A Unesco World Heritage Site since 2005, Cienfuegos is a seaside city in Cuba that was founded in 1819 by French émigrés. In terms of geography, the city can be divided into two sections: the colonnaded central zone, with its majestic Paseo del Prado and lush green space, and Punta Gorda, a tiny knife of land that plunges into the sea and is home to a collection of crazily eccentric mansions built by the city’s wealthy and influential classes in the 1920s. For years, people from all over the island have been drawn to Cuba’s so-called “Pearl of the South” by its natural beauty, refined French airs, and feisty Caribbean cultural heritage. If there is a Paris in Cuba, this is unquestionably it. To add to its attraction, Cienfuegos was also the hometown of Benny Moré. The world-renowned singer memorialized the city in a popular guaracha of the same name, which became a hit across the globe. Without further ado, here are the best things to do in Cienfuegos.
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Cienfuegos is referred to as the “Pearl of the South of Cuba,” which is not surprising given the fact that this little city has managed to entice people from all over the globe. It is a destination for those who want to experience an exquisite blend of polished French spirit and friendly Caribbean culture. Cienfuegos is a port city that sits directly on one of Cuba’s most remarkable natural harbors. The whole city benefits from a unique seaside setting, which, along with the calm that can be found in its restored streets, relatively free of crowds of visitors, is one of the reasons why it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Where to Stay in Cienfuegos
Location, location, location. That’s what it’s all about in Cienfuegos. You’ll want to select somewhere to stay that’s not too far from where you want to eat, which could, of course also be in your Casa Particular, or the Viazul Bus station if you’re traveling by bus. Here are our recommendations for the best places to stay in Cienfuegos.
Casa Particulars in Cienfuegos
Hostal Madera Colonial 1906, hosted by Leticia y Oscar is just 200 meters from the Viazul bus terminal and 700 meters from the Historic Center of Cienfuegos. It is an elegant house, of Californian colonial style, built in the first decade of the 20th century. There are spacious rooms here, and common spaces that include a living room, parlor, dining room, terrace, and patio and is surrounded by gardens with abundant tropical vegetation. The owner of the house, Oscar, speaks English and Spanish. There are two triple en-suite rooms here with air conditioning and a patio. There’s also a laundry service available. Breakfast is available. See photos of the Hostal Madera Colonial in Cienfuegos here and reserve your room.
Cienfuegos Center Hostal Raquel is located right in the center of Cienfuegos, it’s just 8 minutes from the Viazul Bus Station. Your hosts, Raquel and Osmany provide excellent dinners and rooms with private bathrooms and A/C throughout. There’s also a spacious terrace, and living room, and both breakfasts and dinners are provided. This is a great location next to Paseo del Prado. Reserve early this is a very popular place to stay in Cienfuegos.
The best things to do in Cienfuegos, Cuba
This Cuban seaside city has a colorful Caribbean vibe that is hard to beat. It is also the only area in Cuba where the French were responsible for establishing the city. You can really observe the city’s French past while wandering its major streets, which are lined with exquisite, neoclassical buildings. Additionally, Cienfuegos is situated in the center of Cuba’s sugar cane and coffee-producing area, which means that there are more than a few places around the city where you can have a delicious cup of Cuban coffee.
Whether you enjoy spending a few days in Cienfuegos or just come for a day trip from Trinidad, there are various must-see sights in the city that are not to be missed in addition to the famed historic center. Here are some of the best things to do in Cienfuegos.
Take a free walking tour of Cienfuegos
One of the best ways to get to know a place and to get your bearings is to take a walking tour. And Cienfuegos is no exception. Exploring with a local is the perfect way to get to know the city – and the history. Cienfuegos joins many of Cuba’s cities in now having a free Cienfuegos walking tour.
This free walking tour of Cienfuegos is just that. Free. But don’t forget to tip your guide. You’ll need to prebook your place (but this won’t cost you a cent), And remember to write a review of the tour when you’re done to help your guide find future business too! Tours leave at 10 am and 4:30pm – so you’ll want to reserve your preferred time asap.
