A day of discovery in Cienfuegos: French-inspired architecture, seaside sunshine and mambo beats

Bathed by the clear blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and boasting a singular Gallic influence, Cienfuegos is one of Cuba’s most beautiful cities. Founded by French emigres in 1819, it is nicknamed the “Pearl of the South” for its natural and architectural beauty. If you have only one day to visit the charming Cienfuegos, this article provides you with thoughtful recommendations to make the most out of your 24-hour trip.

A day of discovery in Cienfuegos: French-inspired architecture, seaside sunshine and mambo beats

Located 250 kilometres from the capital, beside the turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, Cienfuegos seduces foreigners and locals alike with its mix of elegance and fiery spirit. With a marked French influence in its architecture, a stunning seaside setting and the warmth of its friendly people, the city is one of the most interesting and beautiful sites in the entire Cuban archipelago.

Unlike any other city in Cuba, Cienfuegos as we know it today was originally founded by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana led by Don Louis de Clouet in 1819. The French essence remains in the elegant classical architecture founders left behind, though the cultural blend brought by Spaniards and Africans is also evident today in its traditions, especially in its music.

Graced with both urban and natural attractions, the “Pearl of the South” decidedly entices both adventure-loving tourists and urban-style travellers. While many of its great landmarks can be sighted and enjoyed in one day, other amazing experiences like hiking to the stunning El Nicho waterfalls or bathing in the waters of Rancho Luna beach could be a little time-consuming for those who want to see the most representative sites of the city. If you wish to get to know the most amazing city landmarks and enjoy the essence of Cuba’s southern pearl, this article will provide guidelines and tips for spending 24 hours in Cienfuegos.

Memoires of French founders in Cienfuegos centre: Prado, Boulevard and Parque Marti

Your 24-hour discovery trip of Cienfuegos starts early in the morning at the city’s renowned Paseo del Prado. This much-trodden avenue is the city’s main artery and longest street, terminating at the stunning Cienfuegos seawall. As you stroll down the Prado, admire the colonnaded buildings that surround it and the busy lives of locals as they walk through. From afar, you will soon distinguish the avenue’s main attraction: the bronze statue of legendary Cuban singer, Benny More.

A true symbol of the city, Benny More was a self-taught singer, composer and songwriter who left a lasting mark in Cuban musical genres such as son, mambo and bolero. “El Barbaro del Ritmo”, who sang of his love for this city, now graces the intersection of the Paseo del Prado and the Boulevard, as a welcoming figure inviting you to see the city’s wonders.

After snapping a few shots beside the remarkable man who marked an era of Cuban music, take a right turn to the eye-catching Cienfuegos Boulevard. Filled with colourful souvenir shops, street vendors and cafes, the Boulevard is a charming pedestrian-only promenade, busy with fast-walking locals and eager tourists. This is a perfect moment to get a feel of the city and perhaps grab a quick bite and drink, as you gather energy for the journey that has just begun.

Continue down the boulevard until it leads you to Cienfuegos’ most important square: the beautiful Parque Marti. A true testament to the colonial era and the elegance of classic French architecture, this vast plaza introduces visitors to stunning historical buildings and offers charming resting places and sun shelters in the form of gazebos. Before anxiously exploring the surroundings, take your time to appreciate the central square itself.

Presided by two bronze lions on marble pedestals, Parque Marti and its surroundings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 due to its architectural and historical importance. A magnificent statue of Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero, is located right at the centre of the square, looking over the city of Cienfuegos.

Further down the path, you will spot a unique monument: Cuba’s only triumphal arch. Commissioned in 1902 by the local workers’ corporation, this remarkable piece of architecture commemorates the creation of the Republic of Cuba. Finally, a surprising feature is the compass rose inlaid in cement that marks the “zero kilometre”, Cienfuegos’ central point and the spot where it was founded in the 19th century.

But the square’s most amazing attractions are the colonial buildings that surround it: the Antiguo Ayuntamiento (former City Council), the Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion, the Tomas Terry Theatre and the Ferrer Palace. Observe the beauty of these majestic landmarks and take pictures of Cienfuegos’ city centre.

Though time is precious on this 24-hour journey, do take a moment to step inside the opulent Tomas Terry Theatre. This Italian-style theatre was the last will of Tomas Terry Adams, a wealthy sugar factory owner who later became mayor of Cienfuegos. Admire the ceiling frescos and elegant design of this rather small yet completely enchanting establishment, where world-famous singers, such as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso once performed.

Nevertheless, the true highlight of Parque Marti is on its western end: the striking Ferrer Palace. This baby-blue mansion was designed by the local architect Donato Pablo Carbonell and stands out today for its peculiar architecture with several different levels as well as the elegance and beauty of its interiors. Explore the palace and head high up to the tallest tower for amazing panoramic views of Cienfuegos. You will feel the city is truly at your feet.

