It’s fitting that Cienfuegos is known as the Pearl of the South (or La Perla del Sur). Roughly 150 miles from Havana on Cuba’s southern coast, this city by the bay is most certainly a gem. It's smaller and quieter than its neighbor to the north, but there is still plenty to see. Just shy of 150,000 people, it was built by French immigrants — mostly from Louisiana and other parts of the Caribbean — on a Spanish settlement, and the influence of both countries can be seen throughout town.
What We Love
Palacio De Valle: Lining the city's main street, heading out to sea, are stately mansions and palaces. You can call them the homes that coffee, sugar, and tobacco built. Trade brought big bucks to Cienfuegos in the 19th and early 20th centuries and, with it, elaborate displays of wealth that haven't been seen (or allowed) for decades. By far the most beautiful — and well-preserved — is Palacio de Valle in Punta Gorda. The early 20th-century Moorish masterpiece looks as though it was transported from Andalusia. Its design was heavily influenced by Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate, and Mudéjar styles. Built as a private residence for a wealthy merchant, it now caters to tourists with a courtyard restaurant and a rooftop bar.
Teatro Tomás Terry: This neoclassical theater has stunning mahogany interiors and ceiling frescoes, but it is best known for acoustics. Built in 1869 and named for the wealthy Venezuelan magnate who funded its construction, top names like the Cuban National Ballet and the New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band have graced its stage. Concerts and dance performances are held regularly, and the theater hosts a special performance each port day for Fathom travelers.
Best Known For
Castillo De Jagua: A small fort at the entrance to the Bahia de Cienfuegos, Castillo de Jagua was built in the 18th century by the Spanish military to protect the original settlement from pirates. Now, the castle houses a small museum and restaurant. For the best view, wake up early for a sunrise glimpse as the ship enters the harbor. Guests wanting to visit can get there by passenger ferry, and the 40-minute ride is just $1.
Benny Moré: In a country known the world over for its music, this mid-20th century pop great is one of Cienfuegos' most famous sons. On the city's main street, a statue and a café bear his likeness and name, and an eponymous festival is held every other year in mid-September to celebrate Cuba's best singers and musicians.
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Who It's Best For
Architecture Buffs: A heavy Parisian influence can be seen in the design of the buildings in the city’s center where the main square, Plaza José Marti, is surrounded by monumental neoclassical buildings with European panache. In addition, the layout of Cienfuegos’ historic center is a model of 19th-century urban planning, and was recognized as such by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2005.
Walkers: Downtown Cienfuegos is made for leisurely strolls. Grab a piña colada or a mamey milkshake and walk along the Malecón, or make your way down the street toward Plaza José Marti, ducking into local shops and art galleries along the way.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
For Some, It’s a Quick Trip: On some ships, such as Adonia, guests only spend a half day in port, and a common refrain is that there isn't enough time to explore. The local guides are friendly and knowledgable, but you may find you have more time to see the sights if you skip the organized group tour.
Kristen Boatright is the New York City-based senior video editor of ShermansCruise.com.