Cienfuegos is known as the Pearl of the South – and you’ll get to explore the Paseo del Prado and Avenida San Fernando, exploring the Artisan Market and Hotel La Unión (for great panoramic views from the top). You’ll learn how and when Cienfuegos was founded and see some of the stunning landmarks that I’ve covered below. And you’ll spend time in the historic center that makes up this UNESCO World Heritage city. Like the sound of it? Book your free Cienfuegos Walking Tour here.
Walk along the Malecon in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Keep going south on Paseo del Prado, and the street turns into the Malecón, which, as it is beside one of the world’s most beautiful natural bays, provides breathtaking views. This stroll is an actual recreation of the collective vision of lovely Cuba, with its colorful houses, spiky palms, and the everlasting Caribbean as backdrops.
“Malecón” or seawall is a term used in this nation to refer to what is essentially a retaining wall for the sea, which is referred to as a “paseo maritimo” or promenade in other Spanish-speaking countries. Various festivities, like the world-famous Cienfuegos carnivals, are held in this part of the city throughout the year. Additionally, it serves as a social gathering place for the locals, ensuring that you may experience a really Cuban environment daily. Like the Malecon in Havana, walking along it is a truly Cuban thing to do.
Visit Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos
Theatre Tomás Terry (also known as Teatro Tomás Terry) is located in the heart of Cienfuegos’ historical district and is designated as a National Cuban Monument. This eclectic-style structure is regarded as one of the most significant in Cienfuegos. Many architectural and aesthetic characteristics, including ceiling frescoes, Carrara-marble sculptures, and a grand façade with paintings influenced by Byzantine art, distinguish this 19th-century theatre, which was named for the Venezuelan magnate Tomás Terry.
You’ll get to learn more about the Teatro Terry on the free Cienfuegos Walking Tour – you can reserve your place here.
Italian influences can be seen both inside and outside of this magnificent building, which is in the form of a horseshoe, has 950 seats, and is lavishly furnished with Carrara marble, hand-carved oak floors, and a ceiling adorned with frescoes in the style of the Classicist movement. The theater is free of charge to enter, but you have the option (which I recommend) to have a guided tour for US$2. Even if you don’t understand Spanish, then having the main things pointed out to you is a great idea.
Explore the central area of Cienfuegos, Cuba
In Cienfuegos, the emerald green of its verdant green spots and the turquoise blue of the water here stands out against the backdrop of a vibrant cityscape. Generally speaking, the city may be separated into two different areas: the central district, which includes the Prado and Parque Marti, and Punta Gorda, a tiny territory that straddles the bay and has a smattering of eclectic palaces going back to the early twentieth century. Here’s what you should see in central Cienfuegos.
Parque José Martí, Cienfuegos
Parque Marti is respected as the heart of Cienfuegos, both for its historical significance and its symbolic value. While you’re there, be sure to check out Cienfuegos’ very own Arc de Triomphe, which is an unusual tower (the only one of its sort in Cuba) that was created in celebration of the country’s independence. There’s also a marble statue of José Marti himself just next to it. While the plaza was initially constructed when Cienfuegos was founded in 1819, it was renamed in honor of José Marti, the father of Cuban freedom, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Parque Jose Marti is also a great place to pick up Wi-Fi in Cienfuegos (there’s more on internet access in Cuba here).
Regardless of how you access the internet in Cuba – please do consider using a VPN. If you plan on making online bookings (say for the Viazul Bus, or a Casa Particular), checking details of your return flight, or even using some social media sites then you’ll need a VPN in Cuba. The VPN that I use (12+ years now) and recommend is ExpressVPN – this link gives you 3 months for free
Explore Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos
The residential area of “La Punta,” which has been known as Punta Gorda since the turn of the twentieth century has a single access road to it. It’s distinguished and known being the area where the money comes to in Cienfuegos. It’s here you’ll find the palaces and residences of the wealthy from 1920s Cuba.