Bay-side beauty in Punta Gorda: Malecon, Villa Lagarto and Palacio del Valle

As some of the most important historic sites are left behind, modern Cienfuegos awaits. The next spot is a true feast for the eyes: Cienfuegos’ pristine and sparkling Malecon (seaside promenade). From Palacio Ferrer, many local cabs, bici taxis (bike taxis) and humble horse carriages are waiting to take you where you need to go. Whichever transport you choose, take a slow ride through the beautiful seawall and maybe stop for a few moments to snap some pictures by the sea.

Carry on until reaching the high-end and stunning neighbourhood of Punta Gorda. Only three kilometres away from the city centre, this charming place is privileged amongst locals for its stunning bayside location and lavish residences. Situated in the far end of Cienfuegos Peninsula with impressive views of the bay, Punta Gorda is surrounded by the sea and counts with some of the city’s most upscale lodgings and restaurants; the perfect place to enjoy a delicious seafood meal in a peaceful and beautiful atmosphere.

As noon arrives, and an appetite starts developing, there are many enticing paladares (Cuban private-owned restaurants) serving quality Cuban fare. Take your pick and witness first-hand how the island’s small private business have blossomed; a recommendation could be the quirky Villa Lagarto paladar, which boasts an amazing setting by the sea and mouth-watering cuisine.

Boasting a relaxed yet elegant atmosphere accompanied by hammocks and tropical plants that adorn terraces with rural wooden chairs and tables, Villa Lagarto offers all the charm of a homey, seaside location. Enjoy the fresh sea breeze whilst indulging in tasty Cuban dishes like ropa vieja or try their fabulous 7 course menu which includes some wonderfully cooked and presented dishes, with a tantalising banana liquor in between courses.

With a full stomach and happier heart, you are ready to keep discovering the beautiful sites of Punta Gorda. Your next destination is one of Cienfuegos’ most remarkable buildings: the stunning Palacio del Valle.

Located close to the sparkling Cienfuegos bay, the Palacio del Valle is an interesting collection of Spanish-Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts, all concentrated into one striking building. Built between 1913 and 1917, artisans used many imported materials such as bronze, Carrara marble, Venetian glass, and Talavera ceramics for its construction. Inspired by 12th and 13th century Moorish influences in Spain, Islamic designs and inscriptions can be found. Currently, The Palacio is a National Heritage Memorial and serves as an event venue, a restaurant on its ground floor and a bar on its top level.

You can enter this unique piece of architecture for just 2 CUC and climb up to the top level, where you can admire the stunning torrets and gaze at the city from above, all the while enjoying a refreshing cocktail. There are usually local bands playing traditional Cuban music at this rooftop terrace during the afternoon, so if you are lucky enough to catch one, sit back, relax and enjoy the catchy mambo beats.

Sundown at Cienfuegos Yacht Club and nocturnal fun at Benny More dance club

As the hot afternoon sun blazes on, a short pool escape might be just what you need to continue enjoying Cienfuegos. Only a few blocks from Palacio del Valle, the city’s lavish yacht club comprises an ample pool that visitors can access for just 3 CUC.
Cienfuegos Yacht Club is a complex formed by a beautiful marina where lavish yachts are docked and a lush edification that was inaugurated in 1920 by the city’s elite. Thanks to important restoration works, it remains today one of the most marvellous examples of eclectic architecture in the entire island.

Take a swim in the pool for a while and cool off from the incessantly hot weather. The peaceful ambiance will truly help you unwind after a very active day. When you have finished splashing by the pool, you can dry off and move on to the club’s covered veranda where food and drinks are served. From this point, you will be able to observe stunning views of the marina, a beautiful site to see as the sun sets and leaves behind orange hues that mix with the light blue colours fading from the sky.

After an action-packed day, you can put an upbeat and spicy end to your day-long Cienfuegos experience with some salsa dancing and Cuban cocktails. Head once more to the lively boulevard, and this time stop at the Benny More dance club.

Animated with flashing lights and Cuban music ranging from traditional salsa songs to modern reggaeton tunes, you will get the chance to interact with locals and see Cubans do one of the things they love most: dance. Join in on the fun and try a salsa step or two as you sip a fruity daiquiri and say goodbye to a short journey that will most certainly be jam-packed with pleasant memories.

After this first encounter with the charming Cienfuegos, it will be easier to understand its loving title of “Pearl of the South”. The breath-taking location by the Caribbean Sea, unique French-influenced architecture and upbeat sounds of its classic mambo tunes make the city a true jewel, cherished by all those who have been lucky enough to treasure memories within it.  

Daniela Corona

Daniela Corona

With a passion for travelling and discovering flavours from all around the world, my Cuban roots are...

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