Coined La Perla del Sur (a.k.a Pearl of the South), the French-infused charm of Cienfuegos never disappoints. Steeped in history (largely due in part to Spanish settlers and French emigrants), the city by the sea is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Divided into two main areas, Punta Gorda and Paseo del Prada, it’s a magical place where 19th-century buildings and piazzas vie with stunning sunset views.
The first stop on your tour in Punta Gorda should include a visit to a tobacco factory where you can learn the step-by-step process of making one of Cuba’s most popular exports. The city’s top architectural wonders – the Arch of Triumph, Casa del Fundador and the Tomas Terry Theatre (named after a sugar magnate) in nearby Trinidad are just a few of the stately neoclassical palaces and buildings. And check out the museum Plaza Mayor that is a true study in classical Spanish architecture. Art lovers will enjoy a stop at the Cienfuegos Graphic Workshop where a chat with local artisans will no doubt be of interest. El Alfarero Casa Chichi, the Santander family-owned pottery workshop in Trinidad is a lesson in the age-old production of making items with clay and a kiln.
Cuba’s cultural capital of Santiago offers a contrast to the heritage of its counterpart Cienfuegos. Here Afro-Caribbean influences are reflected in everything from Cuban sounds to the basil-filled (not the traditional mint!) mojitos. As the second largest city in the country, Santiago sits in an idyllic stretch between the Sierra Maestra mountain range and the Caribbean sea.
History and architectural buffs will appreciate the many sights Santiago has to offer. The 17th-century San Pedro de la Roca Castle (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) is one of the best examples of Spanish-American architecture and a great education in the art of preservation. Colonial style Cuba is on full display at the elegant Hotel Casa Granda in the heart of the city and while there, check out the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. The Moorish designs of the Diego Velazquez Museum (the former mansion of Cuba’s first governor) display another side of Cuba’s design. Art, archaeology and historical artifacts can be found at the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum that boasts the largest gallery of assets in Cuba (many of the items were found by the Bacardi rum baron on his travels). And a visit to San Juan Hill where the battle of the Spanish-American War took place (ending the Spanish rule of the country) offers a step back in time.
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