Discovering Cienfuegos – 48 hours in Cuba’s Pearl of the South
Cuba’s Pearl of the South is a city that has certainly earned its nickname. Cienfuegos is a rare gem unlike anywhere else in Cuba or the Caribbean. Its French allure is only the beginning. Beyond quaint cobblestone streets, scenic promenades, soothing sea views and gorgeous seafood (among the best and freshest you’ll eat in Cuba) there is a certain atmosphere that lulls travellers into a warm sense of wellbeing and pure joy. Is this place real or are you dreaming it up? You have 48 hours to find out!
The most French of Cuban cities is special beyond comparison. It has unique charm, unique origins, unique architecture and a rather singular laidback vibe. Its je ne sais quoi appeal and picturesque beauty continues to captivate and fascinate travellers. Like other cities in Cuba it lives in a perpetual time bubble with time-warped riches, cobblestone streets and immaculate pastel-coloured facades. But Cienfuegos is different. There’s more to it, and there’s also less…and therein lies its perplexing magic.
Cienfuegos is actually like nowhere else in Cuba, from its history to its looks, its culture and its people. And it has plenty to offer visitors willing to linger (including a secluded beach!).
For those who think a short half-day visit here or a couple of hours in the city will do, we’re here to prove you wrong. There’s more to Cienfuegos than you probably know and we’re here to show you how to make the most of 48 hours in this pretty provincial Cuban city, aptly dubbed the Pearl of the South.
As Cienfuegos’ most famous and international Cuban singer, Benny More, said (you should find out more about him while you’re here) in one of his most popular songs:
“Cienfuegos es la ciudad que más me gusta a mí.”
Which translates roughly as:
“Cienfuegos is the city I like the most.”
We just know you’ll love it too.
Cienfuegos in 48 hours
Not many guides devote enough time to Cienfuegos and what to do and see here, so most novice Cuba travellers can’t really be blamed for scratching their heads as to how on earth one could fill 48 hours in this small southern city. But that’s cool, we’re here to tell you how fill up your Cienfuegos itinerary to the brim with sightseeing tours, delicious seafront meals, seaside walks and evening revelry. The truth is you might even want to extend your stay.
What to see and what to do in Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos is full of little unexpected surprises; it even has its own Arc de Triomphe (really!). A much smaller and modest version than the original Parisian version it might be, but still, a rather cute reminder that you’re in Cuba’s most French city. Here we lay down what to see in Cienfuegos in two days.
Cienfuegos – Day 1
In case you were wondering what all this allusion to French quirks might come from, the city of Cienfuegos was founded in the early 19th century by French settlers. Hence why its streets and architecture have that distinctive neoclassical style. During your first day it’s best to get introduced to the city’s origins.
Your first 24 hours in Cienfuegos should commence with a nice leisurely walk around the city’s historic centre. What better place to start than right from the heart? The best way to get an initial feel for the city and discover its people, its colours, shapes and smells is by wandering around the old town. During the day there are many open-air markets selling all manner of artisanal trinkets to peruse.
A good starting point is the Parque José Martí, where you’ll be instantly transported to French colonial times thanks to the magnificent buildings that surround it. The park itself is a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005. Around it you’ll find some of the city’s finest highlights, including:
Teatro Tomas Terry
This beautiful theatre built in 1889 has recently been restored to its former glory. It’s one of Cienfuegos’ most elegant buildings, both inside and out.
Palacio de Gobierno
Vistors are not allowed into this ornate palace but you can still revel in its grandiose beauty. This stunning building dominates the southern part of the José Martí park and you should sneak a peek into its immaculately kept palatial staircase through the front door.
This modernist building dating back to 1892 was remodeled in 1918 by the wealthy Ferrer family of Catalan origin and its mix of Eclectic and Neo-rococo style is a treat for the senses. Enrico Caruso famously stayed here in 1920 prior to his performance at the Teatro Tomas Terry next door.
The best place to get acquainted with the city’s history, this museum boasts several antique collections with sophisticated art pieces from the 19th century French-Cuban society. Its exterior doesn’t look bad either.
Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion
This grand cathedral features beautiful French stained-glass windows with rather austere interiors but a surprise awaits – Chinese writings from the 1870s was discovered on its columns!
Arco de Triunfo
Right in front of Palacio Ferrer you’ll see Cienfuegos’ own Arc de Triomphe. It’s quirky and peculiar and the only one of its kind in all of Cuba!
Paseo del Prado
The second half of your first day in Cienfuegos could consist of a nice, lengthy walk along Cienfuegos’ scenic Paseo del Prado. Much like the one in Havana, this long boulevard is one of the city’s liveliest. Dotting this long promenade, you’ll not only come across neoclassical buildings, but also some of the most popular nightlife spots. Head back here in the evening if you fancy some evening entertainment.
Somewhere along the way you’ll come across the life-size sculpture of Benny More, Cuba’s most famous cienfueguero. So, watch out for him.
At some point, after about 900 metres to be more precise, this long promenade turns into El Malecon. Yes, just like Havana, Cienfuegos has one gorgeous seawall too and the vistas from this one are one of the most beautiful you’ll see in all of Cuba. Plan to get here in time for sunset and you won’t be disappointed.
You could continue along the Malecon and end up in Punta Gorda or leave that for the next day. You could also stop by the Coppelia ice cream parlour (no queues here unlike the one in Havana) and enjoy a few scoops for less than 1 CUC!
