, arrange a sport-fishing excursion, book a cruise around the harbor, rent a Hobie Cat, or take a windsurfing class.
Go scuba-diving, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and cycling in Central Cuba with these outdoor adventures from the Bay of Pigs in the east, to Las Tunas in the west.
Our friends from Goats on the Road share their top 9 things you shouldn’t miss on a trip to Camagüey.