Palacio Ferrer, Cienfuegos
This magnificent neoclassical building dates from 1918 and is located on the western side of Parque José Marti. It was meticulously renovated in time for Cienfuegos’ 200th-anniversary celebrations in 2019. Expensive furniture, including Italian marble flooring and a rooftop cupola with a wrought-iron staircase, compete with art displays on the inside. The rooftop cupola has a wrought-iron staircase that leads to a viewing platform with city and lake views. Don José Ferrer, who commissioned the construction of this “palace” in the early 1900s has left behind a great example of a building in which a member of the Cuban aristocracy lived during the first half of the 20th century.
See the Palacio del Valle in Cienfuegos
The Palacio del Valle was built by Italian architect Alfredo Colli for wealthy trader D. Acisclo del Valle and constructed between 1913 and 1917. It’s one of the most important buildings in Cienfuegos. Today, the palace is home to a museum as well as a great rooftop bar and restaurant that specializes in fresh seafood. The palace is an eclectic mix of styles, combining mudéjar decoration with Gothic entrance, Colonial ceilings, and a music chamber influenced by Louis XVI.
In addition, the Palacio del Valle is home to three towers, each of which is themed to a distinct aspect of the building. Designed in the style of Romanesque-Gothic architecture, the first depicts power. The second is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal and represents love. After that, the third tower, which was influenced by Islamic architecture, reflects religious beliefs. You have the option to pay US$2 to walk up the stairs and see the gorgeous view from the rooftop. The payment also includes a free drink from the restaurant downstairs. It is definitely worth visiting.
Visit the Castillo de Jagua, Cienfuegos
As you make your way over the bridge to Castillo de Jagua, a National Monument, you’ll get great views of Cienfuegos harbor. This fortress was built by José Tantete in 1738, during the time of Philip V of Spain, over a century before the city of Cienfuegos was founded, and it is the oldest structure still standing in the town. In order to secure the region from raids by pirates, the fortress was constructed in just seven years. After the forts built in Santiago and Havana, it became the most significant fortification in Cuba. In addition to the breathtaking views of the bay that it provides, it also houses a small museum as well as a café for visitors.
Have a Coppelia Ice Cream in Cienfuegos
The Cuban state ice cream shop Coppelia in Cienfuegos is a pure Cuban experience that shouldn’t be missed. You’ll line outside before entering and then wait a long time while inside, but the wait is well worth it Coppelia started when Fidel Castro directed a project to build Coppelia as part of a larger effort to bring his passion for dairy products to the Cuban people. One of the initial goals was to make more ice cream varieties than the major American companies by purchasing the best machinery available from the Netherlands and Sweden. The company was named by Fidel’s lifelong secretary, Celia Sánchez, in honor of her favorite ballet, Coppélia. It’s cheap and tasty, what have you got to lose?
Visit Cuba’s oldest Botanical Gardens
The Jardin Botanico de Cienfuegos spans over 97 hectares, and was established in 1901 by Edwin F. Atkins, a sugar plantation owner from the US who wanted to undertake botanical studies on the sugar cane crop. Here you’ll find a beautiful tropical and subtropical garden park with more than 2,000 types of plants. Visit the bamboo farms, which have over 23 different kinds; the cactus section which has more than 200 different species; and the palm tree plantations, which have over 280 different sorts of plants ranging from the native Palmera Real to the exotic Palmera Alcornoque.
The Best Day Trips from Cienfuegos
If you’re staying for a few days in Cienfuegos you can make the most of the location and head on some Cienfuegos day trips, here’s a selection of the best places to visit on a day trip from Cienfuegos.
Hike to El Nicho Waterfalls near Cienfuegos
Take a trip to the El Nicho Waterfalls from Cienfuegos. These falls are approximately an hour’s drive from Cienfuegos and are a great place to get away from the city for a couple of hours. The climb to the waterfalls is straightforward; however, the slope can be a little slick at times. The waterfalls can be explored on four levels, starting at the bottom with a wonderfully clear natural pool and working your way up to observe the spectacular cascade and the clean water of a larger second pool. It is a popular swimming spot for both locals and tourists. El Nicho is easy to visit from Cienfuegos – and you can prebook (and prepay) a visit here.