Cienfuegos – Day 2
On the second day you can pick up right where you left off. Depending on whether you made it beyond Paseo del Prado or you ended your trip in the boulevard, you can continue along the Malecon to discover Cienfuegos’ most refreshingly elegant and subdued district. A true breath of fresh air, we promise, and a very romantic one too. This part of Cienfuegos feels like nowhere else in Cuba, or the world, for that matter. Unrushed, fresh, authentic, calm, peaceful and truly invigorating for the senses.
Cienfuegos’ Malecon is indeed beautiful. Spending some time just sitting down, relaxing and looking over Cienfuegos’ glittering waters is sure to recharge your batteries and make you feel inspired. On any given day, at any given time you can witness schooling fish doing little somersaults over the waters and watch fishermen’s boats securing the catch of the day (which you can later sample at a local restaurant)
Walking all the way down the Malecon you’ll finally reach Punta Gorda. This place is majestically serene and beyond just basking in the gorgeous sea views while tucking into lunch or dinner at one of the seaside restaurants, you can visit some landmarks like the pretty Palacio Azul (now a boutique hotel) and the hard-to-miss dramatic Arabic style of the imposing Palacio de Valle, where you can indulge fine dining and feel as though reliving a scene from “One thousand and one nights” with a tropical twist. This palace is famous for its cocktails and rooftop views across the bay. The lush mountains of the Escambray can be seen from Guanaroca’s roundabout while witnessing a sunset in Punta Gorda is a truly special way to end your day.
San Fernandina de Jagua
Across the bay, opposite Punta Gorda you find the old Castillo de Jagua fortress, famous for hosing a ghost known as the “Blue Lady” (La Dama Azul) because of the colour of her robes. The fortress itself may be small compared to Havana and Santiago de Cuba’s fortresses but it’s nonetheless special, has bonus points for being haunted and it affords the most glorious views over the bay.
And if you still have time… the beach!
Yes, Cienfuegos has a beach, a stunning one at that! Admittedly, you’ll have to take a taxi to get there but for around 10 CUC you could be basking in golden-sand glory and virtually deserted surroundings for most of the year! The crystalline waters of Rancho Luna beach are definitely worth the visit and with 48 hours in Cienfuegos, you definitely have time.
Where to eat
Cienfuegos is the place to come to for excellent seafood in Cuba. It’s the place to tuck into freshly caught produce brought in by local fishermen that you yourself can witness going about their business in the bay.
Paladares here are exceptionally good and we especially recommend the Villa Lagarto restaurant in Punta Gorda, offering amazing views and flavoursome nautical delights. Its setting alone directly overlooking the bay is unmatched, especially because it features a wooden dock with wooden chairs in which to drink in the fantastic views while sipping a cooling cocktail. It’s so close to the water you could literally dip a toe while at it!
Along Cienfuegos’ Paseo del Prado is another culinary gem; Doña Nora, consistently rated by locals and foreigners alike as one of the city’s finest private restaurants. Its neoclassical exterior is luring enough and the interior décor nicely matches the delicious French-inspired cuisine on offer. On most nights a resident saxophonist keeps the mood decidedly mellow and romantic. Oh, and the balcony-view tables are another draw!
Where to have fun after the sun goes down – nightlife in Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos might not be known for its nightlife, as Cuba’s cleanest, most refined and elegant city, it’s also, to an extent, one of the most subdued in terms of nightlife action. That said, however, it has a handful of cool places to chill out in the evenings or dance the night away. Whether you prefer authentic Cuban music and live bands or prefer a nightclub atmosphere with DJ sessions, Cienfuegos offers both, just watch out for certain times of the week when the night scene might be quieter.
Club El Benny
One of Cienfuegos’ best-known night spots, named after the city’s most international singer, this place does nightly shows and traditional live band concerts. Afterwards, the dancefloor comes alive to the sounds of DJ music and modern hits.
Club Cienfuegos – La Terraza
This former yacht club livens up the mood in the evening and turns into a disco on some days of the week. Never mind its irresistible location on the waterfront, expect a lively ambience with neon lights and party tunes.
You can always rely on Cuba hotels’ discos to have a lively atmosphere, especially on weekends. The Sala Guanaroca in Hotel Jagua offers nightly shows and DJ sessions.
Great for after-dinner coffees and night caps, this cosy bar frequently features live music, from traditional Cuban sounds to soothing jazz tunes.
This cabaret-style club at the foot of the bay has an electric ambience most nights of the week with frequent live music.
El Cubanisimo – Artex
This nightclub is open every day except for Mondays and offers a live music performance or show followed by DJ sessions. At the time of writing this blog it’s undergoing refurbishment works and therefore temporarily closed. It’s due to reopen soon and definitely a cool place to hang out in the evenings. It’s cheap, cheerful, mojitos taste good and the atmosphere is young.
The magic of Cienfuegos
Charming Cienfuegos has plenty to seduce travellers on a brief stop in this picturesque part of Cuba. One of the island’s most unique and different cities, as you have seen if you’ve been reading this far, it’s definitely worth it to linger here for 48 hours and favour an overnight stay over a short-day trip.
From ghost tales to vibrant nightlife against all odds in the most serene of settings, jaw-dropping architecture, pretty avenues and unforgettable sea views, Cienfuegos is truly spellbinding
We hope that after reading this blog you relish in discovering one of Cuba’s most quietly fascinating and sophisticated cities, with its refined laissez-faire approach being part of its inescapable charm.