To reach the waterfalls, you need to follow a trail known as the Reino de las Aguas, where you can see the fauna and flora of the region, such as the Cuban trogon and palmiches.
If you arrive by rental car (see our guide to rental cars in Cuba here), you can leave it at the entrance in one of the available parking spaces. Another alternative is to take a taxi or a colectivo. If you’re traveling from Cienfuegos towards Trinidad, then you can stop off at El Nicho before continuing on to Trinidad is the most convenient route since you will be more or less midway between the two cities.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a day trip to El Nicho from Cienfuegos – then this fabulous six hour trip will give you plenty of time to explore and pick you up and drop you back at your accommodation in Cienfuegos. You can check availability here.
Explore the Escambray Mountains from Cienfuegos
The Escambray Mountains are the highest mountain in Cuba’s central area, spanning the provinces of Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, and Villa Clara. They are the highest point in the country at 960 meters and they stretch for about 50 miles. Numerous historical events have taken place amid the breathtaking landscapes of the Escambray throughout Cuban history, ranging from the covert planning for independence in the nineteenth century to the guerilla “war against bandits” conducted by Fidel Castro in the 1950s. You’re unlikely to find accommodation in the mountains and they’re best visited on a day trip from Trinidad or Cienfuegos.
Visit Laguna Guanaroca from Cienfuegos
Laguna Guanaroca is a saline lake surrounded by mangroves located southeast of Cienfuegos. It is second only to Las Salinas on the Peninsula of Zapata in terms of popularity with birdlife in Cuba. It is the only protected area in Cienfuegos Province. There are a variety of trails here, some of which lead to observation decks where flamingos, pelicans, and tocororos, Cuba’s national bird, can be seen. There’s also a very rickety observation tower, where you can see more of the lagoon. Entry to the reserve is 12 kilometers from Cienfuegos, off the Rancho Luna road, on the cut-through to Pepito Tey. If you’re planning on visiting it’s best to go early.
Visit the Bay of Pigs from Cienfuegos
The attractive Bahia de Cochinos (Cochinos Bay) is rich in revolutionary history and situated on the island’s southwest coast near the mouth of the Cazones Gulf. It’s a must-see if you’re interested in the history of revolutionary Cuba. The Bay of Pigs is significant in history because of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The museum in Playa Giron is a great spot to visit. The Bay of Pigs is also a popular place to go diving (you can see our guide to diving the Bay of Pigs here).
How to Get to Cienfuegos, Cuba
Cienfuegos is easily reached on the Viazul Bus (you can find details of the Viazul Bus network here). Cienfuegos is on the Havana to Trinidad Viazul bus route, which in 2022 is running three days a week. Cienfuegos is 270 kilometers (168 miles) from Havana, 82 kilometers (51 miles) from Trinidad, and 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Santa Clara.
You can rent a car to get to Cienfuegos (our guide on Cuban rental cars is here)
Essential Resources for Exploring Cuba
Travel and Health Insurance is mandatory for entry to Cuba. If you have medical bills while there you won’t be allowed to leave the country until they’re settled.
Book your Viazul Bus tickets here
Pre-book and prepay shared & private shuttles here
Book the best FREE Walking Tours in Cuba
Reserve attractions, day trips, and activities in Cuba here
Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to Cuba > discount coupon here
Pack these Items – you’re unlikely to find them in Cuba
Final words on things to do in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Cienfuegos is a beautiful city in Cuba that is mostly neglected by tourists, primarily, I think because of other attractions on the island and the difficulty of transport. This little gorgeous city, which is part of the Province of Cienfuegos and not too far from the more famous Trinidad, features a charming historical core that is enjoyable to explore and a chilled-out environment.
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